Personal Favorites of the Generation

Whereas our last list was 6 games that we are equally united in loving, we found that getting ten we both agreed that enthusiastically on was basically impossible– the idiosyncrasies in our tastes became pretty apparent, and there’s just not enough room to boil it down to two or three choices each. Rather than even trying, we’ve expanded our choices to twelve. Each of your beloved bloggers will give you his four favorites. These might honestly be more interesting; this bottom eight is where we fully expect some dark horses to come through and some interesting picks to get revealed.

#7

Jasper’s Pick: Mass Effect 2

NOT EVEN THIS WILL RUIN ME2 FOR ME.

NOT EVEN THIS WILL RUIN ME2 FOR ME.

The Mass Effect trilogy stands as one of this generation’s biggest monuments. There are a huge number of achievements we can place at the series’ feet: successfully telling a cohesive 3-game long story, having some of the most memorable characters in gaming, and, most importantly, arguably being the best mainstream mass-media science-fiction story of the 21st century. Honestly, the best endorsement I can give the series is that if I had to pick one video game to pitch to my dad (a guy who’s never played a video game besides Oregon Trail, but is way into Star Trek and has a signed photo of Peter Jurasik from Babylon 5) it would be Mass Effect— it doesn’t simply compete with the science fiction that inspired it, but stands among the best. The series has always been plagued with problems though: the first game’s clunky combat and cluttered inventory and stat systems, the second’s planet-scanning minigames, the third’s occasionally-questionable writing (although I have no problem with the ending, I can’t take the evil cyborg space-ninja seriously as an antagonist).

The second one, though, is close to perfect. There are complaints, sure: the combat’s too cover-heavy, the planet-scanning is boring, Miranda exists. But those are small compared to complex, interesting characters like Jack and Mordin Solus, fantastic voice-acting, intensely satisfying and strategic combat, and some of the most well-written and fun missions of the past several years. The combat is simple but has a surprising depth (playing it on Insanity is up there with Brass Balls in Bioshock as some of the most satisfying hard-mode I’ve ever played), and it’s the richest and deepest look at Mass Effect‘s world and culture. It also made the bold decision to go in a different story direction from the other 2 games: relying on a less epic, more mysterious main conflict and focusing the majority of the game’s plot on exploring its world and getting to know its characters– only to spend the entire incredible final mission testing you on how well you knew and trusted those characters, with their lives hanging in the balance (the fact that Bioware is much better at world-building and characters than at narrative definitely helps). Also, it had Martin Sheen, something no other game on this list can claim.

(Runner-up: Dragon Age: Origins which is even more ambitious from a game design perspective and does some incredible things with player agency, but which has a story that never really clicked for me and some clunky, wooden gameplay and visuals)

Best Moment: “Bad Blood,” Mordin’s loyalty mission that pushes you into dark moral territory and essentially feels like the best episode of Star Trek that never got made.

Joe’s Pick: Super Mario Galaxy

How epic can you get?

How epic can you get?

It’s amazing that Miyamoto still has it after all these years. Super Mario Bros. created the platforming genre as we know it today and in 2007, Super Mario Galaxy completely revitalized the genre in the age of the FPS. In short, Galaxy reminded me why I originally liked Mario so much after many years of nothing but Sunshine (and the underrated Luigi’s Mansion) to tide me over. And playing it on Christmas morning back in 2007 made me feel like a child again. Structurally, the levels feel a lot more akin to the classic games in the series than the previous 3D entries, which had a more exploratory feel. The paths to each of the stars are mostly linear with finely crafted challenges along the way that all build on the motifs of the level. Classic items like the mushroom, fire flower, and invincibility star (which were absent in 64) all make reappearances, as well as some new items, like the bee suit, which feel right at home in the franchise. But not only did Galaxy  bring back that classic Mario feeling, it’s arguably the best title in the series, no small feat considering how stiff the competition is. It improved the aging gameplay of Super Mario 64 immeasurably, added in some innovative new gravity mechanics, and had an epic scale to it that the Mario series had never attempted before.

The game also manages to be incredibly imaginative with its settings, in ways that no other Super Mario title has ever been. There are, of course, the classic lava, desert, water, etc, levels that appear in almost every game of the franchise, but then there are the stages where you infiltrate massive space battle-stations, avoid dangerous dark matter in gravity shifting environments, and even traverse a floating obstacle course made of cakes and other pastries. If I have to point to flaws, some of the boss fights are a little lackluster, and maybe the underwater controls are a little too loose, but these issues do virtually nothing to diminish the luster of this nearly perfect game. Super Mario Galaxy manages to feel nostalgic while being incredibly new and I’m more than happy to call it my favorite game in the series.

Best Moment: The “Gusty Garden Galaxy.” It perfectly encapsulates the epic scale and the inventive gameplay that make the game amazing.

#8

Jasper’s Pick: Bayonetta

Japan: The Picture

Japan: The Picture

Bayonetta is a really smart game, and we’ve talked about this. It’s got gorgeous art design, maybe-feminist credentials, a surprising amount of serious theological scholarship, and pretty clever writing (plus a story that is one of the most ludicrously complex I’ve ever seen). The game’s treatment of religion is a big part of why I love it– I’m a huge fan of Blake, Miltion, and Donne, and the ways that the game interacts with and draws on some of the same ideas, Biblical weirdness, and Judeo-Christian apocrypha, combined with its weird quasi-feminist retelling of myth and history, makes for a strange and heady experience that I just love. But all of this artistic and narrative stuff is a distant second to the main reason I adore Bayonetta: it’s got some of the fastest, most fun combat I’ve ever played in my life.

Playing Bayonetta is like getting drunk and ramping a sports car up a dragon. It’s a fairly natural outgrowth of two of Hideki Kamiya’s previous awesome games: combining the varied, outlandish action spectacles of Viewtiful Joe with the acrobatic combat and semi-realism of Devil May Cry. And it works incredibly well. The way in which combat seamlessly integrates dodging, the completely natural flow to all the combos, the way that it keeps you constantly moving and weaving like a damn Sonic game– I’m hard pressed to name another game in which combat feels this fluid and cool. And the sheer spectacle on display– the giant boots made of demon-hair, the high-heel mounted bazookas (named the Col. Kilgore, which is great game design because Apocalypse Now is the greatest film ever made), the ability to spank enemies to death –means that I spent the first hour of the game with my jaw hanging open at the over-the-top cartoonish awesome of everything. Combine that with what are easily some of the best boss fights of this generation and this may well be the most purely fun entry in the entire article. Most of my love for Bayonetta is focused on how fun the fighting is, yes, and the game has some problems– its two minigame levels go on way too long, and the plot is so complex I’m still not sure what actually happens –but the core gameplay is basically perfect.

Best Moment: A boss fight against God. A boss fight. Against God.

Joe’s Pick: Red Dead Redemption

Cougars, the real scourge of the west.

Cougars, the real scourge of the west.

Despite the popularity of the genre in both books and film, there are almost no video game westerns to speak of. There was Sunset Riders, an arcade-style shooter that I was practically addicted to as a kid. But other than that, I can’t remember playing any other westerns, that is until Red Dead Redemption (which is technically the sequel to a Capcom game that I and most others didn’t play), and it was everything I had always wanted to see in a western video game. Redemption succeeds as a sandbox game more than almost any other title I’ve played. There’s just so much to see and explore within the world, and it reproduces most of the different kinds of environments that you’ll find in the American West. While the world in this game does contain some of that amazing Rockstar satire (like a hilarious early cartoon about the “dangers” of women gaining the vote or a terribly incompetent social Darwinist professor), it doesn’t have quite the same level of personality that GTA IV’s Liberty City does, but the greater potential for exploration makes up for that. I could spend hours just hunting bears in the mountains or riding through the wilderness busting gang hideouts, and that’s one of the main reasons this game shines.

Another area where Red Dead Redemption stands above the rest is its writing. As stated above, it doesn’t contain as much of a satiric edge as the Grand Theft Auto games, but it takes many of the darker themes about America that GTA IV introduced and adapts them to the wild west. As the plot progresses, the game deals with issues like the costs of maintaining civilization and the hypocrisies of the American government. It also does an amazing job of showing how brutal and amoral the wild west actually was. The game even covers a good deal of the spectrum that western movies do, starting out with missions similar to the old John Wayne westerns, transitioning into the grandeur and mythic qualities of the spaghetti westerns in Nuevo Paraiso (Mexico), while finally settling into the darker tones of films like Dead Man, and somehow it all feels seamless. Saying that Red Dead Redemption is only the best video game western does it a disservice– it really is one of the best westerns of any medium.

Best Moment: The mission, “And The Truth Will Set You Free”, where protagonist John Marston finally confronts his old mentor and gang leader. It contains some of the best written dialogue I’ve ever heard in a game.

#9

Jasper’s Pick: Borderlands 2

The Borderlands series went from having no conflict to one of my favorite villains ever.

The Borderlands series went from having no conflict to one of my favorite villains ever.

