My Favorite Games of the 7th Generation (Part 2)

After accidentally deleting all my notes and getting really frustrated, I finally completed part 2 of my personal favorite games of the 7th Console Generation, the first of which you can read here. Sparing the need for a lengthy introduction, let’s get right to it.

6. Okami

Okami holds the dubious honor of being the worst-selling recipient of a “Game of the Year” accolade from a major gaming publication. Which is pitiful, because Okami is a wonderful and uplifting adventure of mythical scope and legendary beauty. Thick outlines, wispy details, and a rich palette lend the game a painterly aesthetic inspired by traditional sumi-e watercolor painting. The vast world of Nippon provides an incredible possibility space for any number of adventures,  each quest draws players into a fairytale world where friendly deities inhabit everyday life, helping humans with their everyday problems and protecting them from nasty demons like Blight, Ninetales, and Crimson Helm. Okami isn’t a dark, serious, conflict between forces of good and evil, but rather a playful, childlike one, with animals to feed, forests to regrow, and bridges to repair.

Okami was special because it imbued action-adventure mechanics with positivity and love.

An innovative core mechanic provides players with a thematically assonant means to interact with the delightful world. Using the Celestial Brush, controlled with the Wii Remote, players can paint objects into existence: a swish of the brush produces a strong gust, while a circle in the sky produces bright sunlight. Using a collection of brush techniques, players enact positive change upon the world. Carrying a positive subtext about environmental preservation and restoration, Okami‘s methods of interaction revolve around construction and restoration, rather than killing and destruction, making it ultimately way more unique as an action-adventure game than it should be. Enemies don’t fall over and die, but burst into beautiful clouds of flowers and butterflies, suggesting that the act of killing a creature is an action of liberation and restoration, rather than strictly one of violence. This all culminates to create a sense of mythic wonder characteristic of the very best of adventures.

5. Bastion

Bastion is a textbook example of how to design a linear game of progression properly. An isometric hack-‘n-slash game, Bastion delivers its story in a unique way, a reactive narrator, Rucks,  voiced by the cool, wistful, Logan Cunningham, comments on every action the player takes, delivering a constant stream of exposition that lends the narrative a detached, forlorn feel. In Bastion, the player wakes up to find his home world of Cylondia destroyed by some cataclysm of unknown origin, known only as the Calamity. He meets Rucks, and the two work together to collect crystals to restore power to the Bastion, a floating ship that would either allow them to set sail away from post-apocalytpic Cylondia or send them back through time to Cylondia before the Cataclysm.

Bastion was special because it was aesthetically luscious and perfectly paced.

Metaphorically, Bastion is an allegory about failed relationships. Players can choose to accept that great loss and move on, hoping to come across new friends, memories, and love somewhere in a terrifyingly vast future. Or they may choose to cling on to the possibility of reliving those moments of joy and returning to peaceful life prior to the Calamity, all while living in the shadow of the possibility that the Calamity would happen again. Its an emotive story with impactful, real-world implications.

Outside of its luscious, painterly aesthetic, its twangy, evocative soundtrack, and its original narrative, Bastion is perfectly paced and filled with variety. Every weapon the player acquires fundamentally changes how the game works. Different pieces of equipment don’t alter the numbers soft coded into the game’s combat system, but introduce systemic changes that substantially alter kinesthetics, tactics, and combat encounters. Playing Bastion with a machete and a bow is fundamentally different from playing Bastion with a shotgun and mortar, creating such an incredible degree of dynamism that players could have radically different experiences playing through the same story.

4. Super Mario Galaxy

Gravity isn’t our friend in video games, its shadow creeps behind our every move in space like an overbearing schoolteacher, eagerly seeking out the slightest fault. Hungrily it waits, waiting for the opportunity to end our fun, bringing us careening down into the lava pit, the bottomless abyss, the steel bed of spikes. Jumping may grant us temporary liberation from its heavy grip, but down we fall, unable to escape its gloomy grasp. No matter how joyful and free we may believe ourselves to be, Gravity’s inescapable shadow paces restlessly, watching us, reminding us that we are mortal, and that our fun comes at a risk.

