Friday, January 3, 2014

Games of 2013: Part Four

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Spelunky (Mossmouth)
Spelunky just made it onto my list last year. More out of respect than anything, I guess, looking back now. Kind of like my first dabbling with Dark Souls, I don’t think I really truly appreciated Spelunky back when it came out on Xbox Live. I’d learned to appreciate it as a slapstick comedy because that is all I was capable of appreciating it as.
This year, however, when the game made its way to PSN and Windows, I picked it up to play on Vita. It seemed like a perfect portable title to play a little bit here and there. I found myself playing it a bit every night before sleeping, getting better and better at it. Soon, I had surpassed my ability (and score) from the time spent sitting in front of my Xbox.
Significantly, I also started watching livestreams of PC players completing the daily challenge (most notably Jason Killingsworth), and learned all kinds of tricks and secrets I had no knowledge of (Black Markets, Temples, Cities of Gold, Bosses). I learned tricks like how to kill shopkeepers without committing suicide and how to aim bomb throws. Much as with Dark Souls, I felt like I finally got it
600 deaths later and I’m still going. Thanks to Sony’s Crossplay, I am playing both on my Vita here-and-there, and again on the big screen through my PS3. I’ve ‘finished’ the game the ‘easy’ way several times, and gotten to Hell several more. I’ve even reached Yama, the final boss at the end of Hell once, but died before I could defeat him. My relationship with Spelunky in 2013 has been nothing like it was in 2012. I feel like I am actually getting somewhere. I feel like, miraculously, like I have learned a whole lot, like I am still learning. 
Douglas Wilson’s breakdown of Bananasaurus Rex’s Eggplant Run is a great piece of games writing from this year I heartily recommend. Joel McPherson made a fascinating bot that records animated gifs of people's deaths and uploads them to tumblr. 