I really didn’t expect to be taken in by Borderlands 2 as much as I was. There were various reasons: the first game was a really fun diversion but had a really bungled finale and was pretty sparse in terms of narrative. The core mechanics of “tons of random crap and sifting through loot” seemed too MMO-ish to grab me. The people who made have a history of being kind of awful. But it really, really worked for me. (Mind you, I might be biased– I played through the entire game with my girlfriend as Player 2, which I think might be a little more fun than doing it with random strangers online).

What’s really impressive about Borderlands 2 is the way in which it successfully married mechanics and art. It uses the skinner-box-driven luck and reward mechanics of an MMO and the team-based co-op of games like Left 4 Dead, but was actually able to craft a compelling narrative out of them. I went in expecting a fun way to shoot bandits and hunt for guns with my girlfriend, but found a level of consistently clever writing and interesting characters more befitting a classic Lucasarts adventure game than anything else. And there’s the visuals: the lush and cartoony cel-shading that makes it one of the best-looking games ever.

The game's art design and graphics make even minor events look beautiful.

The game’s art design and graphics make even minor events look beautiful.

And then it got serious. And it got big. The game started throwing out really fun characters, more and more unique and quirky weaponry, and some legitimately great storytelling. It actually made me tear up at one scene. It delivered one of my favorite video game villains of the past several years. By the end of the game the combat was still fast-paced and fun, the loot was still random, and there was grinding and scavenging galore, but I had a really deep emotional connection to the game that took me completely by surprise. It’s everything a sequel should be: so much bigger and deeper that it makes the original game obsolete. And it’s the rare game that you can pick up for an hour of mindless diversion, or sink an evening into just getting absorbed in the story.

Best Moment: “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” the end of the second act. Things have been getting progressively more serious, but the sudden turn towards a much darker story– and the amount to which the previously-cartoonish villain Handsome Jack  becomes sadder, more complex, and legitimately menacing –highlights this game’s ambition and everything it does right.

Joe’s Pick: Mega Man 9

A return to that classic Mega Man style.

A return to that classic Mega Man difficulty.

After roughly a decade of silence in the classic Mega Man series (and let’s be honest, Mega Man 8 was no prize), it was great to hear that another entry was finally coming out. I thought it would at most be an interesting little diversion but it turned out to be one of the best games in the series, second only to Mega Man 2. And considering how Mega Man 2 is virtually the gold standard of level design, 9 taking second place is perfectly understandable, and it even added a survival mode (called endless mode in the game) and a pretty great time trial mode. It’s just too bad that Capcom couldn’t have released something like this for Mega Man’s recent 25th anniversary (good thing a fan stepped up to the plate for them.)

It’s true that Mega Man 9 didn’t really add anything to the core gameplay of the series, much like most of the other Mega Man titles, but there’s something to be said for a game that does an exemplary job of polishing up an old formula. The level design is some of the strongest in the series, introducing new twists on the core mechanics in each level, but never straying too far from them. The level design is also helped along by possibly the best arsenal of weapons in the entire series. While in most Mega Man titles (even in the second one) you can coast through almost the entire game using only three or four of the more useful weapons, here all eight of the weapons feel relatively balanced and equal. And playing the stages in time trial mode will encourage you to find new uses for your powers too. Finally, and this might seem like odd praise to heap on a Mega Man game , the story is handled really well. The NES style cutscenes (still images with text) capture the old charm that storytelling in retro video games has, and the ending is amazing (again second only to Mega Man 2). Overall, it’s just a fun game that takes a great old song and makes it catchy again. And speaking of songs the soundtrack’s great too but c’mon, for a Mega Man game that goes without saying.

Best Moment: Tornado Man’s stage. The level introduces a slew of interesting gameplay twists. Also the music and changing weather patterns (which not only look great but affect the gameplay) make it one of the most immersive stages in the whole series.

#10: Rayman Origins

The game looks and feels like a wonderful cartoon.

The game looks and feels like a wonderful cartoon.

This was a tough choice, because it’s ultimately one of representation. I could have put another Western RPG here (Fallout: New Vegas was definitely on my short list), repped another great indie game (until Hotline Miami came out, Bastion was going to be the indie representative here), or said Sonic Generations because Sonic is the coolest hog alive and nothing you will say is going to change my mind (also, Sonic Generations really is a fantastic game and it made me feel like a kid again). Ultimately, I decided to go for Rayman Origins, a beautiful throwback that proves that there’s still room in this generation for some really classic ideas.

This has been an interesting generation for platformers. There have been a few mainstream ones that took the genre in new directions (Super Mario Galaxy being the most notable example, while newer Sonic games have been taking a more ignoble path), but 2D platformers have been mostly delegated to the indie market while the mascot-driven 3D collect-a-thons of the last two generations basically died out. But Rayman Origins avoided either of those directions: it’s a perfectly-done, completely classic 2D platformer, and one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Sonic 2 or Prince of Persia. And the fact that it got a full-price release and full support from Ubisoft (and an upcoming, amazing-looking sequel on the Wii U) is one of this generation’s most surprising success stories.

It deserves the success though. The game feels like a master class in how to design a platformer. Gorgeous art design, wonderful music, a perfectly-designed sense of difficulty and escalation, and a wide variety of levels built around a ton of different challenges and play styles. Like the best Mario games, many of the levels have their own unique challenges, are built around quirky mechanics, and incorporate familiar obstacles in new styles and combinations. The game has 66 levels and almost every one of them feels distinct. It’s not just a return to the classic Rayman formula, it’s the best game of the entire series. If this game had come out in 1994 we’d be talking about it as one of the great 2D platformers. I hope that we still can.

Best Moment: When you get the ability to run up walls, suddenly transforming the game’s fundamental mechanics halfway through.

Joe’s Pick: VVVVVV

This would be impossible in any other platformed.

This would be impossible in any other platformer.

This is another game that really inspired me as an fledgling indie developer. It’s amazing that essentially one guy was able to create a game that’s as well made as this one. VVVVVV manages to impress me so much because it takes a simple gameplay mechanic– the ability to flip (basically reversing your own gravity instead of jumping)– and wrings everything it can out of it. The game also follows the Mega Man approach to level design, introducing unique twists on the gameplay in each new stage and gradually evolve said twists through the duration of the level. The stages are actually linked together by an overworld and can be accessed in any order (except for the final stage), making it a bit like a metroidvania game on top of all this. The graphics are really well done too. Using this simple, yet unique and attractive graphical style no doubt gave creator Terry Cavanagh the time he needed to make the gameplay nearly flawless.

So yeah…that’s about it. I’m sorry for the shorter entry here but really no amount of discription can do this game justice, it’s the kind of game you just need to play to really understand, which you can do now that you’re almost done reading this blog post. The difficulty may be pretty high but don’t worry, the frequent checkpoints stop the game from getting overly frustrating.

Best Moment: “The Tower”, where you have to flip quickly to escape a steadily rising floor of spikes. It’s a great segment that really gets your adrenaline pumping.

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Our Favorites of this Generation

[Apologies for our recent absence. The two of us have been traveling, working, and fighting off illnesses for about a month straight now. But we’re back, we’re expanding and going deeper on out last topic, and we’re gonna try and keep posting regularly from now on.]

Which games are winner? Read on to find out.

Which games are winner? Read on to find out.

With the end of both 2012 and the nearing end of this video game generation (the seventh according to Wikipedia) with the release of the WiiU, we felt it would be appropriate for each of us to look back on the past several years and list our ten favorite games of this generation. Unsurprisingly though, since we think alike enough to write this blog, our top five choices of this generation were basically the same. So we’ll be listing those five first and providing our individual comments for them, and then we’ll diverge into our separate lists for the next five next week. We’re defining the beginning of this generation with the release of the Xbox 360 in 2005 so any game after this is eligible unless it’s a remake of an older game (no Ocarina of Time for the 3Ds or Resident Evil 4 for the Wii). Since this list can also double as some game recommendations, we’ll try to keep it spoiler free.

#6: Spec Ops: The Line

The Line was a real surprise for us– to the point where we’d already written most of this article by the time we played it (hence a top 6). There’s a lot to talk about, and a lot of it has been by other critics. But it’s probably the best mainstream game of 2012, and the best military shooter of all time.

The gameplay can be a little repetitive, but that’s the smallest complaint. It’s well-written, smart, creative, and boasts the best performance of Nolan North’s career.  Even the visuals, which few

Brown and gray don't have to be dull.

Brown and gray don’t have to be dull.

reviews mentioned, are praiseworthy. It’s one of the most beautiful games we’ve ever seen, and definitely the best-looking that doesn’t rely on a fantastical setting and a different world. The apocalyptic Dubai of the game is absolutely gorgeous: tragic, lush, and full of tiny visual details. The contrast between the opulent buildings and the ravaged landscape isn’t just “Destroyed Beauty,” it’s loaded with heavy, heavy symbolic weight.

