Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why You Should Help Mattie Brice Get To GDC

There are a lot of excellent writers writing lots of excellent things about videogames. You already know this. Across blogs there is a vastly diverse collection of writers looking at games from all different kinds of angles and making all different kinds of insights.

But when it comes to the bigger, professional sites, everybody is just too agreeable. It's not that people are writing poor articles or saying things that are uninteresting, but, simply, there are just too many of us from similar backgrounds saying similar things while the dissenters, saying equally interesting but perhaps not as agreeable things, are stuck on their blogs.

Slowly but surely this is changing. It has to change if videogame criticism is to advance and mature. We need more writers approaching more videogames from more perspectives. And, more importantly, we need these writers to have exposure and actually be read.

This is why I am super excited that there is a fundraising effort to get Mattie Brice to GDC this year. Mattie appeared out of nowhere in 2010 and is now writing for a range of places. She's all over Popmatters; She writes candidly about sexuality and games on Nightmare Mode; and she's even had the guts to take on Kotaku's cesspit comment sections head on.

I don't always agree with what she writes, and sometimes her forward-gazing optimism just outright frustrates me. But this is exactly why games journalism/criticism/whatever needs her and those writers like her: she is saying interesting things that many of us wouldn't say. She is starting interesting discussions and debates with the mainstrea about topics previously left to lurk on the niche blogs.

GDC is the biggest annual event in the game's industry and is exactly the place any budding game's writer needs to be if they want to Make It as a games journalist. 2010 was the first year I went to GDC and in the eleven months since I have written for Edge, Paste, Ars Technica, and a whole heap of other amazing outlets I could never have imagined writing for a year ago.

If we can help get Mattie there this year, I don't doubt she will have just as many opportunities out of it as I did, if not more. She has already marched confidently onto a stack of mainstream websites with very alternative views, and attending GDC will only help bring her alternative, interesting writing to larger and larger readerships.

So this is why you should chip in a few dollars and help get Mattie to GDC. Do it for games journalism/criticism. Help expand the angles and voices and articles and topics that people are writing and reading about. Games criticism needs more dissenters, and there are few dissenters writing at present with as much potential as Mattie.

(Also, huge thanks are owed to David Carlton who got the whole ball rolling on this.)

Friday, January 6, 2012

My Top Twenty Games of 2011: Part Five

So concludes the countdown of my person top twenty favourite games of 2011. This is the fifth and final post in the series, leading on from parts One, Two, Three, and Four.

4. Jetpack Joyride (Half Brick)

If you were to ask me what the greatest iOS game of all time is, I would answer Jetpack Joyride immediately. I wouldn’t even need to think about it. There are so many varied, surprising, and phenomenal games on the app store but none come close to the polish of Jetpack Joyride. Taking a few elements of Half Brick’s earlier title Monster Dash and remixing it with a whole heap of new features, Jetpack Joyride is the most complete, thorough, polished, addictive, entertaining Canabaltesque game ever.

Its goals are multilayered, giving the player something of a choice as to what they are actually aiming for. On the surface you are just trying to get as far as you can. You touch the screen to engage the jetpack’s thrust and release to fall as you weave and manoeuvre around the various obstacles. But then there are the missions, which act as kind of in-game achievements. You have three active at any one time, and completing them works towards levelling you up and rewarding you with cash and trinkets that can then be spent on different jetpacks or other various items. Then there are all the vehicles, each with its own unique controls and feel. Then the actual achievements. Then the slot machine.

Jetpack Joyride has taken the Canabaltesque genre and made it about so much more than simply getting as far as you can. But more than that, what makes Jetpack Joyride really stand out is the level of detail in its audiovisual design. From the scientists running around, to the way the Little Stomper smashes the glass floor when it lands, to the ‘ch-ch!’ of Barry reloading his shotgun singlehandedly while on the hog. All the polish and features and tight design come together exquisitely so that Jetpack Joyride simply feels good.

My stats recently got wiped in a transfer hiccup between my old and new iPhones, but I don’t doubt I have played the game for well over 30 hours now, more than most of the AAA games I bought this year. In fact, Jetpack Joyride is largely responsible in convincing me to make this one list for AAA, indie, and iOS games rather than separating them. When a small development team who literally work about ten blocks from my house can make a game for my telephone that captivates me no less than the multi-gazillion-dollar, multi-studio games that cost literally a hundred times more, it certainly seems foolish to treat iOS games as second-class citizens.

Strangely, considering how much I love it, the only thing I really wrote about Jetpack Joyride this year was a somewhat negative musing about the representation of science in popular culture, specifically in recent videogames. I also enjoyed Jason Killingsworth’s blog post, which is a guide to maximising your Jetpack Joyride high-score. It’s a short but interesting read just because it takes into account so many little things both inside and outside of the game. Jason is sitting well atop my Games Center leaderboard for this game, and I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon, so you can trust him on this.

3. Bastion (Super Giant Games)

When I saw Bastion at the IGF Pavilion at GDC, I was not particularly fussed. It just looked like a cutesy Diablo clone with some trippy visuals.

