2013: Gaming Year in Review

This is the annual post where I basically go through all the notable and interesting games I played this year, wax poetic about them, and create new forms of hyperbole to describe my personal games of the year. Last year’s post can be found here, and previous year’s posts can be found on my high school blog, which I’m keeping hidden for all the reasons. 

2013 will be remembered for two major movements within gaming: the rise of the American e-sports scene, and the proliferation of the queer games scene. I don’t belong to either of those scenes per se, but their growth is cause for celebration: the diversification of scenes to include people outside of that mainstream “gamer” community means that more and more people will become “gamers”, which is what I’ve always wanted. I hope to see soon a world where there will be a scene for every imaginable type of person, and I believe we’re making strides in that direction.

What transpired in Room 2014 at 2013's GDC will be important in years to come.
What transpired in Room 2014 at 2013’s GDC will be important in years to come.

Just a year ago, we entered a period of unprecedented change to how games are made, processed, and understood, leading to the proliferation of newfound developers, genres, subject matters, and modes of play. Now, that trickle of change has grown into an avalanche, and the game industry that exists today welcomes with open arms games like Surgeon Simulator, Gone Home, and The Stanley Parable.

Five years ago, the thought of a world like this would have been unimaginable.

Meditating on change in the industry, the importance of our place in time, and the potential we now have to steer the course of gaming’s destiny is something that I’ve done in previous posts, and really, I’m just repeating myself here. But I can’t help but reiterate my enthusiasm: this is the gaming world that I’ve always wanted to live in. In 2010, I yearned for more daring games unafraid to try something different and interesting, and in 2013, those games exist everywhere I look.

DEAD GAMES WALKING

Telltale’s hit point-and-click adventure The Walking Dead was the first game that I played this year, and one of the most emotionally taxing games that I’ve ever played. Its a story-driven game about leadership, the core mechanic of navigating dialogue trees is contextualized in a way that every decision carries great ethical weight,  asking players questions not like “what is right or wrong?” but rather “who do I want to hurt least?”. Telltale manages to maintain this sense of constant heft and weight throughout the game’s five episodes, concluding in a cathartic, heart-wrenching ending that left me drained, shaken, and worn.

Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus

Next was The Unfinished Swana game by USC IMD alums Giant Sparrow, a first-person puzzle game that iterates upon its core mechanic beautifully. The Unfinished Swan is videogame comfort food, it’s a heartwarming, homey tale that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy and loved inside. As I played this game with my friends, I couldn’t help but subconsciously maintain a splendid grin throughout the entire experience.

Shortly afterwards, we played through Shadow of the Colossusa monumental achievement of the sixth console cycle, which holds up with remarkable grace. The vastness of the gameworld dwarfs the player’s tiny, insignificant avatar, imbuing exploration with a tangible sense of forlorn loneliness. The giants which walk the Forbidden Lands trot with a quiet, fearsome majesty. Each battle with a Colossus carries a hefty emotional arc, ranging from the apprehension of the approach, the confusion and panic of trying to discover the beast’s weakness, the empowering, triumphant thrill of learning that weakness, and the catharsis… then sadness, of victory. Incredible game, definitely an annual playthrough for me.

Surgeon Simulator 2013
Surgeon Simulator 2013

Surgeon Simulator 2013 is the game most indicative of where we stand in the history of this medium today. Here, we have a game developed in 48 hours at the 2013 Global Game Jam, a series of once-underground game-making competitions. It was not funded not by publisher, nor Kickstarter campaign, nor grant money. Surgeon Simulator wasn’t even a good game by traditional measures of design, featuring an intentionally unintuitive control scheme, the game is in essence an interactive joke. By all prior standards of game funding and publishing, Surgeon Simulator 2013 should have been quietly forgotten amongst the hundreds of games designed at these events. And yet, through an unforeseen wrinkle in how this world works, Surgeon Simulator was reviewed higher, and sold better, than AAA sequels like God of War: Ascension, Crysis 3, and Gears of War: Judgement. Consumers are changing, and are now welcoming new games willing to challenge long-encoded standards of design, making room for games about butterfingered surgeons. Its an underdog story so glorious that it could have only happened by accident.

