So, 2014 is upon us and with it comes, exciting new releases, a changing front to PC gaming with the new Steam OS and Steam Machine and the start of the next-gen arms race as both consoles (and the WiiU, I guess, hoping into battle blindfolded and drunk) go to war. Because of this giant change looming on the horizon, I thought the game releases of 2013, especially towards the end of the year would dry up in anticipation for the PS4 and XBOXONE release, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. This year has been a tidal wave of incredible games, and titles that have actually changed the genre- instant classics like The Last of Us, which I believe has one of the best story stories and two of the greatest characters in any game I’ve ever seen. The only other game that I feel affected me in the same way TLoU did is Spec Ops: The Line, and possibly The Stanley Parable (all three for different reason and in different ways).
On the topic of The Stanley Parable, I think 2013 has been the best showing for indie games so far. This year my playing time has been taken up by so many Independent games, many of which I’ll probably return to more often and have had more impact on me that many triple-A titles I’ve played not just in 2013, but in the past few years.
Either way, I thought I would run down my favourite experiences of the year. They aren’t in any particular order, really, just a run-down of my personal favourites.
Games released this year:
This time last year, I was about to record one of my very first play-throughs of a game for my channel. My steam library wasn’t the horrendous 50/60 title monster it is now, so I had few games to choose from. I thus opted to try and play an online flash game that I had come to love. Since I’m a pretentious ass, it of course wasn’t something fun to watch like Happy Wheels, but instead an almost unheard of game called The Republica Times. In this game, you are a nameless bureaucrat who is assigned a job at the government-run Republica Times newspaper (sound familiar?). You are tasked with filling out the papers front pages with stories that can balance government newspeak propaganda with stories that can keep the public happy (turns out they love news about the weather. Clearly a game made my a Brit). The game takes a more complex turn as you try to instigate a coup by creating discontent among the public. Although I never got the video to work (thanks a lot, FRAPS), it’s still a brilliant game and I regret not have pursued a video LP of it, just for more hipster “I played the original’ bragging rights.
Then came Papers Please, with its incredible music, beautiful aesthetics and a killer soundtrack and gameplay. There is nothing this year that tops the incredible achievement Lucas Pope, the games creator, has done in creating fascinatingly in-depth gameplay, story lines and moral choices within such a simple idea. I always describes the game as ‘analog’ to people when I tried to explain it. The process of playing the game is almost on a digital tabletop- you move around paper and check for mistakes of discrepancies in forms, you consult manuals and rules, you issue questions and, often, make decisions on nothing more than your gut feeling. It creates the perfect system of giving you essentially a sandbox to operate in- there is no hand holding, or button pushes that can solve problems through some magical interface. It’s done with your eyes and your own mind. Add to that a perfect, subtle story that can be ignored or pursued at your own will, with endings that reflect both approaches with no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to play. Papers Please is my new game to show to people who have no idea how a game works. It’s the closest I’ve found to a game that melds the fun and interactivity of a tabletop board game or card game with the complexities and storyline that can be brought out through a video game platform. It’s the one game I’ll be playing over Christmas, not because it’s my favourite, but because I think it’s the best game I can use to show my parents and family what video games can really achieve.
Probably the biggest surprise for me this year was just how much I enjoyed the new Tomb Raider reboot. The only reason I bought it was because I thought it would be a fun game to let’s play on video (however a content ID quickly shut that down for me) and my history with the Tomb Raider franchise has been frayed at best. The first problem is that I suck at puzzle games, the second is that I get scared by the smallest, most minuscule of things (case in point: Gone Home) and third is that Tomb Raider games always felt like a one hit band that had achieved an incredibly successful first album before failing to live up to it in subsequent releases as it was outpaced by similar acts. Tomb Raider: Legend and Anniversary (which is a bit of a cheat, since it’s a remake of the original) were the only sparks of life in an otherwise dull series. However, the opening moments of Tomb Raider are both gripping and face-wincingly brutal.
Tomb Raider is the best reboot of a series I’ve ever played. For one, it’s learned from the current climate of games without simply copying more successful genres and pasting a familiar face on top. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted is the elephant sized adventure game in the room when it comes to discussing or comparing these games, but as a huge fan of Uncharted, Tomb Raider in no way feels like a copy or rip off of the series. Sure, the combat & health system feels remarkably similar, however Tomb Raider takes Uncharted’s combat mechanics and builds on it with its frantic, brutal and terrifying scramble for ammunition and bloody melee system. While Uncharted feels like you’re playing as the happy-go-lucky, Indiana Jones-impersonator, cracking jokes and punching out stereotypical baddies like a perfect action film, Tomb Raider forces you into the underdog position and makes every battle terrifying, gory and a fight for survival like Lara is stranded in a holiday camp for all the monsters from The Decent.
