I can still vividly remember my introduction to Rocket League. It was not long after launch back in 2016, which is six years ago as a I write this now. At the time, I had a regular weekly game night with three friends. They were interested in Rocket League and convinced me to buy it so we could all play. The pitch was thus: "it's soccer, but with cars." It sounded like the dumbest game I'd ever heard of, but it was cheap enough so I acquiesced. We all played it for a night together and they were done with it. But I wasn't. Instead, I played it for months straight.
When people talk about "are games art," I don't know if they really think about the design aspect. A well designed game is certainly art. I’m talking about the way that Super Mario Bros introduces you to each new aspect of a level design without saying a word. Or the way that Tetris just makes sense and is perfect after a few minutes. Rocket League is like that. Yes, it's most certainly soccer with cars. But it's also so eloquently thought out. The three player teams; the fact that you can nitro boost but need to charge that boost; the fact that with nitro you can fly through the air, defying gravity. The physics alone make this game a pure masterpiece.
I've been playing Rocket League on and off for years now. Long before it was owned by Epic or ever became an eSport. Yet just today I was thinking about what I should play next and Rocket League popped into my mind. Then, while browsing channels before my daughter went to bed I noticed a Rocket League tournament was live on G4 TV. Talk about a blast from the past!
Over the years, I lost track of how much I played this game. On PC, it was a lot. Like a real lot. I have no idea, but if you said 100 hours, I wouldn't be shocked. Then I played on Xbox One with other another friend and his kid. Sometimes with my wife. Then I played it on Switch when it came out there. Now I'm playing on Xbox again. All I know is if you ask me years from now to list games that defined the 2010's/2020's for me, Rocket League would be on that list.
In fact, when I really think about the generation of games as a whole – and I use that term lightly because I'm not fully sure what I think about console generations in definition – I can't help but think about online games. But to use the Xbox One as an example – so everything that came out after 360 and before the Series X – I really think that multiplayer games are where my memories tend to lie. Mostly competitive stuff, too. There were so many games during that time that I got into... Overwatch, Paladins, Heroes Of The Storm, Hearthstone, Fortnite, Splatoon 2, Tetris 99, and so on... I was really into competitive online gaming through this era.
Anyway, I'm really going off on a tangent here, so let me switch gears. How's that for a car metaphor? So the thing with Rocket League is this – like any good online game, Rocket League is all about the little stories and memories you make. While my first memory of Rocket League was with my online gaming buddies in our weekly game night, it was total chaos. We were playing 4-on-4, which I've learned is a recipe for disaster. While the game allows you to play 1-4 player matches, really it's designed for the pure 3-on-3 setup.
One of my real favorite memories of Rocket League came around 2017. I had convinced my friend Mike (whom I've always referred to as "Tuna") to get an Xbox One so we could play some games together. And at some point we decided to play Rocket League as an actual team – something important to this game. It's huge if you have a team to play with and can talk strategy and yell out commands in real time. So to fill in the third spot, his son (Little Tuna) was playing with us. Little Tuna was probably like 15 at the time if I recall.
Before setting a time to meet up, we all exchanged emails on strategy and practiced solo. I was certainly not great at the game, but I had played substantially more than they had. However, Big and Little Tuna had some real world soccer experience (coaching and playing, as it were). So we talked strategy and I stressed how important it seemed to play some kind of zone. We formulated a plan that two of us would play offense and the third would be on defense, based on how the game set us up before each round.
Without fail, every game went like this:
Me: Little Tuna, you're in the back. You're on defense.
Little Tuna: Ok!
And then about 30 seconds later I'd see him speed out in front of me. I'd start yelling, "dude, what are you doing? Where are you going? Who's on D?" And Big Tuna would be like, "son, c'mon we need someone in front of the goal," and then the other team would score. It was hilarious and endearing, and thank god we never dipped our toe into competitive play. But the point is, those nights playing Rocket League with Big and Little Tuna were a lot of stupid fun. And they're a flashback to before I was a dad and had unlimited gaming time and the ability to jump on a headset at 9:00 and yell at a 15 year old about a soccer car game. I can't even imagine that now. Good times.
