Cocoon. It is, of course, our game of the year. Cocoon is a brilliant, elegant, and thought-provoking work. It is exact, expressive, and generous. It advances game design while appearing to arise from its long history. But, above all, Cocoon is amusing. Its puzzles and tricks all lend themselves to levity.
You’ve probably played it by now, but if you haven’t, here’s all you need to know: Cocoon is a game about exploring odd landscapes and realizing that these worlds actually exist within a sequence of orbs. These spheres can then be picked up, transported about, and carried with you as you explore new landscapes – landscapes that are enclosed within their own orbs. You can be within something that is inside something else that is inside something else that is inside the object you are carrying. Cue a lot of design genius.
But here’s the deal. I’ve spent most of this year playing and thinking about Cocoon. And, more lately, I’ve been discussing it with colleagues and reading through reader comments as part of our end-of-the-year stories. (On December 31st, look for the reader list: it’s bright.) And what’s fascinating to me, and almost unsettling, is that there’s this fantastic, inventive, one-of-a-kind game out there, and we all seem to agree on it.
We can all agree that Cocoon is brilliantly clever. We both agree, however, that its actual genius is represented in the manner it makes the player feel brilliant. It goes to impossible places and leads you there as well. It silently closes off unpromising paths of puzzle-solving thought, nudging you towards the proper solution without your knowledge. Nonetheless, you are aware of it. I became aware of it. We all noticed that, and it made us adore Cocoon even more.
So. There are at least two ways to use these Game of the Year pieces. One is a repeat of the review – everything that’s terrific about the game, but with the sensation that these things have only deepened, gotten deeper, and gotten bigger over time. The other option is to poke around a little to see if you can find anything else in the game. This is what I was attempting to do this morning before writing this. And this is what I have.
Cocoon is a great puzzle game in a year full of intelligent puzzle games. But now that I look at it, I see another more interesting trend that it appears to be a part of. Over the last several years, I’ve noticed a slew of games that appear to be becoming increasingly interested in the materials used to make games. Not the mechanics, genres, or traditions, nor even the recurring characters or themes, costly licensing, or expanding universes. I mean, there are games that are interested in the materials used to make games. Rocks. Mud and glass. Other matters.
As an example, I believe you may consider Birth. This is a wonderful and sad game about loneliness in a huge city. But I like it because it’s a game with stones, feathers, and rodent bone fragments. It’s about pieces of material, dry stuff, folded up stuff with sharp edges. That is what distinguishes it.
Look at Sludge Life and Sludge Life 2, both of which we received this year. A game series about urban ennui and solitude, yes, but also about gloopy toxic waste, old bin liners, ash-tray dust, and sun-bleached shipping container shells. All of this as viewed through the scratchy, strobing, warping filmed fish-eye lens of an outdated camcorder or whatever. That is Sludge Life.
And look at Cocoon! Wow. Jeepers. You’ll find riddles, spatial-juggling inventiveness, and a slew of challenges centered on various types of doors. But you also have this fantastic, terrifying concoction of substances. You have insect wings, as well as fat tumors, adenoids, and myelinated axons. You’ve got hand-sculpted metal, sandy rock, swamp flora, and extremely fine circuitry. And it is all brought together so gracefully, so deftly, that you begin to see new connections between the hidden world of technology innards and the microcosmos of insects: those grasshoppers with naturally occurring gears in their legs, that flea that Robert Hooke once sketched, paving the way for so much that is strange and far-reaching in modern art.
So we have the controlled mind and the wild eye. And it’s only when I notice it that I realize I have a bothersome habit of viewing games as collections of ideas rather than what they increasingly are: collections of things. This is Cocoon in its material actuality (tonsils), not in its influences (puzzles, doors).
Surprisingly, I believe a lot of this is due to technological advances. To give things a believable material reality, you must be able to represent them in 3D quite well. This thought alone makes me want to go back to N64 and PS1 games, to a time when engines couldn’t really do this, and marvel anew at what these games now feel like they’re made of, having been born when there was such a wide gap between what polygons could be made to do and what the world and its pieces feel like. (What material is Mario 64 made of? I realize now that I have no idea!) Yes, technology. But you must also gaze at the world long and hard, close up, and imaginatively.
Through this lens, I’m happy to connect two significant bits of newly discovered joy from 2023. One is Cocoon, which is as dazzling, captivating, and generous as everyone says it is, and the other is Adriaen Coorte’s art, which I discovered in Laura Cumming’s recent book, Thunderclap: A memoir of art, life, and untimely death, which I highly recommend.
In Thunderclap, among works by Vermeer, Fabritius, and other Dutch luminaries, I discovered some asparagus, overlit and sharply realized with delicate, almost invisible brushwork, laid out on a stone ledge, but tilted away from us in such a heroic, alien pose that they almost reminded me of a fleeing spacecraft from the opening scene of Star Wars. I’ll let you find more of Coorte’s odd, very gorgeous still-life art for yourself; it’s really worth it. But, like the creators of Cocoon so many centuries later, here was someone who looked closely, intelligently, and artistically at what the world was made of and what that stuff could be utilized for.