Games of 2011

Hello there.

Here are some games I played in 2011.

The Binding of Isaac

Alchemy is a dark art, but a romantic one. Who doesn't love the idea of combining disparate, arcane elements, and, surprise!, coming away with something new and valuable and beautiful? Maybe it's why some people love crafting in games so much. Maybe it's part of why Minecraft is so popular. Maybe it's why we care about "emergent gameplay" at all. Surprising combinations. The joy of discovery.

It's certainly why I loved The Binding of Isaac, an incredibly clever exercise in game design alchemy by Edmund McMillen. Roguelikes have made a resurgence in recent years, what with Spelunker-meets-Rogue, Star Trek-meets-Rogue, and that whole subgenre of indie games with "Dungeons" in their titles popping up. It's easy to feel jaded about the prospect of another Roguelike. But Binding of Isaac brought an incredibly deep and unexpected reference to the table-- Legend of Zelda 1 dungeons-meets-Rogue-- propped up by a supremely strange and unexpected fictional conceit involving religious extremism, mental illness, child abuse, and plenty of scatophilia. Sounds like a kick, don't it? Well, it is a lot of fun, and incredibly interesting, if you can take it.

Mechanically, it's a stoke of genius. Who would've thought of basing a Roguelike on Zelda 1 dungeons, really? I'm thinking probably nobody, save for apparently McMillen. And it works insanely well. The small size, simplicity, and open-endedness of the dungeons sync up perfectly with the randomnization, replayabilty, and pacing of a Roguelike. The dungeons being broken up into individual, single-screen rooms makes them easily parsable, and separates them into a series of digestible micro-challenges. The individual elements of the dungeons-- bombs, rocks, holes in the floor, walls, monsters, etc., all combine to create a huge amount of discoverability. Discovering, for instance, that using a bomb to blow up a rock throws debris into the next tile over from the rock, which can then fill holes in the floor acting as a footbridge to otherwise inaccessible areas, was a revelation. Physics come into play in a way that they never could in Zelda on the NES, and new, weird shrines and items-- generally left completely unexplained, until you use them and find out what they do for yourself-- are constantly being discovered as you explore. The balance of the rate that items which increase your health or speed or damage output are dispensed, and the overall short length of a single campaign, tend to make each playthrough feel "doable," which is super important in a genre that prominently features permadeath. In this way, the game is quite forgiving, for a Roguelike. I didn't often end up in situations that I thought were just completely unwinnable. You can get a run of bad luck, making your character too weak to easily survive the deeper levels (but not generally be completely, irrevocably fucked,) or you can have an insanely good run, where you end up with 99 bombs and hundreds of coins, and still fuck it up and die. And you know it's your fault. Pitch-perfect game design, all around.

That said, the game sure has a lot of poop and piss and aborted babies in it. Which, for a game that encourages you to play and replay and replay again, can get pretty tiresome. Or at least it did for me. I get it, you play as an abused child locked in a basement, battling his unwanted, deformed siblings. That's interesting. And there's poops everywhere. Oh. And you use your tears and urine as weapons. Ha ha, hmm. One of the powerups is a bent coathanger through your head! Wow! It's dark, it's gross, it's junior high levels of transgressiveness. But, once you get past the shock of the new that comes with such an unheard-of premise, it becomes kind of really dumb and distracting. Or, again, it is to me, anyway. I respect McMillen for going all-in on his chosen aesthetic, but like a lot of things I "respect" or "appreciate," it's not something I actually personally enjoy.

So, would I have played way more hours of Binding of Isaac if it just had a simple sprite swap throughout? Yeah, probably. I would for sure appreciate a new, less poopy-and-pee-pee slathered coat of paint. All things considered, I think the current crusting of filth more than anything serves to obscure the potential longevity of this utterly brilliant game design.

Of course, it hasn't stopped some people from playing a crazy number of hours.

So maybe I'm just wrong.

Deus Ex Human Revolution

Have you ever wanted to upgrade a cyborg? I have. Very few video games (or other experiences in life) have allowed me to do so. But by god, Deus Ex Human Revolution is just one such game or experience. And if you're anything like me, that means a lot.