Of course, back then I was just watching over someone’s shoulder, and the player was wearing earphones, so I couldn’t hear the most crucial element of Bastion: its narration. I assumed Bastion’s primary pleasure would be that of a grinding RPG, not of a fascinating story and world. I didn’t even know about the narrator until it finally came out on Xbox Live Arcade months later. But then I purchased it and played it through twice in three days, and I decided there and then that it was my GOTY-so-far. Any games that came out after Bastion would be judged against it for GOTY honours (spoiler: two games topped it).

‘Beautiful’ can be such a generic, empty adjective, but there is no better word to describe Bastion. Bastion is beautiful. The style, the music, the narration, the story, the world all meld perfectly together into this beautiful, mournful work that is an absolute delight to experience.

Every element of Bastion, on its own, could be mistaken for a gimmick. The narrator turning your every action into a narrative a second later; the world putting itself together (or, more accurately, falling apart on reverse) as you step over it. At first you could mistake the story of a world fallen apart as tacked on simply to justify these audiovisual quirks, but it doesn’t take long for you to notice Bastion’s themes and narrative and gameplay resonate through the whole experience. This is about remembering a world that no longer exists, about yearning after it, about learning the tales of its dead and exploring it in segments of crumbled cobblestone and narrated nostalgia. By the time the game is over, you care about a world that was destroyed long before you first set foot in it—which is precisely how you should feel before you are stumped by the final decision you must make.

I wrote this review for Paste in practically a single draft, and it is still the review I’m most proud of this year. I also wrote this follow up post about the endgame choices and how both choices are clearly the right choice (obvious spoiler warning on that one). Ryan Kuo also wrote a phenomenal review at Kill Screen, and Mike Schiller has a very in-depth three part series analysing more closely Bastion’s elements and how they go together.. Zach Alexander also has a good summary post of the game with some interesting insights into the final moments of the game that completely passed me by. Kris Ligman’s thoughts on the narrator’s affect are well worth a read. And, finally, Nathan Grayson’s post about why every choice in Bastion is the right one says what my blog post on choice tries to say but far better.

2. Skyrim (Bethesda)

Number Two hardly seems fair for a game that, at the time of writing, I’ve sunk ninety-two hours into in only a couple of months. I rarely hit the 100 hour mark on a game, and never in such a short period of time. If I were grading games on sheer quantity of content alone, Skyrim would be Number One, no doubt. But in terms of quality, it is going to have to settle for about Number One-Point-One.

Much like Gears of War 3, Skyrim was everything I hoped it would be—no more, no less. It took the best of Morrowind and removed the worst of Oblivion. Since I first set foot in Morrowind all those years ago, I have loved exploring Tamriel and its people and its mythologies and its histories, and with each new games has come a new region. Those first steps into Skyrim filled me with this kind of giddy excitement comparable to the first time I stepped off a plane in a foreign country.

Even with previous Elder Scroll games, I have never been sucked into a virtual world as completely as I have with Skyrim. 90 hours in and I still feel like I am progressing and exploring new lands; not like I’m just grinding the endgame. I probably got to 60 hours of play before I even visited all the major cities. Skyrim is big and dense and so full of seamlessly integrated stuff that not one step that I’ve taken through the world feels like a distraction. Everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve gone, every quest I’ve completed has forwarded the story of my character as she journeys the realm of Skyrim.

I could probably go on for quite a while more about why I love Skyrim so much, but my review for Pixel Hunt and my further thoughts say it already. I also outlined why I was so hyped for it before its release for a post on Games On Net, and I wrote about how I adapted (or failed to adapt) to its time-jumping mythology as a seasoned Elder Scrolls player on Gameranx. Mattie Brice wrote this thought-provoking piece for Popmatters about Skyrim’s quest structures and how she wants to do away with them. I can’t say I completely agree with her, but it is one of the few constructively critical pieces on Skyrim out there that goes beyond the typical and lazy generic-fanatasy-is-generic/glitches-are-glitchy/Skyrim-isn’t-Dark Souls complaints. On that note, comparing Skyrim to Dark Souls is kind of like comparing Grand Theft Auto IV and Mario Kart because they both have cars. Anyway, Rowan Kaiser, also at Gameranx, wrote this about Skyrim’s weather (and on that note, I will say one major criticism I have of Skyrim is that, not once, have I gotten the sense that it is cold). Meanwhile, Adrian Forest wrote this detailed analysis about how Skyrim distorts spatial relations. And not articles per se, Dead End Thrills already has a spectacular collection of photographs taken within Skyrim (such as the one above), and this pseudo-photo-diary of one player’s venture beyond the invisible walls of Skyrim’s borders is an interesting read, almost as a piece of amateur virtual travel writing.

1. Modern Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward)

One attribute (or lack thereof) can almost entirely be credited with Modern Warfare 3 topping Skyrim on this list: expectations. I had a whole heap of expectations for Skyrim and not a single one for Modern Warfare 3. I never expected to enjoy Modern Warfare 3, which is dumb. I never expected to enjoy Modern Warfare before I finally got around to playing it, and then I loved it; same for Modern Warfare 2. But between Infinity Ward falling apart and my inherent game critic presumptions of “Call of Duty is dumb” that I still struggle against, I still somehow managed to assume I would not like Modern Warfare 3.

So then I came to Modern Warfare 3 with the assumption it would be dumb and I wouldn’t like it. This made that initial playthrough feel like the equivalent of taking off a blindfold and realising I’ve somehow teleported atop a rollercoaster.

