5. Dear Esther (The Chinese Room)
Ah, Dear Esther. Such a magnificent, divisive game. The kind of game that makes people write “game” in scare quotes or pull out something ghastly like “interactive experience” because it challenges all their narrow preconceptions of what a game can be. It isn’t interactive enough! It doesn’t have enough gameplay! It doesn’t have any challenges! I don’t have enough agency!
What a load of rubbish.
Dear Esther stands against all of our embarrassingly narrow ideas of what a game must ‘be’ and calls our bluff. It demonstrates that all a game needs for a player to have a meaningful, playful engagement with it is a world to move through. The idea that Dear Esther has “no gameplay” (a saying that, sadly, started with creator Dan Pinchbeck himself) is misleading. Walking across the island is its gameplay. Walking across the island is an interaction. Dear Esther takes that element of gameplay so fundamental to so many games—navigating a space—and highlights just how much of our pleasure with games is this simple navigation. It highlights just how reductive and inadequate our presumed notion of 'interactive' really is.
Most fascinating about Dear Esther is how the story changes. It’s like a computer program that produces poetry in the way it stitches together fragments of narrative, the way different objects might or might not appear in the world, the way you might hear one piece of dialogue one game but a different piece the next time. There is no ghost in this machine but a poltergeist. A spirit moving things around and making the player doubt their senses. Has that kidney bowl moved since last time? Was that a ghost that disappeared behind those rocks or am I just imagining it?
There is a story here, but you will not strike at the heart of it. Each time you play you just skirt around the outside, feeling at it, getting a vague and ambiguous idea of its shape. Each time you play you will see a different perspective of the story even as your previous perspective flickers out of view. And people complain this game is too linear!
Dear Esther is a manifesto. It’s proof of what games can do and what games don’t need to do. It shows that the basest pleasure of videogaming is not freedom or challenge but simply traversing, being, and comprehending. Everything else is built on top of this.
As mentioned before, I wrote an article at Edge about minimally interactive games like Dear Esther, Journey, and Proteus. You’ll need to find a copy of the print magazine to read the Q&A with Dan Pinchbeck, though, sadly. Eric Swain writes about how Dear Esther works as horror. Zach A asks some questions and finds some answers about the game at his blog. This led to an epic Google+ discussion between Zach, Katie Williams, and myself about the game’s possible meanings.
4. Driver: San Francisco (Ubisoft)
Yes, Driver: San Francisco was released in 2011 but like most people, I completely ignored it until this year. It was Eric Swain's constant preaching on Twitter, along with a drunken ramble from Brian Taylor (okay, maybe I was the drunk one, not Brian) in the back of a San Francisco cab (fittingly) that tipped me over.
What can I say about Driver: San Francisco? It is clever. It is special. I feel like I have overused the word ‘magnificent’ on this list, but it is magnificent. It takes the weirdest, uncanniest plot device (you’re character is in a coma and everything is happening in his head) to succinctly and elegantly depict just how similar dreams are to videogames. It’s intentional artifice, it’s deliberate pointing out of the virtuality of its virtual world, makes the world all the more convincing. It embraces its game-ness with both hands and uses that to craft a world that is convincingly a dream. It allows the game to shine with an unreserved self-confidence. Why is there an invisible wall there? Because this is a dream, that’s why. It does whatever it wants to do, and it never stops to justify itself.
The shifting mechanic (allowing you to leave Tanner’s body to possess the driver of any other car) sounds ludicrous on paper, but works magnificently in practice. It’s like Grand Theft Auto but without the walking between vehicles. The game’s missions don’t just use shifting as a crutch, though, but constantly innovate on top of it, constantly throwing new and fresh challenges at you that require the skill to be used creatively.
And underneath it all is a driving game that simply feels spectacular. A game this left-field in concept, I would assume to be left wanting on a simple mechanical level. But every car feels so great to drive. So heavy and weighty yet slick and powerful. This is the first time I’ve ever wanted to play a driving game from a behind-the-steering-wheel perspective. It just feels right.
I think, really, Driver: San Francisco is the realisation of a Hollywood-style, cinematic car chase game that the Driver franchise has been striving to achieve since its inception thirteen years ago. It’s ironic, perhaps, that it had to fully embrace its game-ness to achieve it.
I wrote quite a bit about Driver: San Francisco. I wrote an initial piece at Unwinnable to explore how the dreaminess of the game makes it all the more believable. I followed this up with a series of posts at Gameranx for my first “Sum of Parts” series of posts. Back at Unwinnable, Jay Pullman has his own look at the dreamlike nature of the game’s San Francisco. Eric Swain’s review at Popmatters provides a good breakdown of the game, too.
