Dark Light

January feels like six o’clock in the morning. I don’t like it. Waking up is cold and bright and loud – all the better to shut the blinds down, bunk off work, and play video games. Let’s talk about the delight of January games.

Most people resolve to go jogging, to refine their diets or knock booze on the head for the whole month, but not us. No, our Januaries are different aren’t they? Having scoured the all-important lists we start the year with a bitter pit of guilt in our guts: so many great games slipped through our fingers. So, with monastic devotion we set out to thin the serried ranks of games, mocking us in formation.

At year’s end there is a querulous chorus: that indie breakout that passed you by, that little tiny game that gets called ‘art’, that AAA bastard you didn’t sink your teeth into, and that huge multiplayer phenomenon that was so incredible and who on earth are you if you didn’t play that?! But it’s always something. It’s always everything! Shut them out and fear not: it is January and there is plenty of time.

Where to begin? Stoking the fires of my home screen at the minute is the unconquered Horizon Zero Dawn, Yakuza 0 (still so many nightly pursuits left untouched), Nex Machina (what a year we had!), and yet these remain untouched in 2018.

If you’re anything like me you will consult your own list – the one that waits like gathered acorns in the ‘purchased’ list on my PlayStation. It’s always worth taking advantage of the sales as they crop up through the months – not so much for the money you save but for the perquisites of a well-stocked drey. Be like the squirrel.

And if you’re anything like me then that means you find yourself a dilettante: dipping in and out of never fewer than three games at a time, for never more than a couple of hours a time. And these won’t be en vogue either. Rather than stand to moral attention, crossing off the ‘important’ games of the moment like doing up buttons on a dress shirt, and bringing ourselves up to speed with the canon, we idle in the past.

Hang back a good three or four years pouring over the missed chances of years gone by with your fossil brush, excavating them from the rock of cooled critical consensus. In fact, I need to make a terrible admission to you: I never played Journey. It’s waiting on my home screen for me and thank goodness it’s January and I have time. This first week, I have mostly been playing: Alien: Isolation (Nostromo Edition) and Metro Redux.

Metro 2033 is a really good game. It has an enigmatic hero who narrates to us over loading screens but never speaks to his comrades. His name, Artyom, sounds like ‘artery’ and ‘atom’. This is apt: he scurries through tubes in a dying body of a city funnelling supplies and help to vital organ settlement stations, while the split at his core threatens to unleash untold chaos. (Artyom is also a city in Russia, but let’s go with my thing.)

Its world is dark and alluring: the surface scraped by howling winds, frosted concrete blanketed in snow, the sky scarred a permanent white grey. In the subterranean world of the metro, survivors emerge from the dark, bomb-lit eyes twinkling in the candlelight. It has a low-gamma approach to stealth: cocooning yourself in shadow you steal through the tunnels blowing out lanterns and tearing out throats. Its gunplay is savage and rewarding. Playing it feels brisk like a gin & tonic on a winter morning. It’s a perfect January game.

Alien: Isolation will suck up your time and blow it out the airlock; there are a few reasons for this.

Sevastopol Station is a kitbashed titan. Its greebled exterior is a mass of shadow and metal, of domes and silos like smoke stacks. Its interior is a variegated labyrinth – we all know what lurks down in the labyrinth with us, following our unspooling thread. Your journey through is stoppered by trenches of time spent sequestered in lockers, ducking behind desks, transfixed by the ominous smudge on your motion tracker.

In building this place, Al Hope and his team at Creative Assembly used their access to the Alien film archive: the Foley recordings, over three terabytes of concept art, schematics, reams and reams of information and design documentation. It looks at times like these documents spilled over into Sevastopol: the kipple collects on every work surface, papers and folders spread and spilling out of bins, terminals filled with data, and posters plaster the walls. For a fan of the franchise, particularly the first film, this is heaven.

Annoyingly, the real reason Isolation is such a black hole for your time is its length. Clocking in around the twenty-hour mark, you’ll be ready to blast yourself out the airlock through fatigue, not fear. Were it flensed of its fat, it would be a potent 5-hour decoction of blind panic and morbid wonder. Still, even as is, it’s the best Alien game there’s ever been and a slice of survival horror gold. And besides, we have time to spare don’t we? It’s only January after all.

As I look to the weeks and months ahead, I think about the games I’ve neglected: I think of Persona 5 and Nier: Automata and Pyre and Gorogoa and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy – I even spare a thought, however fleeting, for the dreaded PUBG. But then I shrug it all off. I’ll get to them, eventually. I look forward to the games of 2018 that excite: to Red Dead Redemption 2 (let’s hope), and God of War and Spider-Man and Far Cry 5 – oh, and Metro: Exodus.

For now though I have to get back to Sevastopol, and when I’m finished there I’m needed back in Moscow for Last Light, and when that’s done hopefully I can get round to those little jelly baby humans that need saving in Nex Machina.

It’s good that it’s January, and there’s plenty of time.

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