15. Persona 4: Golden (Atlus)
I have never played a Persona game before. Really, the only JRPGs I have ever played have been either in the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest franchises. I’ve tried a few others from random series I forget the names of, but found them all rather terrible. Over the last decade, I have just become sick of the same blue/grey text boxes and pseudo-medieval, pseudo-steampunk, pseudo-European worlds with terrible dialogue and worse stories. I fondly remember the first few JRPGs I ever played (namely, the Playstation-era Final Fantasies) , but the genre has been so stubborn in refusing to evolve in any meaningful way (except for a few notable exceptions on consoles I don't have access to) while, conversely, becoming so horrendously bloated, that I had all but given up on the genre.
So Persona 4: Golden (the re-vamped Vita release of 2008’s Persona 4) has been a shot of adrenaline in the genre’s arm. It’s shown me that I do not fundamentally dislike the JRPGs genre, just nearly everything that’s been done with it in the last decade (or, more accurately, what hasn’t been done). Persona 4: Golden avoids the worst, most stagnant tropes of the genre and pulses with a youthful, fresh energy. The music is fast-paced; the menus are bright and vibrant; battles are quick and non-invasive.
The game uses the JRPG skeleton to craft a simple-enough/compelling-enough story of a group of modern Japanese high-schoolers trying to catch a serial killer. The story is surprisingly coherent and mature (so far, at least). The dialogue makes sense and, most importantly, conveys the characters as actual, empathetic people. Persona 4: Golden does everything JRPGs should do but rarely do.
Where Persona 4: Golden really shines for me is its unique treatment of time. Whereas most games exist in a weird kind of Groundhog Day limbo where the only day is Everyday and time just conveniently progresses once you walk to a certain place, Persona 4: Golden is constantly telling you what the date is, what day of the week it is, what season it is. The implications of this are far-reaching and fascinating. You can’t simply grind forever to level up before you fight a boss because time is constantly progressing. Sleep to restore your health and it will be tomorrow.
It gives you a kind of temporal context. You can look at the calendar on the protagonist’s bedroom wall and know exactly how long until the end-of-semester exams, until soccer practice, until the latest victim will be killed. Further, you are constantly stressed out. You are constantly running out of time. A day spent doing anything is a day spent not doing any of the other things you could be doing.
As the game plays out over a school year (or longer, I haven’t finished the game yet so I don’t know!), it mirrors strangely the one year I spent as an exchange student in Japan, going to a high school. The constant pressures of having to study, socialise, club commitments, part time jobs. To the countless pressures piled on top of Japanese teenagers (and all first-world teenagers generally), having to grind through magical TV-worlds to save friends is only a small addition. The need to get on with daily life around the more traditional JRPG escapades creates the most interesting of omniscient tensions.
The Persona franchises has been a mystery to me for the few years that I’ve actually known it existed. I could never understand how such a game could possibly function. But now, playing Persona 4: Golden, it just makes so much sense. Everything functions in a magnificent, unified way. It doesn’t subvert JRPGs conventions so much as redefine them. It is a game that pumps new life into the JRPG genre, but which perhaps could not have existed without the stagnating genre to prop it up.
I’m sure a lot has been written about Persona 4 over the years. I’m holding off my hunt for articles until I complete the game, but here is a post on Kanji’s sexuality that looks interesting, and a post by Mattie Brice on being transgender and a character I am yet to meet.
14. Gravity Rush (Japan Studio)
Another Vita title. It’s hard to pin down why Gravity Rush is so great. It is because the three-dimensional, VVVVVV-esque gravity-shifting never feels like flying and always feels like falling. It is the fact that the main character is a girl who is allowed to be a girl while also being allowed to kick arse. It is the world that is anime-steampunk without being cliché, impossible without being incomprehensible.
It is the entire art direction. The buildings, the people, the distinct colour palette of browns and yellows and purples, the blimps.