Final Fantasy XII (Square)
Final Fantasy XII is another game I played on release that I’d been feeling the desire to return to for quite some time now. When it was new, it was the first Final Fantasy since I entered the series at VII that I did not play to completion. I gave up because the story made no sense to me. The story made no sense to me not because it was poorly told, but because the game gives you so much other stuff to do that it is so easy to lose track of the intricacies of which made-up pseudo-European-sounding King is from which kingdom. I enjoyed both the story and the stuff, but the two together were incompatible, so I gave up. 
I returned to FFXII not to find out what happens in the story but because I had this striking memory of all that stuff, all the ‘gamey bits’ being incredibly weird. When FFXII came out in 2006, MMORPGs were all the rage and looked, for a time, like the dominant way forward for RPGs generally. This lead to FFXII functioning as a kind of single-player MMORPG. You have guilds and a gazillion sidequests and this kind of battle system that isn’t separate from the world you walk around in. You have all this stuff to do, as though Square were trying to get a monthly subscription fee out of you. Also Final Fantasy XI was an MMO, so I imagine a whole heap of design ideas were carried over from one to the other.
Returning to it now, I find the transparency of FFXII’s design history fascinating. On one layer there is that MMORPG-inspired design, but there is also the clear fingerprints of Yasumi Matsuno threaded throughout the game’s design. Most explicit are the game’s connections to Final Fantasy: Tactics (another of Matsuno’s games) through the use of the same world and species. But there are also connections to Matsuno’s previous work Vagrant Story in both the kind-of-real-time-but-not battle system and the game’s broader visual aesthetics. Most explicitly, the downplayed aura of light when casting magic spells as opposed to the spectacle of other Final Fantasys strikes me as a very personal flourish of Mitsuno’s. 
But also fascinating in the transparent design is everything that went wrong. Matsuno stepped down from his leading role before FFXII was finished, and Square apparently made all sorts of changes that he wasn’t happy with. The license board was something he apparently loathed to see implemented, and it feels bluntly jammed on. More visibly, Balthier is clearly intended as the protagonist before Square decided the game needed a preppy young anime boy for the marketing. The way Vaan seems so hastily jammed into the plot is fascinating. There are several cut-scenes where, in the background, Balthier refers to himself as the leading man. 
Beyond all that, I found the game sincerely enjoyable. The fluidity of the real-time-but-turn-based combat is excellent, effortlessly combining the strategy and mediation of turn-based combat with the stronger rhythms and engagement of real-time. It feels like the developers marched into the cobweb-filled attic of the series’ Active Time Battle and threw out everything that didn’t need to be there. What could be automated is now automated; what needs to be manually controlled can still be. Fighting in FFXII feels like walking in Dear Esther and makes fighting in previous games feel like walking in QWOP. It’s an act of design minimalism pulled off with great elegance. 
Most ingenious of all are the gambits, something I’ve come to appreciate over time, having played too many games with terrible AI-controlled companions. Gambits are a basic programming language used to script your companions. This allows companions to be, at once, automated but also doing what you want them to do. Why click ‘cure’ every time your health gets below 50% when you can just program a companion to heal you if your health goes below 50%? Further, not all gambit conditions are available from the start, but must be bought from Gambit Stores, adding a new level of upgrading. Essentially, gambits allow NPC behaviour to be incorporated into the personalised sense of character building. It feels natural, both streamlined and meaningful. 
I still haven’t finished FFXII—I haven’t even gotten as far as I did when I last played. But by trying to care less about the story that I will inevitably lose track of anyway and more about the design and the systems, I’ve learned to appreciate it on a far deeper level than previously.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Konami)
First, an explanation for why I have not yet played Metal Gear Solid 3. I missed a whole heap of the glorious Playstation 2 games that came out in 2004 and 2005. Ironically, perhaps, this is because I lived in Japan for all of 2004, and had no access to my game consoles. When I returned to Australia in 2005, I moved out of home and started university, becoming incredibly poor in both time and money. Several years later, my brother gave me a copy of Metal Gear Solid for my birthday, but it was too late. Console generations and game design had moved on and I really struggled to play this strange relic that seemed to age so quickly. So, despite someone who considers himself quite learned in the Metal Gear Solid series, Metal Gear Solid 3 remained a conspicuous hole in my knowledge.
Which, now that I have played it through, I’m amazed I ever allowed that to happen. Metal Gear Solid 3 is, with no mistake, the best realised game in the series. It is the most Metal Gear Solidest of the Metal Gear Solids. It is, on the one hand, the most solid stealth game in the series, with long uninterrupted segments that allow an objective to be approached from a variety of directions and approaches. On the other hand, it is Hideo Kojima at his most self-indulgent and absurd, and simultaneously his most confident and experimental. Entire boss battles can be avoided by shooting a dude in the distance or, simply, not playing the game for a few days. Magic realism emerges far more explicitly than other games in the series as a scar transforms into a snake and slithers off a woman’s body. At one point, Snake dies and travels to the afterworld where he is haunted by every human and animal the player has killed over the course of the game.
It was wonderful, utterly wonderful. I think my favourite thing about Metal Gear Solid 3, and the Metal Gear Solids generally, is that they exist. I want more self-indulgent games by auteurs that don’t know how to edit themselves. It would be a welcomed respite from the waves of utterly depersonalised paint-by-numbers blockbuster games devoid of any personality. When I play Metal Gear Solid 3, I can tell a human being made this game.
I had not played a Metal Gear Solid for quite some time when I played Metal Gear Solid. 3, so I readied myself to approach it a certain way. I readied my body for an experience that was going to be as much about watching cut-scenes and listening to dialogue as it would be moving through environments and menus. I approached Metal Gear Solid 3 on its own terms, and I loved every minute of it.

UN EP (Ian Snyder)
Music and videogames have a long, intimate relationship, as musician/games critic Kirk Hamilton and musician/game designer David Kanaga have both pointed out. The short version: it’s no coincidence that we talk about both music and games as things that are ‘played’. The past few years have seen no shortage of music-based games—not least of all Proteus, created by Kanaga and Ed Key, where the soundscape and the landscape are symbiotically connected. It’s a space ripe with experimentation as developers pick apartand stitch together the feel of games and the rhythm of music. 
One music game from this year that has passed with tragically little fanfare is Ian Snyder’s UN EP. Created as part of Unwinnable’s “Playable” series that teams up developers with writers to create games and writing about said games side-by-side, UN EP is somewhere between a child’s toy and a musician’s scrapbook. Various ‘worlds’ offer unique combinations of visuals and audio, tied to the click or movement of the mouse. There are no goals; there is no ‘point’ beyond the simple pleasure of playing with the game to make wonderful sounds and sights splash before your ears and eyes. But the experience is magical and memorable, and I find myself returning to each of UN EP’s worlds again and again just to touch them, just to hear them.