The campaign was heartstopping, immersive, and visceral—all the words I’m never meant to use to describe a videogame. From the very first mission it grabbed me by the collar and pulled me through. Once I started I couldn’t stop. I had to finish the game in a single sitting. Well, if you exclude the few breaks where I just had to pause the game and walk away to let my hands stop trembling and my heartbeat slow. To be sure, Skyrim has given me ninety quality hours while Modern Warfare 3’s campaign has given me about 15 across the three times I’ve completed it. But Skyrim has not once affected my heart rate.

The pacing of each level is superb with a gradual but consistent heightening and final release of tension that I can’t describe without an orgasm analogy. Every level starts simply enough with a straightforward firefight or infiltration then escalates towards the ending in a cacophony of explosions and destruction and violin strings before that final release as you are in the helicopter or off the cliff or in the water or dead. It is absolutely insane, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that that first play of the campaign was one of my most memorable single gaming sessions of all time. It just worked.

Yet, I find it so, so, so hard to describe my love of this game. It is so easy to say why I should hate it within the boring, narrow-minded orthodoxy of what a good videogame ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do, but it is so hard to describe why I love it. Ultimately, I think my love of the Modern Warfare series as a whole and Modern Warfare 3 in particular is a formal kind of love. It’s story is dumb and absurd, but it is told so incredibly well. The way Infinity Ward use the multiple perspectives offered by multiple characters to full affect; the way they never take you out of the action even for the most scripted segments; the way you always feel like you are in control as long as you follow your orders perfectly. You are always there looking through the eyes of one character or another as everything happens around you and to you. If you want to tell a linear story in a first-person shooter, this is how you do it: by taking away just enough power from the player so that they try to do exactly the only thing they can do. Many people deride Modern Warfare as a badly done Battlefield. For me, Modern Warfare is a superbly done Heavy Rain. I wish more people would play and appreciate the Modern Warfares and how they tell their stories so exquisitely through the medium of videogames, and then use what they learn to tell a story worth telling.

My problem is I struggle to critically deconstruct my experience as I get so sucked into it. My pleasure of Modern Warfare 3 is almost entirely uncritical, and this is problematic. In fact, I talk about this on a post at Games On Net. I can write in these horrible, vague terms about the fact that I love it, but when it comes down to pinpointing that love, I struggle to find the words. Ultimately, I think Modern Warfare 3 tells a really dumb story exceptionally well.

More notoriously, I jumped to Modern Warfare 3’s defence on a post on Kotaku Australia. Context: Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker wrote a sweepingly negative review of Modern Warfare 3 which I first read on Kotaku. It made me furious. Not because he didn’t like it, but that he thought his dislike was enough to dismiss Modern Warfare 3 as a game. So I wrote my (somewhat provocative) rebuttal, and he wrote a response to my rebuttal. I didn’t write again, but Destructoid’s Jim Sterling wrote this which sums up my frustration perfectly.

Ultimately, I think it is easy to hate a game, or to say why you hate a game. As players, it is very easy to make a game stuff up and do something it shouldn't. I could refuse to follow orders in Modern Warfare 3 or I could do the back-and-forth, level-up-alchemy-to-level-up-enchanting-ad-infinitum trick in Skyrim to get a stupidly powerful weapon ridiculously early. But why? We tend to try our hardest to break games and then complain when they don’t work. With Modern Warfare 3 I just did what I was told to do, and I had one of the most exhilarating gaming experiences of my life, and I still don’t know why or how.

And perhaps that has been the biggest lesson for me in 2011, as I have compiled a list with nearly as many iPhone games as AAA titles: it is pretty easy to hate (and to explain why you hate) a game; it is much, much harder and much, much more rewarding to love (and explain why you love) a game. This doesn’t mean we should go easy or be uncritical of games, especially ones as problematic as Modern Warfare. But perhaps we need to meet them halfway; perhaps we should be slightly less concerned with doing whatever we want to do and be slightly more concerned with trying to hear what the videogame is trying to tell us. Otherwise we are unable to account for the unique pleasures offered by the more linear and prescriptive games out there.

And those are my games of 2011! All sorted in a linear and ranked order that should not be seen in anyway absolute. All 20 of these games (and many others) have made 2011 a superb year for gaming that I can’t imagine being topped any time soon. As always, please feel free to comment with any interesting articles I’ve missed, and with your shocked and disgusted opinions on my choice for top game. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Top Twenty Games of 2011: Part Four

So continues the countdown of my personal favourite twenty games of 2011. This is the fourth post in the series, leading on from parts One, Two, and Three.

8. Where Is My Heart? (Die Gute Fabrik)

I first played Where Is My Heart? at the Kill Screen warehouse party during GDC. I was slightly intoxicated and incredibly tired and was not entirely sure what was happening, but it had a distinctive charm that hooked me instantly. But it wasn’t until its eventual release on PSN in November that I could finally sit down and give it the time and appreciation it not only deserves but demands.