It is the mission that is nothing but falling off the bottom of the world after a lost love letter for kilometre after kilometre.
It is running up a building’s walls and falling sideways past chimneys and steeples across city blocks.
It is, above all else, a playful sense of whimsy that pervades the game. So many games (like the previously mentioned Borderlands 2) try not to care too much about their story, usually to their own downfall. Gravity Rush somehow manages to care about its own story—taking it seriously enough—without taking it too seriously. Maybe it is just Kat’s intoxicating optimism that allows this to happen.
The fighting is, sadly, a bit flimsy. I would have found it much more enjoyable if only the lock-on was more liberal. The touch-screen and gyro sensor are used in entirely arbitrarily “Hey! Look at this platform’s crazy new input devices!” ways that harm the game more than they contribute. Sliding requires you to touch the screen with both thumbs while you steer by turning the device. It is terrible and, as a result, I only ever slid when the game forced me too. But these are minor complaints about a game that is an absolute pleasure to play and explore.
I can’t recall having read anything this year about Gravity Rush, besides Kirk Hamilton’s Kotaku Melodic post about the game’s lovely music. I’ve written no articles about Gravity Rush myself, but I did use the Vita’s built-in screenshot function (something that should be mandatory on all consoles!) to take some photos that I then used to write out some more detailed thoughts on the game in this blog post. That’s something I want to try to do for more Vita games in the future.
13. Proteus (Ed Key & David Kanaga)
“Somewhere between Dear Esther and Minecraft” is how I typically think of Proteus. It’s like Dear Esther in its minimalist gameplay that simply asks you to walk around and explore an environment. It’s like Minecraft in the way that world is open and slightly different every time you play.
Stitched together with David Kanaga’s beautiful audio (like a parallel, ethereal world overlapping Key’s corporeal one), Proteus is perhaps the most calming game I’ve ever played. It has an ending that you can work towards, but it never pressures you towards achieving it. It is happy to just sit back and let you just spend some time with it for a while. It is happy for you to just walk among its pastel trees and musical frogs. In a recent update, Key added a ‘sit’ button. Press the spacebar and your character will just sit down. You can sit on a hill and watch the sunset, or the motes buzzing over the field, or the crabs scurrying on the sand.
A memory: at the Wild Rumpus part during GDC in March this year, I was drunk and exhausted from a week of parties, lectures, and games. The party was a loud ruckus of music, talking, local multiplayer, and kareoke. Proteus was being played in a side room, sealed off as much as possible from the rest of the commotion. It was projected onto a wall-sized screen before two old armchairs. People were sitting cross-legged on the ground like attentive young children listening to a story, backs to the player, sitting in her chair with her controller. I collapsed in a vacant armchair at the back of the room, behind the player, and watched her chase a frog for the longest time. I just slumped there, eyes unfocused, and let the colours and sounds wash over me. It was pointless, but beautifully so. It was magical. Proteus is magical.
I wrote an article for issue 240 of Edge while at GDC where I spoke to Key and Kanaga, as well as thatgamecompany’s Kelly Santiago and The Chinese Room’s Dan Pinchbeck about the recent trend of minimalist ‘walking’ games. It was republished online, sans my Q&A with Pinchbeck and the phenomenal formatting of the print version. While it isn’t explicitly related to Proteus, Kanaga wrote a transfixing post on his blog about games, music, and spirituality. Meanwhile, Matthew Sawrey thinks Proteus is like sorbet.
12. Gun Godz (Vlambeer)
During one of last year’s (surprisingly few) abandoned projects, I commented on how I hope that the sprite-based first-person aesthetics of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D make a comeback in the same way 8-bit and 16-bit pixel art has in the past few years. It was only a couple of months later that I obtained Vlambeer’s Gun Godz as part of my reward for kickstarting Venus Patrol (you still can obtain Gun Godz by subscribing to Venus Patrol now). Gun Godz takes the simple run-and-gun play of early shooters and supercharges it the way that only Vlambeer can supercharge something. Vlambeer are master craftsmen at making a game feel tight and responsive. In all their games, controls are twitchy but solid, audio feedback is meaty, and visuals are rich and vibrant yet free of superfluous detail. Gun Godz is no exception.