Katamari Damacy & We Love Katamari (Namco)
Keita Takahashi’s Katamari games suffered the same fate as Metal Gear Solid 3: lost to that same Playstation 2 Golden Age in which I was not buying new games. I discovered a digital copy of Katamari Damacy hiding on the US PSN store and, finally, picked it up. And, man, what an utterly wonderful and delightful game. There’s this sincerity to the game, a full-heartedness, a happiness, and a vibrancy. It’s the kind of game you get when the person making them is more interested in being an artists or a designer than in Making Games™. It is not just a “whacky Japanese game” (indeed, no game really is), but is an incredibly clever and self-aware game that David Surman has aligned with the superflat aesthetic of Takahashi Murakami
At the core of each game is that pleasure of getting larger without ever really noticing when exactly you got larger. You go from rolling around a tabletop, bumping into dominoes, to being just large enough to realise that shape looming over you is a sleeping man’s head. Eventually, you are picking up the man and the entire house. You roll around a city, then you pick up the skyscrapers, then you pick up the continent. It is a simple pleasure of shifting dimensions that never gets old.
It’s an ever fluctuating relationship with objects (something Darius Kazemi explores with a great essay). Everyday objects are replicated and distributed across areas they never should be, like Andy Warhol putting soup cans in an art gallery. There’s something calming about all these objects—mundane and mythical, everyday and ecentric—just waiting to be collected, and something even more calming about the bubblewrap-popping sound as you roll each one up.
The vibrant pop aesthetic is crucial to the game’s success, from the bright colours to the campy and teeny attitude of the King to the lively renditions and remixes of the music. Then there is the self-aware sequel, We Love Katamari, that mirrors Takahashi’s own surprise at the success of the original. He made a sequel because people loved the original; the game’s plot is that the King sends the Prince to roll up more Katamari’s because people loved the first game. But this isn’t some overly serious meta-commentary. It’s just flat is-what-it-is sincerity, and it’s lovely. Everything about these games is lovely.

Max Payne 3 (Rockstar)
I’ve come to realise this year, above all else, that I value a game with a clear and consistent aesthetic direction. I care less about what a game is trying to do, and much more about how well it is doing what it is trying to do. It could be trying to make some insightful social commentary, or just be a good action game, or just be a bit of a time waster, but if it does that well, then I really appreciate it. So games where the music, characters, gameplay, user interface, menu colours, sounds, HUD design, every all seem to contribute and reinforce a central aesthetic tone. It’s why Killzone: Mercenary is on this list. It’s why I really love Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us. Bulletstorm but not Bioshock: Infinite. Splinter Cell: Conviction with its black/white/red HUD and seeping aesthetic of a broken man, but not Splinter Cell: Blacklist with its HUD of full-colour Playstation buttons and loadouts and Conviction hangovers that seem to have nothing to do with what Blacklist is going for. I am far more interested in the overall tone of a game, how all the bits fit together, than in simply how the ‘core’ game functions.
I realised this when I fell in love with Max Payne 3. It’s not that the story is particularly deep or intelligent, but that the game knows exactly what it wants to be, and it does everything it can to be that. From the drone of Health’s magnificent soundtrack, to the way Max holds his weapons, to the gritty and pointless mundanity of his plight. It’s almost restrained in its commitment to be what it wants to be. 
Most of all, I love the pacing. That slow, snowball build across the levels to the final, almost-but-not-quite redemptive stage in the airport where Max just walks in the front door, knowing full well what he is doing for once. This magnificent pacing is in the little things. It’s in the way Max will walk a few steps automatically after a cut-scene instead of fading to black, stitching cut-scene and action together instead of jarring them apart. It’s in Max’s slowly changing appearance and the constant drone of the music. It’s that slow build across all the levels up to the final moment of the penultimate level where Max kicks a locked door and literally howls “Fuck” before marching into the airport. It’s not until the game’s closing scenes, where Max picks up a grenade launcher and chases a airplane with a car that the game finally lets itself run free from its own constraints. But even then, it doesn’t feel like a lack of self-control but more like a final flourish, like an encore. Like a celebration of itself. Like the developers knew they’d done something magnificent and wanted to let their hair down to celebrate.

