My favorite games of the year were Bastion, Skyrim, and the Witcher 2. Wow, that was easy. And hey, I already wrote extensively about allofthem. Convenient! So instead, I'm gonna discuss some of 2011's lesser-known greats. Previously, I turned into a quivering pile of mush on BioShock 2: Minerva's Den and The Binding of Isaac. And now, a game that may very well top both of them: masterful indie heart-breaker To The Moon.
To The Moon made me cry. Like, eight times. And I don't mean in the “single dramatic tear meandering down my cheek” sense. I'm talking about gushing waterfalls of salty face liquid. You'd have thought everyone I'd ever known and loved acted like they never knew or loved me and then promptly died. Of a disease whose main side effect is tragic irony.
And that's weird, because I figured myself one who'd be impervious to the game's barrage of gut-wrenching sadness bullets. I mean, its two controllable (notice I didn't say “main”) characters often turn humor into a weapon of mass face-palm-worthy irritation, and – aside from largely unneeded end-of-area puzzles – there's hardly even any interactivity to speak of. You walk around and click on predetermined objects. That's it. I'm a gamer. Why should I care about any of that?
However, if nothing else, let To The Moon serve as a lesson on why reductionist thinking is Bad and Wrong. Because if I'd given the game the cold shoulder over those concerns – or even just written it off as another tear-jerking, smile-seeking indie missile – I'd have missed out on one of the most genuinely heartfelt stories I've ever experienced. Videogame or not.
My favorite games of the year were Bastion, Skyrim, and the Witcher 2. Wow, that was easy. And hey, I already wrote extensively about allofthem. Convenient! So, for the next few days, I'm gonna discuss some of 2011's lesser-known greats. Last week, I turned into a quivering pile of mush on BioShock 2: Minerva's Den, and today, I'm taking a crack at Team Meat teammate Edmund McMillen's blood-soaked solo smash, The Binding of Isaac.
The Binding of Isaac is the game that finally pulled me away from Skyrim.
Like any gamer in the target demographic of Bethesda's behemoth (read: “a human capable of drawing breath”), I pretty much sacrificed my every waking hour on Skyrim's altar. Sometimes, it was 30 minutes here or there. Other times, it was 30 minutes here, there, and everywhere until a family of mice had taken up residence in my flowing gray beard. Point is, that game consumed my life.
That is, of course, until I bought Binding of Isaac and learned a very valuable lesson: Most modern big-budget games? Yeah, they're kinda crappy.
My favorite games of the year were Bastion, Skyrim, and the Witcher 2. Wow, that was easy. And hey, I already wrote extensively about allofthem. Convenient! So, for the next few days, I'm gonna discuss some of 2011's lesser-known greats. First up, the PC version of BioShock 2's ages-in-coming story DLC, Minerva's Den. Oh, and I'm also gonna go ahead and slap a Big Daddy-sized SPOILER WARNING on this one -- just to be safe.
I shoot first and ask questions later. I'm not much of a talker. I just do what I'm told. Who am I?
Give up? OK, fine, I'll uncover my nametag. Yep, that's right: “Hello, my name is... Every First-Person Shooter Main Character Ever.” Yeah, my parents had an odd sense of humor. (If you think that's bad, you should meet my brother, Racist 14-Year-Old's Xbox Live Gamertag.) Anyway, I have a teensy bit of a problem: My entire existence makes no sense.
It's the end of the year, and you know what that means: awards! Awards for everyone, from everyone! Best graphics, best game featuring Nolan North as a ruggedly handsome scoundrel, worst “arrow in the knee” joke (answer: all of them), etc, etc, etc. Honestly, though, most of the teary eyed, speech-blabbing winners are kind of boring. For example, Portal 2: An undeniably great, but ultimately safe update to a revered franchise. Arkham City: An undeniably great, but ultimately safe update to a revered franchise. Skyrim: An undeniably great, but blah blah blah. You get the point. The following, then, are games didn't land with such a huge splash -- perhaps because they weren't so great, or maybe because they're not even new -- but will almost certainly send out ripples for years to come.
Game characters talk too much. Unless, of course, they're J'zargo.
I like shirts. I enjoy owning them, wearing them -- pretty much everything you can do with shirts, really. Which is mostly just those two things. So I recently visited a custom T-shirt website, because why not? And then -- because I'm oddly proud of my exceedingly embarrassing geekiness -- I searched for Skyrim apparel. What I discovered made me laugh like a hyena that'd recently eaten a live clown. Then it made me deeply, deeply depressed. Mere days after the game had launched, there were shirts emblazoned with phrases like “You tried mercenary work? It might suit you” and “My cousin's out fighting dragons, and what do I get? Guard duty.”
If you've played Skyrim for more than two seconds, those phrases probably haunt your nightmares -- perhaps uttered by deeply unsettling images of your disapproving father as a giant praying mantis. Why? Because Skyrim's all-too-talkative denizens bellow them every time you're within bellowing range. Dovahkiin shouts? The Voice? Those are nothing compared to these all-powerful, sanity shattering sentences. And that's a rather large problem.
