Nine Things I Learned from TA Playlist in 2017

By Mark Delaney,
When we set out to bring the TA community one of 2017's new site events, we envisioned it as unlike any and all others we've hosted before. Unlike the majority of events that are competitive or focused on milestones, TA Playlist is meant to play more like a club. Each month we've decided on a game together and played it over the course of those four and a half weeks all while discussing it, debating it, and putting the proverbial bow on it with a podcast hosted by myself and a few friends from the features team on TA staff.

Along the way, I found each game taught me something. Maybe you can say the same. If so, let us know in the comments what you learned about the first nine games of TA Playlist — or maybe, like I often did, you learned something about yourself instead. Here's what the event taught me since its inception last April.

April - Alan Wake

It's hard to say goodbye, but sometimes it's for the best

wake oped

I wrote about this at length earlier this year, but if you missed it and only want the sparknotes, Alan Wake is an all-time favorite of mine. Like most people who would say they feel that way about the game, I've spent seven years clamoring for a sequel that seems less and less likely. I was never comfortable saying goodbye to the series, always holding out hope Remedy would some day return to finish the story they started.

At this point it seems like that dream is dead, and yet I'm okay with it. I can finally tell myself the truth about Alan Wake: one game and its XBLA mini-sequel is likely all we'll ever get. Like Stephen King says when Alan quotes him in the opening moments, the unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest. Wake has plenty of threads left unresolved, and thanks to TA Playlist, I'm finally ready to ponder them peacefully without stressing over their likelihood of ever truly getting resolved.

May - Darksiders

Sometimes you know what you don't like

Darksiders: Warmastered Edition screenshot

Surely you must have games you haven't touched not because you lack the time or money but rather because you lack the interest. For me, Darksiders epitomizes such a game more than anything else we played for TA Playlist in 2017. A glance at the artwork, reading over the synopsis, or even its genre classification each told me that Darksiders was very likely not going to be for me. Still, it won the May Playlist vote and I'm not one for self-fulfilling prophecy, so I gave it a fair chance.

As it turned out, I couldn't have been more right. Darksiders was a slog. Oozing with machismo and brimstone, thinking it's way edgier than it ever was, the game never spoke to me once. As just our second Playlist game in the history of the event, I was already having doubts about how I'd manage to push through future months as unfit for me as Darksiders. Thankfully there have been no other such games to date. Sometimes, without even playing something, you just know it's not for you. I confirmed my suspicions with TA Playlist this past May.

June - Sunset Overdrive

Story isn't everything


If you've heard me on the TA Playlist Podcast, or really if you know me at all, you know I operate quite like a broken record regarding my favorite part of games: story, story, story. Rarely do I find lasting impact from games that don't sell me on their worlds, characters, and conflicts. A rare exception, however, is Sunset Overdrive, which we played for June's Playlist game. Returning to Sunset City was like riding a bike. I could still recall how to grind the rails, time my insane jumps, and line up the perfect shots while I air dashed to my next objective.

June wasn't my first time with the game, so I knew it was special when I was totally engaged with it again despite the fact that story isn't its strength. Sure, it has plenty of memorable characters, so that counts for something, but as I type this I can't really tell you what happens in the story despite now having played it twice, and yet, I don't mind either. That's rare for me. Insomniac created something really special with this game, and maybe now I can reassign all thatAlan Wake sequel energy toward a Sunset Overdrive 2.

July - Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

I'm a sucker for tragedy

03/11/14 - DLC Wretched Graug

One thing video game writers love to do is kill the families of playable characters. One thing I apparently love to do is get swept up in the emotions of it every time without fail. From The Last of Us to Assassin's Creed II to many others, games quite often separate a hero from his or her loved ones — and often times even in the opening moments. Maybe it's because I have a lovely fiancee and son of my own, but this somewhat lazy tactic gets me every time. Shadow of Mordor is no different, as I was reminded in July. Within minutes, our hero had lost his wife and son, murdered in cold blood. His quest to join and avenge them is a great driving force for the game.

Eventually the plot seems to get lost along with the emotional resonance, but for the first few hours, I truly felt sorry for Talion. It's a familiar note, so you'd think it may lose its effect on me — after all, TV, books, and movies all do this frequently too — but I have to admit I still find it effective. Is it a cheap shortcut to bonding player and protagonist? What do you think?

August - Life is Strange

An A for effort can be good enough

17/03/15 - Screen 1

As you may have heard on August's podcast, I don't adore Life is Strange like many do. I think its story is filled with plot holes and its characters are often stereotypical to a point that really drags down the storyline. Having said that, whenever I bring up the game I don't just bash it unceasingly, because at its core I'm very thankful Life is Strange exists. Its focus on youth in crisis, like bullies, suicide, cliques, and sexual identity, could've descended into "afterschool special" very quickly, but I don't generally see those areas to be where the game falters. Rather, the fact that a game like Life is Strange can exist and even succeed speaks volumes to the way the medium is changing. I think it's great that games like this have a place, and I'm thrilled anyone tried to fill that space.

August's Playlist game is far from perfect, but Dontnod showed with each episode that they tried to remain attentive of the story's themes, and for that I thank them. Life is Strange month with the TA community was a highlight of the year, as it merited the most sizeable story discussion of any game in this inaugural year for the event. It seems I'm not alone in finding Dontnod's efforts to be commendable, even if they don't always stick the landing.