“X IS A METACOMMENTARY ON Y”

In March, Bioshock Infinite, a game which I had eagerly anticipated for years, finally came out. It was the week of GDC, and all my game studies classes were cancelled, so I completed the game in a day. While upon reflection, the game is brimming with design and narrative flaws so basic that it’s a wonder how it passed playtesting, I found Bioshock Infinite to be an enjoyable, albeit overhyped and subsequently disappointing, shooter. My enjoyment of it came mostly out of its uniquely postmodern subtext, which challenges the notion of meaningful choice and autonomy in story-driven games. My analysis of it, which got featured on Gamasutra, has become basically my only claim to fame.

Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite

Next up was the delightful FEZ. Like many, I discovered FEZ through Indie Game: The Movie and was tightly invested in Phil Fish’s painful, triumphant, underdog story. FEZ was fantastic with its daring experimental structure and wondrous difficulty. FEZ’s obscure puzzle designs and interdimensional platforming harkens back to memories spent of school playgrounds, secrets and rumors of the Mew under the Viridan City truck and the Triforce chest in Forest Temple spread like gossip. FEZ is a game meant to be played in parallel with a good friend, sharing every delightful discovery along the way with childlike wonder.

I didn’t know what to think of The Last of Us when I first learned about it a year ago. A third-person action game set in the zombie apocalypse featuring an old guy and a girl seemed pretty unoriginal given Naughty Dog’s fantastic pedigree, and thus, I went into it with doubts. When I finally played it, I found it unique and incredible in a multitude of ways. Combat is disempowering, limited resources and a relatively underpowered protagonist lends the game a sense of dread and despair that gives way into a panicked chaos of gunfire, culminating in the cathartic release of survival. The game’s story, one of the strongest told this year, calls into question the social demarcations separation “us” and “them” and meditates on themes of love and sacrifice.

The Last of Us

Thomas Was Alone was one of the cutest games I’ve ever played. It is both one of the best puzzle-platformers to come out of a scene rife with them and perhaps the best demonstration of gameplay-as-metaphor and the proceduralist aesthetic to have come out this year. The way it characterizes its quadrilaterals and lends them personality through kinaesthetics and functionality elevates this puzzle-platformer into a delightful story about friendship, jealously, need, and identity. Thomas Was Alone’s rectangles undergo entire character arcs with meaningful conflicts and conclusions, and the game communicates those arcs through simple game feel, lending its characters a humanity not seen in all the dialogue trees and facial animation systems developers have produced thus far.

GO HOME

I disliked Metal Gear Solid when I first played it, but decided to give the series a second go after studying writing about postmodernism, a cultural aesthetic that the series adheres to very much. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, which sheds the series’ cyberpunk postmodernism to focus on a Cold War-era spy fantasy, changed my perspective on the series substantially. A delightfully Japanese pastiche of 20th century spy fiction, Metal Gear Solid 3 is perhaps the most restrained and grounded game in the series (which is not saying much given Kojima’s predilection for vampires, cyborg-ninjas, and the Illuminati). Every room in Snake Eater‘s vast world is a playground for emergent strategies for traversal, coupled with a variety of tools from guns, to chloroform rags, and alligator hats, Metal Gear Solid 3’s sneaking system is an incredible sandbox for self-expressive play.

Gone Home

Standards for environmental storytelling have shot up over the course of the generation. Flavor text that was communicated by pressing the “interact” button next to an object is now communicated visually, through intricately detailed 3D models in a gameworld. The juxtaposition of objects creates place and story, and narrative discovered rather than delivered. This made traversal through the beautiful environments of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and Metroid Prime a delight, and it is wonderful to see a game like Gone Home emerge from this burgeoning tradition. Evoking nostalgia for the nineties, Gone Home communicates a tale about a family that underwent a great change while its older daughter was off at college. The means of progressing through the story is snooping through the spaces each family member inhabited. Characters go through entire character arcs as the player creeps down a hallway, the catalysts for their change evident in the things they carried. Its a tough game that dances in and out of some uncomfortable themes, many of which strike close to home, and one of the most structurally interesting games of the year.

On the complete opposite side of the gaming spectrum, XCOM: Enemy Unknown consumed a substantial amount of my time early in the semester. Its an incredibly difficult, incredibly addictive turn-based strategy game that maintains a constant sense of desperation in every aspect of its design. The dread can become overwhelming as players become strapped for time, resources, and personnel, lending dramatic weight to every single decision. The death of a single high-ranking soldier from a stray bullet can cause entire plans to crumble in an instant. But when the dice land in one’s favor and a plan goes perfectly as intended, the triumphant rush of victory is unparalleled.

