Hamish Black from WritingOnGames tells us about flinging himself down a mountain
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that 2021 has been an emotionally turbulent year, especially in the area where it matters most—video game releases, clearly. I rode the rollercoaster of this year through the staggering drought of the early months (doubtless an unfortunate and ongoing hangover of 2020’s shift to hastily put together work-from-home setups, resulting in numerous delays). This coaster then saw a mid-year spike, where I seemingly couldn’t keep up with the barrage of titles being thrown my way. Now, the ride rolls to a stop as I think about how few of those releases properly stuck with me to year’s end. I’ll stop with the rollercoaster analogy now.
Either way, I sit here typing this, reflecting on a year that saw me feel more and more like an island—at points worryingly distant from general consensus on a whole host of releases. Guardians of the Galaxy? Ah yes, the answer to the question, “what if we took one of those already obscenely padded Marvel TV shows and stretched it until it was eighteen hours long?” It Takes Two? It Takes Poo, more like.
As you can clearly tell from that cerebral quip, I’ve been doing this whole YouTube Game Critic Thing for coming up on seven years now, and it would appear that’s too long to be inhaling the noxious fumes of the Content Mines. The encroaching, enveloping grot of having to keep up with new releases in an SEO-friendly manner, nervously watching view counts to keep various paymasters happy and the like, all of it changes a person and their passions over time. It really felt harder than ever to get excited about new releases in 2021.
Now, the relationship I’ve maintained with Overlode Overlord Jordan is one of light-heartedly pushing each other’s buttons with our respective brands of contrarian bullshit (I envision him absolutely raging, for example, refusing to publish this piece unless I take out that earlier Guardians of the Galaxy jibe). In a similar vein—and given my current game-related malaise—when he asked me to write my own game of the year list for the site, there was only one thing I could realistically do: dedicate this entire list to a game that technically released in 2018.
Because throughout it all, this one game has kept me holding on. It has convinced me that there’s still good to be found in this medium, no matter how brutally the platforms and corporations that govern my continued employment try to grind that joy out of me. That game is Giant Squid’s procedurally generated BMX-em-up Descenders, and here are five reasons why I’m hereby declaring it my game of the year, every year.
1. It is the fastest racing game I’ve ever played
Despite my YouTube channel specialising in narrative and design analysis (read: wank) I don’t want every game to be some lofty, postmodern deconstruction of the medium. I’m far more inclined to love those delightfully arcade-style games that make basic movement compelling, than I am a big Cinematic Story or whatever. There’s a reason I constantly return to games like TrackMania and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3—I just want to tumble wildly around a big environment like the dafty I am.
With that in mind, no game I’ve played before or since Descenders quite scratches that caveman itch of needing to go really fast down a big hill—the initial lurch out the gate as you get the pedals going almost immediately shifting to complete dirt-kicking ferocity. The momentum generated is palpable, with the field of view pulling out and edges of the screen blurring as if your rider was getting ready to enter hyperspace. I guess I just love that this representation of such a grounded, physical sport can reach almost sci-fi levels of speed, all while constantly reminding you that it’s all generated, controlled by you—with all the terror that fact entails.
2. No, seriously, it is terrifyingly fast
The thing is, visual representation of speed on its own—screen shudder and dirt clouds and the like—means very little if there are no stakes in it. Thankfully, not only does Descenders look fast, it feels downright dangerous. Descenders bestows upon you this velocity with a kind of Uncle Ben-esque gravity—this is a power that should only be wielded once you’re sure you’re ready to use it.
It’s not like you’re in a Forza Horizon “ramp your Bugatti off this volcano with nary a scratch” invincible fortress—you’re a wee squishy guy on a wee squishy bike, except you’re still going the speeds of that volcano jumper. Thanks to the game’s gloriously impactful physics system, the danger of your environment increases as your speed does. The faster you go, the more likely a slight graze from an errant rock or branch is going to send your rider flying into oblivion with insides freshly pureed. It’s with this consequence of speed that Descenders becomes a delightful moment-to-moment balancing act—weighing up the joy of careening down a mountain against the perilous sacrifice of control it represents.
I can’t tell you the number of times my stomach has dropped as a momentary slip at these speeds has sent my bike flying off a cliff—seeing me physically tense up as I anticipate the crunch at bottom of that cavernous descent. Luckily Descenders gives you such pinpoint control over your rider that, in moments that are truly triumphant should you pull them off, you always have the opportunity to correct your mistakes and grapple things back from the brink. That’s because…
3. You can play Descenders however you want
Contributing to this push and pull between force and delicacy in your approach to these tracks is the fact that there are no real restrictions on how you tackle them.