3. DayZ (Rocket)
DayZ is the videogame we all thought we wanted. Okay, that’s a ridiculous claim. It’s the videogame that the 90s, with its virtual reality fetish, insisted that we wanted: a massive, diegetic world populated by real people simply (“simply”) trying to etch out a day-to-day life, with all the mundanity that entails. People who need to eat and drink. People who get sick if they stay out in the rain for too long. People who are scared to death of death.
DayZ’s strengths are very much of the ‘real’ world: trust, betrayal, death, near-death, survival-at-any-cost, survival-despite-the-odds. For all its fixation on utter, diegetic immersion, it’s perhaps ironic that what primarily draws me to DayZ are the very real emotions it evokes in my real body.
It was always difficult to get working. I would spend up to an hour trying to get into a server, but it was always worth it. The most mundane events—the events that wouldn’t even count as an event in any other game—are peppered with a tension surpassing anything the most intense authored moments of any other game can hope to achieve. Here, just sitting on a hill overlooking a service station for ten minutes, or walking down a road in a forest and hearing a gunshot, just a single gunshot, are visceral (yes, visceral), breath-stealing moments.
It’s because DayZ isn’t about living; it’s about not dying. Every moment you’re not dead, you could die. Every moment you don’t die is another victory. In an article for Hyper, I compared playing DayZ to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Each, for me, evokes that sense of oppressive desperation, of wanting to survive until you inevitably die.
And then there is the world, one of the most incredible virtual worlds I’ve ever explored. The sheer, quantitative size of Chernarus allows a graduality of the terrain that no other game could hope to achieve. The way a city peters out to houses, to farms, to woods. The way you can (the way that I have) walked down a dirt path in the woods for hours and seen no one. It is a terrific world, a world perfectly suited for DayZ.
It has more maps now, I believe. But truth be told, I have not played DayZ for many months. Not since the hackers attacked after the first time it appeared in a Steam sale. I’m sure it is a working fine again now, But I just haven’t had the time. But for many late nights earlier this year, DayZ and I produced some of the rawest, most vivid memories I’ve ever had with a videogame, and I won’t be forgetting them anytime soon.
While I’m very happy with my Hyper piece comparing DayZ to The Road, the writing about the game that stands out most are the retellings of personal stories. When my ‘first’ character died (that is, the first character that didn’t die in like five minutes), I felt compelled to immediately write up his final hours. Jim Rossingol’s captivating multi-part write up of his experience with the game in true New Games Journalism style at Rockpapershotgun is perhaps responsible for bringing DayZ to many people’s attention, including mine.
1(tie). Spec Ops: The Line (Yager)
So I sincerely can’t choose which of my two remaining games meant more to me this year, and it seemed meaningless to split hairs just to make sure I have a number two. So, instead, I have given the top spot to two quite different games. First of all, I’ll do the one you knew was coming (who am I kidding, you know what they both are): Spec Ops: The Line.
I knew nothing about The Line before it’s release. I’d heard of an announcement of a new military shooter at the VGAs or something about a year before its release, but I’d seen no trailers and played no demos before playing my first game. All I knew was a murmuring on Twitter—at that stage still a rather quiet murmur) that something special was happening here. Then, at a bar one night, Hyper editor David Wildgoose told me I should check it out, that it was my kind of game. He was right.
The Line is a game about something. Much like Supergiant’s Bastion last year is one of those rare games that doesn’t feel like a bunch of people worked on separate parts and shoved them together, it feels like a single collective artist named ‘Yager’, of which individual developers were just limbs, pieced together a single, focused, confident piece of art. In the AAA space, it is a phenomenal achievement. It has a sense of ‘self’ I’d come to believe was impossible for games made with large teams to achieve, but here it is.
I was shaking the first time I finished The Line, then I loaded a new game and played it through again. Then again. There was so much here to unpack. Not in a "put-the-puzzle-together” way, but in a “How does this game work so well?” way. I became obsessed with dissecting it and understanding how all of its parts contributed to such a focused work. That, organically and unintentionally, led to me writing my first ever book, Killing is Harmless.
A lot of people think The Line failed (or simply doesn’t go far enough) for a lot of decent reasons that deserve to be explored. But it made a lot of people think. A lot of players who had never before been given a reason to stop and think about the violences they perform in videogames in a nuanced were suddenly thinking about it. Not dislike it, necessarily, but think about it. This might seem like nothing to those who already question (or outright dislike) more violent videogames, but that takes for granted their own opinions on the matter. Many people had never thought about this stuff before, and now they are. That, I think, is an incredible achievement.