Super Mario Galaxy was special because it recreated gaming’s oldest adversary as a playful friend.

Which is why Super Mario Galaxy is perhaps the greatest 3D platformer of this generation. Here, gravity is not judge nor adversary, but friend, playfully inviting us to dance. Levels in Super Mario Galaxy are comprised of numerous objects in space, each with its own gravity field. Gravity in Galaxy becomes a toy to be played with, and players joyfully dance through planetoid, starfield, and asteroid as they experiment with the boundaries of this otherworldly conception of physics. Suddenly, movement through virtual space, an experience that we’ve long since become accustomed to that it has become rote, becomes fresh, joyful, liberating. The cathartic escape of spinning into that first launch star and rocketing myself away from my preconceptions about physics is a feeling that I will never forget.

3. The Last of Us

Most AAA action-games ask players to enact power-fantasies, granting players a plethora of skills, powers, weapons, and tools, and giving them a stream of opponents and challenges to unleash them upon. Skillful play in games like Batman and Vanquish is empowering, the aggressive thrill of terrorizing violent thugs and evil robots intoxicating. This power fantasy has become so deeply encoded into video games that it has become the unsurprising norm. In direct contrast is The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s post apocalyptic survival-horror myth, where combat is explicitly disempowering.

A hybrid of mechanics lifted from third-person shooters and stealth games, every combat encounter in The Last of Us overwhelms players with a tapestry of emotions, fear, panic, and catharsis. Interspersed between battles are long swaths of scavenging and exploration through believably designed environments, all performed in the creeping shadow of the possibility of ambush. Little glimmers of hope pierce the bleakness, often in the form of small portions of essential resources: half a bottle of alcohol, a broken pair of scissors, a cup of sugar. But desperately they may scavenge, players are never quite adequately prepared for any given encounter. Enemies are typically overwhelmingly strong, and almost always greatly outnumber Ellie and Joel. Their smart, hunter-ly behavior pigeonholes players into moving conservatively around the environment, the dreadfully tense dance between covers crescendoes into a panicked ratchet of gunfire and shivs, climaxing with the cathartic release of killing that last thug or Clicker. And then, the grisly and nauseating aftermath, the sigh of relief transitions back into anxiety, and the heavy shadow of desperation creeps on.

The Last of Us was special because its mechanics textured its narrative elegantly.
The Last of Us was special because its mechanics textured its powerful narrative elegantly.

And that’s to speak only of the game’s mechanics. The Last of Us remyths the archetypical “zombie” narrative in one of of the most engaging stories of that kind in recent memory, exploring themes about the demarcation of social boundaries of what entails “us” and “them” and what constitutes people as being “the other”. Restrained, tasteful cinematography and animation communicates unspoken, repressed, emotions, Ellie and Joel’s character development is represented cinematically with nuanced grace. The game’s incredible ending meditates on the moral intricacies of Christianity’s central narrative, arriving at an uneasy conclusion about interdependency and need. The Last of Us‘s mechanics, intricately designed to be assonant with the world and narrative, create a cohesive whole that is indubitably one of the best games of the year.

2. Portal 2

Portal 2 is the apotheosis of trial-and-error design, it is the greatest puzzle game ever made, and a great leap forward in environmental storytelling. Every single Test Chamber in the game is intricately designed, carefully introducing new mechanics, iterating upon them, and exploring new, creative ways to use them in its relatively limited possibility space. An incredibly simple and intuitive core mechanic becomes a portal into an ever expanding toolbox of light-bridges, gravity tubes, and repulsion gels. In any other game, the core loop of trial-and-error would have been immensely frustrating, the exasperation of repeated failures creates an incredibly negative experience greatly detracting from a game’s appeal. Portal 2 refines that core loop into something more akin to scientific experimentation: theorize, test, fail, theorize, test, fail, theorize, test, succeed. With each failed attempt at solving a puzzle, players discover more and more about Portal 2‘s conception of 3D space, and the constant acquisition of mastery becomes increasingly palpable. What is even more remarkable is Portal 2 achieves such depth and complexity without introducing a single additional control

Portal 2 was special because it exemplified great puzzle-design.