Because, I don't know about you, but tuning and tweaking the capabilities of something half man, half machine just does something for me. Maybe it's a weird psychological thing about control and capability. You know, what if your body weren't this juice-filled weird thing you had to like, exercise and train to kind of vaguely push in the direction you want, but you could just take it down to the goddamn shop and put some spoilers on it? Or wire up a double-kill with your arm swords by slugging down some Praxis Kits, and now there you are moments later, double-stabbing dudes to your heart's delight? It's a beautiful vision of life.

So yeah, I was psyched when I heard that the Deus Ex 3 team had decided to go prequel. Probably the most interesting characters in Deus Ex 1 were Anna Navarre and Gunther Herman, the two cyborg agents on their way out in the coming age of nanotechnology. Their dedication to the cause demonstrated by their willingness to mangle their bodies with invasive cybernetics, and their bosses' lack of hesitation to throw them headfirst at a deadly nano-powered superagent due to their obsolescence, was a multifaceted and very human use of cyberpunk tropes. Thinking about Adam Jensen in the timeline, that he is, logically, headed down the same path-- that by the time 2052 rolls around, he'll be just another rusted relic-- gives Human Revolution a bit of a tragic subtext, a degree of subtlety that's generally missing from the frontstory except in a few rare, exceptional cases (like the deep unspoken respect shown between Jensen and his pilot, Malik, or the fairly complex, fatherly relationship between Jensen and his boss, Sarif.)

The world that Eidos Montreal brought together for the game is a real cyberpunk wonderland; Hengsha city in particular completely engulfs the player in the sights and sounds of an overstuffed, stylized but semi-plausible near-future. It's not groundbreaking or even that wildly creative, but it is satisfying. Sometimes just taking the standard tropes and putting them onscreen for the player to come in direct contact with is super valuable. The heavily augmented street thugs lurking in the margins, the packed dance club pulsing with a distorted electronic beat, the hive of single-occupancy capsule apartments, "coffins" straight out of William Gibson's Sprawl-- they have a familiarity and campiness to them that feels warm and inviting. It's fanservice for a certain brand of geek, and it's done with such a loving and earnest tone that I fell right into it. Sometimes you just want to walk your cyborg over to a bustling noodle bar-- kind of like the one in Blade Runner!-- and take in the sights and sounds and the feel of that place. And then maybe you want to crawl through a vent and hack a computer to find the keycode to a safe that you open and there's enough cash inside to to buy another Praxis kit from the LIMB Clinic so you can finally get the augment that will let you turn bots to your side... and it just feels like home.

End of the day, whatever. A game lets me upgrade a nasty revolver and hold it in my cyber hands? I'm down. Forever.

APB Reloaded

Free to play is increasingly a thing. Freemium, even, one might say. I started to type, "I don't think this is inherently a good or bad thing," but actually, I kind of do think it's inherently a bad thing, usually. Others have written more thoughtfully and at length about the freemium phenomenon, but I'll just say here that I agree generally that constant, overt monetization of every micro-bit of a game is strongly deterimental to the player experience. It's obtrusive and annoying. I don't like it. It's not inherently a GOOD thing, that's for sure.

But, that said, I have seen some of the advantages. For instance, if it hadn't gone free to play, I never would have tried APB. And if I'd never tried APB, they never would've gotten a dime out of me. In the end, GamersFirst got $15, and I got about 30 hours of gameplay. Win-win. I think.

This mostly comes down to my abiding love for character customization. I love-- LOVE-- character customization, especially in a modern, non-fantasy, non-sci-fi setting like Rock Band or, say, APB, a PVP-focused, MMO-lite version of Grand Theft Auto. I'd heard about its disastrous initial launch and the closing of Realtime Worlds, none of which really screamed "pay money up front for this." But when APB was revived as a free to play proposition, and showed up on Steam, I went for it.

