Tuesday 31 December 2013

Goitees 2013

I guess this is annual now we're doing it again this year. Maybe 2014 will be the year activity on this blog kicks up another notch or maybe those conference papers and research will continue to steal most of my productive time while developing and playing games takes the rest of my non-reading/sleeping time.

There has been plenty of disagreement on which games are great or poor this year, which is a great space for an interactive medium to be in; people are walking away with very different experiences and not just collectively classifying games 'buggy or boring' or 'brilliant' into two piles. Not only can mechanics elicit very different reactions from people (Go is not a game for everyone) but also the narrative we play can be radically different and a few of the games below are noted for my experience of them, which it not necessarily the same thing someone else will experience when they pick up the game. In a couple of cases, exploring that is the theme of the game. A full exploration of any one game to feel out every limit of the systems and narrative and their interaction would be exhausting and you can only experience it for the first time once and are going to be influenced by that first taste. If you completely disagree with my selection then that's totally fine, but it is my selection of particularly noteworthy titles I've played this year.

If you're sensitive to spoilers then scan over the bold titles and avoid reading the text about each entry. I'm not aiming to ruin the games but if you want to play any of these games completely clean then (shockingly) I will be talking about what they contain.

The Swapper

Not enough people have been talking about The Swapper. That game looks unique (and cohesively competent); has great music; a decent story that doesn't try and make up an answer to the philosophical questions it asks to fit the future time period; and great puzzles that are rarely trivial but also not frustrating. The entire game was less than 5 hours long for me without looking up any of the solutions, showing respect for playtime with several fast-travel systems and some slack in the gating that allows you to progress and come back to incomplete puzzles if you don't want to sit and think about them. The bounds of the puzzles create the landscape of the puzzle rooms so by looking for things like raised steps you can read the language of potential solutions. This language is something you'll slowly get more adept at reading while the difficulty curve and new language is slowly added to as you progress, although you get all the tools you need to complete all the puzzles within the first few minutes of play.

My biggest criticism is that the achievements are for 10 hidden rooms that it never gives a hint about existing. There are no others, no completion ding to indicate how many people finished the thing or gave up after finding the final gate requires them to go back and complete the puzzles they missed. The biggest negative I can think of is in the metagame of surrounding features: you should definitely play this game.

Gone Home

That bit where the entire game turns out to be the character remembering her fears and discoveries when entering the house as she reads the diary of her sister, found at the end of the journey. That's such a perfect way to explain audio logs and let them trigger without putting them in the world as recordings or just arm-waving it as a narrated experience. Clean decisions like that are what makes up Gone Home.

Two hours of exploring a location and unlocking the several intertwined stories that took place there. That's the advertised content here and anyone who grew up in the '90s is probably going to enjoy just being immersed in that virtual space they half-remember from two decades ago. The stories hold together as you explore and you should absolutely play this game but I do hope this is a step towards something better. The leaning on horror game tropes to link the experience to and subvert the expectations of long time gamers works but I don't think this style of game needs to pander to those already very familiar with gaming conventions. I think there are interesting things to be done with evolving experiences that react, that change the story told and rebuild the world not yet seen based on play. As a first stab from a small, self-funded team, this is what it needed to be and maybe a signpost to much more to come later.


Speaking of immersing yourself in a virtual space and exploring the stories there, this is both as far as you can get from Gone Home and the same thing done with a completely different budget and scope, with added games of skill that often involve shooting. A dazzling indication of what can be dragged out of 2005 silicon if you've got the resources to dedicate to faking everything to get the light to feel just right out into the distance. I really hope the next gen allows people to create these spaces and let the silicon illuminate it via some configuration to their tastes rather than the hard work on display here.

This was a game where I spent 60 hours doing almost everything that world had to offer and with only a few guiding indicators pointing me towards places I did not want to go. Maybe it was deciding what not to do, as I'd done previously in GTA games (never one for a random rampage, or to use the respawn mechanics of a wasted or busted screen to appear in a hospital or police station), that allowed me to avoid the disappointment others felt. Some of the game does fall flat, some of the content is immature and problematic, many of the missions are just an excuse to point you into this world and let you do a quick activity. But almost all of those 60 hours were ones I really enjoyed. The ability to switch characters, the improved movement and shooting, the heists, the writing: because there is so much of everything it's easy to focus on the few things it screws up but there is so much great stuff in GTA V that I couldn't not include it on this list, even if a few choices were pretty undesirable in my eyes.