A seemingly simple little platformer, Where Is My Heart? is most unique in how it leaves you feeling utterly mentally and physically exhausted when you play it. It hurts your head. The sliced up and scrambled tiles that you are required to view the world through require you to rearrange and make sense of the world in your head, and then hold onto that as you solve the otherwise-simple puzzle of each stage. Some levels are night impossible to conceptualise and to actually imagine how they ‘really’ look and this is all part of the theme: a blurred perception can make the most straightforward challenges seem nearly impossible.

It is a beautiful and disarming game well worth the low price asked for it on PSN, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I wrote a review of Where Is My Heart? for Edge that I was really happy with. Also, if you happen to have an old copy of Kill Screen Issue Zero around somewhere, I highly recommend reading Ryan Kuo’s interview with developer Bernie Schulenburg.

7. Forget Me Not (Nyarlu Labs)

Most iPhone games are a blast to play for a few days or weeks and then never played again. Nintendo might (and often do) complain that this means they are “disposable” or unworthy games, but I see no issue with a game that gives me a quality experience for only an hour for 0.99c. It’s not disposable, it’s short. But I digress. The point of that was meant to be that Forget Me Not has withstood the test of time on my iPhone, being played consistently for the many months since I first stumbled across it.

Forget Me Not is best described as a roguelike pacman shooter, which only sounds odd until you play it. You control this little square creature through what I think are procedurally generated mazes (at the least, there is a lot of them) collecting flowers and shooting enemies. Movement and shooting are both automatic, leaving the player to only have to worry about steering. Enemies are greatly varied and often end up fighting each other, too, while explosions can destry who segments of the world itself.
It is a deceptively deep and intrinsic game with systems, abilities, and scoring perhaps best discovered than described. In your first few games you will probably end up shooting yourself in the back or being telefragged by appearing enemies until you finally begin to understand how it all fits together. It’s a game easily learned but rarely mastered. I still regularly topple my own high score as I continue to improve at the game despite the many hours already spent with it.

Most interesting, though, is Forget Me Not’s noises. It has no music, per se, but a cacophony of unique, droning noises creates an ever-changing and organic backing tape to each level.

Sadly, I didn’t write anything about Forget Me Not this year, but James Dilks offers a pretty decent review of it at Kill Screen. Gems like Forget Me Not are precisely why I love iOS gaming. I want you to play this game.

6. Gears of War 3 (Epic)

Gears of War 3 was one of those games that was exactly what I hoped it would be—nothing more, nothing less, just exactly what I wanted and expected. More specifically, “what I hoped for” from the third Gears of War was the focus and intensity of Gears of War 2’s Horde mode without the floaty, gimicky bits of Gears of War 2’s campaign. Gears 2’s campaign was lost in rail segments, flying segments, and a terrible worm segment completely lacking in any kind of enemy worth shooting.

Gears of War’s strength is in taking cover, being pinned down by a swarm of enemies, and slowly-but-surely progressing against them, fighting for every inch of land as you scamper from cover to cover. Every time Gears 2 found this focus, it lost it again, almost as though Epic were afraid players would get bored without some gimmick. Kind of like Mario players get bored of jumping (i.e. they don’t).

So Gears of War 3’s campaign fixed this up dramatically, as I hoped it would. Nearly the entire campaign is the fundamental take-cover-and-shoot-things play with just a few novelty segments mixing it up without completely destroying the pacing. Ultimately, Gears 3 finds the rhythm that Gears 2 completely lacked.

That said, it does have some generic boss battles (and a terribly boring and frustrating final boss), and while I found the story and thematic content compelling enough, I seem to be in the minority on that one.

Horde Mode 2.0 is also an interesting upgrade. I was initially wary of its pseudo tower defence features, but I grew to love them with the many, many hours I’ve spent in both private and public matches. Once I catch up with all the other releases of late 2011 I’m yet to get to, Horde 2.0 is what I’m most excited about returning to.

I wrote a sprawling review of Gears of War 3 for Pixel Hunt with more thoughts that wouldn’t fit inside a blog post. Ryan Kuo wrote an interesting piece at the Wall Street Journal blog about what Gears of War 3 ‘really’ means, and Maddy Myers successfully takes on the unenviable task in analysing Gears of War 3’s inclusion of female characters (finally).

5. Minecraft (Mojang)

Minecraft is going to miss out on a lot of GOTY lists this year as many will argue that it was already out last year. Meanwhile, it missed out on a lot of GOTY lists last year because many argued it wasn’t technically out yet. For me, I have no qualms putting it on a GOTY list for each year. The updates to Minecraft in 2011—up to and including the eventual 1.0 release—have revolutionised the game we were all playing last year. Each new and refined feature such as the hunger bar, tuned biome algorithms, endermen, underwater caverns, powered rails, etc. have highlighted and focused Mojang’s game. It has remained resolutely Minecraft throughout its development, even as it changes what Minecraft is.

I still spend more time playing Minecraft than any other game (except perhaps Skyrim) and the vast majority of that time I am just exploring. Though, this year my girlfriend and I started our own private server, and I have finally begun to appreciate the pleasures of building. We have our home, a farm, another home, and just recently built an extensive railway between the two.

Minecraft is one of the most important games of the current day, and one of the greatest games of all times. The day I stop having unique experiences in Minecraft is the day I stop playing, and I can not foresee that day ever arising.

