Natalie Rambles About 2020

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Because 2020 is finally at an end, and good riddance!

Winter is underway, the twelfth turbulent month is at its end, and after what has felt like the longest year of all time, it is finally time to tip one’s hat and say good riddance to the daemon known as 2020. And what better way to celebrate this with another annual Natalie.TF year-end spectacular?

Well, I mean, there are probably better ways… but I’m doing this year-end spectacular because it’s a tradition, and a tradition I enjoy doing.

Part 1: The World is A Fuck

2020 will hopefully go down as one of the worst years on record for a long, long while. And being so closely tied to it, it is hard to look back on the full scope of this long and wild year with a degree of clarity. But I remember that it all began with wildfires picking up throughout Australia, destroying an obscene amount of wildlife and plantlife, and doing extreme harm to the nation as a result of the growingly unstable climate of the planet Earth.

It was a (pun intended) burning omen to just how much destruction would be seen on a global scale this year, and while it might be comforting to say that this was all an isolated string of bad luck, that is not entirely true. Just about every bad thing that happened this year can be traced to long-standing societal issues that have been ignored because addressing them would either be hard or inconvenient for those with power.

This can most obviously be seen with how the government of basically every nation in the world underestimated the destructive potential and risk of COVID-19, a coronavirus with a long-gestation period of 14 days that could spread simply by having a conversation in the same room as an asymptomatic carrier. This, combined with how globalized the world has come in the past 25 years, gave singular persons the ability to directly spread the virus to thousands of people before they were even aware they were a carrier.

Because the governments of the world waited on issuing guidance on virus prevention, this put most nations on the losing side from the outset, and right as things were getting bad, most countries declared quarantines, lockdowns, began issuing guidance on social distancing, and demanding people wear masks in public areas. Fear, unrest, uncertainty, and dread filled the lives of billions as they limited their outside activities, or began working from home which, while completely feasible for individuals such as myself, was not for individuals with small or minimalistic living spaces or those who lacked a computer for every person in their household.

As governments issued these orders, companies clamored to find remote workplace solutions for their employees, and many businesses shut their doors. But even these measures did not necessarily put a stop to the virus, at least in the United States and much of North America, where new cases of COVID-19 have been rising steadily since day 1. In the US alone, millions have been hospitalized, hundreds of thousands have died, hospitals are overburdened with patients, and medical staff are overworked and underappreciated.

Why did this happen? Well, because people have not been following the rules. Despite so much widespread destruction, people still are not wearing masks when socially interacting or not covering their noses with them. They are trying to lead their lives normally and putting their personal desires over what is good for society. And due to the nature of this virus, all it takes is one gaggle of ignorant fools who bolster that this is all a ‘hoax’ to ruin a quarantine.

As a vaccine is currently being manufactured and distributed across the world, there is reason to believe that COVID-19 will be largely eliminated throughout the upcoming year of 2021 and that most people can develop an immunity to the strand. However, things will not go back to how they used to be. The virus has highlighted many deeply rooted problems with society, laid the foundation for an economic depression, left countless people without a job, and has affected both people who lived through this situation as adults, but also children, who were expected to learn and develop while largely isolated from the outside world.

There is reason to believe that hugs, handshakes, and cramped working environments will go away. It is likely that working from home will become a new normal for most individuals who work on a computer, as many are more efficient and comfortable working from home and without social distractions. And it is probable that outgoing social venues, from theaters to eateries, will never reach their true numbers beyond a post-quarantine boon, as people have grown accustomed to ordering food for delivery or pick-up and watching films in their own homes.

However, this all remains to be seen, it is all hypothetical, and if you asked me how long this viral outbreak would last back in March, I would have said things should clear up in the summer, so what the hell do I know? All I can confidently say I do know is that much of this could have been prevented, the damage could have been minimized, and the specter of this virus is going to linger on for years as society adapts and evolves from it.

Due to how abrupt and unprecedented this event was, this year was likely the hardest and most trying of the generations who lived it and not only because of the virus. Even during these times, there was an unprecedented amount of political unrest throughout the United States this past year. Starting at the tail end of May 2020.

Following the murder of George Floyd, the nation broke out into a months-long series of protests where people spoke out against the inequality seen in how the US treats people based on the color of their skin, and the brutality they were subjected to by law enforcement. The Black Lives Matter movement was well underway, and while it might have seemed like a sudden reaction to some… this was billowing in the background for longer than anyone has been alive.

Systemic oppression towards black people since the founding of America, where they existed as slaves for one century. Then they spent another century segregated as second-class citizens where they were denied opportunities to accrue wealth, with white folks going so far as to destroy up and coming black communities. And now, 50 years after the civil rights movement, after racism was supposed to be over, we are still seeing displays like this. While less overt, segregation is still a real issue, representation is still a real issue, and people still are judged unfavorably, both socially and legally, based on their ethnic background. 

It is all deplorable, disgusting, and wretched to think about, to the point where I dislike talking about it because it is so aggressively depressing. And as a privileged white person, this is not my fight and my thoughts on this issue are of far less value than those who have been subjected to hardships because of this persistent oppression. Generally speaking, things have gotten better over the years, but they have not gotten better fast enough, and the disparity between people’s class and resources based on their race is still inexcusable.

Also inexcusable is the state of law enforcement in this nation. They perpetuate a culture of exerting power over those who have the least, operate in an environment with deeply rooted systematic racism, and individual officers have precious little accountability for their actions, as courts far too often side with their allies in operations in order to maintain good relations. Even if it means defending those who broke into a woman’s house and murdered her in her sleep. They are given a frightening level of freedom to do as they want and too often lack the discipline to use their power responsibly, yet the powers that be still gives them an excessive amount of resources in comparison to other government sectors.

Not unlike the military, law enforcement in this nation is given a shocking percentage of governmental funds, most of which is used to purchase excessively powerful weapons and armor, tools to keep society in line. When these funds could, and should, be going to better society at the ground level, to help those with little, to address unrest within communities, and introduce programs that prevent crimes, rather than tools to momentarily stop a problem once it arises. 