I loved it. It’s just such an incredibly well put-together game that tries to do something and just does it. This isn’t a ranked list, but I think Max Payne 3 is my favourite game that I played in 2013. 

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Games of 2013: Part Three

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]
Dark Souls (From Software)
I first played Dark Souls in 2012, but I never got far. After much grinding, I reached the gargoyles on the church roof, decided I ‘got it’, and put it aside. But I continued to hear stories. Whispered rumours of forests and tombs and painted worlds and an ancient city and demonic ruins. I read “The Hollowed Killer of Lordran” and was captivated by the mention of these names and places that were uttered, like foreign countries on continents I had never heard of. My Twitter feed was still a crossfire of characters and spells and tactics and other words that I didn’t even know what they signified. Eventually, it felt like I had read the opening chapter of The Lord of the Rings but never left The Shire. I needed to know what everyone else was talking about. I needed to see what else was out there.
So I returned. This time, I was willing to use guides and walkthroughs all the way through. I was less concerned with ‘beating’ the game than ‘getting through it’ just to see what was there. I started a new character, a pyromancer on Twitter’s recommendation, and went on my way. What took me about twelve hours on my previous game took me about two. A few hours later and with a bit of help I beat the gargoyles and rang the first bell. I ventured into Blighttown and Queelag’s Lair by myself to ring the second bell. With a guide’s help, I defeated the Iron Golem of Sen’s Fortress and took photos of my television screen as I set foot in Anor Londo. With the help of human strangers I defeated both the painted world, and Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. I didn’t finish the game—at least, not yet—but I got that bit further. There’s still more to see, but I feel like I understand and appreciate Dark Souls and its world that bit more.
Most satisfying of all was that feeling of camaraderie with other players past and present. Anyone who has played Dark Souls is more than happy to help a newcomer. I felt this bug myself when I saw people start the game after me; so eager I was to jump in and give them tips. It’s because people who have played the game understand the joy of Dark Souls is not in overcoming the game by yourself, as ostensibly single-player as the game might be, but in the sense of solidarity with other players. The joy of the game is in overcoming this cruel game together: in being helped by those that come before you, and helping those that come after you. It’s players versus game both inside the game and outside of it. The world feels so hostile to make friendship feel so warm
So when I decided I would use guides and walkthroughs to see the world at any cost, I was accidentally approaching the game how the game should be approached: defeated at any cost. When I put aside my stubborn sense of ‘fair play’ and ‘doing it myself’, I realised that there is no ‘fair play’ where Dark Souls is concerned. It refused to treat the player fairly, so why should the player treat the game fairly? Swallowing my pride and using guides just to get through the game didn’t weaken my experience in the game, but made my antagonistic relationship with it all the more vivid.