Representationally, Portal 2 is one of the more interesting advancements in environmental storytelling. The sterile hallways and elevators of the first Portal crack at the seams, giving way to lush vegetation and unspoken post apocalyptic ruin. The nostalgic design of Old Aperture conveys an authentic sense of style and place, communicating Cave Johnson’s character arc as he led Aperture through decades of decline. While the core narrative of trust, betrayal, and tenuous partnership has been done before in other games, Portal 2‘s genuinely funny writing and lovably sadistic characters allow it to transcend its cliches, turning it into one of the most original adventures of the last few years.

1. Journey

As I climbed over that first dune in the desert, I saw the mountain towering before me, eclipsing the sun’s blinding glow. The sands stretched out infinitely, the murky haze of warm air obscured my vision, and I couldn’t perceive the crevasses, towers, and valleys that laid in the wide expanse of my future. I slid down the slope, walking towards the first shrine I saw, and found a glowing insignia floating before an altar. I touched it, and a red, glowing scarf materialized out of thin air and wrapped itself around my neck. I jumped off the shrine, and gently floated, weightless, liberated and free. The scarf granted me the power of limited flight. I smiled, and hopped my first steps towards the vast monolith in the horizon. As I walked, my vision of the mountain gradually became clearer and more distinct, and I knew that I was destined to ascend it.

On my way, I met other people, also on their way towards whatever destination they were seeking. Some accompanied me, happily chirping as we hiked the desert sands, others looked away and hurried along the stony ridges. I met another cloaked traveler in the collapsed ruins of a city who decided to accompany me, a gleeful chirp and a dainty dance sealed our partnership. We ascended climbed the temple of our ancestors to arrive at a snow-covered slope. We were very close to the summit, the mountain’s peak visible behind a thin layer of clouds, and so we pushed on. As we climbed the snow-blanketed slopes, the wind began to blow. A thin layer of frost formed around my scarf and cracked away at it. We pushed on, and the wind blew angrily, pushing us backwards like an invisible force opposing us, and more of the scarf crumbled away. The wind matured into a blizzard, ice battered our bodies, freezing our cloaks. We drew close together, hoping the warmth of each other’s bodies would sustain the magic scarves until we reached the top, but gusts of snow would throw us apart. The stone dragons hungrily floated above us, waiting to strike at us in our weakness. We were tired, worn, and weary, and our strong stride slowed to a desperate crawl, each step more arduous than the last. The clouds above us congealed into a solid grey firmament, and the mountain’s peak faded away. I looked at my partner, and his head bobbed feebly as it if it was trying to make a sound, but only managed a weak moan, and crumbled into the snow, dead. Terrified, I tried to call back, but the flow of cold air into my lungs crushed me, and I collapsed onto the slope, I looked up, trying to make out the peak, but couldn’t, and died.

And I was basked by a welcome glow and a pleasant warmth. I opened my eyes, and saw my ancestors standing before me. They pulled my broken body from the ice, and gave me a new magic scarf and stepped away from me. An electrifying chill of power pulsed through my body, and I leapt skyward, through the storm layer and past the stone dragons. I pierced the cloud layer and I arrived at the summit. The sky was clear, and the warm sun cast a gentle glow upon the heavenly cloth bridges and red gates. I playfully danced across the bridges, down a slope, and over waterfalls of crashing mist, arriving at a beam of glowing dust. I flew into it and floated towards the peak, and there, my partner was waiting. A bright light and a soft breeze emitted from a great crack in the mountains peak, blowing a thin layer of snow past our feet. Our scarves crumbled away, and we walked towards the light. As we stepped into the blinding whiteness of our ultimate destiny, my partner chirped happily at me, as if to say “thank you”.

Catharsis, plain and simple.

And then Journey ended, and I sat before my television. I gripped my controller harder.

Thoughts of the life that I had lived flooded into my consciousness. The teachers that I’ve had, the friends who have loved me, and the wise family that had watched over me and lovingly watched me step forward into every stage of my life. I thought of the bridges I had burned, the relationships that I had nuked, the lies that I’ve believed, and the ways I’ve hurt and hurt-ed. I thought of the path that I chose to arrive where I was, and my nascent purpose. Then I thought about my irreversible choice to live the life of a game designer. Journey was a game that had affected me unlike any other, touching me spiritually and giving me an cherishable experience. This is the power of video games! This is what I can potentially accomplish should I take this path! This is the kind of experience I could give to my players! This is what I want to do with my brief journey through the wilderness of life! 