Unfortunately, it appears that neither the cries to recognize the racial injustices within this country or to redistribute governmental funds away from the police have had an immediate effect. But even in the true worst-case scenario, this at least helped build some greater cultural disdain for those who are supposed to protect and serve people, yet far too often abuse their power to harm minority groups.

Dang, I’m just letting my ‘communist catgirl’ flag go aflutter, now aren’t I? Well, tough cookies, because we’re not even through the election yet!

Leading up to the 2020 election, I was wracked with worry, as for all the damage was done by the 45th President of the United States that would have been a mere prelude to the unmitigated disaster that a second term would bring. I did my part, researched all candidates I was voting for, mailed in my ballot nice and early, checked election results on an hourly basis, and refused to believe whatever speculation I was being fed until I saw with my own eyes that Biden snagged 270 points, before doing a victory lap to get past 300.

And the fact that, at least for a while, it was looking like America would elect a grossly incompetent white supremacist fascist to their highest position of governance for a second term, should speak volumes of how deeply flawed this nation is on a cultural level, and how fucked up so many millions of people’s priorities are. Elections are a time when I realize that, oh no, the malicious and hateful people are not just some ‘small yet vocal minority.’ They are spread out across this nation and their voices count for something. They can, and have, and will, shape history for the worst. Perhaps better for a small group of elites and also white supremacists, but worse for everyone else… in the entire world.

I do not understand these people. I do not understand these people because, as far I can tell, they have no values. They do not want anything for themselves. They just want to make things worse for others. Racists, homophobes, transphobes, anti-left, anti-democrat, none of those things are true positions. None of them are values. Disliking something is not a fucking personality, and being against something is not an affiliation, but in practice, and for millions of Americans, that is how they vote. They vote for whoever says no to the things they think they don’t like. This is just one of the innumerous factors that have led to this radical political schism seen in the United States, and… I get so tired trying to take all of this shit in. 

I grew up in an elementary school where I had peers of most backgrounds. I was taught that all people were created equal before I even vaguely comprehend the historical ramifications of race. And while I have said no shortage of insensitive or phobic things growing up, I do not think I ever truly understood where malice towards another group comes from. I know that this is one of my countless privileges, the fact that I was able to grow up in an environment that encouraged and praised diversity. But it is something so innate that I struggle to understand where this disdain comes from, why people cannot read the room or view inclusiveness as a good thing when it is not and was never meant to harm anyone. It is literally about preventing people from being harmed.

I… I just struggle sometimes. I struggle to understand how people can be so selfish, cruel, and hateful in this world, and how the ideals I was taught at a young age are in any way controversial, especially in a world where everybody can be connected so easily. I want people to get along. I just want the world to be a better place. I want leaders to not be self-interested bringers of harm and unrest. I want people to understand their deficiencies and faults. I want people to be a fuck-of-a-lot more humble. But I know that none of that will ever happen, so I detach myself. I view the world with distant cynicism while immersing myself in the things I enjoy and can control. 

Part 2: Natalie’s Hate Crime

…Oh fuck. I just remembered the most racist thing I ever did in my life… and I need to confess to it right now, or else I’ll feel even more awful. Back during my seventh grade in Physical Education class, during what would have been the spring of 2008, we were doing a rock climbing activity and I was holding down the spotter, a chubby black boy who I think was named Cameron. I did what I was asked to, holding onto his harness while our combined weight supported the child climbing the wall full of plastic rocks, and as I was doing so… I either sneezed or some snot dripped out of my nose, and it landed on Cameron’s shoulder.

Back then, I had horrible allergies during the springtime and would spend my days being utterly miserable as my eyes watered and mucus ran out of my nose and down my throat. My allergies became much better as I got older, found good allergy meds, and stopped spending an hour outside every day. But back then, I was always a drippy mess.

Now, I did not realize that I was doing this— that I sneezed on this black kid. In fact, it took me years to realize I was the one responsible before remembering I was paired with Cameron that day. But I know I was the one responsible for that, for coating his shoulder in mucus. Because I was the only one in my PE class with chronic springtime allergies. And when Cameron found out, when he was changing and saw what was on his PE clothes, he was so disheartened and so upset by this that he informed the principal and was sent home for the remainder of that day.

The following day, my PE class gathered around and we did no activities during that 42 minute period. Instead, our teacher informed us of what happened to Cameron and asked one of us to confess who did it. I had no conscious memory of doing this, and I still don’t, so I said nothing. I just sat there and said nothing because, as far as I could tell, I did nothing wrong. But I did something super wrong. I sneezed on a black kid’s shirt and left this disgusting wad of watery mucus on him. 

By the time I realized this, I had no connection to this child, and could not precisely recall his name, but… I’m sorry for what I did. For not apologizing then and there. For not putting two and two together during that long, embarrassing day of silence in PE. And for making him feel so dejected and unwelcomed at that school. Because that school wanted to welcome everybody. I wanted to welcome everybody. And I failed.

Part 3: Rancid Mindscape

Now, as I say this, I’m not trying to put myself on a pedestal and make myself out to look like a moral paragon. That is far from the truth. I do try to be nice, kind, and courteous to others. But I still have my biases, preconceptions, and dabble into problematic areas far too frequently. From the fact that I enjoy things that are incredibly far from what anybody would deem as politically correct in the Year Of Our Lord 2020, such as The Bloodhound Gang or any number of 90s rap albums I have in my makeshift music library. To the fact that my mind is sometimes this rancid mindscape where problematic terms and vulgar jokes do crop up in my mind because some part of me finds them funny or entertaining.

For example, the day I began writing this section I called a piece of bread the “homosexual fruit.” I claimed that “Japanese women do not grow beyond a predetermined height because their superior genome doesn’t let them.” And I jokingly used the phrase “one of the good ones” to describe Dragonyule Lily from Dragalia Lost. The phrase, as far as I know, is a somewhat roundabout reference to the model minority myth. The toxic idea that minority groups are generally bad, but those with an exceptional work ethic and attitude are considered “the good ones.”

