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The wind meets me here.
I stand above a land of rolling green, below an immaculate sky. On the peak I remain still and I can see for miles. Serenity lingers. The breeze carries with it a melody and the sound of howling laughter. The faint smell of a roaring campfire dances past.
I leap, and the air catches me in its embrace. Tugging ever so gently on my glider, the valley below rises to greet me. I follow the melody to an old stable, and wooden planks creak as I make my way past the smiling faces of its many patrons. Just outside a dog barks, and a guitar continues to enchant a gathered crowd.
I’m told I was asleep. One hundred years stretch between my visits to this valley. I watch as sun vines pierce the clouds above, and I wonder how I could have possibly forgotten something so beautiful.
I’m told I failed. Allies perished. “End times.” Calamity hangs aloft these days, you can see it with your own two eyes. They tell me this with heads bowed low.
And yet here I sit, eating a stew comprised of the few edible materials I could scrounge together in my short journey thus far, and I am welcomed by these people with open arms. They surround me with their tales and with their tidings. They offer advice, and they offer supplies. Not a shard of malice rests in the eyes of the stable bearers, nor those stopping for a well-earned rest on journeys of their own. Before the sun has set I am prepared for the road ahead, my bags are filled with many a token of kindness. The last of the day’s light once cast an orange hue upon these strangers, but I now find myself among friends as the moon joins in our festivities.
This does not feel like a world torn asunder.
This does not feel like an apocalypse.
Or perhaps, this is exactly what it should feel like. When all is lost, do those who remain not fortify themselves with the aid of those around them? We look ahead across the fields before us, and we can see it from the ground upon which we sit: The Castle. It splits up through the earth and into the aether like an ever-present colossus, an imposing monolith against the glittering horizon.
And do we not all see a dark shroud moves within its walls? Do we not feel the ways in which it is unnerving, and frightening, and unnatural? Do we not perceive a constant, looming reminder of history’s greatest failure? Of mine?
We do. I do. Yet we laugh. We trade goods, and we drink, and we love.
After a century of torment, somehow, we persevere.
And we do it together.
Sat at the mouth of a serene underground river flowing far into the surrounding bioluminescent cave system, I aim my camera upwards towards a craggy volcanic plateau atop which two Wroggi sleep and a third keeps watch. I’m far enough away that the one watchful sentinel doesn’t see me slowly line up my shot and snap a few photos for research purposes — no need for the rule of thirds or precise framing here. One hour into my solo excursion and I finally feel like I have an idea of the topography here, the ways in which my companions and I can weave effortlessly in and out of the twisting and expansive natural tunnels in the heat of battle, and the places in which we can replenish our stock of items in a pinch. For the moment, at least, the area is calm. The sound of running water and the soft reptilian purr of sleeping Wroggi are only punctuated by the infrequent shifting and splashing of my canine companion in the river. When I return from my tranquil expedition I’m greeted joyfully by the denizens of the village, each with a request for materials that can be used to offer increasingly impressive services to myself and others.
Surrounded by three of my closest friends, things are not going according to plan. Magnamalo, a hulking tiger-like creature sporting purple-plated armor for skin, is making quick work of the four of us as its frenzied blows come faster than we can react. With every slow swing of our comically large weapons, the monster manages to dodge swiftly and retaliate with the swipe of its claws or purple hellfire from its jaws. Standing again at the mouth of an underground river beneath a craggy volcanic plateau, I shout to my companions that grappling upward and outward to heal our wounds and hope Magnamalo doesn’t follow is our best bet at survival — which is becoming more important than victory at this point. Before we zip into the sky, one brilliant mind among us takes the opportunity to throw a flash bomb at the beast, ensuring it won’t be able to see our escape plan as we clamber to safety. Atop the plateau, we eat steaks and drink health potions and sharpen our weapons and continue laughing the whole way through. Within the hour Magnamalo has fallen, and we all sign off until tomorrow’s hunts begin.
In my free time I find myself chatting with the residents scattered around the village of Kamura, taking care to learn more about them as people instead of as walking-talking vending machines. Yomogi, a young chef who runs the village tea shop, sees her constant menu expansion as an expression of artistry and the best way to serve her community. Iori spends his days surrounded by felynes and palamutes, and by using his unique gifts can help them grow in strength and resourcefulness. Both separately express to me their desire to do something more overtly cool, like becoming a monster hunter, but by utilizing and honing their talents they’re able to impact Kamura as much as, if not more than I ever could.
Monster Hunter has never been known for its story, despite the series’ multiple attempts to put narrative first. At best, entries have been innocuous to the point of forgettable, and at worst the franchise has a tendency to play into troubling colonialist attitudes dressed up with a fantastical albeit ignorant sheen. Rise though, more than any other entry, smartly focuses on the hub village itself as its emotional core. By endearing me to the place in which I find myself safe and at rest, I care more deeply when that safety is threatened by outside forces. I would never let anything bad happen to Yogomi or Iori or the many other faces of Kamura. For the first time in its seventeen years, Monster Hunter smartly centered every piece of its gameplay around the betterment of the community — both human players and NPC alike.
That focus bleeds into every decision and mechanic on the multiplayer end, where my time spent sitting at a table eating dango and talking with my friends can feel as fun as the hunts we’re ostensibly preparing for. In 2021, Monster Hunter Rise was my continued link to socialization in the ongoing pandemic-addled world. Just like Animal Crossing: New Horizons before it, Rise represented an on-ramp to the franchise for many of the people I hold dear. Although I always hoped Animal Crossing would realize its potential to catch on with mainstream audiences, I never imagined a world where Monster Hunter broke out of its “hardcore” shell. I recognize this wasn’t the norm in 2021 the way New Horizons was for just about everyone in 2020, but to see so many willingly toss themselves headlong into a title known for its complex mechanics and opaque design was a joy. As with most things, to be able to teach your friends how to play Monster Hunter is a dream come true.