Like shooters of old, each of Gun Godz’s stages has a par time. The catch is, you only get the award for finishing under a par time if you also kill everyone and find every item. It is the par time to perfect the stage, not just to get to the end. This means learning exactly what projectile to fire at exactly what second as you draw an imaginary racing line through each stage. Each stage is short enough for mistakes to not get frustrating. Instead, I would repeat one stage over and over, changing weapons pulling the trigger at exactly the right moment became as instinctive as running through the corridor. For me, it became a kind of three-dimensional Super Meat Boy with guns.
Testament to Vlambeer’s auteurship, Gun Godz has an energy, a vibrancy, that few first-person shooters past or present possess. Serious Sam is perhaps the closest to what Gun Godz achieves: that stripped back focus on the running and the gunning as the most important part of the experience.
I wrote a blog post about both Gun Godz and Adam Saltsman’s Capsule when I first played them both. Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman wrote an extensive postmortem of Gun Godz at Gamasutra.
11. Journey (Thatgamecompany)
Following 2012’s trend of games that do so much with so little, Journey evoked a rawer emotional response from many players than any other game recently released. It made people cry who couldn’t really tell you exactly why they were crying. It wasn’t about having a reason. It was about having feelings and letting those feelings rise to the surface for their own sake.
Through magnificent audio and visual design, and incredibly well-considered multiplayer mechanics, Thatgamecompany managed to convey a sense of agoraphobia and loneliness, of a journey that is taxing all that there is of the little creature that refuses to give up. The gradual change of the landscape, the way the camera lifts up or drops down to reveal or conceal the horizon, the way your character has to lift her legs and push her torso forward to climb the steepest dunes, the relief in the way she just slides down the opposite side. It all comes together to create the sense that this journey is so important to this creature that she is willing to destroy herself to complete it.
It’s a religious pilgrimage. You don’t need to know anything about this religion or this creature or this world. All you need to know is that she is trying to achieve something she believes in so fully. That is enough.
Then, of course, there is the multiplayer component, allowing you to find other pilgrims on your path. You can never talk to them using real words but you know—you just know—that behind them is another real human player, sitting at their own television screen somewhere in the world. You stop. You dance around each other. You test their humanity by seeing if they react to you.
The game is masterfully designed so that it is impossible to not be friendly with other pilgrims. The worst you can do is ignore them and continue on. Otherwise any acknowledgement of the other player’s existence feels like the grandest of favours.
Which, I think, is because Journey is not about companionship at all. It is about loneliness. The simple fact that you know other human pilgrims are out there somewhere on the road makes you feel so much more lonely when you are alone. To be alone, other people must be absent. Really, even when you are with a companion, you’re not really ‘with’ them at all. You are just spectres in each other’s worlds. Each of you are still on your own pilgrimage to the top of your own mountain. You are just following each other for a while.
The only grudge I have against Journey, and one I rarely see mentioned, is the hugely problematic ending that seems to completely negate any point of undergoing the journey in the first place. The very final scene that suggests a cyclical nature of the journey, of getting to the end and returning to the start, contradicts all the effort I put into getting to the end in the first place. But that aside, the process of getting to the destination is meaningful while it lasts.
A lot of things were written about Journey this year. At GDC, one of the developers, Chris Bell, gave a great lecture about how they designed friendship into the game. Much later in the year, another of Journey’s developers, Robin Hunicke, spoke at ACMI in Melbourne while playing Journey in front of a live audience (something more developers should do!). Dan Golding provides an excellent write-up of that night. At Unwinnable, I further explored this idea that Journey is about loneliness.