September - Dark Souls

Sometimes you don't know what you like

Character Creation 16

Like May, September's Playlist game brought me apprehension that I would be stepping into a game world in which I never wanted to find myself. It took me a few hours, but I soon found out I was wrong. Though I couldn't get over the hump of a particular boss battle, consider me a reformed believer in the Dark Souls franchise. I avoided the entire series, including its predecessor and PS4 sibling title, because the learning through repeated failures design never sounded like it appealed to me. To be honest, that's maybe still true, but that's why I had fun with Dark Souls. I took my time, followed the site walkthrough, and measured every step, parry, and dodge. The tension created through the game's natural flow is unique and wholly deserving of the praise I disbelieved for years.

When I look at Dark Souls, there's definitely something that turns me away. For that reason among others, I avoided the series since its inception, thinking I knew what was best for myself. As I learned with TA Playlist this past fall, I don't always have my own gaming preferences figured out. You can bet I won't scoff the next time a game in this series appears in our monthly poll.

October - Alien Isolation

More horror adaptations are welcome

6/10 screen 8

Replaying Alien after it won our Halloween-themed Playlist poll, along with reviewing Friday the 13th earlier this year, showed me quite clearly that I want more adaptations of known horror commodities. It's something I wrote about at length earlier this year, but it deserves reiterating. The right idea with the right gameplay loop could really be a hit. It seems the Dead By Daylight devs sense that too, as they've implemented several famous faces in their game since it released. Alien Isolation works because it feels like it belongs in its established story universe while doing well to stand alone as a worthwhile entry for fans and non-fans alike. Other properties could similarly make their way to games and really give horror fans something special.

I say all this as a huge proponent of the horror genre. There just aren't enough horror games ever. They're inherently riskier projects as instead of empowering players like most games, they leave us feeling vulnerable. Alien gave me that sense again all during October, even as I'd played it a few times before. Horror is a unique and sadly underutilized genre. If studios are afraid to develop for the horror audience, maybe starting with a familiar scary face is the boost they need. As Alien showed me, it could be a great place to start.

November - The Turing Test

The robots are coming (SPOILERS)

The Turing Test 6

Okay, this one isn't exactly something I learned from Playlist, but I'm hoping it's something with which some of you learned to concern yourselves. I've had a healthy obsession with futurism, particularly as it pertains to artificial intelligence, for years now. By the accounts of all experts in this field, the next few decades may prove revolutionary for advancements in AI. Many predict scary days ahead, while others see the dawn of super AI as an ushering in of quantum leaps in human evolution. Wherever you land on the spectrum, please do give it the time of day. Part of why I love The Turing Test so much, part of why I was thrilled to play it as a community for November, is because it exists as an introductory thinkpiece for people who maybe weren't yet giving the time of day to AI research.

In the game, the AI, TOM, isn't malevolent when he sets out to eliminate the remaining crew members on Europa. He's just following orders, orders he was given when he was instilled with machine learning abilities. The unspoken preface to Turing's story is that TOM is built as humans believed they intended. Only now some humans may want more nuance from TOM, but they won't get it due to something called the value-alignment problem, which describes when AI are inadvertently imbued with the wrong values in pursuit of the very specific right ones. It's the perfect "be careful what you wish for" storyline come true, and it's a major concern of AI researchers the world over. Read up on it, and check out some extracurricular material in the podcast notes of November's episode.

December - Assassin's Creed Origins

I'm officially too old for this

Assassin's Creed Origins DLC

Two years ago I discussed how adulthood meant I had less time to chase icons on sprawling open worlds. I was beginning to feel like massive games like Assassin's Creed often had the opposite of intended effect when they gave me huge maps with literally hundreds of things to do. I wasn't interested so much anymore. December's playthrough of Origins is really feeling like the final nail in the coffin of sandboxes for me, though with a few exceptions.

Despite it looking pretty, revamping a lot of what plagued the series, and giving players the setting they've been dying for, I can't help but find Origins to be rather forgettable. Its best attributes are mechanics it takes from better games, and everything else feels like more of the same Ubisoft open world problems. After 50 hours with the game I couldn't point to many standout moments, instead I had the lasting impression I had just marked items off a massive checklist for three weeks. Games have to be more than this, and surely for some even this game and those like it are more than that. For me though, playing Origins just showed me how little patience I have for games that are a mile long and an inch deep. I think the year off for the series was impactful in good ways, and I hope the Assassin's Creed team takes a few more off before coming back again. With few exceptions, namely Rockstar's work and Far Cry (believe it or not), I don't think I actually enjoy open worlds anymore.

That concludes my personal lessons learned from 2017, our first year of TA Playlist. In 2018, we'll be back of course and if you see this in time you could even vote on the first game of the year. If you haven't yet participated in TA Playlist and would like to know where to start, below you can find a few useful links. We thank our close-knit and ever growing community of Playlisters and we hope you'll join us in the new year for a full slate of 12 new winners. Every game is a journey, and the beauty of TA Playlist means you never have to venture on a journey alone. See you in the forums!

TA Playlist links

Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.
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