Vagrant Story (Square)
I didn’t return to Dark Souls the moment I thought about doing so. I spent several months hesitating beforehand. I felt the desire to play it again, but not the confidence. So, instead, I returned to Square’s very odd and fascinating Playstation title Vagrant Story. It had been years since I last played Vagrant Story, but my memory of it gave it a kind of Dark Souls vibe. Not necessarily in mechanics, but in atmosphere: the solitary character in a quiet and dead city full of monsters. Just without the finger acrobatics demanded of Dark Souls.
So, on my Vita, I started a new game of Vagrant Story. I found Yasumi Matsuno’s game fascinating for the ways it mutated and mashed together both traditional JRPG and action RPG elements, combining command menus with semi-real-time combat. 
I enjoyed its systems, as dense as they are deep. There is the peculiar mechanic that the more you use a weapon on a type of enemy, the stronger that weapon becomes against that type of enemy (and the weaker it becomes against an opposite enemy type). This requires both grinding and planning. Attacking every enemy with the same sword will get you nowhere. Instead, you must use this sword for beasts, that hammer for zombies, that crossbow for humans, etc. Where it breaks down, however, is when you come across a boss that is a type that you have rarely confronted before. So, to be sure, it is not a balanced game.
Having to constantly change weapons has the potential to be terrible, especially in a game that predates the normalisation of hotkeys on console games. Every time you want to change weapons, you must open your menu system, open the equipment menu, scroll to your weapon, open the menu of all your weapons, find the right weapon, equip it, and press cancel about five times to climb up out of the menu pit. This can get pretty infuriating, especially as you want to be changing weapons every third or fourth enemy. Indeed, I remember it infuriating me last time I played the game.  What got me through this time, though, was a desire to play the game ‘slow’. I wasn’t rushing; I didn’t need to get anywhere quickly. I would play the game at its own pace, and Vagrant Story’s pace is slow. The minimal background music and the environmental stillness makes Vagrant Story’s world feels timeless much as Dark Souls’s world feels timeless. It wants you to take your time, so I took my time. When I did this, constant burrowing through menus felt a bit more tolerable.
Most of all, though, I enjoyed the game overarching aesthetic, both in the world and in the menus. In menus, the audio and visual design is satisfying. Every menu dongs like a grandfather clock as you enter it, and swipes away with a ‘swoosh’ as you go back up a level. There are vast swathes of information about every piece of equipment, but it is all relatively easy to parse. In the world itself, however, the game’s visual style really shines. Vagrant Story is one of the few games I have played that takes the graphical look imposed on so many Playstation-era games (chunky with low-res textures) and turns it into a style. Rooms, enemies, and characters are all modelled in very intentful and particular ways. These are not just low-polygon, chunky humans, but stylisied humans that fit the game’s technological constraints majestically. Often I would enter first-person (which would have the surreal effect of pausing game time, but not character animations, so enemy skeletons would just sway and breathe contently in front of you) to look around the wonderful buildings and at the phenomenally detailed character models. Indeed, so much detail is only visible from that first-person perspective. Make no mistake: Vagrant Story is a beautiful game.
Ultimately, it was the outdated save system that defeated me. I encountered a difficult boss a significant distance from the closest save point and felt my enthusiasm be sapped from my body. So I never finished Vagrant Story, but I’m incredibly glad I returned to it.

Earth Defense Force 2017 (Sandlot)
Earth Defense Force 2017 (EDF) is one of those Japanese games people like to point at and laugh about being “So bad it’s good” when, really, what they mean is “that game is incredibly good despite being made on a tight budget”. “So bad it’s good” claims, especially when applied to Japanese games, usually just refers to an imagined level of graphical fidelity not reached, of a certain sincerity to its ‘wackiness’, of a jangliness and a clunkiness. Binary Domain and Deadly Premonition are examples of sincerely good games that are sidelined under the “so bad it’s good” label when, really, they are only bad if you use the wrong measuring stick.
EDF places you in the role of a single soldier alongside many others, defending Tokyo from giant bugs and aliens. Though, I get less of a sense of the bugs as ‘giant’ and more of a sense that I, in fact, am really small. I feel like a toy soldier in a Tokyo diorama put too close to an anthill. Regardless, the sense of drama and scale are the same. The visuals are lo-fi and the animations are jangly, but none of this detracts from the breathtaking spectacle that is watching a wave of giant ants pour over skyscrapers towards you. The b-grade horror music looping in the background only adds to the atmosphere.
This is a game with no pretension, a game that does so well exactly what it is trying to do. Yes, it is ‘rough’ and low budget, but time and labour have clearly been dedicated to the places it needs to be dedicated for the game to achieve what it wants to achieve. The sense of scale, in both quantity and sheer size, in EDF is unmatched by any other game I can recall playing, with the possible exception of Shadow of the Colossus.