And that’s The Line‘s greatest achievement: it’s a game where everything means something. It takes you to dark, dark moral territory, and it does so through more than just a well-written narrative. It tells its story through mechanics, and especially through the narrative tropes common to other war shooters. Whereas Modern Warfare gives you a gatling gun and a helicopter and lets you revel in it, The Line makes you feel guilty for the bloodthirst your power inspires. The player’s decision to keep playing until they “win” is cast as a psychotic hero complex, their attempts to make meaningful moral choices are swatted down because you don’t get to just decide you want to be a good person, and the game’s philosophy– encapsulated when the protagonist is told “you’re no savior. Your talents lie elsewhere” –is about as good a refutation of the idea of the “heroic action protagonist” as there ever has been. Other shooters would treat the death of civilians as a giant turning point. In The Line, it’s possible while trying to evacuate a refugee camp to see a shape running at you, panic, and realize you just shot an unarmed woman. It wears you down, makes you scared, and doesn’t just show evil–  it makes the player realize how evil happens.

The Line: Where Happiness Goes to Die!

The Line: Where Happiness Goes to Die!

It’s a game that has a real sense of morality and is making bold, unfriendly statements about both American foreign policy and about

contemporary games. It has enough power and enough intelligence to make you consider the way you play other games– both of us feel a lot less friendly towards military shooters after The Line made us  feel culpable for our actions. It’s a testament to the game’s power that it tries to be the Apocalypse Now of gaming and comes damn close to living up to that.

Best Moment: It’s hard to talk about without spoiling but there’s a moment right before the final level when things are very, very bad that not only pushes the player harder than any other game we’ve seen, but makes a very clear point about the way in which war leads to people doing terrible things.

#5: Hotline Miami

It's not about making those corpses. It's about walking back past them.

It’s not about making those corpses. It’s about walking back past them.

Hotline Miami is very much The Line‘s indie brother. It has brutal, realistic violence, a strong film influence (Nicolas Wending Refn’s Drive), and works to make the player feel guilt not just for narrative actions but for completing the core gameplay objectives. When a game directly asks you if “you enjoy hurting people” it’s pretty clear what it’s going for.

Hotline Miami deserves to be praised not just for exploring the issues of violence, escapism, and identity in games but also for, well, everything. It‘s visually stunning: a throbbing, pulsing fever dream of 80’s neon and blood that looks both incredibly cool and unsettling. But these visuals also work on a level that serves the narrative– the swirling, psychedelic look of the game lulls you into a psychotic trance, while watching an enemy try and pry your hand away before you jam a power drill into his ear does a damn fine job of pulling you out of it. At every step the game is pushing you towards violent acts and then making you feel terrible for them.

You owe it to yourself to go watch every trailer for this game.

You owe it to yourself to go watch every trailer for this game.

Despite all this, it’s also crazy, crazy fun. It’s easy to pick it up, play for half an hour, and have a blast. The gameplay is fast, frantic, and cool, while also doing something great with its ultra-hard difficulty: it’s the rare game where beating your enemies isn’t about strength, equipment, or inborn advantage but about quick thinking and strategy. The fact that your character is just as frail as the enemies, can’t outrun them, and has no superweapons both fleshes out the game’s story (the people you’re killing are just as human as you), but also makes the combat about as nerve-wracking and intense as we’ve ever seen (Jasper’s girlfriend loves the game, for instance, but can only play one level at a time or “it feels like I’m having three heart attacks at once”). Plus, you know, the soundtrack is one of the best game soundtracks ever made.

And the fact that it’s such a small-scale, personal project game is just icing on the cake. It was the best game of 2012– it’s one of our favorite games of all time –and it was made by two guys. In their spare time. With freaking Game Maker. Its success is a testament to some of the massive changes going on in gaming right now. And as people who have loved Cactus’s work for about five years now, it’s wonderful to see him make a masterpiece.

Best Moment: The fourth chapter, Tension. Specifically opening the door. If you’ve played it you know the door we’re talking about. Wait… no, the best moment is when one of us got featured in a trailer for the game (third quote).

#4: Portal 2

Portal 2 isn’t as daring as anything else on this list. It’s an expansion of the first game’s puzzle-shooter mechanics, it doesn’t make the player

You might say that the game is... looking pretty good. (VIDEO GAME COMEDY.)

You might say that the game is… looking pretty good. (VIDEO GAME COMEDY.)

question themselves or redefine what the medium is capable of. So why is it on this list?

Because it’s as close to perfect as any game has ever been. Do you want to know our complaint? Our one complaint? Some of thepuzzles in the middle section of the game have art design that makes it a little hard to see where you’re supposed to go next. Maybe 3 or 4 of them. That’s it. This game is so well-done that we can literally count every single problem we have with it in the span of about a minute. It doesn’t quite soar to the heights of the other games on this list, but it’s an absolute masterpiece nonetheless. It’s simple, refined, and near-flawless. It has four major characters (one of whom is a mute protagonist and one of whom is dead), and around a dozen different puzzle mechanics, and it manages to make one of the medium’s most compelling stories and an endlessly surprising game out of them. Whereas the first Portal was tight effective writing paired with a handful of puzzle elements, Portal 2 kept that simplicity and sparseness and transformed it into a beautiful, powerful efficiency of both narrative and design.

There's as much tragedy and pathos to this goofy mad scientist as most Oscar-winning films.

There’s as much tragedy and pathos to this goofy mad scientist as most Oscar-winning films.

Portal 2 is really the best representation of Valve’s strength as a director: it’s not just that they made a game which was imaginative, well-written, and fun. It’s that they did that and worked and worked making that game as good as it could possibly be. It’s about as meticulously crafted and focused on its artistic goals as any game in the history of the medium, and it applies that focus to gorgeous art direction (which is also expressive and great at telling a story), brilliant writing, and inventive mechanics. It may be Valve’s masterpiece (and if not, their best since Half-Life 2). It’s a simple story, with a few characters, but those characters are brilliantly written and the story’s emotionally engaging and consistently hilarious. The puzzles are intuitive and clever, and almost entirely on a just-about-perfect level of difficulty. If the last games on this list were Drive and Apocalypse Now, Portal 2 (the only game on this list with an E-10 rating, coincidentally) would be a film like Wall-E or Toy Story 3: less edgy, less auteur-ish, but just as revolutionary and every bit as great.

Best Moment: The game’s focus on rapid-fire wit over spectacle makes this tough, but it’s either the aftermath of the “fight” against GLaDOS that closes the first act or the slow, hilarious reveal of who and how crazy Cave Johnson was.

#3: No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle

Suda 51’s No More Heroes was a wonderful oddity: a game that actually used the Wii’s motion controls in a way that felt necessary, with excellent boss fights, funny writing, and a sharp satiric edge. Between that and the wonderful trailers, we were pretty excited for its release. We were expecting another fun cult hit that had cool ideas and some great moments.

GAMES ARE ART.

GAMES ARE ART.

What we got was one of the best games we’ve ever played, and one that established Suda as one of gaming’s most interesting artists. The series still has its faults, of course– the non-boss combat is usually functional but unimpressive, some levels go on far too long –but almost all of them were removed between the first and the second game. The first had fun and creative boss fights, the second makes them not only more fun through deeper combat but makes the bosses more rounded characters and has you fight a gundam, an anime nightmare, a supervillain, the White Male Power Structure, and an astronaut. The sequel improves in every way, from having great retro minigames in place of the first’s dull jobs, to a weirder and more postmodern tone (fellow game creators Shinji Mikami and Hideo Kojima get loving tributes, cult director Takashi Miike makes a bizarre cameo), to an overall richer and deeper story.

The story is Desperate Struggle’s biggest strength. Whereas the first mostly used protagonist Travis Touchdown as a punching bag, making points about escapism into games and nerd culture through him, the second really lets him come into his own as a protagonist. He’s still dumb

What makes the romance so good is how realistic it is.

What makes the romance so good is how realistic it is.

and self-absorbed, but he’s a complex character with real human depth and growth. The game still has a ton of satire in it (its main focuses being on our obsessions with sex and violence, mass-media culture, and the amoral nature of most action heroes), but it’s made stronger by having real characters we care about at the core. Travis Touchdown, in this game, is one of gaming’s most interesting heroes and one that couldn’t exist in any other medium.

What really makes the story special to us is that it’s real and human in a way that a lot of game stories aren’t. NMH:DS may throw spectacle and absurdity at the player nonstop, but Travis’s core arc is learning to value other people, become less dependent on pop culture to define himself, appreciate the real world, and develop a set of adult values in place of childish wish-fulfillment. It’s a story that’s fundamentally one of growing up, and resonates especially hard with people for whom video games, TV, and movies are a big part of life. The game may feature mech battles, ghosts, katana fights, and space lasers, but it’s fundamentally the story of what it is to be a young man who feels disconnected from his society and alone in the world. It’s one of the coolest and weirdest games ever, and one of the most heartfelt and nuanced ones too.