I never say anything like this verbally, but it still speaks poorly on my internalized understanding of these principles, as I am so casually making jokes that carry with them such a negative connotation. And when it comes to more regimented efforts, such as my written fiction… I still brush up against controversial subject matter more often than I should. I write wackadoo stories full of violence, sex, people getting their bodies stolen, people adopting a new gender identity, and people physically changing from one ethnic group to another. I try to keep my nose clean, but I know I cross the line sometimes, and I feel shitty about that. Because I feel like I should know better, that I should be able to, from miles away, pinpoint what is right and wrong, but… I’m not sure a lot of the time.

I’m not sure of what is right or wrong, what is going too far, and what is generally ‘okay’ despite what my core morals tell me. And this indecision is compounded by three core things.

I’m autistic, which, at least for me, causes me to hyper-focus on certain things, but there are a LOT of other things I struggle to notice or just outright ignore until something clicks in my mind or someone else points it out to me. 

I’m transgender, which comes with the expectation of being especially current and woke when it comes to a lot of ongoing social issues. If I am not, then I feel like I’m being a ‘bad transgender’ and my complex about ‘not being transgender enough’ comes to fruition. Part of this complex is fed by the fact that I am not overtly feminine in my appearance, how I do not really trifle with make-up or dresses, and the fact that I have not been subjected to the abuse that most transgender people receive on an annual basis. The worst I got was some unintentional deadnaming. Hell, nobody has even called me a ‘tranny’ as far as I can tell. I could delve into this in more detail, but… I think this post is emotionally heavy and scattered enough.

And on top of all of this, I’m a white person who, especially this last year, primarily talks to other white people, as my family and bosses at work are all white. So I know I am probably fucking up on some level when I try to interact with non-whites. I cannot recall any instances beyond the mucus incident, but that doesn’t mean I don’t do anything racist or disrespectful.

Or in other words, because of how I was raised and because I ‘decided’ to become what I call an “in-name-only” member of a minority group, I feel I have a grand duty to treat all as equals and avoid any harmful phobias or isms towards other people. However, due to my autism and whiteness, I don’t always abide by these principles.

And what makes this all the worse is the fact that I try to include people of a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds as protagonists and supporting characters in my written fiction, but often find myself delving into a hornet’s nest of the troublesome subject matter. 

It was not necessarily my intention to write a story where affluent white people profit off of the suffering of people of color born in poor countries, but I did that. I did not mean to evoke a slavery parallel with my appropriation of the word “Master” and tried to prevent that by introducing two black protagonists, but I did that. I didn’t mean to make what I think was my first Middle Eastern character a NOMAP, but I did that too

…And I didn’t mean to make one of my first original characters a brown-skinned gender fluid person whose dream was to turn into a dog and give birth to a litter of puppies, but I did that! I fucking did it! And… I don’t actually regret that decision, because if I knew somebody like that, I’d think they were RAD as FUCK!

—GARF! I’m getting distracted again! What I’m getting is that I know I have problems, but I try to be aware of them, and if I do ever fuck up monumentally, it is probably not intentional, and just from a place of shortsightedness and ignorance. I don’t hate anybody inherently; I want everybody to get along, and I hate how society is so fucked that we cannot have this simple-ass thing that 6-year-old understand, but the 70-year-olds running the world don’t understand

Part 4: Natalie’s Accomplishments of 2020 

Now that I have dealt with the unpleasant half of this post, let’s move onto the things that I am far, far more comfortable talking about, starting with my accomplishments this past year!

2020 was a year I kicked off with some grand ambitions. Such as republishing my first four novels on Natalie.TF, continuing my weekly Wednesday posts, and taking the Certified Public Accountant exams. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned this year. Not for me and not for… anybody, really. And while my personal hardships have been minimal all things considered, as I live at my parents’ home and am perfectly adept at working from the comfort of my own bedroom, I still encountered a few… issues in making this adjustment. 

This can mostly be attributed to how my work schedule is very sporadic, as I am called in to do things on more of an as-needed basis, as opposed to working locked hours, and the fact that the people I work for are… Well, one is my mother, who is exceptionally stressed with work, causing her to be very… inconsistent with how she approaches me for help, and when she asks me for help. 

From helping her with computer issues, making spreadsheets for her as she overbearingly tries to explain what she needs, taking care of the mail, entering/assembling checks, or just listening to her as she vents about this or that, while I keep telling her it is fine, because… she’s my boss and my mother. She is pretty much the one thing I dislike about working from home, and I feel like a shitty daughter for saying that.

The other person I work for is a CPA, who I am helping with preparing tax returns, doing cryptocurrency accounting, and using my degree in the way my professors (probably) intended. I actually really enjoy working for them, as they are understanding of my quirks, they make a conscious effort to introduce me to new concepts, and they appreciate having me as their helper. However, they are a bit of a scatterbrain when it comes to scheduling and general management, juggling a lot of balls and calling me on an inconsistent basis. Outside of tax season, when I am in demand every day.

By working two jobs with inconsistent schedules, I have found it increasingly difficult to focus on doing what I want to do. I.e. goofing off (reading comics, watching video essays, playing games) or working on Natalie.TF content… Not that it stopped me from getting a lot of stuff done.

I revisited, re-edited, and republished my first three novels, Verde’s Doohickey, The Malice of Abigale Quinlan, Psycho Bullet Festival: The Odyssey of Abigale Quinlan. This was a process I was both anticipating and dreading, as these three novels are works that I made during a tumultuous time in my life and were filled with my thoughts, emotions, anxieties, and so forth. Some things I grew out of, but other things that still remain, making these works uniquely my own, but also ones littered with odd curios that caught even me by surprise upon re-reading them.

And while I did not think any of them were great, or even all that good, I was happy to polish them up and release them in a more accessible form, instead of hiding them away… not that Natalie.TF itself is super accessible or anything, as it is just some blog on the internet and not, say, a platform for long-form fiction.

I released a total of 12 short stories this past year. Ranging between fan fiction, sequels to existing stories, and stories that expanded into full-blown novellas. But I was happy with how they turned out (for the most part), and that I was able to explore such a diverse range of subject matter. Such as rape, pedophilia, incest, twinning, cactus transformation, cloaca-based masturbation, old people fuckin’, old people drinkin’ cum soup, incest with veggie sodomy, sex slavery, the dehumanization of sex slaves, and Christmas

I checked out two new TSF visual novels in the form of re:Dreamer and PDA: Personal Data Altercator. Both of which I enjoyed considerably, but the technical imperfections, lack of content, and, in re:Dreamer’s case, questionable content, make these two projects that, assuming the developers retain their attention long and hard enough, will shift and shape into something special and could rival Press-Switch and Student Transfer in certain aspects.