I wrote a lot about Minecraft this year. In Hyper 220 I wrote a feature about the phenomenon of the Minecraft community making “suggestions” as to what Notch and Mojang should add to Minecraft. In the same issue I wrote a review of Minecraft, and it is the first perfect score I have ever given out. I also wrote about the Beta 1.8 update for Games On Net (easily the most significant of all the Minecraft updates) and Towards Dawn, my nomadic adventure, is still going after taking a many-month hiatus through the middle of this year. I’m not sure of much else written about Minecraft this year, but Kris Ligman does have an essay at Dire Critic called “The Map and the Territory” that is both interesting and somewhat related to Minecraft.

And so ends Part Four. Tomorrow we wrap things up with my top four games of 2011.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My Top Twenty Games of 2011: Part Three

So continues the countdown of my personal favourite twenty games of 2011. This is the third post in the series, leading on from parts One and Two.

12. Bulletstorm (Epic & People Can Fly)

I never intended to give Bulletstorm a chance. Just another manshooter among many other manshooters in an industry that really doesn’t need any more manshooters. But then I somehow stumpled into a Twitter conversation with many people insisting I should try it, and then Epic sent me a copy, and now I regret ever dismissing it.

Bulletstorm is, indeed, a ridiculous and utterly absurd manshooter, but it knows that is is ridiculous and utterly absurd manshooter. I think Adrian Forest has perhaps said it best to me: “It is what Duke Nukem Forever should have been.” It consciously plays with and exaggerates conventions to create truly laugh-out-loud moments. Not just the emergent ‘lol’ of managing to do something unintended, but the fully scripted, directed laugh. I know of few games that can pull this off. The best is a pseudo-boss battle about halfway through the game. There is this pipe and, well, perhaps you have to play it for yourself.

The game looks, feels, and flows amazingly with interesting weapons, breathtaking scenery, clever design, and countless interesting ways to kill things. The ‘skill shots’ that reward you with points for killing enemies in unique ways have essentially gameificated the first-person shooter, but it works. Best is when you are experimenting with weapons and the environment and the game rewards you for it.

I do have an issue, though, with “intentionally dumb” games like Bulletstorm or Just Cause 2 or (I assume) Saints Row 3. As rollocking as they tend to be, are they just the easy way out? They’re dumb, but “we meant to do that” so that makes it okay? Wouldn’t the real challenge be to make a game that isn’t dumb in the first place? But maybe ‘dumb’ is the wrong word. Just because something is comedic does not mean it is dumb. It is something I constantly struggle with. I know I love these games, but I feel slightly bad for it.

11. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution isn’t so much a love or hate game as it is a love and hate game. The highs are so superbly high, and the lows are down in the gutter. The story and writing are top notch; the cyberpunk world is beautifully realised and thoughtfully implemented in both narrative and gameplay alike. The multiple ways each challenge can be approached from is incredibly impressive, and there is plenty of breathing room for improvisation without having to reload the moment something doesn’t go according to plan. Everyone can make their own version of Adam Jensen no less or more viable than anyone else’s.

But then their are the lows. The mindbogglingly bad boss battles would have been an irritation in any other game, but in Human Revolution they are outright offensive. It’s truly hard to believe that through the entire development process of the game not a single person noticed how terrible, unintuitive, and jarring they are. Being forced to fill a meat-sponge with bullets after being able to sneak through the past few hours without a gun drawn is just dumb. You would have thought the designers noticed this when they were forced to fill each boss arena with randomly scattered machine pistols.

Each boss is worse than the last and the story itself goes haywire to a Metal Gear Solid 4 degree in the final act, spiralling into incoherency before a disappointing “press a button to watch a contradicting and absolutist cut-scene” ending. For a game all about exploring the grey areas between the binaries—good and evil, human and machine, flesh and computer—the black and white endings are doubly pathetic.

I loved Human Revolution while I was playing it and not fighting a boss, but I felt nothing but cheated and angry by the time I finished it. ‘Angry’ because the parts that are good are so, so, so incredibly good.

10. Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HD (Team Ico)

Some of the GOTY lists I participated in this year strictly said “No HD remakes!” which I think is sad as the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HD remaster for PS3 is nothing short of remarkable. These games strained the ageing PS2 to the limit and ran with faulty framerates and less-than-perfect resolutions. Now, in HD, both games feel like they were always meant to be played like this: breathtaking, smooth, and remarkable.

I played Shadow of the Colossus first as I never actually completed the original (I got annoyed at the final colossi and never went back). The newly visible detail in the giant world and its citizens is remarkably clear, and each colossi moves with a fluidity of purpose.

Ico, too, has not only survived the test of time but come out better on the other side. Just watching Yorda walk around and interact with her surroundings is pleasing. Certainly, it is let down ever-so-slightly with some clumsy platforming and last-gen checkpointing, but nothing that can’t be overlooked.

Most interesting to me was playing theseg ames for the first time through a critical lens. I was a teenager the last time I played Ico, and not much older when I played Shadow of the Colossus. Much of the nuance of the stories and the environments and the mechanics went over my head then but this time I was finely aware of every element of each game working in unison to affect me in a certain way.

One scene of Ico in particular is crafted so masterfully as to be hardly noticeable, and I wrote about it for Paste magazine. Further, Jorge Albor and Scott Juster over at Experience Points talk about the HD games in an insightful two-part podcast series that is well worth a listen to.

