Monday, January 9, 2012

The Best Beast of 2011: Origins

While I think there's some fun to be had in ranking a year's best games, the practice does feels both too definitive (these are really the best?) and amorphous (how do you even begin evaluating "best" anyway?). So in a total cop out, I'm just going to write about some games I really, really enjoyed that I played in the last year.  And they'll be delivered roughly in chronological order.

A couple caveats: 1) I'm only considering games I played and finished in 2011. I suppose this precludes the persistent games that can't be finished, but I didn't play any of those in 2011 that I hadn't played in years previous as well (e.g. TF2, L4D2). If there was something of that ilk, I'm sure I'd just consider "finished" to mean "I played a lot of this, to the point of solid understanding." 2) I'm counting games I played in 2011, not necessarily those that were released in 2011. Granted, most of these are still recent, but some were technically released in 2009 or 2010 and I just didn't get to them until 2011. There are ten games in total, five here and five more in the near future.

Without further ado:

Best Protagonists for Hugs - ilomilo

Seriously, just look at those guys. Just listen to that music. It's almost impossible to imagine something more heartwarming and adorable. In a continual parade of games seeking to be more gruesome, dark, gritty, visceral, insert-"over-the-top"-adjective-here, it's wonderful to play something that's trying to be, well, cute. But ilomilo does so without becoming saccharine or mawkish. The story is actually a bit sad if you really think about it. And despite its cute exterior, the puzzles become truly fiendish later in the game. If you're curious, the demo can be downloaded here.

Best Gravelly Russians - Metro 2033

It's important to note that being dark and gritty isn't necessarily a bad thing. I was actually turned onto Metro 2033 almost a year ago exactly, when it started showing up in a number of year-end conversations. A convenient Steam sale later and Metro 2033 became one of my favourite FPSs in quite some time. As I noted here, it manifests an almost "Natural Law" design aesthetic that a number of Eastern European developers seem to possess (see S.T.A.L.K.E.R., The Void, etc.). It's not that the game is crushingly difficult in a Super Meat Boy way. Rather the game world's rules are enacted almost without any regard for the player and if you want to survive, well, it's on you to do so. In an era where at times I worry some games are walking dangerously close to instilling serious learned helplessness in the audience, games like Metro 2033 are absolutely refreshing. I hope that in this year's sequel, Metro: Last Light, 4A and THQ don't lose sight of what so many people loved about Metro 2033. At $20, the game is a steal. Oh, and make sure to play it with subtitles and Russian dialog.

Best Funny Robots - Portal 2

Lots of good words have been etched about Portal 2, with it ending up on many erudite's folks year-end lists/conversations. Rather than replicate their sentiments (yeah, everything about Portal 2 is pretty bloody great), there's one observation I'd like to make: the way humour manifests in the two different modes of the game. As someone who's helped make a couple funny games and might just like to make more some day, Portal 2 proves an interesting case. In the single-player, the comedy is delivered through the game's authored content. The writing is as sharp, if not sharper, than Portal and both Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons are brilliant additions to the cast (not to mention the ubiquitous Nolan North's cameos).

But what's interesting is the way humour tends to manifest itself in the co-op portion of the game. Pretty much across the board, I felt the writing in the co-op was weaker. The "playing the partners against each other angle" became one-note pretty quickly. Additionally, I'd be talking to my partner while the jokes were playing out, so we'd either have to stop talking or miss the lines. However, I'd say the co-op is still as funny, if not funnier than the single player simply because of all the situations you and your partner can end up in. Accidentally switching the wrong portal and sending them tumbling to their death never failed to produce a laugh. Waiting just a few extra seconds to drop that portal, while their head is smashed again the ceiling again and again by a jump pad. Accidentally (or purposefully) hitting the switch that crushes them, rather than moves their path. And that's not even to mention the havoc one can wreak with the laser cubes. The humour in co-op comes largely from the players' interaction with the content, rather than the content itself.

Dan Cook of Spry Fox wrote a bit about authored vs. procedural humour in games, and I added my two cents on there. It's an interesting conversation and definitely something I'd like to think/talk more about in the future. If you some reason you don't own Portal 2, I have a couple Steam coupons that make the game only $15. They expire at the end of January, so if you want one, contact me soon!

Best Acoustic Frontier Trip-Hop - Bastion

Like Portal 2, there's been a lot of year-end talk about Bastion. And frankly, it's all well-deserved. The game is gorgeous, plays great and sounds even better than that. The look, story and sound of Bastion are fantastic, but in some ways, it's the gameplay that I actually appreciate the most. Having made a couple actions RPGs, I promise you, striking the right balance between meaningful choices and depth is not easy. The Diablo/Torchlight style of action RPG is the number crunching, spreadsheet-y way to do it, but I'm very interested in other ways of providing meaningful ARPG decisions without turning it into columns of figures and procedurally generated loot. Bastion beautifully demonstrates how to do that. Greg, Amir and everyone else wholly deserve all the recognition they are receiving. I want more small games that are still rich and interesting and if they're even half the game Bastion was, I'll be happy. You can get Bastion on Steam, XBLA or even in your Chrome browser.

Best Indigo Trading & Carpet Weaving - Dawn of Discovery (Anno 1404)

The oldest game on this list, Dawn of Discovery (known as Anno 1404 in Europe) technically came out in the summer of 2009, but I didn't play it until the middle of last year. And I cannot believe I waited that long. A real-time town building simulation, Dawn of Discovery is everything I loved about old city building sims like Caeser. Mine this, harvest that, grow this and trade it here; you can set up freaking automated trade routes to take your wine here and pick up indigo there. It's a particular game for a particular type of person, but if you're that type of person, dear god, it's so, so good. And the game is also absolutely gorgeous. The sequel Anno 2070 was released just a few months ago and I've got it on the docket for after I finish a few more games. I strongly suspect it will show up on a similar list to this a year from now. Due to some nonsense with Ubisoft patching (or rather, not patching) the game, it is not currently available on Steam. But one can still get it on Direct2Drive and other sites.

That's it for the first half, the next shall follow before too long. Until then, what games did you play last year that shined with special brilliance?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Now With Video!

If I haven't mentioned it here before, one of the best things that happened to the Vancouver game dev scene (at least in my realm) was the Full Indie developer meetup really gathering steam. And at the last meetup of the year, I was asked to pull out a small section of my MIGS talk and deliver it to the assembled indie masses. And one of the organizers was kind enough to tape and upload it.

I ended up expanding the section where I talked the development of TV as a medium for creative expression. Basically, TV used to be awful. Really, fundamentally awful. Now we've got things like The Wire, Madmen, Battlestar Galactica, Arrested Development, etc. and they're really good (I think I actually prefer a good serial TV show to most new movies at this point). What changed? Well, watch the video and find out!

A lot of this is drawn from Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good for You. If you haven't read it, I heartily recommend it.

Also, I'm finally going to stop blogging (exclusively, anyway) about this talk now. I've got a year-end games post I'm going to pull together this week. I won't be anything as definitive as a "Best Of 2011." It's more just things I played that I really enjoyed, found surprising, etc. So stay tuned! (Get it??)