I wrote a 37,000+ word review/rant/analysis of Dragalia Lost, the mobile action RPG by Cygames and Nintendo, because I have invested over 1,000 hours into that game since I started playing it back in August of 2019. I would say I was proud of what I had written there… if not for the fact that, as a live service, things always change in the game, and most of what I wrote wound up being undermined by a massive rebalance update to celebrate the title’s second anniversary.

I wrote a 15,000 word review/summary/thinkpiece on Metamorphosis by ShindoL. A positively fucked erotic manga about a timid and nerdy girl, age 15, who opens up to the bright and happy world around her… only for her to fall down a dark and treacherous path of rape, drugs, rape, abuse, prostitution, addiction, death, and Japanese societal commentary. It is this gorgeously dark and dismal cocktail of good stuff, and after reading it, I knew I just HAD to try giving it a jolly old deconstruction. And for whatever reason, possibly the plethora of images, the post actually did super well by my standards.

On that note, I want to take a moment and talk about the metrics of Natalie.TF, how they improved, and how my readership is following my writing. For the record, all of these images were captured on 12/25/2020, so it’s not quite comprehensive of the entire yet, but it’s close enough for my $5/hr data analysis spiel.

As the figure above so clearly illustrates, 2020 saw a dramatic jump in page views for Natalie.TF, with my annual view count growing from 145,082 to over 275,000. That is more than an 86% increase! Which is all the more impressive if you look back at the early days of Natalie.TF and realize just how pitiful my views were by comparison, barely even registering as blips next to this massive peak!

Now, the total number is not all that impressive in a relative sense, as for many sites this annual total is equivalent to a bad day of traffic. But this, to me, means that thousands of people did visit Natalie.TF and read my work throughout the year. And as somebody who was thrilled to get 10 views a day, to get the occasional comment, to get any degree of feedback that my work was being noticed, this is all beyond my wildest dreams. Never, when I was establishing Natalie.TF, did I think I would get this kind of leadership, and I thank all of you for visiting this site, following my bullcrap, and reading my stuff.

However, this figure might be a bit too grand to comprehend, so let’s break things down a bit further, with a monthly view breakdown and daily view breakdown:

As you can see here, Natalie.TF started in May 2012 (I have made all 2012 and 2013 content private) with basically no traction, and big numbers did not start coming in until 2016, after I published my review of Student Transfer. A title that… honestly, I owe a lot of this traffic to, as the more Student Transfer content I put out, the more readership I garnered. And to illustrate this, let’s look at a table I made of my most popular posts of all time. This excludes my deleted posts from 2013 and earlier, along with my old anime reviews, and only includes posts that reached over 1,000 views.

Yeah, for a while I have known that my audience is skewed in this manner, where my reviews garner the attention of TSF/TG visual novel enthusiasts. This is why I made dedicated pages for Press-Switch and Student Transfer last year, and produced reviews for Student Transfer Version 5, Student Transfer Scenario Reviews Parts 4, 5, and 6, re:Dreamer, and PDA – Personal Data Altercator this past year. Not necessarily because I get anything from these views (Natalie.TF is not and will not be monetized), but because I know that these views correspond with people’s enjoyment, and I like making things that people can enjoy. Even if they just come in, grab a flowchart, and leave.

Now, based on that perspective, I should focus on creating the type of content that generates more views, right? Well, yes, if I was simply doing Natalie.TF to make others happy. But this is also a platform for me to do what I want to do. And I want to talk about other video games, make game reviews that are not for TSF visual novels, write casual essays about stuff I’m passionate about, and write my own TSF fiction. None of which have been particularly successful beyond a few outliers, but screw it. I have fun doing it.

Besides, just reviewing TSF visual novels does not drive up my views all that much. P-S, ST, re:D, and PDA have all done good numbers, but the same is not true for lesser-regarded VNs. To offer a quick breakdown:

These are all pretty good by game review standards, but this indicates that the audience I get from P-S, ST, re:D, and PDA is not strictly interested in TSF visual novels, but ones of ‘discerning’ quality. 

Now then, for my final bit of statistics, I want to take a look at my annual site stats in regards to page views because, let me tell you, the numbers I brought in this year regarding word count were utter bananas!

…630,000 words an average of almost 3,800 words per post, with over 1,700 words per day. Huh, that is actually considerably more than I estimated at the beginning of the year, when I did some dinosaur math to determine that I should put out at least 1,500 words a day. And that was when I was still planning on releasing another 70k+ word novel!

Now, when viewing these figures, it is important to recall that I also republished 3 novels in 2020, which roughly adds up to 185,000 words. But that is still a dramatic uptick in overall words published this year. As for why this happened… I don’t know, it just kind of did. 

I wanted to pursue more ambitious and longer projects this year, granted myself the room to expand my thoughts, and just sort of wrote more. Maybe my confidence was bolstered thanks to the grammar editors I started using, or maybe I just had more time to sit, write, and think about stuff, as I am working from home and had plenty of momentary downtimes where I could chug away at a post, and try to add a few thousand words to whatever my current project was.

Oh, that’s another accomplishment of mine! I realized that I can write up to 4,000 words per day and can write 3,000 easily if given the time and my mind is clear! That does not include editing and rewrites— those I usually take care of on a different day entirely, but that is some professional-level stuff that you expect to see from real-ass novelists! Dangs! 

If only my writing was good enough to be professional novelist quality, I was able to write stuff that people would want to read, and it was even remotely possible to make it as a novelist nowadays. Then I could ditch accounting and write stuff all day!

Part 5: Gamindustri 2020 Highlights

Now, that covers things for Natalie.TF in general, but despite what my statistics might say, I still view Natalie.TF as being a video game centered blog, and boy howdy did a lot of stuff happen in the video games industry this year, so allow me to walk you back through the longest year with the hottest, wettest, and dankest stories I could find from a casual review of my Rundowns.  …And all of them were bad news! 