People also like to say the ‘game’ bit is bad, meaning the mechanical actions of taking cover and shooting. Personally, I find it to be both a solid and satisfying cover-based shooter. Though, I generally do enjoy sticky-cover shooters so I have an obvious bias in that regard.
My only real gripe about the game was the checkpoints occurring before cut-scenes, but that was only annoying while I was actually playing. What has stuck with me since has been everything else: the violent acts I performed without once thinking I should just stop.
Killing is Harmless has been met with much praise and thoughtful critique. As for other writing about The Line (of which there is a lot), I compiled a critical compilation for Critical Distance.
1(tie). Ziggurat (Action Button)
What can I say about Ziggurat? For all the words I’ve penned about it, I really can’t say much. Ziggurat taught me that I don’t know how to write about games, about the mechanical coupling of human bodies and technological hardware where the most fundamental pleasures of videogames lie. Ziggurat taps into that corporeal, carnal place; it dips me in and allows me to gaze with a rare clarity at the very act of bodily coupling with a videogame. But when I come back out I don’t know how to describe the things that I saw. When it comes to Ziggurat, I fail as a critic.
What I got out of Ziggurat is what a lot of people got out of Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon, or perhaps Shawn McGrath’s Dyad. It was something sublime. Something above words but also below them. It’s something in the way I can roll my thumb to change the elevation of a shot by a single pixel. The way I know when to release from the screen and fire as naturally as I know how to tap a beat with my foot. The way I would, eventually, be able to fire a shot into the air at the exact right point of the ever-progressing music so that it would fall down atop the UFO making its single pass across the screen.
But its not just ‘mechanics’ that make Ziggurat so special. It perfectly combines these with a simple narrative—a mere epilogue, really—to craft an intense end to mankind. Most arcade games are, in some way, about inevitable failure going back to Space Invaders and Missile Command—try as you might to succeed, you will eventually fail. Ziggurat, meanwhile, is about fighting back against the inevitable. A single game constantly progresses and never repeats. Time—diegetic time, within the world on the screen—is forever moving forward. The sun sets, the moon rises, new enemies appear. But despite this, there is no ‘end’. There is a set amount of content present in the game, to be sure, but far more content than anyone is ever intended to see. If people get close to the end, the developers just add more content, subtly and unannounced in a “bug fixes” update. It’s this weird thing where the game deliberately includes content that no one will ever see just so you can both constantly progress and inevitably fail. Space Invaders is a looping limbo. Ziggurat is a final human standing against the end of the world, progressing into the future each second they survive until they eventually die and humanity ends. Its tension of repetition and progression is never resolved, but it is exactly that tension that Ziggurat draws its energy from.
Then there are the controls. Touch controls that don’t require you to obscure the action on the screen with your fingers. Touch here for action to happen there. It’s a brilliant, elegant, and obvious solution to smartphone gaming’s biggest hurdle. One I can’t believe I still have not seen widely replicated.
There is a commentary to be made, too, on the fact the game is designed by the infamous Tim Rogers, perhaps best known for his unique approach to games journalism and criticism. For a writer best known for excess and distractions and tangents and flourishes, Ziggurat is restrained, held back, conservative, minimalist, simple, to the point. I’ve seen Facebook comments written by Tim that take longer to read than an average Ziggurat game takes to play.
Ziggurat is a game of its time. It can only work as a digitally distributed title (so that the developers can keep piling content on the backend as needed), and is one of the few games in existence that demands a touchscreen. It is, without a doubt, the game I have been most intimately engaged with all year. If The Line had not been so thematically potent, not a game played this year could hold a light to the time I shared and continue to share—getting close to 35 hours—with Ziggurat.
I wrote a series of articles about Ziggurat for my “Sum of Parts” column at Gameranx. At Insert Credit, Patrick Miller wrote the article that is responsible for my falling in love with Ziggurat with his piece “How Not To Suck At Ziggurat”. Here, Patrick manages to talk about the game in that mechanical way I find myself unable to do. Andy Corrigan uses Ziggurat to talk about the insufficient nature of classifying a game either casual or hardcore. At Kotaku, Tracey Lien talks about her experience getting better at Ziggurat while showing off her amazing Ziggurat-inspired paintings. And in classic Tim Rogers, style, Tim introduces the games in this post on Kotaku. And, in another post, he discusses the playable character’s gender. Kind of.
And with that, so ends my top twenty-five games of 2012. Thanks for reading!