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero is surreally magnificent, and maintains a consistency of vision that bleeds into every single corner of its dreamy aesthetic. It is a magical-realist point-and-click adventure game with art inspired by late 20th-century theatrical set design and poetic writing imbued with a nostalgic sense of Americana. It’s as if Steinbeck’s sentimental prose met the magical wonder of Rudolfo Anaya’s, creating a spiritually evocative tale of Conway’s journey down the Zero’s rabbit hole. For anyone even mildly interested in the unusual, Kentucky Route Zero‘s whimsical and forlorn world is one worth exploring.

Personal Game of the Year

Naming a personal game of the year is a substantial ordeal for me, simply because I feel a sense of guilt for overlooking all the great games that I considered for it, especially in 2013, a banner year for unusual and interesting games: digital, physical, analogue, and installation. And in the shadow of that regret, I must name The Stanley Parable as my personal game of the year.

Yes, systemically speaking, The Stanley Parable might not even be a game, academic standards of language and game studies considered, it fits more under the umbrella of interactive fiction than videogames, but that’s beyond the point. The point is that The Stanley Parable is interesting. 

The Stanley Parable

If Bioshock Infinite called into question ideas of the existence of autonomy in an authored piece of fictionthen The Stanley Parable takes that metacommentary to its intellectual extreme, calling into question ideas of player motivation, narrative structure, meaningful choice, the lusory attitude, the player-avatar relationship, freedom in authored fiction, and the conflict between player and designer. The game posits those questions in short, fifteen minute bursts that demand reflection and study, performing its commentary more elegantly than Ken Levine’s bloated, frustrating shooter ever could.

Look, the core mechanic of the Stanley Parable is making binary choices to influence the outcome of a story, which in itself isn’t very interesting, essentially being tantamount to any number of terrible dating-sims. But when contextualized with questions about narrative structure and game design, The Stanley Parable‘s mechanics become ironically rife with meaning, evolving into the catalyst for engaging conversation. While many may rightfully criticize The Stanley Parable for not being a game per se, that does not make it any less interesting as a piece of interactive media, and in a period where all we’re asking for are games that take daring risks, engage with challenging themes, and are in essence unique and interesting, isn’t The Stanley Parable exactly what we wanted?

Thank you and Merry Christmas! 

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Zombie Fortnight

I completed The Last of Us last week, one of the better survival horror games to come out recently, and probably the best this year so far. I also got the chance to play through The Walking Dead: 400 Days and came away slightly disappointed, its short-story structure made it feel like a prologue to Season 2 of Telltale’s series than its own, fully-realized game. Nonetheless, I liked the characters that were introduced and I’m excited to see where this new antagonist will take them.

The Walking Dead 400 Days

Two new articles have been published to The Artifice, both of them about zombies.

‘The Last of Us’ Review – My first video game review in two years. Its been a long time since I last critiqued a game, and I hope that my new style of writing about games could create some constructive conversation about the games. Another thing: playing a game on deadline is still not much fun.

Making Sense of the Zombie Apocalypse – Oh no, I’m doing that kind of writing. Here, I try to explain the current resurgence of zombie fiction by connecting it to Millennial’s fears, all whilst hoping not to come off as paranoid, crazy, or pretentious.

Also, I did a zombie-type game with my old team Subtle Stone about a year and a half ago. Its an arcadey style shooter for Windows built in XNA. I have major regrets about the interface in retrospect and think the controls could have been much better designed. Also, the default gun type should have dealt more damage and had a slightly shorter interval between shots. If I didn’t lose the game’s code in a hard drive failure, I would have gone back and changed that. Oh well.

Happy Belated Independence Day!

Stuff I’ve Been Playing Recently

I’ve been doing games a lot recently. A lot of them are good, some of them are bad. A lot of them are digital console games, others are not.

First up was The Walking Deadthis is a narrative point and click adventure game and one of the most surprisingly amazing things I’ve played in recent memory.