To be fair, Tomb Raider’s homage to this scene was better than the film.
Lara, while we’re at it, feels like she just wandered off the set of the girl-centric horror The Decent, and you can see clear draws of inspiration from the film. The brutal treatment of Lara, the incredibly realistic animations and immersive voice acting connected me to her character in ways a lot of games usually fail to. Actual character development (which, to be fair, is very central to the story) and emotional changes within Lara humanize her and allow us to connect a character that was traditionally nothing more than a pair of tits and guns fighting dinosaurs.
Finally, the visuals need mentioning. Tomb Raider is without a doubt, one of the most beautiful games I’ve seen on PC or console in the past few years. While everyone was fawning over Crysis 3 and it’s picture perfection of bland, boring and dull photo realistic depictions of grass and buildings, Tomb Raider snuck in with an entire Smörgåsbord of set pieces and landscapes. The approach of having ‘zones’ of the island to explore and complete is both a brilliant evolution to Tomb Raider’s traditional gameplay style and more modern approaches to an open world. Everything from terrifying caves full of weirdo rapists, cliff side’s with vistas over reefs with every type of shipwreck from the rafts made the moment man crawled on top of a piece of floating driftwood to high-tech Costa Concordia copycats (love, I love boats okay? This game filled that obsession nicely), WWII-era military bases or beautiful Japanese castles, were all exceptionally detailed and well made. Not to mention Lara’s Batman: Arkham-style model that carries all the horrendous bumps and scrapes she picks up over the game, and the upgrades that actually appear on the guns, strapped and sellotaped on in a true survivalist manner. Tomb raider had one of the most detailed and varied game worlds I’ve ever seen and much like I felt after played Uncharted 2: Drakes Fortune, I’m unbelievably excited to see what the come up with next. Hopefully I just wont be as disappointed as I was with what Naughty Dog came up with for Uncharted 3…
Civilisation V: Brave New World
Civilisation V was released in 2010, and after 2012’s first expansion God’s and Kings, the game was finally completed with 2013’s Brave New World expansion. I say this because Civ 5 on release felt like an unfinished game. It was beautiful, addictive and expansive but when compared to the exceptionally deep Civilisation IV it felt lacking and shallow. It feels slightly akin to the shockingly disastrous launch of EA’s Simcity reboot which saw the game crushed under the boot heels of negative fan, critic and public reaction. One of the games numerous problems was it’s depth- Simcity had stripped out all the depth and scope that Simcity 4 (notice a trend here?) had implemented in place of flashy visuals and simplistic gameplay. Now, Civ 5 was nowhere near as bad as Simcity, however it followed a similar path- Civ 5 looks beautiful and plays wonderfully but at the cost of depth and replayability. After a few games of Civ 5, I had burnt out- late game was so familiar that after one or two games you felt like you were just running the numbers.
However, Brave New World changed all that. After being quite disheartened with the series, I picked up God & Kings and Brave New World on sale, expecting little but ending up blown away by the new game in front of me. Brave New World is a perfect fleshing out of the late game that the base game was lacking. The more in-depth diplomacy options give much more flexibility and strategy for players who prefer to pull the strings from the background, and the addition of some brilliant new Civilisations to play as add some of the most interesting and original gameplay I’ve seen yet.
Take, for example, my new favourite civilisation Venice; a civ that limits you to one playable city. It offers a completely different approach to gameplay. Instead of spreading out, you must micromanage and focus on your single city. Soon, you can purchase other city states (however only as puppets, you cannot control what they build or produce) but not settle your own. What you end up with is a civ born for the defence or ‘puppet master’ player, who wishes to work in the background while other civ battle it out. On top of that, the addition of trade routes allow you to trade and manage between your own cities and other Civs like never before. Maybe you wish to set up a city in a desert, deprived of food but rich in oil and uranium? Go for it, but only if you have the infrastructure to support it from other cities. Maybe you wish to become a pirate, building a navy and raiding trade routes between players, demanding a random? Or, avoid fighting more than ever- culture victories have been expanded massively with the tourism & archeology features. Now, creating works and opening borders creates tourism in your Civ, sending out musicians to tour and diplomats to other cities boosting it and spreading your influence over the globe. The new civ Brazil capitalises on this and much like Venice, plays so uniquely it feels like an expansion in itself. Archaeology allows you to send archeologists all over your world, digging up old battlesites and antiquity sites that can be placed in museums or made into attractions for culture and tourism boosts. Brave New world feels like a true expansion: it adds to an already expansive game without breaking it and adding hundreds of hours of new gameplay to it. It’s turned what was a brilliant multiplayer game into an even more immersive experience.
Also, XCOM squads. This is why I love you, Firaxis.
