Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Games of 2013: Part One

Contents: [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]
Normally around this time of year I write a series of posts discussing my favourite games of the past year. I usually write about 20 to 25 games, spread over five posts. Most would be games that were released that year, with a few outliers from the year before that I did not play when they were new. This year, conditions are slightly different for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was asked to write Game Of The Year posts for both Overland and The Conversation, and I contributed two games to Game Critics's excellent “The Year of the Games 2013” mega-post. Secondly, I found precious few of 2013’s AAA releases worthy of my time, and instead committed much of my game-playing time to older games and platforms that I had either never played before or wanted to return to. What this means is that this series of posts will serve less as “The Best Games That Came Out in 2013” and more as “The Games I Played In 2013 That Were Really Good”. Really, that is what I think all GOTY lists should be, a reflection of what was played, not of what was released. But anyway.
So, first things first then, if you are interested in what I thought were the seven best games that came out in 2013, the Overland piece has you covered. I think they are Tearaway, The Last of Us, Crystal Warrior Ke$ha, 868-Hack, Candy Box, Towerfall, and Gone Home. Animal Crossing: New Leaf was also memorable, and is written about on the Game Critics post. The games I wrote about on The Conversation, I am going to re-include here as I had to edit down that piece quite substantially, and I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to say about those games. I also had to cut two games from that list for length reasons (webpages don’t grow on trees you know) and they will be on this list too.
What I’m saying is don’t read too much into the ordering of this list.  
There are 20 21 games on this list, and I'll post it in four parts over the coming days. So without further delay, here are My Most Memorable Games Of 2013 Except For Those Other Memorable Games

Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics)
Any longrunning franchises risks stagnation. After nearly two decades, Tomb Raider had long since fallen into insignificance, with forgettable release after forgettable release. Before its release, the game was riddled with poor press and marketing faux-pas, as developers made it sound like there would be an 'edgy' rape scene from which (male) players would want to 'protect' Lara. A traditionally strong woman seemed reduced to a crying, quivering girl in a torture-porn adventure for men.
Either the marketing department failed miserably (not unlikely), or the developers listened to the critical feedback, as the actual game when released was a satisfying romp of gritty survivalism and platforming. Some understandably criticised the shooting as excessive and detrimental to that sense of ‘fighting to survive’ (Lara’s journey from traumatic first murder to gunning down a room of men is pretty swift). Personally, I found it just right (once I made the personal rule to not use the machine gun, limiting myself to the messy shotgun, desperate pistol, and elegant bow). After the Uncharted serious successfully reimagined the Tomb Raider series through the adventures of Nathan Drake, Tomb Raider came along and reimagined Uncharted, combining cinematic set-pieces and impossible acrobatics with tense but fluid gun battles. It was bombastic and ridiculous, to be sure, but it was a joyous frolic. This wasn't a game about 'survival' like, say, DayZ, but it successfully depicted an aesthetic of survivalism.
Lara, meanwhile, sat in a paradoxical space. Rhianna Pratchett succeeded at writing a young and naive yet strong and intentful Lara that the marketing campaign failed to demonstrate. She makes her own choices, holding her own again viscous and aggressive men. She never gets raped, and shoots in the face the one man who tries. Yet, the camera gazing at her is very much a man, lingering just that bit too long on her buttocks or breast, or listening to her gasps as a tree branch skewers her after a failed quick-time event over and over and over. Ultimately, then, the new Tomb Raider succeeds at depicting Lara Croft as what she has always been: simultaneously strong woman subject and passive woman object, a character far more interesting than the games she has often found herself in. 
I wrote a Notes post on Tomb Raider with more thoughts. I really related to Justin Keverne's discussion of how he prioritised Lara's performance over simply playing the game 'well'

Devil May Cry (Ninja Theory)
Another long running franchise revamped. Unlike Tomb Raider, Devil May Cry (or ‘DmC’), is not an origin story but a stylistic overhaul. Like Tomb Raider, DmC struggled before its release against a fan base unhappy with the direction the series was being taken. The series' protagonist Dante has received a makeover, replacing his white mop of hair and red trenchcoat with a more generic crop and singlet. "He looks like a male model," someone described it to me recently and, actually, I think that is the best way to put it. But at a brief glance and he looks like any other videogame dudebro. The series looked diluted to appeal to a mass audience. People were unimpressed.
Having zero attachments to the serious in its previous iterations (perhaps the best way to approach any relaunched franchise), I found DmC to be a delightful, campy, and utterly absurd romp. It was, perhaps, 'bad' in places. The characters were flat and the metaphors of the plot were utterly transparent in their fifteen-year-old-goth-boy ludicrousness (a braindead conformist public can't tell they are being controlled by the mainstream media and junk food). Banter with one boss is, literally 'No, fuck you!" yelled at increasingly loud volumes back and forward for an awkward length of time.
But this isn't the typical terrible videogame writing accepted as inevitable in most videogames. The badness of DmC transcends that, not dissimilar to Bulletstorm (except perhaps not quite as clever). The lewd dialog and ugly characters (covered in cellulite and sneers) is not simply 'so bad its good', but instead reaches a level of masterful campiness in its innuendo and flourishes and artifice. Meanwhile, the level design is sincerely spectacular, with upside-down cities and demonic nightclubs pulsing to the dubstep and torn apart by invisible forces. 
Combat is streamlined, with moves simply requiring you to hold down the right or left trigger as you press a single button—no rhythmic patterns or obscure combination to memorise. It's something else diehard fans of the series lament, but for newcomers it allows a fluidity to the combat: what you want to do you can do. The game also boasts what are perhaps the only enjoyable boss battles from the last few years. I won't soon forget fighting a giant, hardly disguised cyborg Bill O’Reilly Tron-demon, or the ham-fisted Freudian boss of a woman demon and her unborn demon foetus.
There's a self-awareness to DmC’s camp. An eye-winking that suggests that the game knows exactly what it is doing. That the tenth "No, fuck you" is not just generic videogame dialogue, but a serious and deliberate attempt at a certain aesthetic, a certain tone. 
It's not for everyone, that's for sure. It doesn't want to be for everyone. At times it actively goads the fans that miss Dante’s white mop, essentially giving the finger to its fanbase while blowing a rasberry. But I love that irreverence. In an industry/medium that usually just pampers its fanbase with whatever they want, it's refreshing to see a developer just not give a shit. It is, easily, one of the more enjoyable Triple-A games I played this year.