9. Portal 2 (Valve)

Portal, along with Bioshock, is one of those games you can’t imagine needing a sequel until it comes out and you play it, and then you can’t imagine that sequel not existing.

Portal 2 is Valve at their storytelling and worldbuilding finest. Not because they top Portal, but because they, somehow, manage to follow up Portal in an appropriate fashion. Whereas Portal’s surprise was that it was actually telling a story in the first place, Portal 2’s story is there from the beginning. It has to be. Its players already know the twist from the first game, and they are looking out to be fooled again. So Portal 2’s main achievement, then, is to successfully weave a story throughout the entire game that can justify a long sequence of disconnected puzzles to solve. It pulls it off flawlessly as the player works their way through Aperture Science’s long history of testing.

The writing is excellent, as is the pacing with only a few puzzles verging on the tedious. The fleshing out of Aperture Science “behind the scenes” of the test chambers as both part of the world and the story is remarkably well done without ever detracting from the puzzle solving for too long. Meanwhile, the new additions to the puzzles, such as the paints, only add to the portal gun’s centrality, rather from detracting from it. Everything still comes down to that simple pleasure of twisting space with portals.

Still, despite its masterfully told story and realised world, Portal 2 does lack a certain free-form playfulness that the first one had. There are few surfaces now that a portal can be placed on, making it much harder to perform crazy acrobatic tricks except explicitly where the game wants you to. It is sometimes less about thinking with portals and more about trying to find the one place a portal will go. This is not necessarily a criticism, but it highlights a different, more narrative-centric goal of the sequel.

A lot of people wrote a lot of things about Portal 2, but being in the middle of a thesis when it came out I read very little of it. Still, Kirk Hamilton’s review at Paste is a certain standout, as is G. Christopher William’s article at Popmatters reading Portal 2 through the lens of gender and power relations.

And so ends Part Three.

Monday, January 2, 2012

My Top Twenty Games of 2011: Part Two

So continues my countdown of my personal top twenty games of 2011. This is the second post in the series, leading on from Part One.

16. Dark Souls (From Software)

Objectively, Dark Souls is a great game. Subjectively, Dark Souls is not at all my kind of game. The latter is why it is so far down my list; the former is why it is on my list at all.

Dark Souls is an incredibly difficult action RPG. Well, then again, ‘difficult’ is perhaps the wrong word. Perhaps ‘demanding’ is more accurate. Dark Souls demands you figure things out for yourself and will punish you every time you don’t, every time you decide you can do something solely because you are the player and you want to. It’s like the school master with a cane whipping kids who don’t learn their times tables. It teaches its lessons by punishing you and making you do it again.

More important than training your character in Dark Souls is training yourself. You must figure out when to parry, when to counter, when to wait, when to pounce. There is a fluid link between controller and character that leaves you feeling in control of your character’s movements like few other games do. Consequentially, when you fail you only have yourself to blame, and when you succeed, the glory and the praise is all your own. You fight and bleed for each pixel gained in Dark Souls and the smallest progressing feels like the ultimate accomplishment. When I completed the game’s very first boss, less than an hour into the game, I gleefully and earnestly tweeted my feat in full caps, I was so excited.
Level design, too, deserves to be applauded. What originally seems like a linear experience opens up and links back together as you progress and open the world up. The way a drawbridge opens or a ladder extends or a door unlocks to place you two steps from somewhere that was previously two hours away shows incredible foresight in design.

What is perhaps most interesting about Dark Souls is that it proves that not every game has to be for everyone in order to be commercially viable. Unfortunately, however, the flipside of this is many people making the absurd claim that Dark Souls proves that “hardcore” games are better and “they just don’t make them like they used to.” I hate this way of thinking, the idea that most of today’s games are bad solely because they can be played by more people. But still, I am glad that games like Dark Souls are still able to exist.

Perhaps the most nuanced and articulated discussion of Dark Soul's unique difficulty that successfully goes beyond a simplistic "hard equals good" came out just today in Chris Dahlen's detailed analysis of Sen's Fortress, a part of the world I never got to. I wrote an article for Gameranx about how Dark Souls’s audiovisual and thematic design justify its mechanical design of essentially grinding. I was really happy with how this article turned out. Still, not long after I wrote it, after about twenty hours of playing, I decided it was time to give up—Dark Souls had beaten me. But just last week I read Simon Parkin’s absolutely excellent retrospective on the game at Eurogamer, and now I can feel myself being tempted back to it…

15. Whale Trail (ustwo)

Yet another Canabaltesque for iOS. I was ready to dismiss Whale Trail as an inverted Tiny Wings try-hard. The cuteness seemed forced and superficial and it undoubtedly lacks the focus and soul of Tiny Wings. But beneath the dumb cuteness is a very tight mechanical experience. After spending a bit of time with it, I came to love Whale Trail as its own unique Canabaltesque game with its own challenges and innovations.

It is not about getting as gar as possible so much as it is about keeping as closely to the path laid out for you as possible. Collecting bubbles give your whale flying fuel (or something) and, more importantly, increase your score’s multiplier, while hitting clouds decreases it. So you want to fly the whale as closely to this path as possible. The opposite of Tiny Wings, not touching the screen will send the whale downwards, while touching will have him fly upwards, and holding for a longer period will have him do a loop-de-loop.