One of the earliest trends I uncovered in my causal review of Rundowns was the number of acquisitions made this year, despite it being a time of economic recession and mass unemployment. Because while many people struggled to make ends meet, as their jobs were no longer available, corporations bought lots of stuff. 

Such as jolly old Tencent, the growing Chinese superpower who, like most major Chinese corporations, has strong ties to the Chinese government. This year they played it fairly safe, spreading their funds around to purchase an undisclosed share of PlatinumGames in order for the studio to self-publish their own titles, starting with a remaster of The Wonderful 101. However, they also footed some bill of some sort on System Shock 3, not enough to own the abused and confused System Shock IP, but enough to have a stake in what was a highly anticipated title. 

Though I think Tencent’s biggest acquisition was buying 20% of Marvelous Inc., who, despite not being a well-known name, is a prolific Japanese game developer and publisher who sourced in a lot of talent from companies like Cavia and AQ Interactive, and put out titles that, while not overwhelmingly successful, do enrich the Japanese games industry a good deal. But now they, and every title localized by their subsidiary XSEED, will see profits siphon back into Tencent.

Now, that is all small potatoes next to the three big acquisitions that popped up this year, at least in the circles I care about. Sony and Funimation acquired Crunchyroll, improving the company’s hold over the growing anime industry by netting the biggest English-language distributor of anime in the world. Which, for fans of anime who only want to pay one monthly sub, might be pretty good for a few years. But in a broader perspective, this will probably result in many anime studios being forced to work with Sony and doing whatever Sony wants them to do, even if it means accepting a pittance for the opportunity for their series to reach a global market.

Electronic Arts continued buying up major studios, this time aiming for the racing games giant, Codemasters, who EA acquired to the tune of 1.2 billion, ridding the world of one more major games publisher, and giving EA the opportunity to shut down more studios and more games to bog down with the predatory monetization models they aggressively normalized them this past generation.

However, the biggest and most concerning note is how Microsoft acquired ZeniMax, owners of Bethesda Game Studios. From a narrow-minded view of what this means for Xbox, this will probably work great for them. But from a broader industry perspective, this is another AAA game publisher leaving the market, and causing the industry to become more consolidated and rigid. Thereby preventing smaller companies from becoming bigger companies without being acquired by bigger companies. It’s scary, but that’s the system the world operates under, and this is what capitalism has been doing to countless industries over the years. Taking what was a monopolistic competition and turning it into an oligopoly. 

It is a change that will affect the industry going forward, and I think the same is true for how conventions will be handled. GDC got delayed and later went digital. E3 2020 was canned. Gamescom was halted because of a convention ban across Europe, and so on and so forth. This ultimately caused most game publishers to take full reign of their PR cycle, distributing information at their own accord while hosting live streams because just about anybody can do video streaming nowadays.

Much like with every adjustment made to the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not sure if this is a permanent change if this will cause the death of major conventions, but I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing that happen. From a consumer perspective, I actually preferred this scattered deluge of announcements and think they may be better for the individual games and companies, rather than lumping them together under a single banner. 

Still, I know that certain people thrive in convention environments and are great at facilitating deals through chance encounters or rapidly greenlighting things into production over a night of dinner and drinks. And for those people… well, your methods might just be outmoded. Welcome to the future, kid.

Cooking Mama: Cookstar came out of nowhere more or less right when the pandemic was reaching a fever pitch, and underwent one of the most tumultuous examples of mixed messaging that I have ever seen in the games industry. The title was developed under an agreement between Cooking Mama IP holders Office Create, small-time publisher Planet Entertainment, small-scale Australian game developer First Playable Productions, and marked the first major Cooking Mama title was being developed by a company other than Office Create. 

The game itself was released on March 31st, 2021 for the Nintendo Switch, and was met with a tepid reception at first, only for players to notice that the game was sparsely populated on store shelves and the title was delisted from the eShop within a few hours. Suspicious quickly arose as to what was going on, people reported that the game was overheating Switches, and some cyber sleuths were able to uncover a February 2019 press release that announced that Cooking Mama: Come Home to Mama, later re-titled Cookstar, would blockchain-based DRM, which is itself an interesting, albeit woefully unnecessary, idea for a game, but this has no impact on the final game.

However, this did not stop some sites from reporting that Cookstar was actually using Nintendo Switch systems to mine cryptocurrency after some random guy on Discord said as much, only for other random guys on Twitter and developer First Playable Productions to say otherwise. This sparked sites like Screen Rant to try interviewing developers on what the hell was going on with this title, but First Playable disagreed with those claims on Twitter, which only went to further muddle the story until the major parties finally issued official statements.

On April 15th, 2020, Office Create claimed they gave Planet the license to develop a Cooking Mama game for Nintendo Switch back in August 2018, and the last time they assessed the game, they were not satisfied with the final product and demanded several improvements be made before the title’s release. However, not only did Planet not make Office Create’s requested changes as the release date neared, but they also began posting storefront listings for a PS4 version of the game, which Office Create did not approve of. So, on March 30th, 2020, Office Create terminated Planet’s license of the Cooking Mama IP and contacted Nintendo to remove Cookstar from the Nintendo Switch eShop.

On the same day, Planet, in response, claimed they acted within their rights, the game’s design was already approved, that Office Create’s demands were beyond the scope of their agreement, and that they had the right to distribute this title. And since this kerfuffle, they have been acting as if nothing has happened. More physical copies of Cookstar have been produced and sold through various retailers, and their Twitter account has remained fairly active since October 2020. However, the title has not been relisted on the Nintendo eShop, implying that there is some ongoing disagreement between the Office Create and Planet, even half a year later.

Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise, was one of those wild dream games I thought would never happen, but I did not play it at launch as, before my copy even arrived, it became known that the game contained some questionable content involving a transgender character in the story. The game’s director, Swery, was quick to offer a heartfelt apology for the potentially harmful content in the game and promised to rewrite things and implement them in a future patch. Then, days later, a patch was released that modified a few bits of dialogue, and Swery claimed he had no plans to make further changes to the game’s story despite having not truly fixed the problem. He just made it slightly better

Since then, the game has received fairly minor updates that slightly improved its abysmal frame rate and load times, and it appears that this is how the game will remain in the future, haunted by a lingering stink of questionable content. This is unfortunate, but at least it’s a justification for me to get around to this game sometime next year instead of waiting around for changes that, at this rate, will never come.

Ubisoft, the largest games maker in the world, fell into a bucket of boiling controversy this past week after it was discovered that many among the company’s higher-ups had a history of sexual misconduct and general abuse towards their workers, which has persisted unquestioned for years due to the amount of clout and power possessed by said abusers. About a month after this controversy was first sparked, Ubisoft announced the removal of many of the key individuals responsible for perpetuating this abuse, including CCO Serge Hascoët, Canadian Managing Director Yannis Mallat, and global head of HR Cécile Cornet. 

Ubisoft thought this would be enough to quell the unrest and silence this issue, but the damage was done, causing CEO Yves Guillemot to issue a vague and flakey corporate apology over the matter, while supposedly doing precious little to change the culture of their global studios into something more modern and accepting. For the past few months, I have seen regular reminders of this, with people trying to keep the truth alive even as the mainstream industry and Ubisoft overall want to move on, but that can’t really happen.

While I believe in forgiving a person for their misdeeds if they are sincere in their apology and strive to be better, that is not the case here. This is a multi-billion dollar company that allowed socially incompetent persons to sit in positions of power for years upon years.

Oh, and Yves Guilmot’s son, Charlie Guillemot, is the creative director of Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad. A free-to-play mobile game about the governments of the world, and especially America, fighting against a shadowy organization that uses civil rights movements, protests, and leftist ideologies to promote its agenda and further its influence with the ultimate goal of global conquest. 

It is a concept that is horrifically close to an unfortunately too-common belief that movements like Black Lives Matter are the tools of terrorist organizations, and there is no way that nobody involved in the game’s development wouldn’t have brought this to question. But when a Guillemot is leading your project, I guess you should expect the execution to be tone-deaf, bullheaded, and ultimately destructive.

Epic Games decided to be an entitled prick of a company by trying to subvert the revenue earned by the likes of Google and Apple by allowing players to purchase the premium currency in Fortnite via their own storefront, preventing the two mobile platform holders from getting their industry-standard 30% cut. Apple was quick to retort to this, delisting Fortnite from the App Store, but this being a pre-planned attack, Epic was just as quick to kick off a pre-planned campaign against Apple, attempting to rally up the Fortnite fanbase in their own hamfisted movement, while also pursuing legal action against the platform holder.

Despite having one of the most profitable games of all time, Epic wants to make more money from Fortnite and believes that they are entitled to a better deal due to their size and the volume of transactions made in their game daily. They believe this so strongly that they have taken Apple to court over this matter several times, only for the judges to identify Epic’s greedy behavior for what it is— a childish hissy fit.

Currently, Fortnite is still delisted from the App Store with no sign of returning through traditional means because of the bad blood between the multi-billion dollar tech companies… but Google is pretty chill about the whole thing by comparison and you can get it for Android devices no problem, albeit through unofficial means

As I said previously, Apple is being brash here and their 30% commission is far too much considering how little their services help app developers. They are not worth defending. They are ultimately a greedy corporation that does not want to share any more than they need to. While Epic is just being a big baby who, thankfully, did not get their way, and is facing the consequences of their actions by losing out on a massive market… at least for the time being.

Unfortunately, this has prevented thousands if not millions from enjoying their game, so there are no winners here. Only losers.

Nintendo, Nintendo, oh sweet and sexy and spicy and sour Nintendo. The company that made video games what they are, and the company that made the first widespread effort to preserve them via an online storefront… has also become the first major games company to release digital games with expiration dates. This was a worrisome trend established with two titles that released this year, starting with Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a compilation of three games that deserve to be chronicled in the artistic canon that leaves something to be desired. Before being followed up with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light, a remastered and improved version of the original 1990 Fire Emblem game that was released in English for the first time effort.: 

Both of these games will be delisted from digital storefronts on March 31st, 2021, and the precedent this sets is beyond concerning. If this works, Nintendo can read this as a way to garner greater profits by releasing time-limited snippets of their catalog, without ever making their entire history available ever again. But if this fails, and it hasn’t so far, then this is a sign that Nintendo should not bother re-releasing its back catalog, keeping their games locked away in vaults forevermore.

You can say a LOT of bad things to Nintendo, but I think this is genuinely the worst and most manipulative thing they have ever done. This is a gesture of disrespect to the medium, preservation, and history. This is them profiting off of artificial scarcity in the truest sense, and treating their back catalog to bolster profits in the short-term, without caring about the long-term repercussions. It is bad for collectors, unfair to people who have not entered Nintendo’s ecosystem, and to those who cannot afford to buy games during the ongoing pandemic. 

This year was also home to a new console generation, though it honestly didn’t really feel like it. The difference between the new generation of hardware and the one past were fairly minimal to a casual onlooker, with the biggest immediate draw being more the performance of the machine, as we finally have consoles that can do 1080p and 60fps for just about every game. But in regards to the new games people had to play… there was a semi-sequel to Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) and a remake of Demon’s Souls (2009)

However, even if these systems did launch with robust libraries of entirely new games… people wouldn’t be able to play them. As this was an almost exclusively online launch around the world, scalpers took this opportunity to do what they do best. They created programs to order immense stockpiles of game consoles so they could sell them to desperate customers at a mark-up. This happened for tens if not hundreds of thousands of new consoles and made the act of getting one an arduous and intensive one. 

Even now, after Christmas, many people who wanted a new system simply could not purchase one. And while you could say this was a supply chain issue, it’s more likely that Sony and Microsoft underestimated how much disposable income their audience would have and how many of them would want to spend the upcoming winter with a new toy computer machine.

Yes, a new toy computer machine with access to the latest and greatest games. But what many were hoping and pining to be the undisputed game of the year for 2020 wound up being… a piece of crap. After an insane level of hype, CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 was released amid controversy and in a largely unfinished state. The PC version had its problems and bugs, but that would be understandable for such a big game, and the biggest source of contention came with the console ports.