I don't know if you've heard, but Minecraft is pretty great. Now, maybe (read: probably) I'm crazy, but building towers that scrape – nay, grievously paper cut – the sky and versions of Mt. Rushmore with the faces of Rush band members actually isn't my favorite part of the game. Truth be told, that award goes to the simple act of cracking open a fresh world and seeing the sights. Minecraft's random generator is a subtle master of “Ooooo, what's that over there?” and each unique world is a joy to explore. Towering, snowcapped mountains, glorious seaside vistas, winding cave mazes that feel thousands of years old (as opposed to seconds) – each one's a Costco bulk bag of block-shaped eye candy.
Meanwhile, when most gamers hear “randomization,” they probably think “Diablo loot,” or – if you've been around the block/are a clinically diagnosed masochist – “roguelikes.” That, I think, needs to change.
I love shooting things in the face. Monsters, aliens, mice, men – all are equal in the eyes of my trigger finger, which itches with such fervor that I should probably have a doctor look at it. But – even in the ammo-casing-coated world of videogames – there's a time and place for violence. (And no, smartasses in the audience, it's not “always.” Always isn't even a place.) More and more, I've noticed recent games tripping over their own feet because they choose to reign with unfaltering bloodlust instead of reining it in. In some games, it's but a speck-sized sticking point. Others, though, choose to live by the sword, only to fall flat on their faces and die by it in the most gruesome fashion imaginable.
Evidence A: Deus Ex. For the most part, it's an amazing game, but bring up its boss fights and watch as a room full of fawning admirers turns into a torch-flashing, keyboard-smashing angry mob. And why not? The game's bosses are horribly designed strategic dead ends that eat headshots and excrete pure, unfiltered sadness. To me, though, the biggest problem is that you have to fight them at all.
Note: This week's entry contains major Bastion spoilers. If you haven't played Bastion, I recommend that you skip to the third page. Also, while we're at it, warning: This week's entry is three pages long. I may have gotten a bit carried away. If you hate words, I recommend that you skip to the part where you buy Bastion.
Bastion is about moving forward. With every step you take, tiles of all shapes and sizes rise up to meet your footfalls. What lies ahead may be uncertain, but one way or another, you'll make it. Occasionally, you'll encounter former citizens of Caelondia – now frozen in ash, dead to the world in all but appearance. THOCK. The Kid's hammer reduces them to powder in an instant. The Kid presses on – without remorse, as though his old friends and neighbors were no more important than a random crate, shrub, or similarly minor impediment. Meanwhile, Rucks – the narrator – doesn't bat an eyelash, instead opting to list off a factoid or two about the deceased-turned-dust-clouds before dispassionately sweeping the whole incident under the rug. It's all in the past now, and the past only gets in the way.
One of gaming's more recent gee-whiz-it's-probably-magic trends comes with a pretty thick string attached: your saves, your character, your mountain of collectable doodads for that precious achievement – all of them are imprisoned inside a server on a desert island or in space or something. You're playing a high-stakes game of rental roulette, and everything you've worked so hard to build could go poof in the blink of an eye. What trend am I referring to? Did you say, “cloud gaming”? Private Obvious, I'm sure your Captain is beaming with pride right now. However, while your answer's technically correct, I'm talking about MMOs.
It's interesting, too, because gamers have been largely a-okay with this aspect of MMOs for years – at least, so long as their game of choice hasn't met an untimely end. But should we be? After all, cloud gaming's certainly risky in that we don't physically own our games, but in MMOs, we don't own the experience.
What happened to you, The Apocalypse? You used to be so fresh and fun. You'd tear everything I knew and loved to pieces and rearrange it into some hideous tapestry of my greatest fears, and I'd be like “Oh, you. You're such a prankster.” Or you'd spew zombies into all kinds of zany places (The mall! The circus! Outer space!), and I'd beat them to death while screaming and crying. We had such good times. Now, though, it's old hat. Your abandoned landscapes – once ripe with the pungent odor of adventure – have grown gray and same-y. I used to mow down your menagerie of mutants, robots, and zombies with all the glee of a Hollywood director at a Beloved (And Infinitely Ruinable) Childhood Memories convention, but now each one is just another bump in the road.
We've grown apart, is what I'm saying. But that doesn't mean we can't have a horrifying, dystopic future together. A couple recent games have given me hope that this whole “fiery end to all normal life” thing isn't just a passing fad.
It all started with a recent oft-repeated quote from id Software's Tim Willits. Addressing the issue of precisely why fans won't mind RAGE's vehicle-heavy shift away from id's typical fare, he said, "I think that they will find that it's a refreshing change from anything we've done in the past, and honestly I think that people have modern combat fatigue." Which is certainly a valid point, Pay attention to comment threads involving his game, though, and you'll unearth a second ticking time bomb nearly as large as the first.