I’m surprised to find this year that most of my favourite new video games have been games I’ve appreciated for storytelling more than gameplay. And many of those have in some way subverted narrative conventions in interesting ways only possible in an interactive medium. And I say HOORAY to that.
I don’t really play video games as often as I used to, because of all my responsibilities as a career-less single male in his late twenties, so I like the shorter more self-contained ones generally speaking. Here’s six, in no particular order.
Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons
Brothers is an odd game mechanically. You play as two brothers who you control with a single analogue stick and trigger each. This is hard to really wrap your brain around and makes the game occasionally trickier than it needs to be. There is some though satisfaction in the co-ordination involved, and it is an interesting twist on the expectations of analogue control.
I haven’t written a game review in a long while, but then I haven’t played a game that affected me as strongly Gone Home in a long while.
What is Gone Home? Well, it’s a first person interactive fiction game. It is the début release of the The Fullbright Company, formed by a group of developers who have variously worked on Bioshock 2 (and its acclaimed DLC Minerva’s Den), Bioshock Infinite, and others. Here, watch this video:
The game tells its story through two main mechanisms. You play as Katie, returning from an extended trip in Europe to her family’s new home in Portland. You walk around, rummaging through personal belongings of the family who live there, piecing together an incidental narrative of their lives.
Limbo is a video game, originally an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive title last summer, recently made available on PSN and Steam. The game was critically acclaimed as you may be aware, so I really wanted to check it out, especially given my experience with Braid, a game of similar origin and acclaim. Also like Braid, Limbo is a puzzle-platformer with unique presentation, but I would say that’s where the similarities end.
This game is a strongly designed puzzle-platformer, wrapped in one of the most convincingly realised aesthetics of any game I have ever witnessed. Breathtaking monochromatic audio-visuals aside, this game is also a bold gameplay statement, revolving around environmental puzzles so tightly structured that every object in the game world has a purpose as part of the perpetual journey from left to right. This genre is certainly not unique amongst downloadable indie games, but the execution is so tightly tuned and unobtrusive that you can sit back and soak up the experience as a whole.
Limbo de-constructs the storytelling of the genre in a quietly organic fashion, telling its minimalistic tale in images and sounds rather than words. When your avatar, a small and silent boy, wakes up in a dark and strange world, your first instinct is to run to the right of the screen, to progress and overcome any obstacle in your path. Initially it’s the joy of discovery that drives you, especially in a world so compelling as this. There are no levels, no cuts. The world continues from beginning to end without break.
The economy of storytelling here is pretty astonishing. It is a closed experience – everything you need to know is in the game, and you make of it what you will. I had a pretty strong personal moment with the ending, which similarly to Braid, re-contextualises your time spent with the game – though unlike Braid, it doesn’t hit you over the head with it. The story of Limbo is not really told, it is suggested by the game, and inferred by the player. I found it utterly compelling.
The gameplay is appropriately minimal in its setup, using directional control, a jump button and an action button. It is the satisfying internal realism of environmental interactions that truly impress. Several early encounters with bear-traps set the stage for what’s to come – a world where the simplest object can be an obstacle, a weapon, a tool, a platform, depending on how you interact with it. That’s not to say you have any real freedom. Limbo is entirely linear, and almost every puzzle has a single correct solution, but the sheer breadth of puzzle designs made possible by such a small selection of objects and interactions is a near-endless source of surprise and delight.
Limbo is a game of trial and error. Nothing is explicitly explained about the world, nor the objects in it. Often, the first time you encounter a new situation, you will walk right into a trap and die – and in some pretty brutal ways. Fortunately, the game checkpoints very regularly, so it’s easy and actually quite rewarding to learn from your mistakes and adapt your strategy accordingly. Despite the tone of the game, player death is taken very lightly, and is as much a learning tool as a punishment.
Outside of a few puzzles with a precise timing on them that require quick reflexes, the majority of the game’s running time has a leisurely, considered pace that really heightens those brief moments of panic when you realise an unstoppable boulder is rolling toward you. Again though, the checkpoint system means you are not heavily punished for your bravery, and that every seemingly-unseen death the game springs on you teaches you a little more about the mechanics of the environment, and the puzzle at hand.
Speaking of the environment, the game does a pretty astonishing job of setting a tone through its striking visuals, and exemplary sound design. Everything is dark, misty, slightly blurred, and yet sharply detailed, full of little touches like electrical cables gentle swaying and roof tiles that slip underfoot, sliding down the roof and over the edge into the darkness below. The animation is similarly sublime, and contextual. As you approach objects, the boy’s hands will reach out to touch them, or to push them. There are some pretty amazing set-pieces too – in particular a large hotel sign.
The music and sound design of Limbo is, to my ears, wholly astonishing, and may well be the single element that glues the experience together. The music itself is barely perceptible as such, consisting of muddy distant tones and the ambience of the immediate environment. Again, that hotel sign is made that much more memorable by its use of throbbing electrical hum and crackle. Machines clank and groan, insects buzz and chirp, and vague organic drones ring out from somewhere in the background gloom.
Limbo is not a stroll in the park, but it is an order of magnitude more forgiving than Super Meat Boy, because it relies on logic and ingenuity rather than pixel-perfect jumping. I feel like this is the type of game almost anybody could enjoy and in time even complete.
