GOTY 2018: Best Moment
This year we've brought back our category awards to recognize achievements in specific areas of game development. There are 10 awards in all, with two new ones being awarded every day this week. Keep checking back for more winners!
Best Moment: The ending of The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories
White Owls Inc. | October 12th, 2018 | Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Runners-up: The "bad" ending of Assassin's Creed Odyssey | Arthur and Lenny's night out in Red Dead Redemption II
If you stumbled upon The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories and didn't know you were playing a game designed by Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro, it probably would've become obvious within about three minutes. All of his trademark stylistic beats — the strangely disconnected performances, the novel game mechanics with uneven execution, and a litany of David Lynch allusions — are proudly on display from the moment this unusual story kicks off.
We're about to dig into some significant spoilers for The Missing, so if you'd rather avoid that, please come back after you've played it.
The Missing is the story of J.J., a college-age woman who's on a camping trip with her friend and potential love interest, Emily. Emily goes missing at the outset, and J.J.'s journey takes her across a range of surreal, warped, and at times nightmarish renditions of a rural American tapestry.
If you've played a physics-based puzzle-platformer, you probably know the drill: push a box onto a lever to open a door, and complexity drips in at a steady pace from there. The key difference in The Missing is that most of the puzzles require J.J. to violently harm herself, removing body parts in order to hit targets, weigh down ramps, and squeeze through narrow passageways. It's gruesome, deeply unsettling, and at a few moments, it left me wondering whether I was giving White Owls too much benefit of the doubt about their intentions. But that leap of faith was vindicated by how the game's story develops.
One of the main reasons I seek out and play games is because I want empathy. Throughout my life, I've always treasured stories from different backgrounds and points of view from my own. I think that's what makes games such a singular medium: by requiring participation from the player in play mechanics that are designed to evoke a core experience, games can, in my mind, generate a deeper and more genuine empathy than other media.
I'm a cisgender man, and that means I've never had to worry about whether my gender identity matches the sex I was assigned at birth. I grew up without the kind of culturally conservative parents like J.J.'s mother who, if their child questioned their gender identity, would have suppressed them forcefully. And with that in mind, I'm not sure I'm qualified to declare this a great approach to storytelling, regardless of how moved I was by the game's finale. But in most of the games criticism that examines the game through an LGBTQ+ lens that I've read, The Missing seems to largely be regarded positively. I especially enjoyed this piece by Heather Alexandra, where she describes how she sees The Missing as portraying a queer love story the right way.
One of the worst tropes in modern media — and one that is rightfully being called out — is that queer characters, and queer romances in particular, all too often end in tragedy. Thankfully, The Missing dodges this trope gracefully.
The game seemingly ends with J.J. climbing a clock tower after Emily, finding she's hanged herself, and then following suit. But J.J. isn't dead; she comes to and is once again pursued by a demon of her own creation. This time, J.J. accepts who she is, and eventually she conquers the demon. And the game fades out.
When it comes back, we see a character lying unconscious on the floor of a school gym. They appear to be biologically male.
This is J.J. in the real world, expressing a male gender identity that we now know doesn't reflect her authentic self. Emily, who is very much alive, rushes in to comfort J.J., and we are left with the sense that J.J. is done inflicting pain on herself. And we're optimistic that, from here, things are going to get a lot better for her.
The runner-up moments also deserve some praise here. Assassin's Creed Odyssey's canonically "bad" ending actually sounds like an utterly brilliant and faithful incarnation of a classical Greek tragedy, as opposed to its "good" ending, which Tyler assures us is a lot less bold or satisfying. And Aaron tells us it's hard to top Arthur and Lenny's debaucherous night out in Red Dead Redemption II. — Nick Cummings