But writing this in 2022, Kamura is less vibrant than it once was. Life in its natural state is a series of ebbs and flows, and the friends I once found myself surrounded by have since moved onto other adventures. Every once in a while, the most die-hard Monster Hunter fans among us will jump in for a hunt and a chat, but it’s nowhere near the nightly ritualistic experience we’d all briefly had at launch. Still though, I’m happy to knock out a hunt or two with my buddies when the timing is right. Every moment spent together, virtually or otherwise is a moment to be cherished. To spend so much time in a place as beautiful as Kamura is a privilege, and sharing that time with others is the best experience I had playing a video game in 2021.
Oddly enough the closest 2021 companion piece to Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart comes in the form of The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in the franchise after an eighteen year absence that sees Lana Wachowski triumphantly returning to deliver a remake, a reboot, and a sequel in one tactful and considered swoop. In it, as with the first film, we’re reacquainted with our heroes Neo and Trinity as they endeavor on a quest to reemerge from The Matrix and fight back against their machine overlords. Unlike the 1999 original or the sequels that followed, Resurrections is wholly aware of the impact the franchise has has upon film and pop culture collectively — this is a Matrix film in which Thomas Anderson is a critically and commercially lauded auteur game developer after creating a trilogy of titles called (drumroll) The Matrix. As viewers, we’re asked to mull over our own relationship with this franchise and its key players as we watch similar beats play out in a new way. Simultaneously, the now iconic characters similarly contemplate their own place in the story and decide how much agency they would ultimately like to have over repeating themselves narratively. It’s an ambitious film that’s as much about examining our affinity for the franchise as it is about rejecting it whole-cloth, and deciding that love and the connections formed between others is more a radical and appropriate response to storytelling than any other.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart opens with a parade. The titular characters are being celebrated — again — for their past heroic deeds. Before the release of Rift Apart there were 16 Ratchet & Clank adventures, the most recent of which (not counting the PlayStation 4 remake of the original) came in the form of 2013’s middling Into the Nexus. Since then, Ratchet and Clank have been just kind of… hanging out? Both characters, though grateful for the fame and fortune heroism has finally brought them, can’t decide whether they’re bored of the same old “us versus Dr. Nefarious” routine, or so bored of doing nothing that they’d give anything to experience an adventure so rote once more. During an extended action sequence that involves the two once again fighting Nefarious — this time over a gun that can allow one to travel into parallel universes — Ratchet and Clank are separated in an alternate dimension where the villains always win. In this universe we’re introduced to Ratchet’s dimensional counterpart Rivet, a well-meaning resistance member whose altruism comes at the cost of victory, and Clank’s dimensional counterpart Kit, a defective Warbot designed by this dimension’s Emperor Nefarious.
It’s in this reframing of our heroes and villains that Rift Apart is not only in conversation with the legacy of Ratchet & Clank as a franchise, but with storytelling as a medium. Pick up almost any adventure from the shelf and being all-too aware of formulaic and repetitive “good triumphs over evil” endings has the potential to remove stakes entirely from the get-go. By setting Rift Apart in a dimension where the heroes always lose, the narrative finally goes into uncharted territory while still feeling familiar enough to not be off-putting.
Brilliantly, Ratchet is paired with Kit, and Clank with Rivet, meaning that each well-worn hero is able to impart some wisdom upon their new partners. In the very first Ratchet & Clank, Ratchet is a lone inventor on a backwater planet whose dreams of being a Galactic Ranger were dashed despite his aptitude for flight and combat. Almost immediately, he comes into contact with Clank, a defective Warbot who hopes to warn the Rangers of Dr. Nefarious' evil plans. Both suffer from a lack of confidence, as Ratchet questions what failings led to his inability to join the Rangers and Clank wonders if his defect defines his life — and what it would mean if he were to be "fixed." Of course as with any good pairing, the two bring out the best in one-another and manage to canonize themselves in both the game's literal Hall of Heroes and the pop culture landscape of everyone who paid attention to video games throughout the 2000s.
Rift Apart, by extension, follows a similar formula as we follow Rivet and Kit’s journeys through self-acceptance via the help of their extra-dimensional companions. For new and old players alike, these two prove to be the emotional heart of the story. Rivet’s constant failings against the too-big-to-fail Emperor Nefarious shatter her self-worth in the way it would anybody, though her drive to help others serves as a bedrock upon which she can build a healthy foundation towards heroism. Kit’s programming defect means she occasionally suffers from uncontrollable outbursts, her Warbot form causing her to become an accidentally destructive force against her will. Her inability to reckon with this side of herself has manifested in habitual seclusion — she spends most of her time on a desert planet, her only contact in the form of alien life practicing transcendental mindfulness. When paired with the titular heroes who have literally lived through similar struggles and know the best ways to be supportive of one another and themselves, Rivet and Kit eventually do the soul searching required to pull themselves out of their inner-strife. The game examines its new characters through the lens of its old characters, and in so doing informs players and itself of the nearly infinite, dimensional-spanning ways stories can be impactful for generations to come — even if it turns out good always will beat evil in the end.
It’s a remake, it’s a reboot, and it’s a sequel. It’s also the most beautiful game released in 2021, with perfect gameplay systems and an impeccable score by the legendary Mark Mothersbaugh… so there’s that too.