Unfortunately there is a renewed call for all immorality to be punished in our media (it now hides under the banner of "satire is dead"). "This content does not explicitly condemn the actions or show the ruination of the actors it depicts and so I will take it as glorifying said actions, for satire is dead."

Maybe it is just the exhaustion of those tired of playing the hero role while performing the actions of a villain in so many games. But satire is very much alive, and writing about the inability to see it by completely failing to listen to any of the dialogue around a scene is disingenuous. But also this is where what I did and what that author experienced diverges. I didn't get a graphic torture scene, Trevor played it straight to the actual horror of the very real situation it pokes at; he repeatedly waterboarded the poor cooperative innocent who then, in desperation to say anything, led to another potential innocent being executed. The visuals of the torture was very tame but the underlying events were the horrific part. Events as has probably happened several times in recent history, orchestrated by people who claim to protect our freedom.

GTA V is not about good people. Beyond Maude I really can't think of anyone trying particularly hard to be anything other than the background level of self-obsessed, terrible to each other in that world. When you bring in a new protagonist by showing him brutally killing the previous game's sympathetic protagonist then the tone is set. There are bad people and people trying to keep their head above the water as the world sinks around them. There are so few good people that I can only name that one off the top of my head, after 60 hours of meeting and getting to know them. Everyone you meet and play as is a warning to the player, not a shining light. And just like the real world, many of them do rather well. Perpetuating the just world fallacy in our media is not the way to a better real world and claiming satire is dead will not lead you to any worthwhile interpretations of a world of caricature.

The Stanley Parable (and demo)

A game for gamers about games with excellent voice work and writing; made of 100% spoilers to the point where the demo is a completely unrelated product about what it means to make a demo of a holistic, non-linear interactive experience.

If you're interested in diverging experiences, the hard bounds of what a completely authored game experience can be, and some of the best laughs you'll have in a game then this is for you. I've already done a bit of a review recently (which got broken by Steam community's automatic expiry of spoiler tags) but avoid unless you're prepared for spoilers. This is a game you should go into blind. Grab the demo and see if it elicits a chuckle at any point, if so then grab the full game and enjoy.

Papers Please

There's never enough money if you play it honest and time is your constant enemy. Are you even doing the right thing for the future of your family by following the rules? Why does this random event come now, I just can't afford this expense, we already can't have heat and food every day! "Your niece has disappeared". Oh, for just a few more dollars or a bit more time to do my job and earn it.

Mixing story with mechanics for a sublime interactive experience that lets the player get a hint of the stress and uncertainty that it wishes to convey. This is a great game along the same lines as Cart Life or a sweatshop tycoon game.

The Last of Us

What an example of interactive experiences making something personal. This is a linear progression with pre-rendered scenes showing much of the narrative and dialogue and yet it was completely my own. Some reviewers didn't find their play mixed in, didn't derive major character development via play. Yet others did, but developed completely different characters who just walked the same road and had some moments the same as the story I experienced. This is why games are something to be treasured. Potentially fragile but so precious and we must be allowed to develop the craft further to manage that fragility.

The Last of Us is a series of stories about two characters as they develop a bond which perfectly plays to the episodic TV strength of narrative form to fit a 8-16 hour story that you play into the game rather than just taking a 3 hour movie plot, padding, and then dumping in enough disconnected gameplay to hit a 6 to 15 hour completion time.

I get the feeling that Joel is meant to be a gun person, at least somewhat. My Joel didn't enjoy guns unless absolutely required due to the noise issue and aim he had. So I played a stealth game in which a lot of necks were broken. A lot of waves of enemies all died without anyone getting alerted and this somewhat broke a few scripted things it would seem (spawning enemies need to be done better; seriously guys, I've had enough of your wave based combat arenas in my Tomb Raider games and spawning in the waves badly is not on when I've got magic see-through-walls so I can see you doing it!) The weirdness seemed to emerge from my slow methodical approach to the stealth game and then suddenly wave two has spawned sat on top of the corpses of wave one and their walking AI isn't switched on so they're lambs to the slaughter. But outside of a couple of arenas that seemed to break, my Joel was definitely alive in my head and muttering back to the enemies shouting out about hunting him that they were the hunted ones, they were trapped in this arena with him and he didn't need bullets for what he had planned. This peaked during the final section, where my play seemed to be least connected to the majority or reviewers, in which an unhinged and well stocked Joel walked through the hospital with effectively unlimited flamer ammo and the screaming of the soldiers made that descent into madness drive to the game close. That section where I took full control and exhausted that stockpiled ammo (I had previously not touched) as I hit the peak of the story played perfectly into the ending as Ellie as she decided that trust is forever dead but you take alliances where you can find them and they were both broken enough to survive.