I honestly cannot recommend this game highly enough. It’s original, it’s tightly designed, it’s exceptionally well presented, it’s well paced and pretty much the ideal length for an experience so self-contained and memorable. That said your mileage may vary depending on your appreciation of the presentation style or the puzzle-platforming gameplay. It is also quite short, taking me under three hours to complete, but I always appreciate a game that is short and perfectly-formed more than one that is overstretched. My three hours playing Limbo were a more enjoyable experience than fifty hours of Fallout 3.
No, I’m kidding. Kind of. But seriously though. Portal 2 is coming out next Tuesday (unless some crazy ARG turns out to be true). I’m pretty excited by that. However, as far as I can tell, nobody else I know will have Portal 2, day of release. I’m stuck with friends who have bad computers, don’t play games that require mice, or don’t play skill-based games. Certainly none of them have an especially strong bond with the original Portal, because none of them completed it.
This means I’m somewhat locked out of the co-operative mode of the main game because I won’t have a partner to play with. Now I’m sure there’s an option to just go through it with another randomly chosen person, but I don’t really like that idea because it throws up so many different variables; what if the other person has played through already and just wants to run through it as quickly as possible? What if the other person is no good at Portal and I can’t proceed at a decent pace because of their lack of experience? What if the other person drops out twenty minutes in?
Anybody out there reading this want to be my Portal 2 co-op partner? You know, for the first play-through of the game. I wish I had someone special to share the experience with by now, but alas I do not. I guess I could go trawling players on my favourite TF2 servers to see if anyone’s in a similar boat, but I expect not.
So, anybody want to take pity on me, and bond over a little Portal 2?
Oh, and also, I have a free copy of Portal on Steam. If you want Portal, I can give you it for free right now. No strings attached – it was part of my Portal 2 pre-order. You can hit me up here or on Steam for either.
Ahah! Another list, see? Dakka-dakka-dakka! (That’s my text-based Chicago gangster with a Tommy Gun impression – good huh?)
I didn’t play every game that came out this year. In fact, realistically, I don’t really play that many new games in general. It’s hard when you’re short on cash, and – in the months from August to November – free time. But here’s the top five of what I did play, that came out this year, and the platforms upon which I did so, SO EAT IT.
Note: Minecraft is probably my most played game this year, but as that game “came out” last year, and has not yet reached final release status, I have chosen not to include it. But still, that game – and make no mistake, it is a game – deserves all of the praise it gets, if you are like me, a compulsive maker of things, and waster of time. But if I did include it, it would probably make #3.
5. VVVVVV (PC)
The relationship I have with this game is similar to the one I had with Braid last year. Like so many indie games in recent years, it’s a platformer based around a mechanic. Except unlike Braid, there are no variations on this mechanic. It is one single mechanic pushed to unbelievable extremes by a constantly changing world. VVVVVV‘s mechanic is simple: you cannot jump – instead, you can flip from ceiling to floor and vice versa. That’s it. The world is a continuous map of complex winding tunnels and obstacles, divided up into individual screens. The whole aesthetic is wonderfully retro – from the graphics to the music, this is a game which convincingly looks like a game that could have run on hardware from the mid-late 80s, but with enough post-modern game design flair that it could never have been conceived in those days. It’s a game you have to play to understand, and you have to play well to complete.
I feel bad about how little I actually played of SMG2, but I let my various negative tendencies conspire against me this year in a horrible way that affected almost everything – leisure time included. Anyway, SMG2 does everything right, much like SMG1. It is in fact more of that game. It’s nice to see more of the 2D gravity play stuff, as that was always really effective in the first, and Yoshi is a great addition too. It’s nothing short of amazing that Nintendo found so many new ways to mess around with the gravity-play of Galaxy, so soon after the first, but lo and behold, they totally did it. Just when everyone was beginning to doubt Nintendo’s traditional game-making skills.
3. Rock Band 3 (XBox 360)
Much as with Civ V, Rock Band 3 is more of the same, but better. The interface, the drop-in system, the addition of keyboards, pro instruments, the new career mode construct, the whole package is just better than previous Rock Bands. The whole Rock Band genre was something of a discovery this year (and an expensive one at that), with me flatmate and cousin getting Rock Band Beatles, and me taking up a regular position at the plastic drum kit for the various other titles in the series.
2. Sid Meier’s Civilization V (PC)
Civ V represents a long-awaited complete rebuild of the ageing franchise from the ground up. From the hex-based map to single-unit combat to the extensive streamlining of the interface, this is a Civ game that does almost everything better. There are a few new quirks that take some getting used to, like the massive role city states play, and the new diplomacy options. You soon get used to this of course, and the basic result is that Civ V is easier to play, yet under its surface, is as complex and endlessly variable as it ever was.
1. Mass Effect 2 (PC)
No-brainer really. One hell of a game. Better in every conceivable way than the first Mass Effect, and by far the best realised sci-fi world in a videogame, and probably in any medium for years. It’s a universe in the Star Trek mould – many races co-existing – with a more hard sci-fi edge, and a lot more shades of grey. Everything has some speculative scientific basis, but more than that, the world is populated by well fleshed-out characters whose in-depth stories take place across a range of extremely believable yet unique worlds. This is masterful storytelling, married to a much improved 3rd person gun-play and cover system, and the whole package is much grander in scale than the original. More missions, more characters, more environments. Roll on Mass Effect 3.
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