Best Moment: The fight against the third ranked assassin, an aging cosmonaut. The actual gameplay of the boss fight is really solid but it’s the atmosphere that pushes it over the top. Not to mention the touching cutscene afterwards.

#2: Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV finally accomplished something that no other crime sandbox game had been able to do: creating a narrative and world in

"We can pick the game, Niko Bellic. But we cannot change the rules. "

“We can pick the game, Niko Bellic. But we cannot change the rules. “

which the game mechanics felt natural and realistic. It’s hard to understate how massive of an achievement this is. When playing as Rico Rodriguez, The Boss, Tommy Vercetti, or any other sandbox hero you feel like, well, a kid in a sandbox; the world is fun to interact with and the toys are awesome, but you never feel like a real part of it. GTA IV is one of the only sandboxes to escape this.

It did this, in part, with incredible writing and narrative. Niko Bellic should be taught in college courses as the perfect example of how to create a game protagonist. He’s interesting, complex, sympathetic, and– most importantly –every aspect of who he is, from his traumatic past to his status as an immigrant outsider, is tailored to fit the game. Every action the player can do as Niko feels like a natural result of who he is. Even the mechanics of the game reflect this: Niko trudges from place to place, fights with cold, mechanical precision, and generally feels like an unlovable killing machine. The game is able to give the players an extraordinary amount of freedom, but Niko’s character is so perfectly crafted that you’ll feel immersed even while biking off skyscrapers and starting battle royales between cab drivers.

Liberty City, meanwhile, is the gold standard of what a sandbox world can be. It’s not as pretty as Far Cry 3 or as full of games as Saints Row 2,

The strip clubs are depressing and not fun. Told you it was realistic.

The strip clubs are depressing and not fun. Told you it was realistic.

but it feels alive unlike just about any other game. Every neighborhood has its own demographics and unique feel, there’s a sense of unique personality to a lot of the pedestrians, and it actually feels like a real, living world– which makes the chaos  so much more rewarding. Getting drunk and starting a fistfight in central park is as enjoyable in this game as blowing up a city block is in Saint’s Row, just because having that real and organic a world makes disrupting it so much more fun.

Finally, the game just has an incredible story. It’s well-written and full of great characters, and it walks a delicate line between goofy satire and serious social commentary. It has hilarious fake right-wing talk radio, sure, but it also says a lot about what America is and how cruel it can be. For every hilarious moment like Brucie talking about his lack of “funny balls,” there’s a haunting one like Niko’s discussion of how he became who he is. It’s dark, funny, and moving, and it works because the world and the mechanics immerse the player so deeply in what it is to be a man like Niko Bellic in a grim and cynical America.

Best Moment: The game’s absolute gut-punch of an ending– either one –which drives home how unattainable the “American Dream” truly is for people like Niko. Either that or the amazing bank heist mission.

#1: Bioshock

The game's dialogue could be nothing but fart noises and visuals like this would still make it a masterpiece.

The game’s dialogue could be nothing but fart noises and visuals like this would still make it a masterpiece.

Don’t act surprised. You knew it was going to be Bioshock. We could write this entire blog by doing one entry a week on some facet of this game and keep busy for years.

Bioshock is beautifully-designed, visually-stunning, and packed with so many creative ideas that it’s hard to go ten minutes without seeing something new and cool. The city of Rapture is one of the best settings in game history. It’s one of a handful of games to set its sights on really big ideas– to grapple with one of the twentieth century’s major philosophers –and really succeed. The gameplay, while kind of simple, gives the player some extraordinary freedom in terms of the tools at their disposal and how to use them. But the gameplay’s not why we’ve replayed the game at least twice a year since it came out.

Bioshock is a success on virtually every aesthetic front. The art design is absolutely stunning, both in terms of raw visual beauty and in terms of serving the narrative– a ton of the game’s story and tone comes through details of setting and visual elements. The characters are all distinct individuals with their own strong personalities and narrative arcs, who also serve to illustrate the world and give human faces to its philosophical conflicts. The music’s amazing, the sound design is unimpeachable, and the game’s grasp of tone is so flawless that it can be laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly creepy at the same time.

Oh man, remember this?

Oh man, remember this?

But what makes Bioshock truly special is that it’s a game in many ways about the potential of gaming. Its closest analogue– no hyperbole intended –is Citizen Kane. Like Kane, Bioshock uses the very mechanics of its medium as a central part of its story, and in doing so proves what that medium is really capable of. It’s ambitious, creative, and so deeply in love with everything games can do that its love is infectious. And just as a Citizen Kane book would be laughable, Bioshock provides a narrative experience that is entirely dependent on the interactivity, choice, and immersion that games provide. Bioshock is a great game, yes. But even more than that, it’s quite possibly the best argument ever for why video games are an important, even necessary, medium for art and storytelling. It’s our favorite game of the past six years, not just because of how good it is on its own but because its very existence is an inspiration as to what the medium can be at its best.

Best Moment: Don’t even play. You know what it is. Man. Chooses. Etc. Possibly the most famous scene of the entire generation. A scene that basically changed gaming forever, when the core principles of game narrative were fundamentally challenged.

The Overlooked Legends of Zelda

200px-Ocarina_of_Time_poster

This is what Zelda is all about. Right?

The Legend of Zelda is easily one of the most recognizable video game franchises out there. Nearly everybody knows it and most people acknowledge it as one of the best series of all time. But recently, these games have been in a bit of a rut. Sure, most of the recent Zelda titles were still good games, but they tend to draw most of their influence from Ocarina of Time, the gold standard for the series. And when they try to add innovative new mechanics, the game usually doesn’t turn out as well *cough*Four Swords Adventures*cough*. When you think of amazing Zelda titles, most of you probably think of Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past, games that provide an epic medieval fantasy world to explore. You probably think of vanquishing Ganondorf using the Master Sword and reclaiming pieces of the Triforce. But there was always another side to the series, a stranger side that helped to keep the games fresh before they went stale. This week we’re going to talk about two of the more offbeat entries from The Legend of Zelda’s golden years, and why they were instrumental in keeping the series fresh with their unique worlds and gameplay mechanics.

Link’s Awakening (1993)

Link can never just have a peaceful journey.

This was the first installment of the series that did not take place in the land of Hyrule, instead beginning with series protagonist Link ending up shipwrecked and unconscious on the mysterious island of Koholint. He’s awakened by Marin (a young woman) and her father, Tarin. From here, Link begins his quest to leave the island and return to Hyrule,  soon learning that he must awaken the sleeping Wind Fish in order to accomplish this. Interestingly enough, this was the first Zelda game to use music as a key plot element, since in order to awaken the Wind Fish, Link must collect (okay, so it’s not totally different) the eight Siren’s Instruments. There’s also an ocarina item in the game which Link can learn three songs for, each with a unique purpose. Surreal elements start popping up right away and continue to do so. A man warns you to watch out for him later because he knows he’s going to get lost in the mountains later.  Right off the bat, the game has a different tone from it’s predecessors. A strange raccoon monster who halts your progress turns out to be a transformed Tarin when you defeat him. Character’s from other Nintendo franchises make cameos (like a Yoshi doll you can win at a crane game, or a Chain Chomp you can take for a walk). Clearly, the game has a very different feel from any other Zelda title.

Link'sAwakeningBowWow

Da Da Da Daaa! You got the Chain Chomp! What could be cooler than this?

Now if you happen to hear about the big twist in the game without playing through first, you’ll probably think it’s a cop out. As it turns out, this is yet another “it was all just a dream” story. Well, that’s not entirely true, Link is really trapped on the island because it, and all it’s inhabitants are part of the Wind Fish’s dream. Link’s shipwreck sent him into this deity’s dream…somehow. In spite of the potential problems this kind of plot twist can have, the game really makes it work. The strangeness that is present from the beginning of the game helps makes the twist seem believable when the revelation finally occurs. Many of the later bosses (or Nightmares) will even try and warn you about the island’s true nature, pleading with you not to wake the Wind Fish with their dying breaths. The Nightmares even suggest that since you are in the dream, you too will vanish once the Wink Fish awakens, building a great sense of tension as you get closer to your goal. All of this builds up beautifully to one of the most bitter sweet endings we’ve ever seen in a game. After defeating the final Nightmares inside the Wind Fish’s egg, you do finally manage to wake the god and escape, but only after watching the entire island, including all the friends you made along your journey (including Marin, the woman who saved you at the beginning of the game), vanish into nothingness. It’s one of the few endings that captures some of the sadness you have when you finish a really great game, that despite your accomplishment, it’s all over now. And the ending has so much weight behind it because you were the one that made it happen, destroying the island was really what you had been working towards from the beginning of the game. In short, it’s some of the best storytelling The Legend of Zelda series has ever done.

Majora’s Mask (2000)

Not your typical fantasy adventure.

Not your typical fantasy adventure.