Speaking of Ellie, she, on the other hand, was a gun person. I suppose this is required due to where she starts being played (with an infinite ammo machine NPC) and the rifle ammo that seems to be a lot more available to her from drops and placements. It was kinda shocking to play her when she takes over as she basically took aim at tiny dots and then later walked past scenes of popped heads. She knew a kill zone when she saw one and used them liberally. So she was already established as more than capable of dealing with a cult and the knife cutscene that ended it seemed a bit more 'unwinding joy of the sociopath' rather than 'driven to near insanity by fear' that I suspect the scene was intended to elicit. Joel was there to calm her down when it was over, not to comfort Ellie and bring her back to some shadow of childhood. As I said, my game was not the only way this plays out, but it was how it played out for me and fixed cut-scenes did not prevent divergence.

The links to Enslaved (AI-companion and stealth focus mutation to the sub-genre), with ancestor Tomb Raider, goes beyond an engine originally designed for Uncharted but with the traversal restricted to avoid the climbing walls that has been a staple of that sub-genre (fighting, traversal, & puzzles with plenty of cinematics for every moment to contextualise those levels). I was weeping for the great assets on display in the Last of Us and a renderer that couldn't do them justice. Other than the terrible snow light flicker and some low res assets that stood out against the high detail others, that game looked (just like Enslaved, taking a similar visual theme) like it would look real nice on something that wasn't a PS3. That they rendered out the cut-scenes is going to kill that kind of conversion to PS4 though. I have no idea why they didn't use a better offline renderer for the scenes for that (there is so much aliasing, but much less than the real-time rendered stuff so it does clearly mark the video from the real-time but not in a way as to make it so it'll look better than if the game was redone with a 1080p+AA real-time renderer - then the cutscenes will show more aliasing than the game would and it'd be messed up that way). It's like the video is trying to pretend it was real-time rendered. For a bit there I though they'd managed to get the game to actually render some of it (remove the overhead of doing the physics, gameplay etc and just render out scenes with a higher quality than the gameplay stuff) but then realised it was all video. I wonder how that works with the unlockable clothing for a new game plus. I assume they didn't render video for every combination so you get characters changing clothes.

I can't end on a negative for the Last of Us and the art design is incredible. That's why I'm disappointed, I wouldn't care about the rendering if it wasn't for what could be with current art and code unchained from 2005 silicon. As with all immersive experiences, you'll notice the rendering errors (eg aliasing) less and less as you progress and that's when the art will really feel amazing. But I couldn't end without mentioning the soundtrack, which does an impressive job of providing the backing and enhancing the emotions of the game without ever feeling like it crowds out the other audio.

But not everything can be a Game of the Year. Here are a couple of moments that I really didn't get along with:

Bioshock Infinite. Never the best of combat arena titles, despite trying to mix things up with magic + guns to get away from the prevailing design of FPSs, this is probably the least fun I've had with the shooting in a Bioshock game and they sure do like putting a lot of it in there for Infinite. The Luteces' story kept me going but I really didn't like the coming of age progression for Elizabeth (especially with how the blood was first let and so completed the gestation of a second enemy force to be generic antagonists) which felt heavy-handed, unrefined, and very much a surface level only arc. Maybe it stood out so much because Elizabeth felt like a plot device engine rather than a person, something for others to manipulate and derive power from rather than someone with agency or even desires. Come to think of it, the themes were many but felt almost all surface level. Care and time went into the stylistic rendering of this place but there wasn't much in there and throwing slavery (and everything else they could find to both ground the story and boost the theme) into a story about fatherhood seemed out of place and ultimately maladroit.

Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons. The 'woman as temptation of evil/destroyer of family' trope really ruined this game for me. As that is the inciting event for the entire of the emotional payload of the game's peak and diminuendo to the close, I was ripped away from the story just as the game wanted me to lean in to it. Great looking game, lovely use of mechanics and story uniting for the end chapter, really wish they'd used a different plot device there so I might have been invested in it rather than disappointed by the hand of the author.