Doom 3 (Id Software)
Doom turned twenty years old this year. That feels like a big deal, and I’ve been enjoying the various retrospectives  coming out that are trying to appreciate just why it was so special (none more than Liz Ryerson’s excellent video series). Doom 3, however, seems to be often dismissed for not reaching some ideal, nostalgia of the original games. For not ‘being Doom’. At the same time, though, it also seemed to fail at being what, on the surface, it looked like it wanted to be: namely, a survival horror game. It seemed torn between wanting to be a run’n’gun game and a survival horror game. Playing it directly after a replay of the first Doom, though, I found it incredibly enjoyable. I approached it like Doom, running and gunning through its corridors. This gave me, through the jump scares, a constant sense of paranoia. Playing it ‘like Doom’ drastically changed my experience of the game, for the better.
I’ve already written quite extensively about Doom 3 in a Notes posts so I won’t repeat myself here.

Spider (Vector Park)
Amazing animation and a simple idea incredibly executed.

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Games of 2013: Part Two

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Ridiculous Fishing (Vlambeer)
Ridiculous Fishing is an arcade game with a three-act structure. Act 1: A fisher in his boat, you drop your line into the sea. Tilt the phone left and right to avoid fish and get as deep as you possibly can. Act 2 begins once you eventually and inevitably fail Act 1: bump into a fish, and you begin to reel the line in. Now you must hit as many fish as possible, accumulating dozens of them on the end of the line. Act 3 begins once the line returns to the surface: the fish are flung high into the air and must be blasted with the fisherman’s firearm for cash that can be spent on longer fishing lines, better weapons, and other upgrades.
It’s a hypnotic rhythm in itself, but the upgrades also add a sense of exploration. The deeper you go the more exotic fish you will find. The more fish you capture, the higher you will fling them, and the more celestial bodies you will see. The game constantly swings from seeing how low you can go, to how high. Decorating it all is a distinct and eye-catching visual style of thick borders and slanted lines and diamond fish. 
The cloning saga that saw another company duplicate their earlier Radical Fishing before Ridiculous Fishing was finished almost destroyed Vlambeer, sapping their motivation. But for anyone on the outside who has followed Vlambeer and their various incredible games, it was clear this wouldn’t destroy them. Vlambeer’s ideas might be easily cloned, but the feel of their games is something only Vlambeer can achieve. There is a crunchiness to the interactions in their games, a satisfying meatiness to every button press. And, sure enough, when Ridiculous Fishing finally did come out earlier this year, it far surpassed its cloner on its own merit. It was the kind of game only Vlambeer could make, and it gave them the success they well deserved.

FJORDS (Kyle Reimergartin)
I haven’t played enough Fjords to really understand or appreciate it yet, but I’ve played enough to know I need to put it on this list. I am intimidated by Fjords and my ability to hack (a term I use literally) its world. It feels like walking into a pitch black room I have never entered before and not knowing if it is a ballroom or a broom closet. It’s remarkable but I still don’t quite know why or how. Indiestatik perhaps can give you more information.

Time Surfer (Kumobius)
2013 was not a particularly exciting year for iOS. There were some really standout games, to be sure, but I certainly spent less time checking Game Center leaderboards than previous years. Or, perhaps 3DS and Vita games just started dominating the time I would have usually spent on iOS titles. Time Surfer was an exception, though, and I spent many a train ride or night on the couch chasing those highscores, boasting and lamenting on Twitter.
Some have dismissed it as a Tiny Wings clone, but I prefer to see it as Tiny Wings with a solution proposed for the one thing I hated about Tiny Wings. That is, in Tiny Wings, all that hard-earned momentum could be lost in an instant with a mistimed swoop. Once you picked up speed, it became a matter of luck whether you landed properly or not. Time Surfer’s time-reversal mechanic offers a solution to this—you still make the inevitable mistake, but now you can rewind to undo the mistake. Rewinding is a valuable energy, however, and you want to react the instant you land wrong, rewinding just far enough to adjust. There’s a twitchiness to it as you stay attentive, hoping not to miss your own mistake. You need to know that that one is the one you should rewind to keep your momentum up. 
It’s unfortunate and unfair, the clone label, applied simply for building a game with the same fundamental mechanic. As though every FPS is a Wolfenstein 3D clone. As though a song can’t use the same core instruments as another to do something original. I am no less interested in the games that fine tune and iterate than I am in the games hat attempt something that has never been done before. To only be interested in those games that are ‘completely’ new is to like precious few games.