How on earth do you follow up such a monumental success like Ocarina of Time? You go off in a totally new direction. Miyamoto and Nintendo wisely decided not to try and one-up their magnum-opus and instead create a sequel with a completely different feel and some startlingly different gameplay mechanics, Majora’s Mask. Right from the beginning of the game, you know the Zelda formula is going to be shaken up, as the story begins with a strange imp known as the Skull Kid turning Link into a weak and seemingly powerless Deku Scrub while stealing his horse, ocarina, and trapping him in a strange new world eerily similar to Hyrule, except that it’s own moon is going to crash into it in three short days. The most obvious new gameplay mechanic is that you keep replaying the same three days over and over again, until you stop this impending disaster. It’s an interesting spin on the switching between present and future time travel mechanic in Ocarina of Time, and is even more original and central to the game. Many of the NPCs have very detailed routines throughout this three day period, which makes the side quests some of the most detailed within the series. Timing becomes a big deal, as you’ll have to approach people at a certain time during the three days to start a side quest and also usually have to finish by a particular time. While this sounds annoying on paper it actually works very well in practice, since you can speed up and slow down the three day cycle via songs on your ocarina, as well as going back to the beginning of the three day cycle at any point. These abilities give you a sense of control over time that has never really been replicated in any other game, making these very time specific quests of Majora’s Mask work. The only parts of the game that suffer because of the three day mechanic are the dungeons, since they follow the standard Zelda formula (which allows you to take your time) and have not been altered to fit the more time specific gameplay of Majora’s Mask. However, even if you fail to complete the dungeon within a three day cycle, it still won’t set you back that far, since you still retain most important items while traveling back.

Enjoy looking at this the entire game.

Enjoy looking at this face the entire game.

Another unique gameplay mechanic to Majora is Link’s ability to transform. At the beginning of the game you’re trapped in the form of a tiny Deku Scrub, but once you reclaim your ocarina, you’ll be able to learn a song that will let you swap forms, by turning your Deku Scrub form into a mask that you can put on and take off at will. As the game progresses, you’ll acquire Goron and Zora masks (the other two main races from Ocarina) through two tragic incidents, which will give you a total of four different forms (including your normal form), all with their own unique abilities. All of these forms are useful throughout the entire game, which is one of the design areas that some of the more recent Zeldas are lacking in (the wolf form in Twilight Princess for instance becomes much less useful beyond the halfway point of that game). This is probably one of the reasons Majora’s Mask was one of the few post Ocarina of Time games in the series that managed to innovate successfully, both the mask transformations and the three day time mechanic are completely inseparable from the game, so much so that they really define it. And of course, the mechanics are fun too.

So while setting a Zelda game in an epic fantasy world has certainly made for some great entries to the series in the past, it would be nice to see Nintendo revisit the more surreal and strange tone that the above two games had. If nothing else, it would add some variety to a series that’s becoming in desperate need of it. Oh, and they should bring back Tingle. Everybody likes him, right?

3 Free Indie Games Worth Your Time

For most of Indie Month, we’ve been doing big-picture kinda deals– looking at two talented and prolific developers, and examining some elements of the “genre” as a whole. We thought we’d close by looking at what makes indie games really exciting: the huge breadth and variety of available experiences, and the huge number of them that are free.

There’s no excuse for not playing these. They’re generally pretty short, almost effortless to get a hold of, and every one of them has something inspiring or original about it. Go forth, and remember that we live in a pretty exciting time for the medium.
Time Fcuk

“I’m in a room full of bodies. They all kinda look like you.”

Edmund McMillen makes games that are creative and sharp, but have a tendency to be muddled in tone. Super Meat Boy was a great masocore platformer which eventually turned into visually uninteresting levels full of buzzsaws. The Binding of Isaac is fantastic, and probably his best work (god knows we can’t stop playing here at the CV “offices”), but its moody atmosphere and dark humor evaporate every time a stupid meme reference or rage face pops up.

Time Fcuk does not have these problems. It’s a tightly-bound puzzle-platformer that maintains a bleak, dread-drenched tone from start to finish. From the moment you enter The Box– stepping into the time loop that you’re trapped in –the game sinks into a deep melancholy. Its monochrome level design, atonal soundtrack, and stellar sound all give it a hopeless  feel. In a genre where every game seems to want to imitate Portal, going for more of a Silent Hill vibe is a pretty daring choice.

It’s also one of the only McMillen (and co.) games where the writing really shines. Throughout the game, you’ll get communications from yourself in the past and future. However, as you spend more time adrift, going more and more mad from the isolation and puzzles, the “yous” in various points in time start to fracture and change. Partway through the game, it becomes ambiguous if you’re even yourself or playing as a doppelganger. There’s not much plot to speak of, but the writing is sharp throughout and contributes to a great sense of building horror at your situation.

 

Tower of Heaven

At first glance, Tower of Heavenis the kind of game that indie development is bloated with: a brutally hard platformer with retro graphics and

The game gets a lot of beauty out of three colors.

slightly philosophical themes. And while that doesn’t make it bad— the gameplay is solid all the way through, the Gameboy-style graphics are cool, and the music’s excellent– where it really shines is how much it plays with that formula.

Every couple levels, the game adds another seemingly-arbitrary rule that will instantly kill you if broken: don’t touch blocks from the sides, don’t touch certain blocks, no backtracking, et cetera. What makes the game so smart and interesting is that, taken together, all these really mean is “get better at platforming.” Every rule just means you need to be more precise in your jumps, avoid obstacles, keep moving forward, and evade enemies– the same basic constraints all platformers put you under.

The end result feels incredibly pure and focused in a way a lot of ultra-hard platformers don’t. Just as the game works with an intensely reduced color palette smartly applied, the core mechanics are all about taking the unspoken rules of platforming and giving you absolutely no room for error, and building an entire game out of these rules.

 

Iji

Dan Remar’s Iji is definitely the highest-profile of the games we’re looking at this week, although not on the level of Cave Story or Spelunky

It takes an entire game’s worth of planning and risk to get that gun. It’s worth it.

(which we didn’t mention under the assumption that you’ve heard of them, and if you haven’t, well, you have now, so go download them immediately). It deserves that profile– it’s a staggeringly fun action game with great vector-style graphics (think Another World) and a damn good central story.

The story’s where it really shines, although the combat, fleshed-out RPG elements, and Metroidvania-ish level design are all pretty stellar as well. It puts you as a survivor of an alien attack, cybernetically augmented and fighting to drive out the invaders. This is all pretty rote stuff, but the game keeps track of your choices and gives you real input into the narrative in a way action games usually don’t. A no-kill run will result in some enemies trying to be peaceful and helping you, whereas playing more aggressively will gradually turn the protagonist into a bloodthirsty wreck incapable of mercy. The change– from hearing Iji shriek when hurt and whimper after killing an enemy in self-defense to hearing her howl with rage or laugh when catching enemies in traps –is heartbreaking and guaranteed to make you want multiple playthroughs. It does a better job of making you feel sorry for your enemies than any other game we’ve seen. There’s tons of easter eggs hidden in the story as well– careful planning can save the lives of certain characters, different skill focuses can make boss fights and areas skippable, and it’s possible to go through the whole game with a clean conscience if you’re very, very careful.

And, as said, the gameplay is a beast. It’s fast and frenetic, with gigantic weapons, hoverbike chases, colossal boss fights, and a detailed and beautiful world. Taken together, the game feels like some bizarre hybrid of Metal Slug and Shadow of the Colossus.

 

Terry Cavanagh: Less is More

One thing that we at Cardinal Virtual can always respect is when a game designer is able to do a lot with a little. It’s always satisfying to see a solid game concept taken to it’s full potential without any unnecessary gimmicks bogging it down, and indie game designer Terry Cavanagh has mastered this skill to a fault. His games often have very simple, traditional mechanics with one or two slight twists which the game itself is built from. His minimalist approach doesn’t end with game mechanics though– the art style and sound design of Cavanagh’s games all have an equally pared back feel. Here are some examples:

Don’t Look Back

Trapped.

This short flash game is the first of Cavanagh’s library that either of us played. The game is based on the Greek myth in which Orpheus descends into the underworld to bring his wife back with him, on the condition that he doesn’t look at her while they are escaping. This condition that Orpheus receives in the myth is one of the things that makes this game unique, as for the entire second half of the game, you must preform typical platforming stunts (running, jumping, shooting) without turning around, or your wife will vanish and you’ll be sent back to the last checkpoint (which thankfully are frequent). This simple additional rule will cause you to think about basic platforming challenges in a totally different way and adds a refreshing twist to the more shooting heavy first half of the game (apparently Orpheus traded in his lyre for a pistol). It’s probably the best example of Cavanagh’s signature technique– imposing one or two limits and pushing the player against them in every way possible.

All the colors you will see in the game.