Gone Home, Proteus & The Stanley Parable
I know, I know- why are these games lumped together? They are in no way related in story or message, neither share any real similarities apart from a minor, tangential minimalist gameplay feature, and by putting these three together is simply fueling the flames of people who claim this kind of gameplay or story telling is not a true ‘video game’. Fine, I get all that. However, this year more than any before has been awash with debates over “What is a video game” and before I talk about these I feel I have to discuss the elephant in the room, the annoying argument that follow these experimental titles around. It’s actually quite funny seeing the shift to acceptance of videogames as an art form, before putting it to bed and going downstairs to argue whether said game is ‘actually a video game’. Flower sparked some of this debate, however Dear Esther I think created the biggest line in the sand, with total biscuit famous declaring it as “not being a video game”. Look, I won’t go into this argument, as I don’t think anything I say will have not been said before and in better words, but why we seem to insist on taking an expanding experience such as games, that has so much scope and potential that we haven’t even yet considered, and then proceed to stick the definition in a box and say “No, this is a game. We’ve hit our limit of experimentation, please follow these guidelines” is beyond me. Christ, half of the flak every year about games like Call of Duty is originality (or the lack their of), yet any experimentation in the industry, be it games that strip back to explore the mechanics of gameplay, or level design or story, are stomped on by those who think games have to have a bloody win state or collectible items, leveling up or a gun to shoot or some shite.
Let’s stop with this debate. Because a game is on the market you wouldn’t consider a game in the traditional sense doesn’t have to affect you in any way. Let it be, let it be picked apart, played and learn from it. Don’t dismiss it because it doesn’t fall under your own criteria of what should and shouldn’t be played alongside the latest MMO or first person shooter. And no, I’m not going to start calling games such as Dear Esther a ‘Interactive experience’. There is a brilliant video on this topic by the Extra Credits guys, and while I agree whole heatedly with them, but their claim that “they barely use the term game anymore” and more of the time they say “Interactive Experiences” is just silly. Let me say game! It’s still a game in my eyes, dammit. And the onus is on you to get it put under its own tab in steam called ‘Interactive, gamplay-minimal narrative experiences’ or something. until then, I’m calling it a game like it bloody is!
My last point about this, is that not all games are a complete package. Take Gone Home for example. Gone Home isn’t a perfect example of how to make a fun game. It wasn’t meant to be. it’s not an exploration of how to effectively create a competitive game, or a perfectly structured shooter. Gone Home is a short story, an essay. A game that has been stripped back to two things- narrative and level design. It’s an exhibit, something you can point to and let someone experience as an example of those parts of a game. Gone Home isn’t a perfect game, but it’s a brilliant example of perfecting specific, important parts of gameplay, and it shows us how a perfected feature, such as narrative or level design, can stand on its own. Gone Home is brilliant in its simplicity- the premise of the game is familiar to everyone and the genius lies behind what you don’t see- the hours of testing level designs to see where people will go and what they will do, the patience and time taken into place and structuring the story and items around the house. It’s a love letter to game design and one that will be looked back on for years to come.
Proteus feels like a culmination of so many tropes and trends within the game industry from the past few years, particularly the indie scene. There is of course the looming presence of minecraft, the behemoth that hangs over every exploratory, environmental game like this. At first, the similarities between the two seem very clear. The start in a very abstract world with little or nothing to go on, strange animals and an abstract, distinct and unique art style. But as you explore Proteus you realise that the similarities end there. You’re in many ways disconnected for the world; you cannot really interact with anything, or change the landscape in any way. The joy of Proteus comes from simply walking through the world and experiencing it. The changing music and vibrant animal & plant sounds are almost intoxicating, and you’ll soon find yourself lost in this beautifully weird and abstract land. Proteus I think has the least to say out of the three, it’s a game all about visuals and sound, but on that level I think it works brilliantly.
The Stanley Parable is the most accessible of the tree with the most to say and plenty of targets. Thankfully, a game as broad reaching and satrical as The Stanley Parable may get caught up simply looking smug, but that isn’t the case here. The Stanley Parable has escaped a lot of criticism from the ‘This isn’t a video game’ crowd, I think because at the end of the day it is accessible and repeatable to everyone who’s ever played a game. It’s ridiculous and biting criticism of games, storytelling and the fallibility of choice in videogames is perfectly written, acted and executed. It also avoids being a hypocrite; it isn’t the Duke Nukem Forever satire of throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks, making fun of game tropes while using them to a worse degree itself. No, The Stanley Parable, from its trailers to its demo to it’s hilarious Steam achievements, is perfectly positioned to be funny and informative to all while revealing and biting to people who make and study games as an art form. It’s a brilliant game that ranks among my top 10 games of all time.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on enough. I may turn this all into a video at some point after I’m less busy at uni. until then, peace!