And I'm glad I did. The customization suite is INSANE. The tattoo editor alone is off the charts-- you can combine, scale, recolor, and layer individual stamps into your own super complex designs, then etch them onto your character aligned to the normals of the surface, or properly wrapped around their arm or leg or waist, flipped, turned, mirrored... it's all there. And it's not like, oh, a couple of designs. You can have up to 50 separate tattoos with up to 100 components... if you shell out for a monthlong Premium subscription. That's where they get you.

A month of premium is 12 bucks, but they only sell GamersFirst Spacebux in increments of $5 (that's also how they get you,) so I shelled out my $15 and spent the remainder on new sheets of tattoo designs. Then I just went to town. Probably half my time in APB was spent the in character creator, and I'm not complaining.

The other half was spent in the actual game, which is in fact quite good... sometimes. (I'll get to that.) Mechanically, it mostly consists of you flagging on "ready for mission" while wandering a city district, then being automatically grouped with other players, and automatically pitted against a team of players from the opposite faction, charged with either completing your own goals or stopping the opposing team from completing theirs. It's plenty of fun, jumping in a car with your teammate, the other guy hanging out the window doing drivebys while you try to run over the enemy team and dive into the objective zone. I daresay it's better multiplayer GTA than GTA4 was.

Here's the sad part, though: I'd probably still be playing it today, if it weren't a complete technical nightmare. APB Reloaded must have one of the least efficient engines I've ever encountered. Load times take forever, but worse than that, I would get enormous hitching and chugging all the time. Often it seemed to be tied to enemy player proximity-- possibly due to all that unique character customization being loaded into memory?-- which was basically the worst case scenario. "Oh there must be enemies nearby because I'm running at 1 frame per second... ah yes, sounds of gunfire, I'm dead." Apparently the hitching wasn't so bad for the guys that killed me while I was lagged out. Add onto this the fact that your computer is unusable for about 5 minutes after you exit the client, presumably while it cleans itself out of memory and exits all its processes, and you have some serious, recurring technical annoyances. So, after I felt I'd pushed my character customization a fair way toward what I wanted, and after a serious hitching-related ragequit (followed by walking away from my computer for 5 minutes while it was in its post-APB recovery phase,) I deleted local content and didn't reinstall. In a different world, I would've played more to unlock more pieces of clothing and accessories to make my character just perfect, but the technical failures were too much for me. I had to settle for my character being "good enough."

But, so it goes. All things considered, am I unhappy that the freemium model allowed me a low-risk method of trying out this game, and that I opted into paying $15, with 30+ hours of gameplay in exchange? No, not at all, annoyances aside. So, I guess I'd say freemium isn't inherently a good or bad thing.

Infinity Blade/Jetpack Joyride/Tiny Tower

Here's the opposite side of the microtransaction revolution. The dark side.

I got an iPad in 2011, in large part because I wanted to keep up with the games that have been coming out on it. I started trying stuff out-- Angry Birds (ad supported,) Plants Versus Zombies (which I'd played on PC already, but you know,) even grabbed a SpiderWeb Software RPG to see how it played. And then I got into the real freemium/microtransaction territory. And stuff got bad.

It's innocuous at first. "Hey, try it for free. It'll be fun." You know, like a drug dealer in an afterschool special? And it does seem like some harmless fun, a simple set of mechanics, some satisfying clicking and sparkly rewards. Infinity Blade: fight an enemy! Get loot and XP! Level up! Jetpack Joyride: get as far as you can without hitting an obstacle! Buy new gear! Beat your high score! Tiny Tower: build shops and apartments! Find people their dream jobs! Expand your tower! They all make good first impressions.

But it quickly becomes clear that these games are shallow as a thimble. One game design mantra is finding "30 seconds of fun." In a firstperson shooter, that's an engaging encounter with an enemy. You encounter an enemy, have 30 seconds of fun, do variations on that a few hundred times over the course of the game, and you've got your core. The more different 30 seconds of fun you have in your game the better, to a point: looting containers, buying and selling equipment, distributing XP into your skills, and so on.