The art style is about as minimalistic as you can get but still manages to leave an impression. Don’t Look Back uses a total of three shades of red against a black background and still manages to create an immersive experience. The blocky Atari 2600-style graphics (all in red) help emphasize how alien and disorienting a place the underworld would be, while also giving the game a washed-out and bleak feeling to match the protagonist’s grief. It also makes the game more memorable and recognizable, since with this color pallet, you’re not likely to confuse a screenshot of this game with any other out there. Many of the sound effects are also more realistic than you would expect (most 2D games for example don’t have realistic sounding footsteps) which, along with the somber music, help with immersion and set it apart from other games that use a retro art style.

The game’s certainly not perfect. The difficulty ramps up fast and since the game respawns you without much warning, cheap deaths will occur. Also the ending, while hard-hitting back when the game first came out, might not seem as original these days. Still, Don’t Look Back is definitely worth playing and if nothing else, will be a memorable experience.

VVVVVV

The hardest challenge in the entire game, caused because you can’t step over a waist-high block.

This is not only Terry Cavanagh’s most important and well polished game, but one of the best indie games ever made. VVVVVV is a metroidvania-style game where the player controls Captain Viridian, who’s on a mission to rescue his lost crew members from a strange dimension that they’ve landed in. Unlike other metroidvanias, you don’t look for weapons or gain new abilities to progress. In fact, other than moving right and left, you only have one maneuver in your arsenal the entire game: rather than jumping, you have the the ability to reverse your own gravity (or flip). This skill instantly allows you to do things you never thought possible in a platformer, like escape a deep pit by flipping up to the ceiling or crossing a gap by using the bottoms of moving platforms. It also makes other platforming challenges much more difficult, like when you have to go up and then back down a deadly spike laden shaft to get over a tiny block in your way. Like only being able to travel in one direction in Don’t Look Back, flipping completely changes the way you experience a platformer and the game is structured around this unique ability brilliantly.

You wouldn’t see these kind of manners from I Wanna Be the Guy.

In VVVVVV, Cavanagh’s expanded his color pallet to six colors (eight if you count white and black), one for Viridian and each of his other five crew members. Each screen in the game has one background color (with numerous shades) and these colors change from screen to screen. In addition to creating a unique feel, this artistic choice shows what a jangled mess of a dimension that Viridian and his crew-mates are stranded in, creating a more cohesive and interesting world while still using very simple graphics. The soundtrack is also incredibly catchy, that kind of video game music that you’ll find yourself humming later. The the additional game modes (like Time Trial and the infamously hard No Death Mode) help add a lot of replay value making this easily the biggest of Cavanagh’s games (which makes sense since it is a commercial game).

Overall, we can’t recommend this one highly enough. If you’re interested in indie games at all go pick it up now. It originally cost around $15 but you can easily find it for much cheaper now.

Xoldiers

The chaos of war, in 8-bit form.

This game was actually a collaboration between Terry Cavanagh and Cactus (subject of last weeks entry) back in 2008, before the two games we just discussed. The minimalistic and brightly colored graphics certainly evoke the other projects of these designers. In Xoldiers, you control small squadron of troops who must destroy a specific target on each stage (always a purple temple like structure) while fighting their way through enemy tanks and soldiers. You move the squad as one object, meaning the more xoldiers you have alive the less maneuverable you are but the more firepower you have. Controlling the xoldiers as a squad helps evoke the sense of war surprisingly well. The xoldiers all shoot, duck, and move as one, and individually they’re helpless. No xoldier has any identity– it’s entirely about the squad. The massive explosions and giant plumes of blood (which can obstruct your tiny xoldiers from view) adds to the sense of chaos that the game presents and also makes destroying enemies more satisfying.

The following mission is easier if you let some of your xoldiers die, because you have too many to fit in the door.

And yet, instead of just reveling in its extravagant violence, the game has a harsh satiric edge. The incredibly over-the-top General who briefs the player before each level is hilarious but also is clearly intended to show the callousness and brutality of war. In one mission, the General declares that “A xoldier never retreats, and never looks back!”, and then you enter a mission where you start on the opposite side of the screen, only to find that your xoldiers can’t turn around to shoot. So you have to advance into enemy fire backwards all because a xoldier “never looks back!” In another mission, your xoldiers’ adherence to a solid block formation makes infiltrating a base nearly impossible. It’s not exactly subtle satire, but it fits for the style of the game.

All in all, Xoldiers is definitely a fun little game to pick up and spend a half hour or so with, and manages to be one of the only anti-war games out there.

Other Games by Terry Cavanagh:

Self Destruct: An entertaining vertically scrolling SHMUP where you try to survive  as many waves of enemy fighters as possible.

At A Distance: A two player puzzle game ideally played on two computers side by side.

Radio Silence: A first-person game where you have to locate and collect several radios based on the sounds they release. Great atmosphere.

Hexagon: Hard to describe this one. It’ll really test your reflexes. Very hard, but very addictive.

My Brain It’s Swollen: A Cactus Primer

[We’re back from hiatus, and ready to spend all month talking about our favorite indie games and developers!]

A little while ago, Jonatan Soderstrom, aka Cactus, announced his first for-sale, distributed, studio-made game. It’s called Hotline Miami, and

Get ready for fun!

it’s a fusion of several of his loves: neon colors, brutal violence,  the horrors of consumption, trash culture, and psychological horror.

There aren’t words for how excited we are about this. Cactus is amazing. You need to know some of his games. He’s right up there with Ken Levine, Valve, or Suda 51 for people who are taking games forward as art. And, while all of them are doing large, well-funded, mass-market projects, he’s doing tiny psychedelic nightmares on the fringes. His main focus seems to be using games– often with deliberately ugly graphics, controls, and themes –to explore the dark and ugly parts of ourselves. He’s said before that, in the realm of art, he considers himself more in line with Jodorowsky, Lynch, or Burroughs than the James Camerons that most mainstream game designers picture themselves as. But, like those artists, his work can seem a little unwelcoming and requires an introduction to its more palatable examples. That’s what we’re here for.
Norrland

Norrland  is, at first glance, a game about the mundane. You play a blue-collar Swedish hunter going on a trip to the wilderness to shoot animals (or, if they get too close, punch their heads off). There are minigames where you drink beer, piss, and swat mosquitoes. Then, after a full day of hunting, you go to sleep and have a dream where you’re forced to dance to a beat you can’t keep up with and are screamed at when you inevitably fail.

Also, the sound is horrifying. Because Cactus.

As the game goes on, it becomes pretty clear that the hunter is filled with some pretty ugly issues. His dreams inevitably end in his destruction, and escalate in violence and anger– one early one has you driving a car through a city where the only way to wake up is to crash, whereas a later one involves slowly pushing a hunting knife into your own skull. Every dream is loaded with creepy imagery and fairly unsettling symbolism, and gain a lot from the basic controls. You always know what buttons you’ll use, but what they do and what your goal is are made up each time. The overall feeling is one of helplessness, frustration, and uselessness: you end up feeling like you can’t do anything right and the world is actively against you. It becomes fairly clear as the end approaches that the hunter has gone into the woods to die. (There is, to be fair, a fairly rich vein of absurdist humor running through the game as well).

Where these gain their power, though, is in contrast to the “normal” game. You’ll still spend most of the game hunting, fishing, drinking beer, and taking care of your bodily needs, but the fun leaches out of them when you know what you’ll have to face at the end of the day. When you’re outside his head, the hunter seems like a normal guy who likes shooting birds and reading porno, and if you had never seen his dreams the game’s dark ending would come as an absolute surprise. There are countless indie games about depression and isolation, but they’re almost all melodramatic and obviously bleak. Norrland is about how depression and self-loathing creep in through normal life, and how ordinary, seemingly well-adjusted people can still have a huge amount of fear and pain in them.

One minigame has you playing Russian Roulette. Even after five clicks, you have to keep playing.

Hot Throttle

See? Perfectly sensible.

If Norrland is about the dignity of a troubled soul, Hot Throttle is about pointing and laughing at how ugly the soul can be. Released by Adult Swim games and collaborated on with Doomlaser, it’s probably Cactus’s most playable and “fun” work. It’s a kart racing game about naked sweaty men who think they’re cars and crawl around at top speeds, brutalizing pedestrians and eventually traveling to Hell. It’s grotesque and colorful and wacky, pairing the themes of J.G. Ballard’s Crash and the style of Yellow Submarine.

This demonstrates one of Cactus’s greatest skills: to wring real substance out of gibberish. Even the most narratively deranged of his works (probably Stallions in America or Stench Mechanics) have some real meaning and satirical meat to them (the inanity of action movies and the transformation of sex into an illicit commodity, respectively). Hot Throttle could have just been an insane and surreal kart racer, but there’s a real sense of both humor and dread to it. It carries the modern world’s obsession with cars and better living through technology to their logical ends: a man for whom anything that isn’t a car is a waste of time, who loves driving and cars so much that he wants to become one.