Controls are tight and you have a surprisingly high level of control over the whale’s route. Though, the game does have one major set back in its flawed scoring system. Your multiplier goes up as you collect bubbles and down as you hit clouds, but as bubbles become more sparse and scattered as the game progresses, the possibility of regaining your multiplier after hitting a cloud becomes less and less likely. If you haven’t hit your high score before you hit your first cloud, you might as well quit there and then. A sad oversight in an otherwise great little game.

14. Atom Zombie Smasher (Blendo Games)

There are not too many single-player videogames that you can ‘lose’. You can die in plenty of them, to be sure, but you can’t straight out lose in too many of them. This more than anything else is what makes Atom Zombie Smasher stand out: you can—and probably will—lose many times before you eventually win. But this isn’t a little game like Binding of Isaac where losing a game means you have lost a five or ten minute game. A game of Atom Zombie Smasher could take an hour or more before you finally accept you are going to lose.

This is how Atom Zombie Smasher manages to be one of the most horrifying, desperate, and depressing zombie games I have ever played. This despite the great level of abstraction in the games visuals, with humans represented as yellow dots and zombies as pink dots. The goal is to rescue as many humans as possible from a city slowly but surely being overrun and infested. Those you leave behind will be infected and contribute to the zombie AI team’s score.

Odds become increasingly depressing as the zombies take over more and more territories in greater and greater numbers. Often, you find yourself playing a zero-sum game, willingly destroying many innocent lives just to keep back the zombie tide for another day.

There’s something horrifying about the birds-eye view, too. About that final group of yellow dots swarming around what will surely be the last helicopter out of there as the purple hordes close in. You can imagine the violence and chaos as the last fifty humans try to fit on a helicopter that can only carry twenty. It just goes to show that you don’t need blood and gore for a good zombie tale—your imagine can do just fine by itself.

13. Terraria (Re-Logic)

“2D Minecraft” is an unfair oversimplification of what Terraria is, but it sure is a good way to sell copies. Certainly, Minecraft is Terraria’s obvious main influence, but Terraria takes the base fundamentals in a totally different direction. Where Minecraft is about using a few base instruments and simple resources for whatever you wish, Terraria is about using a vast variety of resources to craft a vast variety of instruments to then find different resources to then craft different instruments. Grappling hooks, health upgrades, harpoons, flying boots, laser guns, etc. Etc. Where Minecraft is less about any kind of progressing and more about existing, Terraria is far more about progressing. The special weapons and areas and occasional boss battles craft a slightly more directed experience than that found in Minecraft.

It’s an interesting formula that says as much about what Minecraft is as what it isn’t, and it led to to crown Terraria as an anti-Minecraft in my review for Kill Screen. Terraria is the first of the inevitably many games that will follow in Minecraft’s wake. It is not a clone, but a contributor to an exciting new genre.

And that's Part Two done. Tomorrow we enter the top ten. Exciting!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Top Twenty Games of 2011: Part One

It’s been a huge year for games with many AAA, indie, and mobile games competing for my time. It’s also been a huge year for me, too. I wrote a thesis, and I started freelance writing in a regular-enough capacity that I don’t feel weird when I tell people I’m a freelance writer (that’s a pretty big deal). All in all, 2011 has been pretty alright.

At the end of 2010, in lieu of any kind of “best of 2010” list, I wrote a series of posts with some rough thoughts on the games that made my year. This year, I thought I’d go a step further and do a somewhat ranked list of my top 20 games (in five parts of four games each) along with some rough thoughts on each of them. I stress that this isn’t an exhaustive “best games” of the year but rather just my personal favourites out of those I have played. Hopefully I can give some interesting insight into what I loved (and what I didn’t) about each of these games.

I’ll also link to articles related to each game that I wrote and/or read during the year. However, I’ve been a dreadful reader this year and have surely missed many great posts about each of these games. So please leave comments with links to any relevant articles and I’ll add them in.

But before I start, it's been a such a huge year for videogames that there are plenty of games that haven't quite made it into my list. So, tied at number 21 are: Jamestown, Space Marine, Game Dev Story, Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP, From Dust, Drop 7, and LittleBigPlanet 2. And now, onto the top twenty!

20. Uncharted 3 (Naughty Dog)

Uncharted 3 is one of the few games on this list that are both among my top games of 2011 and my biggest disappointments. Individual scenes and stages are phenomenally directed and paced and easily surpass Uncharted 2’s many already awesome scenes. Escaping the burning mansion and sinking cruise ship in particular were high points. Everything is bigger and better and exploding twice as often.

But the overarching story is lacklustre and deflated. It starts somewhere mildly interesting and then goes nowhere with it. Many threads are left unconcluded, and the few conclusions it does have fizzle rather than explode. Half the game—especially the whole pirate segment—just feels like a tacked on “Deleted Scenes” DLC with no connection whatsoever to the plot. The game ended and the first thing I thought was “That was it?”

Yet, the superb acting and animation is still there. The superb action and set pieces, too, but it’s all just floating with nothing to hold it together. With a tighter narrative threaded through its individual segments, Uncharted 3 could be much higher on this list.