But with the iOS games in question, if you've played through their core loop once, you've played the entire game, period. There are no unique new mechanics introduced. No clever new puzzles. No story or characters to discover or unique environments to explore. Just the same thing, over and over, with the numbers going up and the visuals changing slightly the longer you play.

So why play past the first 30 seconds? And why pay any money? So that you don't have to play that same 30 seconds over and over as many times before you can see those numbers go up and those visuals change. You can earn gold to get better equipment in Infinity Blade by grinding through repetitive encounters... or you can pay real money for gold and just buy that better equipment outright. Same with paying real money for TowerBux in Tiny Tower or coins in Jetpack Joyride. Grind through the tedium of this repetitive experience for hours... or just give us your money right now.

It's an exploitative practice, and a self-incriminating one at that: what you're paying money for is the ability to play less of the actual game, so you can more quickly get further in the game you're willing to pay real, actual money to play less of. It's an admittance of the game's own hollowness. So if you're willing to pay money to play less of this game, why play it at all? Why not shake yourself out of the haze of compulsion, delete the game off your device and pretend it never happened? That's what I did anyway.

And I'll admit, I am susceptible to the draw. See above, regarding my APB Reloaded story. The draw of the end result, the extrinsic reward of that perfectly customized character I wanted to see onscreen, was so strong that I was willing to play hours and hours of repetitive missions, through hair-pulling technical problems, to get at it. Achieving the golden jetpack or the 100 floor tower or the ultimate sword in these iOS games is no different. And I really do feel it's harmful, manipulative and frankly unconscionable.

Why were all those costume bits and tattoo designs in APB only unlockable after I'd played through a certain number of missions (read: certain number of hours?) To force you to keep playing, and keep coming back, to get what you want: the cool accessory, the awesome rims for your car. These are just cosmetic items. They have no impact on balance, they're not part of the game ramp. Having 100 tattoos in the first hour wouldn't make me overpowered in PVP. There's no functional reason to gate them. But they're not available up front because...? Because then you might just play once for a few hours, make the character you want, spend no money, and never play again. And then where would all that microtransaction money come from?

No different in these iOS games. Why does it take exponentially more realtime hours to build the 20th floor of your Tiny Tower than the second? There's no intrinsic gameplay balance or experiential reason. It's purely to increase the tedium of the experience over time, encouraging you through boredom to pay up your real cash to skip the wait. And when a game starts messing with me like that, trying to manipulate and exploit me, I get offended. Offended that the game would think so little of me as an individual. I disengage. Uninstall. Done.

But I realize I'm lucky. Susceptibility to compulsive behavior is a function of the individual's brain chemistry: if taking a certain Parkinson's drug can cause gambling addiction, then certainly your unique brain chemistry may make you less able to put down a compulsion-fueling game than I am. And intentionally, nakedly exploiting the brain chemistry of your players to extract money from them... it's not so far down the spectrum from offering a kid a free hit, hoping that they'll get hooked and become a regular customer. You know, like a drug dealer in an afterschool special. Or in real life.

So when Jon Blow or Adam Saltsman: talks about this stuff being inherently bad, I see exactly where they're coming from. These practices tangibly hurt people, in one of the few ways that a video game can, by psychologically manipulating them to hand over their time, attention, and money for something with no intrinsic value. If you aren't making a game experience that is itself something that people will pay to have, if you need to withhold meaningless rewards from them until they submit, you aren't making a game. I don't know exactly what you're making, and frankly I'm not sure you do either. But I know what I want to make. And it's not that.


Disclaimer: I'm friends with Greg Kasavin, the writer and creative lead of Bastion. We worked at 2K at the same time, and I've known him since my zine days, so there's that. But, no matter: Bastion is a great, great game, period.

Here's where most chatter about Bastion starts: the voice. There is something about the human voice as a buoying element in games. I think people just like hearing someone talk while they play.