It’s an ugly game, and the deliberately off-putting art style is only part of that. Every race you win takes the hero one step deeper into his delusions, as his increasing belief in the fact that he’s a car hurts more and more people (in one level you trample someone during a race, injuring them further as you try to carry them to the hospital on your back). If you win most of the races, you leave your wife and children, take all their money, and spend it on surgery to turn yourself into a car. Whereas every other racing game on the planet is about how cool cars are and how fun they are to drive, Hot Throttle questions our automotive obsessions.  Whereas most driving games don’t even have characters beyond the cars, Hot Throttle puts us in the mind of a character for whom that’s a utopia, where literally the most important thing in the world is racing better than anyone or anything and being the best car.

The most bitter ending since GTA IV.

Mondo Agency

Mondo Agency is our favorite Cactus game, and for good reason. Whereas most of his games have kind of a breezy, amateur feel (given that a lot

“MY BRAIN IT’S SWOLLEN.”

of them were made in 24 hours or less), Mondo Agency has a level of polish and of narrative depth that many of his others lack. It’s also one of his only games that is hardly ever laugh-out-loud funny, using his usual surrealism instead for an atmosphere of extreme dread and oppression.

The premise is that you are a secret agent trying to preserve modern civilization by preventing the murder of the President (because, in the game’s deliberately distorted English, “president am much like world!”). You do this by navigating monochrome, agoraphobic levels, fighting Natives (the only things in the game that are brightly colored), combating cancer, and shooting everything. Even if the game didn’t have a lot of meaning to it it would be remarkable– the atmosphere is Silent Hill 2 levels of  creepiness,  the puzzles are interesting, and the sound and art design are some of the best we’ve ever seen in a freeware game. But Agency also has a pretty heavy amount of cultural commentary in it.

Because despite your goal of saving civilization, the game is a walking tour through the horrors of the modern world. The entire world is gray, sterile, and made of cubes– the “mountain” you have to climb in the second level looks more like a city skyline. Everyone you speak to has a TV for a head and communicates in garbled static. You are given your “shooter” by a gun-obsessed bureaucrat who thinks everyone should be armed all the time. Cancer is explained by your boss as a “mistake” that can be removed by building a better world. One of the later missions (fittingly titled “Massacre”) sends you to the home of the Natives to murder them for sabotaging the security technology (“what is a natives?” muses your boss in the briefing. “Is it worth much money?”). When you finally meet the President, he’s a horrible shrieking monster made of televisions. The game views western civilization as fundamentally evil and soulless, driven by violence, obsessed with technology, and ultimately self-destructive. Even though you’re doing action-hero duty– curing cancer, killing natives, and saving the world –you feel like the world you’re saving is toxic and wrong.

“What is a mountains?”

Also try (a lot of these are in the Cactus Arcade packs on his website):

Xoldiers: a collaboration with VVVVVV‘s Terry Cavanaugh, which criticizes the absurdity of war and is also full of explosions and showers of blood. We’ll be talking more about this game next week in our profile on Cavanaugh.
Space Fuck: A short, simple game with 2-bit graphics and a pretty cool twist ending.
Mondo Medicals: Agency’s predecessor– a lot less fun to play, but still horrifying, smart, and creative.
Psychosomnium: A quirky platformer that predates most of the modern wave of quirky platformers. One of his most popular, but the cute, gentle graphics and whimsical tone make it not very representative of his style.
Clean Asia! and Burn the Trash!: two very well-made shoot-em-ups with unique art styles and inventive mechanics. Great games in their own right, but don’t have as much narrative depth as the three we singled out. If you’re a fan of shmups, though, definitely worth playing.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Games

We thought it would be a good idea to open this blog discussing exactly what the title suggests: the cardinal virtues of game design. And, specifically, the elements that make games such an exciting, vibrant art form to us.

One of the most frustrating things about games-as-art discussions is the way that so many critics try and use the standards of other mediums– “why is there no game with a story as good as Citizen Kane?” is a story that comes up depressingly frequently. Citizen Kane is brought up, of course, because it’s a masterpiece of cinema. The cruel irony here being that Kane isn’t a masterpiece for its narrative, but for its mastery of the medium of film: the cinematography, the gorgeous visuals, the use of techniques impossible to replicate outside of film to tell the story. Asking about gaming’s Citizen Kane is as futile a proposition as asking why no film can tell a story like Beckett’s The Unnamable or why Jay-Z can’t make a song as beautiful as the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Instead, we want to look at elements of games that are unique to their medium, and at some specific games that embody these virtues. There’s art here, not just in the artistic elements of design, but in the core game. The great moments of a game– the thrill of pulling off a well-executed stunt, the joy of actively piecing together a story through the environment, the power of having a direct hand in shaping the narrative of a game –are triumphs of their medium as much as the beautiful language of a great poem or the evocative visuals of a great film.

It is not always a magic that translates between mediums.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction is where the core mechanics of the game come into play. It’s not the satisfaction of a narrative payoff, it’s the satisfaction of a job well-done. In a satisfying game, every action the player does– from the most basic attacks to the biggest events– feels simultaneously challenging, skillful, and rewarding. The player feels constantly challenged but never overwhelmed, and should always feel empowered by their skills and rewarded by the game. This can be very small-scale– the hard-kicking, enemy-destroying, controlled explosion of a shotgun in Doom makes every shot beautiful and rewarding –or become the core principle of the game, in the way that World of Warcraft and other MMOs put the player in a Skinner Box of continual challenge, stimulus, and reward. At its core, satisfaction is the “game” of a game– it’s no accident that games like Pong or Space Invaders, despite their lack of plots, art, or freedom, are what define the medium. (It also says something that, to represent this element, both of us chose games by Capcom– a company that has always placed a huge emphasis on challenging and over-the-top fun).

Jasper’s Pick: Resident Evil 4 (2005)

I’ve literally done this about ten thousand times and it’s still fun.

I will always hold up Resident Evil 4 as one of the best video games ever made. It’s a high-water mark for the medium as a whole. I don’t mean in terms of the story (which is Roger Corman-level silly and campy), or even in terms of the visuals (creative environments, some of the best graphics of its generation, enemy design ranging from simply good to the absolute beautiful horror that is the Regenerators). It’s perfect because it never stops being satisfying.

Every weapon in the game, be it the ratatat submachine gun to absolute battering ram of the Ruger Broomhandle pistol, looks, feels, and sounds unique and interesting. The game’s combat system is built around not just encouraging, but forcing the player to pull off neat and rewarding tricks– the enemies are slow-moving and ammo is rationed, pushing the player towards head- and knee-shots, which in turn lead to visceral hand-to-hand attacks. Just moving in this game is satisfying, as the controls allow you to sprint forward, hop a fence, stop on a dime, quickly spin 180 degrees around, ready a headshot, and immediately put a pursuing enemy down, all using simple and intuitive controls.

Special mention has to be given to the game’s use of quick-time events, which RE4 helped to pioneer (along with God of War).  Whereas in many games these feel like a crutch for cutscenes, RE4 uses them both in and out of regular gameplay, and they’re frequent and easy enough to give the player a sense of power– struggling out of enemy attacks, quickly dodging a projectile, stabbing a spider-shaped abomination in his mouth-eye. There’s not a moment in the game where you’re not about to do something cool, and the game (and, credit where credit’s due, Shinji Mikami) always makes you feel like you’ve earned it.

Joe’s Pick: Mega Man 2 (1988)

You, too, will want to be The Guy.

Despite what you’d expect from someone who grew up playing Nintendo, I have no real feelings of nostalgia for Mega Man 2. I first played the game over a decade after its initial release, but I’ve only grown to appreciate it more as a game designer over the years. It has a few missteps (like that turret boss), but the mechanics, overall, are rock-solid.

Since this is a Mega Man game, I’d better address the music first. The soundtrack is the best music the NES ever had. Each theme perfectly compliments its stage– Bubble Man’s peaceful, lethargic theme goes well with slower speed of Mega Man’s actions while underwater while the driving, forceful tune of Quick Man’s stage makes running the infamous laser gauntlet all the more frantic. The pairing of great music with complimentary gameplay will always be a rewarding experience for me. It makes the music not just a soundtrack, but an aspect of the level design.

In Mega Man tradition, Mega Man 2 lets you tackle the first 8 levels of the game in any order you want, but you’ll have to figure out which path through them gets you the right weapons to use against the upcoming bosses. Letting the player constantly build up their arsenal for the first portion of the game this way is a great incentive to keep playing–it offers major, and constant, rewards for progress– and figuring out which weapon a boss is weak against and completely destroying him with it is always incredibly satisfying–it gives the player a sense of mastering the game’s strategy and learning how to beat it, not simply accumulating power.

While the above mentioned mechanics are present in all Mega Man games, Mega Man 2 nails this formula the best, and I could talk about why for the rest of this blog. In the end, it all boils down to exquisite level design, which is really why Mega Man 2 is so satisfying to play. It’s just such a well crafted experience (aside from the previously mentioned turret boss), with a perfect and diverse selection of weapons, enemies and obstacles to give the game just the right level of challenge.