The Walking Dead

The point-and-click adventure game is hard to understand as a game designer due to its lack of emergence. When I work with games, I try to design systems that allow for players to develop skills within systems of interesting rules that are conducive to meaningful play, in other words, one can be good at a game. It means something to be good at a shooter, and it means something to be good at a platformer or a fighting game. What then does it mean to be good at a point-and-click adventure game? After all, success at this kind of game amounts to little more than rehearsing a predetermined set of actions until players reach the end. Pick up that, give it to him, push that, talk to him. If the point-and-click adventure  game allows for such little player choice within its mechanics, why then is The Walking Dead  so damn compelling?

Maybe its because narrative is so crucial to the player’s enjoyment of this kind of game. Rules of Play defines something called cognitive interactivity, which is “the psychological, emotional, and intellectual participation between a person and a system”. The framed narrative of the point-and-click adventure game imbues the predetermined set of actions needed to progress with meaning. Every puzzle we solve by combining and using objects in the game world is woven with our emotional investment in the characters of the game.

Which makes The Walking Dead a narrative tour-de-force unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a game. Yes, The Walking Dead features only rudimentary dialogue trees and simplistic puzzles. Why the hell then was I moved to tears at the end?

Its because The Walking Dead is realistic with its narrative situations, while dialogue trees in other games provide only binary decisions with clear-cut notions of good and evil, and tie these decisions into mechanics by rewarding or punishing them accordingly, The Walking Dead does no such thing. All important narrative decisions have clearly negative consequences, and are timed, imbuing each of its five episodes with a dramatic tension unseen in the best of games. Making moral decisions becomes not a question of what’s right and wrong, but rather a question of who doesn’t get hurt.

Lee and Clementine

The Walking Dead has players leading a band of survivors on an adventure to escape a zombie-infested Georgia while tasked with protecting the life of a little girl named Clementine. Moral decisions come down to making choices about what kind of leader one wants to be: will you try to be idealistic and inspirational or calculating with the distribution of the party’s extremely limited resources? Will you be able to put aside emotional prejudices in the name of fairness even when members of your group threaten to subvert the integrity of the entire party? Moral questions change from questions of good and evil to decisions about who doesn’t get hurt. Your choices aren’t accompanied by fanfare. No paragon or renegade points are rewarded, karma isn’t gained or lost, the game simply takes note of your decision, nods stoically, and adjusts the narrative accordingly.

And how invested in the narrative you’ll be. The Walking Dead is a taxing game, not on the player’s cognitive functions (the game’s puzzles are simple), but rather on their emotional capacity. By the end of Lee and Clementine’s adventure, I was exhausted and tired from buffet of difficult narrative decisions and the jagged road of betrayals, confused motivations, and sacrificial redemptions. Even if I was simply enacting a scripted set of actions to get to the end of the game, I was emotionally invested in everything that I did in that game.

So what else did I play? Well for one, Super Hexagon represents probably the purest manifestation of the action game that I’ve seen in a while. Its short play sessions are perfect for casual play, and I find myself repeatedly playing the game over and over again, eschewing much more sophisticated play. I often myself tired after long days and unable to muster the effort to consume a big new AAA experience, Super Hexagon is a natural go-to game when I’m afflicted with this apathy.

Super Hexagon

I also had to play through Bioshock, The Binding of Isaac, and Frozen Synapse for my introductory game studies class. Unlike how I’d play other games, I focused on “reading” these games using the Nick Montfort model of game analysis. Its a cool, formalized and academic model for understanding video games at a deeper level. Bioshock is one of my favorite games of this generation, and having the opportunity to replay it, and study it at a deeper level, was a pleasant surprise. Returning to the game after having a deeper knowledge of the economic and philosophical ideas going into the game made the game’s social commentary all the more interesting. The Binding of Isaac was a interesting rouge like that incorporated elements of shooters, which would probably be fantastic once I get bored of FTL. Frozen Synapse plays like a Super Hexagon for a strategy game, easy to pick up and play in those moments of apathy.

And there’s The Unfinished Swan. I’ve been making a concentrated effort to play more of IMD’s (or IMGD, or thatgameschool’s) games. The Unfinished Swan was an adorable first-person puzzle game with a brilliantly pronounced visual style, a telling of a cute children’s story, and made interactive. Its video-game comfort food, a game that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and loved inside. Upon discovering more of the unfinished kingdom, or seeing a cool new gameplay mechanic be introduced, I found myself grinning gleefully. Try it out, especially if you enjoyed Journey.

I most recently began playing Botanicula, its also adorable and will make you squee with joy. Great use of sound in that game.