I received a letter the very next week. It was an acceptance letter from a college that I wanted to go to: the USC Interactive Media Division, the most renowned game school in the world and the very same program from which Journey’s creators graduated. I nodded knowingly, accepting my destiny, and took those first steps towards that mountain looming on the horizon, ready to accept the company of any strangers I would meet along the way.

My Favorite Games of the 7th Generation (Part 1)

And that’s a wrap, the atypically-long seventh console cycle has concluded. And what a turbulent trip it was between the Autumns of 2006 and 2013.

In these seven years, we’ve seen massive consolidation within the AAA sector of industry, marked by a wave of studio closures and layoffs, resulting in the rise of the indie game and the burnout of trends such as plastic instruments. This change has fundamentally altered the way the gaming industry works from its core, the influx of ex-AAA developers and game school graduates and their experimental ideas has led to the flourishing of a new avant-garde facet to gaming. The explosion of casual gaming with the Wii and iOS has put to death the outdated, stereotyped notion of the “gamer” as the poorly socialized, unhygienic, teenage boy, and has connected players of games into a wide and all-welcoming community of play.

Prior to this console cycle, IndieCade did not exist as it does today
Prior to this console cycle, IndieCade did not exist as it does today

And as a maker of games, this cycle is particularly interesting since it marks the point in which I crossed the threshold demarcating the separation between player and designer. This is a phenomenon that happens to artists from any medium: you see the ingredients that go into the sausage, and never see or enjoy it in the same way again.

I can no longer “play” games, but rather I study them, deconstruct their systems, interconnected rings of feedback loops, intricately detailed and shaded texture bakes, systems of representation meaningful under only the right cognitive frame, systems of metacommunication, narrative delivery, metacommentary, the achievement of a win-state as an ideal condition that could be dangerously exploited to discourage playful experimentation within a possibility space. I can no longer enter that same magical state of investment that I experienced playing through the seminal Metroid Prime and can only appreciate and acknowledge the care and consideration poured into a game.

Don’t call any of these “The Citizen Kane of Video Games”

To this extent, this list is incomplete and disjointed, as they represent two radically different points of view that I held in that seven year period. One is that wide-eyed sense of wonderment, the young teenager, discovering the joy of movement in Super Mario Galaxy and dancing through its cosmic obstacle courses. The other is that of the designer, studying The Last of Us and how its resource-management systems created a suffocating sense of disempowerment apropos to its post-apocalyptic narrative. It wasn’t easy choosing these twelve games, and I had to put aside great games like Minecraft, The Unfinished Swan, and Zelda: Skyward Sword, but here are those games that impacted my life, inspired me, and changed me in some significant way. None of these games are perfect, and many of them are glaringly flawed, but these are important because they’re important to me personally. 

12. Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum was the first HD game that I had ever played, the first game I played on my Playstation 3, and was the best Metroid game that I played this generation. Structurally, the game revolves around traversing through a massive 3D environment. Players are limited in their mobility and access at the start of the game, and must explore the environment to acquire suit upgrades that would give them new methods of traversal, allowing them to access new areas that held ever more secrets, upgrades, and enemies. Structurally, its a game that’s easy to get lost in, every new item opens up a wide array of possibilities for exploration and combat.

Batman: Arkham Asylum was special because it was a paragon of adaptation.

And to speak of Arkham Asylum‘s combat is to do it an immense injustice. Hand-to-hand combat animates beautifully, turning fights against anonymous grunts into beautiful, brutal, dances of muscle, cape, and concrete. The simplistic, four-button system is simple to learn, but possesses a rhythmic flow between punches, stuns, dodges, and counters that make the system exciting to engage with. And those mechanics are only available if the player chooses to engage with enemies in that way: stealth is just as engaging and empowering system as brawling. Between hiding on gargoyles, pouncing on enemies, setting up explosive traps, or pulling them into air ducts by distracting them with a batarang, acting as a silent predator is as empowering as you’d expect it to be. The visible terror that enemies exhibit feeds a visceral, sadistic thrill seen only in other, more morally problematic games. These mechanics all lend the game an authenticity to the source material unseen in myriad other licensed games.

And that’s to say nothing of Arkham Asylum’s representational elements. Arkham Asylum is a veritable encyclopedia of Batman lore, and villains from Zsasz to Scarecrow will confront Batman. The Riddler also brings a hidden-object aspect to the game, challenging Batman to find an object in each room of the facility that relates to some of the most obscure Batman lore out there. Kevin Conroy and the ubiquitous Mark Hamill, who voiced Batman and the Joker in Justice League and the 1990s animated series, lend their talent to the game. Simply put, Arkham Asylum works well as an paragon of adaptation, effortlessly translating the verbs, nouns, and adjectives of Batman’s print and screen presence to an interactive medium.

11. Team Fortress 2

One thing that’s problematic when designing co-operative or team-based games is making each player feel like his/her contributions matter to the team. If a player feels useless, or worse, a liability to the team, then a game is poorly balanced and heavily problematic. This is a huge issue facing Dungeon Masters of Dungeons & Dragons games, as rule-exploiting power-gamers can easily ruin the game for players less interested in the simulation of combat, reducing their feeling of agency and potency. Shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield suffer from this issue too, as negative feedback systems reward the other team for getting kills, thereby placing a large, team-affecting punishment for death. To this extent, many competitive team-based games fail at this aspect of design, and end up creating hostile communities that leave newbies no place to start.

Team Fortress 2 was special because it possessed a sense of unity and cooperation unique amongst other shooters.

This isn’t a problem for Team Fortress 2 however, and just by simply playing their role in the battlefield, even at an adequate level, players feel like they’re making important, game-changing contributions to the success of their team. This all stems from the design of Team Fortress 2′s nine player classes, their movement speed, weapons, and skills effectively restrict their abilities to only one mode of play, lending each class a design affordance that makes their particular role on a team obvious. Play as the Pyro and your role on the team is made immediately obvious from his small size, short-ranged splash attack, and the tendency of other players to back away from him. Conversely, the Spy’s abilities and weapons restrict his efficacy to stealth, placing in his hands the daunting task of sneaking behind enemy lines and breaking their defensive strategies. The interplay of these diverse classes create an incredibly deep and accessible tactical shooter, creating an unparalleled sense of unity and cohesion during play, culminating in the cathartic thrill of victory, feeling satisfied with the knowledge that you played an integral part in achieving that win.

10. Mass Effect 2

Star Wars and Star Trek came before my time, and I missed Firefly when it was originally aired, so growing up, I had no epic space-opera to anoint as part of my upbringing, but Mass Effect works as a nice substitute. Simultaneously a pastiche of every beloved science fiction franchise ever and a wildly original, extremely imaginative series of its own, Mass Effect welcomed me into an intricately textured and wonderfully flavorful universe filled with strange creatures and memorable worlds, which served as the ideal setting for a traditional monomythic adventure.

Mass Effect 2 was special because it was simultaneously giddily-imaginative, and a pastiche of every great science fiction adventure before it.

There’s a race of colossal aliens called the Reapers who visit the Milky Way every 50,000 years, annihilating all sentient life on their way. Commander Shepard discovers their existence in a vision that she had while examining an ancient artifact on Eden Prime, and must convince the Council of their existence. On the way, her ship is destroyed by a massive, insectoid ship but she is saved by the Human Supremacist organization Cerberus, and sent to explore the galaxy gathering allies to discover the secrets of that mysterious ship and its occupants. This compelling premise is made interesting by the diverse range of characters that Shepard comes across on her journey. While not every one may be inherently likable, it is impossible to come away from an interaction with a character without having formed a solid opinion about them.

As Shepard expands her crew, she must deal with racial and ideological conflicts amongst them, testing the player’s leadership and decision-making skills. The core mechanic of the Mass Effect games is talking, which is only fun when deployed with interesting characters, and Mass Effect 2 delivers them in droves. Who can forget Garrus’s darkly justified vigilantism, or how under Mordin’s hyperactive, geeky exterior lived guilty conscience over letting genocide happen. In Mass Effect 2, player’s behavior affects characters and changes them fundamentally, encouraging them to grow or change through one’s leadership style allows for some of the most engaging role-playing seen this generation.  

9. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

When the player escapes his execution and leaves the opening dungeon in Skyrim, he is hit with the jarring realization of the sheer enormity of the game’s possibility space. While the game privileges violent play styles with a substantial amount of combat mechanics and equipment, the variety of hats the player can wear with those core mechanics makes for very engaging role-playing. With the right character builds, Skyrim can be anything from a stealth game about infiltrating wealthy houses and making off with valuable loot to sell to the poor, to a Harvest Moon-esque farming simulator, to a mountain-climbing action game. While the game is indeed content heavy in terms of potential questlines and scripted set-pieces, Skyrim‘s rules create a wide-open sandbox for playful experimentation and exploration.

Skyrim was special because its structure promoted playful experimentation and exploration within its virtual space.

The vastness of the possibility space make Skyrim the perfect game of abnegation. For the past year, Skyrim has been my go-to game for times when I’m too sick or tired to invest myself in anything more complex. Raid a dungeon, hunt some monsters, fight crime or cause it, explore the sandbox and play with its rules and constraints for as long or short a time as you want. Whatever you do, you’ll probably discover something interesting to have fun with, like cabbages.

8. Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Super Smash Bros. is a social ritual, to be performed every other Friday afternoon in the company of new friends. Observe how they play, and learn something about that person: “Where did he play this game before?”, “What kind of people did he play this game with?”, “Were they his friends? Are they still now?”, “What did they teach him? How may he be similar or different to me?”.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl was special because it was universally adored and understood by nearly everyone I met.

I’ve met gamers from places as diverse as Colorado to Ecuador, and almost all of them have played Super Smash Bros, imparting their distinct choices of moves, characters, and strategies into every match I’ve shared with them. “Why is my opponent playing so aggressively as Ike? Did the friends that he played with back home always resort to the same craven defensive tactics?” “Why does this player insist on spamming bombs as Link? Why would he so cowardly attack from afar whilst avoiding actual confrontation?” The language and play of this game is almost universal, and the context in which Super Smash Bros. is played at home informs people’s playstyles, and the exchange of blows between players from different families, different communities, and different cultures exhibits the sheer diversity of mentalities that players bring into Smash Bros.‘s magic circle, and acts as a testament to the depth contained in this simple, cartoony party game.

6. World of Goo

The first thing I found remarkable about World of Goo was the story behind it. Two guys made this game! They barely had any funding! Their office was whatever free wi-fi coffeeshop they’d walk into that day! All of a sudden, video games, these monolithic electronic products made by megalithic corporations you’d hear about in the Wall Street Journal, had indies. 

To my 14-year old mind at the time, the thought was mind-boggling: people made games. These weren’t companies with knowledge of the arcane, recondite, secrets of the Wii and a relationship with Nintendo arranged by armies of lawyers, but people, individuals that I could become like. If they could make a successful game on their own, what was there to stop me from doing the same? Soon afterwards, I began researching. I read articles, books, postmortems, reviews, anything I could get my hands on, and in time, I began writing. I started doing reviews and opinion pieces on my own blog and the school newspaper about games, and in a little corner of my computer, I began writing and sketching together documents and maps for my own game.

World of Goo was special because it taught me that anyone could make games.

And that’s to speak only of its development story and the impact it had on me as a person. World of Goo is a fantastic puzzle game with a cute, yet, forlorn and lonely aesthetic. Players construct structures out of goo balls in an attempt to bridge one part of the level to the other, while having enough goo balls left to complete the level and its OCD objective. The physics-based mechanics encourage experimentation with the properties of each kind of goo ball, and combining them in creative ways creates a Portal-like sense of trial-and-error characteristic of the very best linear puzzle games.

Come back again tomorrow for the rest of the list.

EDIT: Wrote up a draft of the post, Evernote account broke, lost all that text. Post will be delayed. Come back next week.