19. The Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl)

I won’t lie: if The Binding of Isaac had not been developed by half of the Super Meat Boy team, I probably would have paid no attention to it. But McMillen’s involvement in the project along with the idea of a “twin-stick shooter rogue-like” got me hooked. The setup of the game is equal parts disgusting, grim, and absurd: inspired by a very loose reading of the bible story of the same name, Isaac has been imprisoned in a hellish basement by his crazed, voice-hearing mother. He must fight waves of enemies by shooting them with his tears as he descends the floors for his final confrontation with Mother.

Despite being more accessible than your typical rogue-like, Binding of Isaac can still be unforgivingly hard and how far you get in your single life will often be determined as much by pot luck as by player skill. As you proceed through the procedurally generated floors, you’ll find randomly placed powerups (and powerdowns). Some will powerup your tears, some will make them boomerangs, some will make them bloody, and others will make them seek out targets. You will die and fail many times before you finally make it through all the floors to the boss battle with mother, and you will probably die there several times before you finally beat her. That so much of it comes down to luck is what I found so strangely compelling about The Binding of Isaac. Maybe next time I’d find more heart containers and useful powerups. Maybe.

The game does have some weird issues, though, such as terrible slowdown when more than a few enemies are on screen at once (unless this has been patched in the past few months), and I would much prefer to be playing it on a console with a controller and a couch than having to wrangle with my keyboard, but both of these can be overlooked for what is probably the best game I played this year that cost less than five dollars and wasn’t on my phone.

Drew Dixon’s review of the game at Paste is perhaps one of my favourite reviews of the game as Drew struggles to come to terms with his own enjoyment of the game alongside his own Christian faith.

18. Tiny Tower (Nimblebit)

For the second quarter of this year, I was obsessed with Tiny Tower. I would check it while walking to the bus, while sitting at my computer, while waiting on the loading screens of other games, while talking to people, while eating dinner. I was fully aware that it had been designed in a way to be addictive, to try to get people to spend money on the micro-transactions that essentially meant you could progress without playing. But Tiny Tower had one flaw: I actually enjoyed playing it. The simplistic, meaningless, never-ending micromanagement was an almost meditative activity. In the months I played it, I never once considered spending money to speed up the process. I was enjoying it too much.

There is little to do in the game other than stocking shelves and running the elevator. Still, the adorable little bitizens, the simple UI, and the perpetually running game clock (always there in your pocket, always ticking away) made it impossible for me to stay away. I got to about floor 85 of my tower before I stopped, and even now I often consider going back. The only thing stopping me is the knowledge that if I started again I wouldn’t stop for months.

Many hated Tiny Tower. Some (justifiably) claimed it was as unethical as any other free-to-play micro-transaction game in the Farmville mould, that it was an evil thing crafted in a way solely to remove the money of those too impatient to actually play. Others (unjustifiably) argued that it isn’t even a game at all because there is no challenge and no goal, and this is just rubbish (Secondpersonshooter has a good guide to the “X is not a game!” claim and its stupidity). Tiny Tower is excellently and expertly crafted, both in terms of game design and consumer object.

I wrote a review of Tiny Tower for Paste, highlighting its ambiguous ethics and my love of it regardless. Jorge Albor focused more on the ethics (or lack thereof) of the game in his excellent post at Popmatters. Michael Abbott, meanwhile, has a clever piece at Brainy Gamer which I feel many of commenters have misread (or I have misread!). They seem to think he is legitimately complaining about the game, whereas I read his piece as a satire of those heaping the hate. Either way, it is a good read.

But my absolute favourite piece of Tiny Tower related writing this year was J.P. Grant’s article at Infinite Lag where he analyses Tiny Tower through Fredrick W Taylor’s “Theory of Scientific Management”. It’s a really great read and I strongly recommend it regardless of your feelings towards the game.

17. Tiny Wings (Andreas Illiger)

Another iOS game, Tiny Wings was one of the many great single-button, get-as-far-as-you-can games to come out this year on the iPhone. I’m not sure if we are still calling this genre “Canabaltesque” (as a nod to Adam Saltsman’s Canabalt) but I’m going to be calling it that for now. Anyway, Tiny Wings, own unique spin on the Canabaltesque formula is a bird whose wings are too tiny to fly. Instead, he slides down hills in order to launch himself temporarily into the air by doing massive jumps. A touch of the screen tucks his wings in and sends him plummeting towards the ground, while not touching has him flap his wings frantically as he tries to get airborne. The trick is to line up his descents with the hills to get the maximum slide and leap off the next one.

The audiovisual design is charming and uplifting, and the entire game has a really positive atmosphere. It isn’t about a bird who can’t fly; it’s about a bird who is going to fly whether his wings are good enough or not, damn it.

Sadly, though, the difficulty spikes terribly around the sixth island (even after a patch), which makes it very east to give up playing. Still, Tiny Wings can very much be seen as the forerunner to the many other interesting and high quality Canabaltesque games that graced the iPhone this year.

I wrote this little pseudo-review of the game, with a focus on the game's positive attitude, from my GDC hotel room after having spent much of my flight from Brisbane to San Francisco playing the game. Also, my favourite piece of videogame-related art is a Tiny Wings piece. Check out Daniel Purvis's illustration for Hyper #212.

And that's it for Part One. Continue on to Part Two!