Immersion

This is the one that a lot of the more intellectual game critics like to talk about, and for good reason: if you’re crafting a narrative in games, the fact that the player is your protagonist is a fairly important feature. A player’s immersion is the sense of being in the world, the sense in which the game world feels like an interesting and rich environment. It’s the aspect of games which benefits the most from great art design, great sound, and great writing. Games which are truly immersive are the ones in which the player’s happy to poke around in corners, scrounge for expository text, look for secrets, or just admire the scenery. It can be used to huge effect to create an emotional response in the player; think of the infamous reveal at the beginning of Bioshock’s third act, and how much scarier and more sickening it was to find that you had been manipulated and that your life was a lie than it would be for a non-player protagonist– and how much little impact this would have had if the game hadn’t drawn the player in and made us believe in its world through a lush, detailed, and emotionally-charged setting. An immersive game is a game we lose ourselves in.

Jasper’s Pick: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)

The City of Vivec, which you will never ever see every inch of.

When I first played Morrowind, at the age of 13, I was blown away. It was the first experience I’d had with anything like a sandbox or open-world game, but what amazed me wasn’t just the size of the world or the fact that every person in it could be spoken to, made an enemy or friend, or killed (or that legendary theme song, which even today makes me tense up with anticipation). It was things like the buildings made from the hollowed carapaces of giant crabs, the bookshelves full of books I could read, the incredibly complex politics and religions of the island of Vvardenfell, and the feeling of really being in a strange and fully realized land.

What Morrowind had going for it, which Skyrim and, to a nearly-catastrophic degree, Oblivion don’t is a world that feels incredibly alien. There are a handful of the typical Eurofantasy brick-and-stone

Sadrith Mora, the inhabitants of which you will never like (because they’re Objectivist wizards).

villages, but most of your time will be spent in adobe buildings, houses carved from giant mushrooms, the aforementioned shell-buildings, or just staring in wonder at the colossal fleas or weird T-Rex/cow hybrids that populate the landscape. It’s a world with a huge amount of creativity on display, and it throws the player in headfirst to explore and acclimate themselves with the world.

There are few games, especially nowadays, that completely dispense with hand-holding and say “here’s your world, here’s the name of someone who might help you, here’s twenty bucks– go have fun.” And I can’t think of another one that combines that sense of vast potential with Morrowind’s almost obsessively-intricate backstory, creative art design, and seemingly-infinite amount of details, hidden treasures, secrets, in-jokes, and sidequests. I’ve probably clocked more hours in it than any game before or since, and a huge amount of that time was just wandering the cities, studying up on history, and going for nature walks. Playing Morrowind, it’s hard not to feel like you’re stepping into another world.

Joe’s Pick: Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

The distinction between Colossus and landscape can be pretty blurry.

From the moment I started playing Shadow of the Colossus, I was impressed with the presentation of its world. I loved the high-contrast lighting, the washed-out colors, and the subdued (or nonexistent) music when riding from place to place, all further heightening the sense that you are all alone in this vast landscape. All of this caught my attention and drew me in before I ever reached the core gameplay.

The sixteen colossi themselves are fascinating to look at, as nearly all of them have their own distinct, bizarre, and sometimes off-putting appearance. They may slightly resemble mythical creatures, but never to the extent that they look familiar at first glance (you’ll never say “that’s a minotaur” or “that’s a dragon”). And yet, as strange and alien as the colossi look, there are certain common features many of them share (like a stone faceplate, piercing orange eyes, the white markings indicating their weak points) that serve to make them all the more intriguing, since it makes you wonder what these creatures actually are and where they came from. It hints at a story you’ll never find out, again making the player feel so much smaller and younger than the world they’re invading.

The architecture– what little of it remains in this now uninhabited land — has a very primitive look to it. While many fantasy games have distinctly medieval buildings, the structures in Shadow of the Colossus have a truly ancient feel to them and and evoke the same kind of strangeness that we feel when looking at the ruins of a Mesopotamian or Aztec city. Once again, the world feels unfamiliar and you’re left without a point of reference.

Basically, the point I’m driving at here is that Shadow of the Colossus is immersive because the world it creates is unique and interesting. You could have a perfectly executed game about slaying sixteen dragons in Tolkeinland #35 but I wouldn’t find it as immersive because I’ve played many games in nearly identical worlds and would find it much harder to become interested, and the game would have been forgettable because it wouldn’t have had the beauty, strangeness, and emotional power that impressed so many people.

Agency

Agency is the player’s choice and freedom– it’s what makes them a player, rather than a viewer. A player’s agency is why, if you tape the same person playing the same game on two different days, the recordings will still look different. While, at its most basic level, agency can boil down to the choice of whether to look to the right or left, a game that handles it well will give the player free and meaningful choices. This doesn’t have to translate to a moral choice system, open-world gameplay, or WRPG-style character creation (although these are all expressions of player agency). At its core, agency means the player has a multitude of ways to approach most situations. Shooters approach this by giving the player an arsenal of varied weapons and letting them decide which fits their playstyle, survival horror games by forcing the player to ration their supplies and decide when to fight and when to run. Most importantly, these choices should feel meaningfulhaving twenty guns to choose from isn’t satisfying if all of them are equally effective, and being able to make extreme moral choices is empty if no one ever reacts to it and the world never changes.

Jasper’s Pick: Mass Effect 2 (2010)

I really want a Mass Effect game that’s just me and Mordin going to bars and having fun.

(I wanted to focus specifically on ME2 for this entry, both to avoid getting drawn into the endless bickering about Mass Effect 3′s ending and because I’m going to draw a specific example from it later).

Mass Effect 2 isn’t perfect in this regard, because this is an aspect of the medium games are still struggling with pretty hard. But it does some things very, very well. The player’s character customization is in-depth and important– the various classes play radically differently, and can be further customized to match the player’s style. It also gets a ton of credit from me for eschewing the traditional good/evil slider and instead giving the player bars which measure what type of badass they are; think of the Paragon/Renegade choice as being how much your Shepard is John Wayne or Lee Marvin, respectively. It also makes several of these choices have long-term consequences– minor characters from the first game will pop up in this one, characters you save in the tutorial mission will vouch for your integrity when you wind up in court later, and, for one of the first times in RPG history, blowing off a crucial mission to do sidequests will result in people dying horribly and you being rightfully chewed out for taking your sweet time saving them.

It’s easy to be evil when the devil is Martin Sheen.

That last point is what makes this game a real triumph of player agency for me– unlike so many other games with choice systems, it makes its choices hard. Even if you commit at the beginning to a pure Paragon/Renegade playthrough, there are going to be times where the Paragon’s mercy and understanding feels like a waste of breath, or where the Renegade’s expediency and refusal to compromise will seem cold, or even cruel. This is at its best in the mission “Old Blood,” probably my favorite hour or so of gaming in 2010, in which you accompany Mordin Solus (the ship’s doctor) in following up on the black-ops bioweapon work he’s still riddled with guilt over. The mission from start to finish puts you in a moral gray zone, constantly asking you how far your commitments to expediency or understanding go, and it’s one of the few moments in the game where I really couldn’t tell you what was “right.” Mass Effect can get pretty soap-operatic with its writing and morality from time to time, but “Old Blood” is about as good as any pop-sci-fi gets and most of its power comes from forcing the player to take an active role in the moral conflict, to make it impossible to leave without innocent blood on your hands. That mission, and all the other moments in the game when related moral conflicts and crises get raised, are about as free as I’ve ever felt playing an RPG, simply because it was hard to find a choice that was unjustifiable, and because every choice felt like a momentous one both for the game world for Shepard and Mordin’s souls.

Joe’s Pick: Fallout 3 (2008)

Liam Neeson will be very disappointed in your actions.

Fallout 3 is the game that completely embodies agency for me. Nearly every scenario you’re placed in can be completed in a variety of different ways, which actually make primarily investing in skills like speech and science seem like viable alternatives. The player’s choices in character creation become meaningful, because committing to a smooth-talking scientist opens up some paths and shuts off others. Even within combat, there are plenty of different types of weapons to specialize in, and which specialty you choose actually affects the way combat feels. While many games offer these kinds of choices, they often don’t radically change the way you experience the game. In Fallout 3 though, my first playthrough as a combat heavy, dumb-as-bricks cannibal berserker (who obeyed the orders of anyone wearing a fancy suit) felt totally different than my second playthrough as a pragmatic and opportunistic scumbag with a fondness for laser weapons, even though I focused on the main quest and many of the same side quests with both characters.

Many games these days feature tacked on moral choice systems that more often than not feel like a hastily added gimmick, but Fallout 3 is one of the few games I’ve played where choice really feels like a part of the core gameplay. From the moment you’re born in game, you start making a series of choices that define who your character is– whereas in New Vegas, the choices are primarily about what sides you take, in Fallout 3 they’re about who your character is as a person. There’s never a moment where you feel, “this is the choice the designers want me to make.” The story of your character’s life is formed through the choices you make, which gives the player more of an authorial role than any other game I’ve played (to the extent that major towns can be completely wiped out). That’s true agency.