And we’re back after a fairly hefty hiatus? Why? Because I want to write about games again.
Here are the games I finished this year:
Assassin’s Creed Revelations
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 3
GTA: The Ballad of Gay Tony
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
Batman: Arkham City
Metal Gear Solid
Red Dead Redemption
Metal Gear Solid 2
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Thomas Was Alone
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Assassin’s Creed 3
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
I haven’t really put all that much thought into a game of the year, so I’m going to think about it right now…
And I’m going to have to say it’s Journey.
Out of all the games on this list, I think it had the most lasting effect on me. It provided an experience unlike any other. It was absolutely beautiful to behold, in terms of visuals, audio, mechanics, game design and the interaction between other players. In many ways, I think it’s the Portal of 2012; the perfect game. I like that there is no set formula for that “perfect game”. Journey and Portal are hugely different, but they do have some similarities. Exploratory and implicit story-telling, excellent pacing, no padding, strong game mechanics.
But back to Journey in particular, it took a universal concept, the concept of companionship and put it in game form and let everyone who played it experience within an hour and a half what it’s like to meet a stranger, make a friend, live and die together, resurrect and ultimately realise your meaning in life.
What makes Journey special is that it’s a playground for people, human beings, to create experiences to share and care for one another. It’s the complete opposite of what most other multiplayer games do; they foster competition and aggression. Which is fun in its own right, but like David Cage once said, those are base-level emotions. Empathy, sadness, love… those are emotions that take something truly powerful to tap into. And Journey gave that to me in buckets. And it was -my- Journey; the multiplayer element ensures that no two playthroughs are exactly the same. I have my own memories from it of the people I met, the challenges we faced and that wonderful moment when we reached the summit and walked into the light.
Journey is my game of the year for 2012.
I’ve been watching more movies lately, trying to surround myself in different types of stories and experiences. I’ve found that movies have a really wide palette of experiences to provide to viewers; there is literally something for everyone. There are fun movies that capture your imagination like Howl’s Moving Castle, and then there are intensely personal, human and vivid movies like 127 Hours.
I watched 127 Hours just this week, and was astonished by how satisfying the movie was. On paper, it might sound dull; the movie is about a man trapped in a crevice. We spend over an hour with Aron as he struggles to break free, makes small triumphs, despairs over his predicament, faces the possibility of death and ultimately overcomes it. The film is kept entertaining by showing us key moments, and allowing Aron a chance to show off his personality when he talks to the camera.
What makes this work as a movie, though? Would an experience like this possibly translate to a game? In 127 Hours, the director obviously plays with time; we aren’t watching the entirety of the 127 hours that the character deals with. In a game, you wouldn’t be observing, you’d have to inhabit the character, and to do that properly, you’d have to experience everything they experience.
But who wants to spend 8 hours not being able to do anything but think about how you’re going to die? There seems to be a difference in the way people experience movies and games. It’s okay to watch a character experience arduous trials, but it’s another thing to have to overcome those trials yourself. Some people just aren’t comfortable being put through those situations, but still find value in watching somebody else being the subject.
The point of this post is that I wonder whether games are limited in the types of experiences we can present to the player. We shouldn’t lean too heavily on cinema, as it just doesn’t always work. The desert scene in Uncharted 3 skipped forwards in time on multiple occasions, producing a jarring effect that plucked you out of the moment. But then making us travel for an extended time, getting truly lost might be considered boring to some.
I hope that games can continue evolve to find ways to let players experience things they wouldn’t be able to in real life. There needs to be a point where people let go of the idea of “fun” and open their minds to new possibilities. That’s not to say I don’t think games should be fun, but I think they can be more than fun.
Nintendo truly are the masters of their craft. Late to the party as usual, I’m finally playing through The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
The design philosophy that astounded me so much in Super Mario Galaxy 2 is evident here as well, but on a far grander scale well suited to an adventure game.
The art style is stunning, with a subtle cell-shaded look and incredibly charming character designs. I’m particular impressed by the watercolour effect applied to far-off objects.
What is most impressive about the game, as with all Nintendo games, is the pure gameplay aspect. For better or worse, story is fairly minimal. There’s enough context to have you travelling around the world, exploring dungeons for “X object” that you need to progress.