That said, playing now in 2022 is still fantastic. I don't have the same comradery of playing with people I know, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun to jump into random matches each night and let the night dwindle down in five minute spurts. I honestly think this game is pretty close to perfection.
I really didn't know anything about Layers Of Fear ahead of time. It was one of those random Games With Gold freebies that I came across in my library and said "when the heck did I get that?" But it worked out well because my wife and I were looking for spooky things to play on our weekly October date night leading up to Halloween.
So basically Layers Of Fear is a "walking simulator." Y'know, one of those games where the goal is just to explore an environment and figure out the story usually by looking at items or reading journal entries or whatever. There's nothing to fight, nothing to kill you. Really nothing much to do but walk through the story. At first it reminded me a lot of Gone Home. The main difference is that I ultimately found Gone Home to be pretty boring. Layers Of Fear instead rapidly grew into a very bizarre and messed up walking simulator. At times it was genuinely creepy.
The story lasted about four hours, which felt maybe a tad too long for one of these games to me. But overall it was an appropriate length. It meant finishing it in two sittings instead of one is all. Anyway, the story is about a painter who goes mad and eventually his wife ends up disfigured and his child neglected and... well, y'know what? I don't really want to ruin it but there's stuff about mutilation and self-destruction and abuse and all kinds of other skeletons in closets. It's definitely played with a straight face although the sort of ethereal presentation I guess helps in not making it too heavy handed.
But to me it wasn't really the story I enjoyed. Nope. It was the House! Have you ever heard of the Winchester Mystery House? That's that huge mansion in California where Winchester gun heiress Sarah Winchester just kept on building up until her death. I mean, this is maybe a campfire tale but the urban legend was that she was haunted by the ghosts of those lives taken by namesake's weapons and she continued to build to keep these ghosts happy. This resulted in all kinds of crazy constructions like doors that lead to nothing or staircases that got you nowhere.
Anyway the house in this game reminded me of that. The architecture quite literally made no sense in Layers Of Fear, to the extent that it was even impossible. Sometimes a door you walked in would lead to somewhere different if you went back through it. Sometimes a door you walked through would simply be gone if you turned back around. Some hallways would continually loop to what seemed like infinity.
The other frame of reference I was reminded of was that old GameCube game Eternal Darkness in the sense that this game is totally meant to mess with the gamer. It's as if there's only a thin line between if the game is trying to express the madness of the character or if it's trying to make the gamer go mad. And to be honest, it does totally work at times. The one moment I really remember the game getting me to jump was one where a wall spelled out, "don't turn around." I stood there for a good twenty seconds or so knowing that if I did turn around something would be there. But I couldn't stop my curiosity. When I turned around - you guessed it - something was there and it still startled me. There's other moments where you'll see the 'ghosts' of your own in-game past such as a toddler running around or flames erupting from paintings; paintings changing altogether; ceilings becoming floors as if the room is an M.C. Escher picture.
Later in the game the world gets even more surreal, such as when submerging your head in a bathtub brings upon a whole underwater scene. But it's not just things like this that are actually part of the game world. There's also the fact that the game itself seems to like to mess with you in a way that winkingly knows that it's a game. If you get a kick out of things like the fourth-wall breaking in the Metal Gear Solid games then you'll probably appreciate it when Layers Of Fear makes you think that your console has shut off for a moment and so on.
Upon finally seeing the credits I didn't feel like Layers Of Fear was some ground-breaking work. In all honesty it didn't even feel like something I'd ever play again. But at the same time I did feel like it was something that I was glad I stumbled upon. In fact my wife totally loved it, so if anything it was a great freebie to find hidden in my library as it totally served the purpose of our spooky game night. So there's that. Also I appreciate that upon completion of the game the developers left the main "un-crazy" version of the house open to walk around in. That was a nice touch.