Stickets (Wanderlands)
Melbourne-based game designer Harry Lee has been making a bit of a splash on the local scene over the past couple of years. His minimal but ingenious games such as Impasse and Midas have turned heads, their deceptively simple presentation hiding oceans of clever design. He’s been central for a range of local groups and events, such as the Glitchmark meetings and, perhaps most importantly, as co-director of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival. Oh, and he is twenty-years-old.
Stickets is Lee’s two-man studio Wanderland’s first commercial release. Like all his games, it at first seems deceptively simple: a match-3 game mixed with a tile game. Place L-shaped tiles, each constructed from three different coloured squares, on a grid. When three squares of the same colour are touching, tap that group to make those squares disappear. The goal is to place as many L-shaped tiles as you possibly can before you can place no more. It’s slow, deliberate, and meditative. You have all the time in the world to choose where to place the next tile, and where you might need to place the one after that. It’s a game about thinking and planning, not about rash decisions or reflexes. This is no less true for the Timed mode, that required you to completely reprogram how your mind approaches the game, but still rewarded careful deliberation over rash actions. The turning point in this mode, for me, was the realisation that time only counted down if I made an action; I still had all the time in the world to just think.
Underlying it all is subtle but ingenious sound design. Each position on the grid makes a different sound when tapped. Move a three-square tile over the grid, and chords are strummed. I’ve spent many minutes just playing with the Stickets board like some kind of abstract instrument.
Despite Lee’s youth, Stickets has the feel of a confident designer that knows exactly what they are doing. It’s a wonderful achievement from someone who is going to be a defining character in Australian videogames in the coming years.

American Dream (Terry Cavanagh, Stephen Lavelle, Jasper Byrne, Tom Morgan-Jones)
Apparently this game is over two years old, but I had never heard of it before going through Terry Cavanagh’s collection on the Ouya store (side note: I wish more developers would use the Ouya as a dumping ground for their otherwise browser-based and free small games). Much like with Knightmare Tower, I lost an entire night sucked into American Dream’s absurd world of trendy furniture, cartoon orgies, and celebrities traded on the stock market. 
That’s… pretty much it, really. You move between a screen of your house, where you are able to spend money on seasonably trendy furniture to replace that furniture you bought last season, and the stock market, where you buy and sell shares on Sylvester Stallone and Madonna and Michael Jackson. Make enough furniture, and then you can buy more furniture. The ultimate goal is, simply, to make a million dollars, but if you want crazy sex parties, then keeping your furniture up to date is essential. 
It’s a simple, cynical, and nonsensical game, but its slick and lo-fi presentation is like having your eyeballs sucked into a whirlpool. Of utmost importance are the quick transitions between the game’s various screens. These tie everything together. Be it the quick screen that representations your character travelling from home to the stockmarket, or the montage orgies of the sex parties. They all give the game this hyperalert feeling that everything has to be done now. You must buy and sell and fuck and buy furniture and it all has to be done yesterday, like some 80s cocaine-fuelled capitalist dream. No time to talk, I gotta go buy 200 shares in Barbara Streisand. 
If I had attempted to play this game on my computer, sitting at my desk lurched over a keyboard, I would have played it for a few minutes, thought, “heh, that’s cool” and moved on. On a console in my loungeroom, however, lounging on my couch with a controller in my hand, I got sucked into the game fully, staying up late to see it through. It’s a prime example of why I think the Ouya (and micro-consoles generally) are important: to take that experience that was previously constricted to the desktop and put it in the loungeroom, an environment where many such as myself feel far more able to devote time and attention to a game. 

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]