In fact, in pretty much every regard the game is remarkably free form. Its courses feature very rigidly defined paths, but there’s nothing saying you need to follow that track; ramps, obstacles and even checkpoints can all be avoided. Consistent with the game’s title, Descenders is simply about getting from the top of a hill to the bottom of a hill—the in-between lies with you. Whether you want a Tony Hawk-esque high-score trick-a-thon or a TrackMania-style time trial, the game provides you all the means to pursue those styles of play, then gets out of your way.
In return though, Descenders demands constant attention to what you’re doing—sure, you could go careening off-road or soaring off as many huge ramps as you can, but are you willing and able to handle the panic-inducing consequences of doing so? Thanks to the ways in which the game subtly shifts around your complete mechanical control, you’re constantly kept on your toes.
4. The procedural generation is fantastic
There’s a fine line between freeform and aimless, familiar and stale—how Descenders stays on the right side of all of that is with its focus on procedural generation. Outside of the wealth of content to be found in its user-created courses, the campaign seems to feature just a handful of different environments—however, the generation of every course is governed by sliders defining its steepness, curvature and the number of stunts in your path.
You have a certain level of choice in the types of track you go up against through the campaign’s branching paths. That said, even with the familiarity you develop with the quirks of each environment, that procedural generation is such that you can never be 100% sure what awaits you around the next corner—a fact that consistently goes through your mind given the aforementioned speed and fragility of your rider.
It’s a freshness compounded by the game’s goal system. Every course you load up spins a random objective for you to perform on the way to the finish line—do two front flips, get to the bottom without hitting the brake, etc. Of course, it’s a goal you don’t have to pay attention to you should you so choose, but it’s a choice further complicated by the game’s health system.
See, each of these goals grants you another health point—another opportunity to bail, essentially, before you run out and your campaign progress is reset. Health is a precious resource in Descenders, but the risk-reward of actually acquiring it makes for some truly gut-wrenching decision making. Sure, you need the health, but given that you can’t predict what obstacles await you, is it worth the health you’re risking with a goal as dangerous as getting to the bottom without letting go of the accelerator?
These objectives distinctly alter how you play, meaning that the tension of Descenders’ simple mechanical formula remains multi-layered and constant. Every single course, every corner turned in Descenders represents uncharted territory, and it says a lot that no matter the current state of the industry I find myself mired within, I can load up Descenders and be reminded that there’s always something I haven’t seen out there—some combination of courses and objectives that makes everything feel new, rejuvenating once more.
5. It’s brilliant for my mental health
Admittedly the premise of this piece was largely a joke—dedicating a game of the year list to one game that didn’t even release this year—but consider that my ongoing, developing relationship with Descenders has been the thing keeping the medium of games invigorating for me.
I’ve long thought that there are few genres of game purer in their design and philosophy than racers. There’s little equivocation in “start, go fast and finish first” as a mechanical formula, and even though it might not be a racer in the traditional sense, Descenders feels like the purest distillation of an already refined idea.
Thanks to everything I’ve outlined here, I still find myself getting lost in Descenders. Its speed, precision control and the consequences that come with it, its goal structure shifting your approach to every procedurally generated track, all of it makes me feel like I’m actively training myself to become better at Descenders every time I play it—my time valued, my investment rewarded.
Especially now, in a period where the chaos of everything around us can feel so numbing and uncontrollable, Descenders comes along to say “here is a process you can get to grips with if you learn and practice its intricacies.” Simply put, this level of mastery that Descenders encourages you to achieve has been a source of real comfort and mental stimulation when everything else has seemed so bleak.
Coincidentally, Descenders was also the game that truly convinced me of the wonders of Game Pass. It’s a platform that sells itself as a Netflix of AAA gaming, but one whose real strength as I see it lies in its indie offering—eschewing the massive download sizes and getting to the mechanical meat of an experience with an immediacy that suits the service’s try-it-and-see appeal.
I likely wouldn’t have taken a chance on Descenders were it not there, ready to be sampled, and its abundant quality makes me wonder what other gems I’ve been missing, past that agonising bloat of the AAA sphere. Indeed, whenever I find myself in the kind of existential rut I outlined at the start of this piece—questioning my very relationship with my passion—I think about Descenders, and I’m reminded of the benefits of staying curious and hungry for vitalising games like this. On every level, Descenders keeps me going, and that’s why, even though it came out in 2018, there’s really no other title that has meant more to me in any year since.
OK, fine, if you actually want my game of the year released in 2021, it’s Psychonauts 2 and the competition isn’t even close.
Thank you to Jordan for letting me write this nonsense, being a great friend and one of the few people in Scotland I can talk shop with re: this game journo pish. Seeing Jordan, Danielle and Harry create such a wonderful thing in Overload has been genuinely inspiring, and now I’m wondering if I should have used this opportunity to call the website my game of 2021. Ah well, there’s always next year.