Yeah, tons of games are nearly or completely wordless, and the more powerful for it-- Ico, Limbo, classic Metroid games (prior to the current generation.) But there's a whole other class of games on the opposite end of the scale, where someone's talking to you almost constantly while you play. The talk radio stations in GTA. The audio diaries and public announcements in BioShock. GlaDOS. It's all about being in-game, parallel to the player's own actions: when dialogue in a cutscene starts, nine times out of ten I reach for my phone and check Twitter. But when your party members are chattering while you walk around the gameworld in a BioWare RPG, or when Price (I think?) is talking you through All Ghilied Up in COD4, or when you're driving around in Deadly Premonition and York is talking to himself about Back to the Future... that stuff's great. It has a pull. It's a unique sensation.

I think that's why people latched onto the narration in Bastion so strongly. It's not just someone talking while you play, but someone talking about WHAT you're doing, WHEN you do it. It's a great flourish, and I did like it... but it's unfortunate that it overshadows what I think is actually strongest about the game, which is its incredibly clever and well-considered suite of systems surrounding the core gameplay and story.

Bastion is a game about building your character, and rebuilding the gameworld as you go. These work together-- rebuild part of the Bastion, get access to a new system that supports building your character. And what systems they are. Weapon upgrades? A perfectly balanced set of binary choices leading either to a highly specialized or broadly useful weapon. The Tonic system? An array of wonderfully differentiated and carefully staged passive abilities, resulting in just the type of character you want to play. And the Shrine system deserves special mention: a completely opt-in series of game difficulty modifiers that each make the experience more challenging in diabolical ways, while offering commensurate XP gain. Each system is highly modular and no decision is permanent, encouraging ongoing experimentation and as much or as little investment in each as you want.

So the narration and story stuff is great. And the final story choice you make is really thought-provoking. But none of this would matter if these narrative elements weren't supporting a game whose systems were firing on all cylinders. Bastion has both going for it. It's the full package.

Dark Souls

As a video game player, it's nice to be reminded every once in a while that you're not an idiot.

Which isn't to say that there aren't plenty of games that expect you to think like an adult human with a brain. Some came out this year, even, such as SpaceChem and Atom Zombie Smasher and English Country Tune.

But as a player of more mainstream fare, where you control a Dude and kill tons of enemies with your weapons and abilities, it's not hard to get the feeling that video game designers think that maybe you're a little developmentally disabled, or have had some head trauma, or maybe you're texting or watching a youtube while you play. Because they sure aren't expecting you to be using 100% of a capable adult's mental capacity to progress through what they've designed.

It quickly starts feeling very deterministic. Press the thumbstick in the direction of the goal arrow. Press the button to jump over the gap. Jam on the button to complete the quicktime event and win the cutscene. It's not a question of skill or understanding or deduction; it's simply a willingness to keep going through the motions until the credits roll.

Well, there's nothing deterministic about Dark Souls. There is no guarantee that you will see the end credits of this game, that's for damn sure. I mean, I haven't. And I loved the game. In the end, it wore me out. It won. I got to that evil fucking sequence in Anor Lando with the two guys throwing lances and I had a fair idea of what I'd have to do to clear them but I just wasn't up to it. My character died and stayed dead. The end.

But that's just why I loved the game so much-- it actually had high expectations of me. And I worked hard to fulfill them for a long time. When the first Black Knight in Undead Burg one-shotted me? I came back, played defensive, and wore him down bit by bit instead of rushing in headlong. When I died to the Drake's flames on the bridge multiple times? I slowed down, observed, and found the alcove on the side I could run to between flame blasts. When I fell in a hole in the sewer and got cursed by those godawful frogs? I went on an epic fucking odyssey to restore the 50% max health I'd lost.

All this because I really appreciated that the game was actually demanding, and I really appreciated what it demanded: not twitch reflexes, a willingness to grind, or the money to pay in for top-tier freemium items, but more fundamental qualities: patience, observation, and dedication. It doesn't bother me that in the end I didn't have enough of these to see it through, because it just shows that I really was challenging myself to accomplish something I wasn't guaranteed to achieve-- that, unlike so many games, Dark Souls is a mountain that not just anyone can climb. But I enjoyed and appreciated climbing as high as I could.

Thanks for reading, thanks for playing, and here's to 2012!


No comments: