I usually do a “Year in Review” post each year around Christmas Eve where I reflect on games that I have played and name a personal game of the year. In celebration of the successful funding of LA Game Space, I am publishing this blog post early.
My taste in gaming has changed substantially over the past year, I am no longer satisfied by epic narrative experiences and find myself seeking out brief, esoteric, and quirky interactive experiences that I’ll never forget. On my previous site, I wrote “Year in Review” posts where I would reflect and wax poetic on games that I’ve played and pick out a game as my personal game of the year. This year’s post will be a little different as it will include more nondigital and alternate reality games, giving us a broader range of experiences to discuss. My criteria for selecting games has also changed, and the games that I am about to discuss don’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of “fun”, but under that of “impactful”.
Games That I’ve Played
For the sake of readability, I won’t write about the games I played at the Global Game Jam, but will just say that Chelsea Howe’s To What End is totally worth the five minutes it takes to play.
I started the year off by playing both the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Both games were smartly done. While I felt that Skyward Sword suffered from a poorly paced introduction and midsection, I took note that the Impressionistic art style suited the spirit of the series perfectly and that the game’s motion controls finally made good on Nintendo’s original promise to create a game based around true 1:1 motion swordplay, and in many ways, it was the best motion-controlled traditional game that I’ve ever played. Skyrim was brilliant in it inspiring breadth, while narratively it sucked and there were a great many things that broke my immersion into it’s fantastic world, I was consistently driven to adventure for eighty hours with my Nord character Pixels. Alas, I eventually got bored raiding dungeons and hunting for improved loot, and went on a murderous rampage in Riften leaving much of the town’s population in pieces.
Then Journey entered my life.
This is the part where I sit at my keyboard and stare at my screen, not quite knowing what to put down to post. In many ways, Journey has become an important McGuffin in my life. I first played it days before I was accepted into USC’s Interactive Media Division and my life changed forever, I discussed it at length with my codevelopers at Subtle Stone before we separated for good, I played it to meditate before I left for college, and when I arrived at IMD, I discovered that it touched and inspired the souls of the colleagues that I was about to share my career with. Somehow, we had gathered around Journey collectively as an experience that had shaped, defined, and moved our infantile career in gaming.
But yes, Journey was something special. It touched my soul and shook my very being by speaking in a universal language transcendent of cultural boundaries. Play it.
After Journey I played Bastion. If I could find a word to describe this game, it would be luscious. Its rich coloration and enthralling music captivated me, its fluid combat and simple character customization was fun as hell. Most intriguing was Bastion’s narrator, Rucks, whose grizzled voice is as memorable to me as Morgan Freeman’s or Liam Neeson’s. His narration contributed much to Bastion’s emotional overtone, and I found myself invested in the story and found the ending to be clever in its self-reflexivity.
Up next was Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. I played this game on my laptop, and missed out on a lot of the tablet & touch exclusive features. While I didn’t quite like the game’s puzzles and found them at times illogical and strange, its aesthetics and ambitions appealed to me. Give this game a try if you’re into the esoteric.
I liked Dear Esther, and you have every right to call me pretentious, but you know that that’s not true. It didn’t strike me that the island was a manifestation of the protagonist’s subconscious until the very end, but that made the second playthrough much sweeter. It reminded me much of Inception, it’s a brainy game that will make you think and dig deep into your intellect.
Itching for a shooter, I downloaded Crysis to my Playstation 3 and enjoyed how the first few levels encouraged creative ways to deal with combat situations. It was unique, fun, and reminiscent of the original Far Cry, one of my favorite shooters out there. Alas, when aliens were introduced, the game became far more generic, linear, and unfun.
I Arrive at USC & Meet IMD
IMD 2016, The Settlers of CTIN, The Unnamed Game Development Group, The Indie Circlejerk. I have met no group of people quite like my colleagues in my undergraduate class at the USC Interactive Media Division. Their drive, ability, initiative, creativity, kind-heartedness, and courage are above and beyond anything I’ve ever seen, they’re both good as developers, but even better as people. It is both an honor and a joy to work amongst them for these short few years, if not for the rest of my career. They’ve already done a lot by introducing me to a few games, surprisingly, nondigital ones.
Two of the first folks I met from IMD got me into Dungeons and Dragons, having loved computer role-playing games like KOTOR, Fallout, and Chrono Trigger, it was necessary to discover where these games got their roots. When I signed up to join them one Friday night for DnD, I had no idea what I was getting into. The game’s ability to collectively pool the imaginations of a diverse group of people, bond them closely together, and leave them with inside jokes galore is astounding. I was a schizophrenic, dark-skinned rogue named Pixels with long purple hair and a goatee, and the situations that I have plunged my party into will stay with me for some while. Situations like rolling a critical miss on a disarm device check and nearly killing half my party. This game has brought together my adventuring party, and we’ve played many things together outside of DnD, like Uncharted 3 and the Jak & Daxter trilogy.
Speaking of which, what was the deal with that ship scene in Uncharted 3? C’mon, seriously.
Shortly thereafter, I was introduced me to Cards Against Humanity, a party game for horrible, horrible people. That game has the unique ability to reveal facets of a person’s personality that you would have never expected. Its good fun and consistently hilarious.
Shortly after, a friend introduced me to this digital web game called Frog Fractions, which taught me… things… Its best that I don’t talk about it. Play it, you’re never going to forget it.
I also got to replay the Mass Effect trilogy as part of a charity speedrun. Bad stuff happened, Garrus shouldn’t be tech expert and Miranda is in no shape to save the galaxy alone.
Reality Ends Here
The most pervasive game in my life at USC was this alternate-reality game that Jeff, Tracy, and Simon dreamed up called “Reality Ends Here”, of which the entirety of the first semester of Freshmen year is based around. It was introduced to us minutes after we met each other in the courtyard of SCA with a mysterious message coded into fortune cookies that we received at our lunch leading us to a mysterious URL on the web. After a bit of snooping around, we were led to a secret unlabeled room in the School of Cinematic Arts called the “Game Office”. We were given our cards and were set off on our own to create things. Less than 24 hours after the Dean of SCA welcomed us to the school, I found myself operating an expensive DSLR video-rig for our very first project.
I formed an impromptu team and for a brief month, was obsessed with competing with other groups to win each week by producing high-scoring media. We won two weeks in a row, our reward experiences: a tour of Jim Henson studios by Transformer’s producer Don Murphy, and an advance viewing of Gates McFadden’s (Dr. Crusher from Star Trek: TNG) new play. But most rewarding was the experience of playing the game itself, the anarchic and chaotic spirit of running around the residence halls with expensive camera equipment and a script that we wrote in a few hours has been an unforgettable experience.
Reality Ends Here won the renowned Impact Award at IndieCade for showing the most potential for games to do social good and change some facet of society. G4TV did an excellent piece on the ARG:
ARG? Card Game? Film Project? It’s all of that and more. Reality Ends Here started out as a project for USC freshmen looking to do something a little different. As the story goes, the Reality Committee will be keeping an eye on you and judging how you play the game. Players work in teams as they put together groups of cards that they receive in a packet. Cards combine to develop an idea that the students need to make happen either through film, animation, or game. Cards tell you what kind of story and what will appear in said story. Cards add points to your project, but make it more challenging with each additional item you need to include. You make it and send it in.
More than just the motto for the USC School, Reality Ends Here gave freshmen an education that extended far outside their classroom. Contestants got to meet special mentors and got their “missions” viewed by some of the top players in the business. For some it might look like a game, Reality Ends Here showed a handful of students the beginning of a wonderful life.
I fell out of the game for a good two months when life got in the way, but I do have a wonderful concluding piece for my participation in this project, and for many of the people who dedicated much of their first semester to the game, it has been a life-changing experience that truly set off their careers in film in an epic way. Consider for one the Xander Legacy team, whose project The Sci-Fi Supercut managed to find its way onto the front page of Wired. The team has since decided to reconstitute itself into its own production company.
Game of the Year
Naming a game of the year is difficult this year, simply because I have decided to encompass nondigital games into the mix, diversifying the already wide range of experiences that I could have through games. Dungeons & Dragons showed me the original promise of the procedurally generated story and the simple fun that could come out of collectivized imagination. Journey exists in my life as both a mysterious symbol that has the tendency of showing up at significant times and a game showcasing the potential of video games to make us better, more loving people. Reality Ends Here made my first-semester of college truly one-of-a-kind.
What is different about this year’s batch of GOTY nominees is that each of them has rubbed off on me and has changed how I live in some small way. I’m not judging these games purely on their fun, but on their overall impact on me. Dungeons & Dragons showed me the original promise of role-playing games, the potential of collaborative storytelling, and introduced me to a valuable group of people that I expect to spend time with in the foreseeable future. Journey transcended the emotional ambitions of most games and touched my spirit in a way that I would have never expected from a piece of art. Reality Ends Here reenergized a creative side of me that atrophied over the summer and introduced me to some incredible collaborators at USC that I wish to work with for much of my life. To choose one of these games would shirk not only the other games that I have nominated, but the incredible people that were involved in my experiences with that game and impacted my life in some way, shape, or form. Playing these games with other people and gathering around the significance of these games in our worlds made these games great, and the people that I have met and shared this chapter of my life with through these games have been impactful on me.
To that extent, I must say that, with great apologies to both my adventuring party and the people of my IMD class, Reality Ends Here stands boldly as my personal game of the year. Wearing its dream on its sleeve, it exists as a shining example of how pervasive games can alter our perception of reality and change how players connect, compete, and interact with each other, fundamentally changing how we go about our everyday lives at SCA. Ideas come randomly and through the right team-chemistry, become realized in amazing ways. It is a unique experience and a highly sophisticated ARG that has changed the lives of its most dedicated players in huge ways. With escalating interest in pervasive and ARGs amongst the public, Reality Ends Here can set off a shockwave of positive social change throughout the world.