The basic gameplay loop is: find dungeon area, learn new mechanic, use new mechanic, boss fight with new mechanic. The mechanics themselves are clever and fun to use, and they don’t outstay their welcome. They also make excellent use of the Motion+. (It’s hard to imagine a future Zelda not being based on what has been built for Skyward Sword) Early on, each level has its own basic mechanic and after that dungeon, it isn’t revisited until much later on. It teaches you the basics, then when you’ve acquired a decent toolset, it will combine the mechanics into challenges that make use of all of them. It’s really fantastic.
One criticism I have with the game is… while it’s really well designed, I don’t find many of the situations memorable. Maybe this is more a slight on my behalf for having a poor memory, but I feel like many of the challenges are really disposable. They’re great fun when you’re in the moment, but then you instantly move onto the next challenge, and what you had done before fades from your mind. Of course, it’s fine to have in the moment fun, but what I really treasure are the memorable moments that stick with us through the ages. I’ve yet to finish the game, so perhaps Nintendo will surprise me.
Indie Game: The Movie (2011)
And we’re back with another memorable moment from the vault of video game memories. Be warned, there spoilers will follow. Today, I finished Braid. From the moment I started this game, I knew it was going to be something special. Its subdued introduction and haunting hub-world music instantly drew me into Tim’s world. The storytelling was mysterious and incredibly personal, and I really felt a connection to the tale being told.
Braid succeeds in blending storytelling with its narrative like very few games have before. Each new mechanic reflects a theme in the story, leading to a very whole and seamless package. We come to understand that the gameplay and story are one in the same. This all comes to a shocking climax at the end of the game.
The entire game we wonder… who is the Princess? It seems like Tim has a few important people in his life, but he is willing to put them aside in his pursuit of this Princess. And for a while, he was with her, but some mistakes broke their relationship and then she was gone. One of the little dinosaurs throws out the question of whether the Princess is even real. So should we be asking who the Princess is… or “what” she is?
In the final level, we meet the Princess. She’s real, and she seems to have been captured by a burly fellow. She escapes his grasp, and he unleashes an enormous wall of fire that chases down both Tim and the Princess. Here begins a somewhat co-op experience, that I really enjoyed. Tim was working to help the Princess, and the Princess was working to help him. It was a symbol of a functional relationship, with equal amounts of give and take and both people moving forward together. I thought that maybe, this was Tim’s happy ending.
But it was not meant to be. When we reach the end of the level, everything stops. I paused for a second, wondering what was going on. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t jump. All I could do was rewind. And so I rewound. Suddenly, everything changed. As Tim and the Princess reversed their paths, the pieces started coming together. Throughout this entire world, natural time was reversed. When rewinding, we saw the true progression of time. So by reaching the end, and rewinding, we find out what really happened between Tim and the Princess.
Tim wasn’t saving her from a monster. He was the monster. What appeared to be the Princess helping Tim was actually her trying to stop him and flee from him. What makes this moment so brilliant is that it is steeped in the game’s mechanics, and links perfectly into the story. I’m using a tool that I’ve grown accustomed to, that is unique to this game, to unravel the key mystery of the plot. The Princess reaches the beginning of the level and cries for help, and is saved by the burly fellow who isn’t Tim. And then Tim is left alone.
The ending is ambiguous, and deliberately so. Whilst this might seem frustrating to some, I like that the plot itself is a puzzle which stands beside the puzzle gameplay. Like the game itself, the ending presents a set of clues and leaves it up to you to piece together an answer to the mystery. I have my own interpretation, it might not be “correct”, but I feel like I learned something from playing this game. And if a story, whatever medium it is presented in, can leave the audience with a meaningful message then it has succeeded. A good story should have you reflect on what you’ve just witnessed, and then trace it back into your own life and make connections to bring about new wisdom which you can then reapply.
Braid is a fantastic game and does a wonderful job of bridging the gap between story and gameplay. The final rewind was a poignant moment that makes use of a core game mechanic and allows us to participate in the final plot revelation.
Braid is a game on PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, developed by Jonathan Blow and published by Number None.
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