CD Projekt Red lied about the quality of these ports, refused to show them before launch, and prohibited all first-wave reviewers from playing anything other than the PC version. This caused outcry, anger, and fury from all parties involved. Console players were appalled by how unfinished these ports are. Employees at CDPR were upset that their work was so squandered by management, who shipped the game before it was ready. Sony and Microsoft were so overburdened with refund requests that they made special arrangements with CDPR to refund all copies of Cyberpunk 2077. And game reviewers were put under fire for not praising the game enough before launch, and for misleading players with honeyed words after launch. 

And you know what? I would argue that Cyberpunk 2077 is the perfect game of 2020. Because it was a wreck, a horrible comedy of errors, something that dashed the hopes of others, and ruined what many were hoping to be a time of joy and celebration. It was something that perfectly epitomized the dysfunctions of the AAA games industry, the toxic hype culture of the gaming industry, and how this cannot continue going forward into a new decade! 

Just like how 2020 was a wreck, a comedy of errors from the global governments, a year where people’s hopes were dashed as they were quarantined into their own homes, and immersed people into a state of sorrow as they were unable to see their friends or loved ones in person. It was a year that perfectly epitomized the dysfunctions of global governments and markets, turning what should have been a small-scale disease into the first truly global pandemic in the history of mankind.

…Okay, maybe it is a bit gauche to compare a video game to a year… but the parallels still stand. 

Part 6: Natalie’s Favorite Games Played In 2020

News in all of its forms tends to be on the more negative end of things, and while there were plenty of terrible, nasty, no-good things that happened in the games industry, this year in games was, for me personally… pretty gosh darn excellent. Sure, I played fewer games this year than I have in a good decade, but I played plenty of bangers, and before I close out this year, I want to celebrate my favorites.

The House in Fata Morgana is the best visual novel with no anime. 

The medium of visual novels is one I will triumph, praise, and cite as being a positively excellent form of storytelling, being this wonderful and economic blend of literature, artwork, interactivity, music, and sound, and few titles are better representative of the strengths of the genre than Fata Morgana

It tells a tragic romance story spanning the better part of a millennium that comes with enough themes and subtext for the story to hold its own as a work of fine literature. Features utterly gorgeous artwork that shows just how stunning visual novels can be when in the hands of a talented and ambitious enough individual. And comes with a positively mesmerizing score that hops from eras and languages, yet remains consistently beautiful. It is a gosh darn creative triumph, and the worst thing I can say about it is that MangaGamer still hasn’t released the 4K remastered version on Steam yet.

AI: The Somnium Files is a better Zero Escape 3

…Just kidding. I actually liked Zero Escape 3 a fair bit, and it was incalculably better than ending the series on a cliffhanger. And even if the game was a wreck, it at least laid the foundation and groundwork for writer and director Kotaro Uchikoshi to try his hand at a new adventure game, and holy hell, did he nail it. For AI: The Somnium Files is an enthralling murder mystery adventure game that captures his greatest strengths as a creator, mixing schoolboy humor and deeper character-driven drama to create a consistently captivating story filled with the sorts of twists and general weirdness that are the exact sort of thing that appeals to me.

But what I find most impressive about it is just how tight and well-constrained the game is. It is a title with a very finite number of characters, locations, and overall assets, but never does it feel like the game is missing something or cutting corners. And the story, similarly, is a condensed universe, leaving little interpolation or room for an obvious sequel, concluding every character arc across its cast, and wrapping things up in the best possible way I could ever imagine. 

Lamunation! -international- is the death of culture, and I love it. 

For as much as I love deliberate and carefully constructed stories with multiple layers, I also love things that can be openly and impressively stupid, and few games do that better than Lamunation. A seemingly innocuous chill and cozy hang-out style visual novel centering around a sole male as he enjoys idyllic summer days with his female friends… that immediately sets the tone that this is not your typical visual novel. As the title boasts a script overflowing with quips, references, snide remarks, and overzealous characters being none too shy about their eccentricities.

While this could be all there was to this game, being a title chock full of references, memes, and general anime-flavored nonsense, Lamunation goes a step beyond that. It treats its characters like characters, giving them time to be vulnerable and fully acknowledging their quirks and behavioral defects. And it even treats its world with far more respect than most others, establishing it as a borderline utopian environment where economic growth, career opportunities, and scenic locales have created a global vacation destination that is a paradise for many, but a home for the cast and the player as they embark on this assorted and absurd adventure. 

Deadly Premonition Origins is a gorgeous dumpster fire of a video game. 

It is a game whose scope far exceeded the capabilities of its development team, one that floundered in development hell for years, and through many objective measures, the game is just downright bad. However, the title has remained a persistent, beloved, and celebrated title over the years, and that is due to what lies beneath its rough and crusty exterior. It is awkward and ambitious. Stupid, yet soulful. And otherworldly, yet ordinary. 

It is a game that felt unique and almost groundbreaking when it came out, channeling the realness and uncanniness of games of prior eras and cranking it to a new level, all while feeling like a project with a strong and deliberate direction. That made the game rather novel at the time, and while I think it could be better preserved going forward (bad frame rates and resolutions are a stupid aesthetic), there still is nothing quite like Deadly Premonition.

428: Shibuya Scramble is the AAA visual novel I never knew I wanted. 

I know I just said that I like how visual novels are economical, but 428 is a visual novel whose lavish presentation still leaves me in awe. Being a multi-protagonist visual novel where the primary art assets are these gorgeously detailed photographs of actors and locales as characters scramble across the real-life streets of Shibuya as ordinary day billows and blooms into a crime drama with a global-scale. It is a story admirable in its ambitions and thrilling in its execution. It does pretty much everything I want to see from a visual novel, but with a unique presentation style that makes me stop and wonder why more people don’t run around their city, stage a bunch of photos, and make a visual novel out of them, all while running away from the cops. Because that seems like a golden formula, I’ll tell you that much!

Ys: Oath in Felghana is everything I want from an action RPG. 

As I have grown older, my tastes have become more limited and I only find myself focusing on certain types of games, as I have a better idea of what I like, and do not feel the need to continue experimenting. And few games do a better example of showing what I love and what I want to see from an action RPG than Oath in Felghana

I love its approach to storytelling, furthering its plot only during the lulls between dungeon runs, keeping the beats fairly simple, and adding to them vicariously with a small cluster of NPCs limited to a single central location. I love its gameplay, being very simple in regards to inputs, but bolstering a good deal of tension from aggressive enemies who require players to stay on their toes… until they get enough upgrades to cleave through any and all opposition. I love its bosses that require ingenuity and pattern recognition while being hype as heck. And I love its world and music, creating a game with a distinct look to its locales and a rocking score brimming with personality. 

It took everything done in Ys VI, refined what was good, cut the excess fat, and the end result is a game that would remain unmatched as one of my favorites within its genre… if not for its own sequel… which I’ll get to next year!

Katamari Damacy REROLL is one of the greatest accomplishments in video games. 

You know how I just said I was getting more rigid and stuck in my ways when it comes to other genres? Well, there are always games that transcend this hard and fast rule of mine, and Katamari Damacy is one of them. Even over 15 years after its release, Katamari is still this jovial, creative, and refreshingly new feeling video game that I don’t think has ever truly been replicated. 

It boasts a unique gameplay system that is simple to understand and difficult to master. It defies traditional control scheme conventions to gallant success. And it crafts a world and universe with one of the most decadent and thick aesthetics that I have ever seen, boasting myriad layers that I can appreciate in different ways. I admire it from a technical perspective, I admire it as a toy, I admire it as a form of creative expression, I admire it as a cultural relic, and I admire it as a work of innovative game design. It is precisely the sort of thing a legacy could and should be built off of, and I don’t think people appreciate it enough.

Higurashi When They Cry Hou Chapter 8 – Matsuribayashi is the end of a tumultuous journey. 

Through the good and the not-so-good, my journey through the Higurashi series has been a rather enlightening one, showing me just what a dedicated creator can do with a fire in his heart, and offering me insights into what at the very least felt like a major part of the visual novel canon. While this definitely was not the first horror or thriller visual novel, or the first one about determined friends defying insurmountable odds to bring about a happy ending, it is filled with minutiae that I have later seen reiterated upon in… pretty much all of my favorite mainstream visual novels. 

And on its own, I do have to admire Matsuribayashi for finishing the series properly, wrapping things up, and giving the abused, used, and routinely murdered cast of the series a peaceful and joyous end to their troublesome days. That might not sound like much, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to botch endings like this.

Student Transfer Version 5.0 is the latest entry in the game I dreamed about playing in 2010.

I feel like I constantly go on about how much I love and adore Student Transfer as a game and a platform, but gosh darn it, that game deserves it. If there are two things you can tell I love just from a casual glance at Natalie.TF, it’s TSF and video games… but more specifically, visual novels. And while other games do some things better, I consider Student Transfer to be the ultimate TSF visual novel.

The expansive cast of likable characters who give way to innumerous storyline possibilities. The sprawling collection of stories found in the base game. The bountiful examples of quality stories to be found in fan-created Scenarios. The presentation and easy-to-use framework that grants this game a certain presentational flair not found in most other visual novels— I’ve said as much time and time again, but it is worth repeating because I am so gosh darn glad this game exists!

…And not just because it gets my site a lot of traffic. That is what we in the business call a happy accident. 

re:Dreamer is a work-in-progress masterpiece.

I have a certain apprehension to checking out games while they are in various states of pre-release, as it can lead to a bad first impression and may turn somebody away from a game they might otherwise enjoy. This did not happen with re:Dreamer… but it came close at times, with its rough and wordy introduction that hid away the groundwork for what has the potential to be this gorgeously detailed and obscenely in-depth story that benefits greatly from its detailed protagonist and singular transformation. I personally have not played the game very much since I put out the review of Version 0.3.5, but from that initial experience and the biweekly releases of new builds, I’m confident that if given enough time and funding, Dream Team Studios can make their dream TSF game come true.

P.D.A. – Personal Data Altercator is… another TSF dream game.

So between Press-Switch, Student Transfer, and re:Dreamer, I was pretty much spoiled for choice when it came to TSF visual novels, and really good ones at that. But then, at the tail end of October 2020, a new challenger threw their hat in the ring. Releasing a three-hour-long visual novel that established a cast, premise, and tantalizing teased the introduction of several promising routes. It was admittedly a skeleton of what could be a fully fledged title, but one that, with time and attention from its sole developer, Milly, could turn into yet another high-quality TSF visual novel in due time. But until then… the game’s pretty neat, and I’m happy that people are lending their creativity to this niche wackadoo subgenre for weirdos.

Dragalia Lost is a game I put well over 1,000 hours into, and I don’t regret it.

I put out a 6 part series, over 37,000 words, about this game, going deep into its mechanics, systems, and so forth, trying to make a somewhat comprehensive analysis of the game’s design. And while the Version 2.0 patch that upended much of the game’s mechanics while fixing most of my issues with it somewhat rocked my efforts, I’m still glad I embarked on this analytical exercise, and plan on doing something similar next year. And why would I commit myself to something like this? Well, the answer is simple. It’s the same reason why I play this game for hours every day. Because it is gosh darn wonderful!

I love its characters, I love its storylines, I love its simple inputs, I love its complex yet comprehensive mechanics, I love its long-form progression system, and I love its aesthetics immensely. It is a game that has routinely made me feel rewarded as I continue to invest time into it, and by seeing the game shift and evolve over so many months, I feel like I have learned more about what constitutes a good game from Dragalia Lost than any other title I’ve covered on Natalie.TF.

It’s good, it deserves more love, and I cannot praise it enough… even though I will openly break apart certain aspects of it and call the developers dumb for not doing it my way! But hey, I’m a critic, that’s what I do, dude.

With that, I have said all I have to say for the year 2020. But I shall return, albeit in a reduced capacity, in 2021. Expect an update to kick off the new year on January 1st, and until then, see ya!

Header image comes from Twitter user @RupertMyers and was taken by @noahberger3884.

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