Knightmare Tower (Juicy Beast)
I feel slightly dirty enjoying Knightmare Tower as much as I did. A random and casual download from the Ouya store/gulag, I played it for several hours straight one afternoon, unlocking all the features and playing it to completion. A fairly traditionally moulded mobile-esque games for the Ouya (and browser and Android, too), the goal is to fly high into a tower while bouncing off monsters beneath you for extra speed. It’s a Dragonball Z aerial battle, with your knight at the top of the screen using his downward attacks to stay afloat. 
There’s a satisfying rhythm to the controls, pulling the trigger as the character thrusts down in a meaty swing of his blade before bouncing back up. Progression is carefully crafted if not entirely conventional as you encounter enemies that are too tough and incrementally get further as you upgrade your power and health and speed and all that. 
I played Knightmare Tower at exactly the right time. I was interested in my Ouya and bored of all the games on my other consoles. I spent 4 or so hours grinding through the game, and have not touched it again since. I felt more than a little dirty putting so many hours into such a straightforward game, but I don’t regret it.

Killzone Mercenary (Guerrilla Cambridge)
I’ve always had a strange fascination with the Killzone games. This is, largely, due to simply being a kid with a Playstation 2, desperate for a shooter to match Halo (Killzone does not match Halo). There’s always been, I thought, a subtlety lurking beneath the surface of blue good guys (ISA, one vowel away from USA) versus red-eyed pseudo-Nazi bad guys. At face value, it is a mindless bro-shooter narrative. But you listen to the rhetoric of the dialog in the cut-scenes and it becomes slightly more complex. You realise the ‘bad’ guys have quite a few justified grievances and the ‘good’ guys are self-righteous aggressors. It’s not high literature, but the face-value bluntness makes the implicit multi-facedness of each side much more interesting.
In Mercenary, on the Playstation Vita, you play both alongside and against each side. Unlike previous entries in the series, neither side is good or bad but, simply, a means of making money. It’s still hamfisted, but it’s a blunt and cynical comment on war-as-profiteering that fits the series' broader themes perfectly.
Of course, then, the game is at its weakest during the opening levels, where your beanie-and-sunglass-and-beard wearing bro companion (seriously he looks like he stepped right out of Every Shooter Ever) seems more interested in fighting The Good Fight than in making money. “That’s one Hig bastard I’d kill for free,” he says of one of the game’s antagonists at one stage, in the most blatant of thematic dissonances. This is a game about making money, not doing what is ‘right’. Thankfully, bro dies before too long.
But where Mercenary really shines is how this whole narrative and thematic conceit of mercantility and war-profiteering is used to strengthen the design of a mobile first-person shooter. Mercenary is not just a console FPS dumped on a handheld device as a graphical demo (though, it is also that); it has been designed with a consideration of how players engage with portable devices. It draws from mobile and casual design to use a ‘loadout’ system that I can actually tolerate. In single-player games, I generally hate loadout systems, where I have to choose my equipment before each level, pre-determining how I will approach each level; it utterly killed Splinter Cell: Blacklist for me. It feels like it cheapens individual missions for me. With loadouts, I don’t feel like I am playing through one long narrative whole but interrupted segments that I am expected to play over and over again. It makes games feel, well, too gamey.
But that’s on home consoles, where I am much more committed to some kind of overarching narrative. On a portable device, individual missions should be self-contained for brief encounters on the train or before bed or whatever. In this environment, loadout systems and a focus on replaying missions makes perfect sense, and Mercenary knows this.
Most cleverly, and with surprising nuance, are the different approaches available in each mission. It might be possible to stealth through half a mission, with NPCs only commenting after the fact that you did so. On the first mission, you are told to blow up a door to access a control centre which, of course, triggers an alarm. What you are not told is you can throw a smoke grenade through an air vent to quietly lure the guards out (if you brought smoke grenades with you). Do this, and you skip an entire defend-the-hill kind of segment. This is dramatically and fascinatingly at odds with the hand-holding FPS design popular in both the Killzone series and many others.
It’s formalised through the availability of three alternative missions for each stage, asking you to replay each mission with different loadouts and objectives: stealth the whole mission; destroy three crates; get X number of headshots; etc. These alternative missions don’t re-introduce the hand-holding so much as nudge the player towards discovering the alternative approaches themselves. Over recent holidays and airplane trips I’ve found myself replaying missions over and over with these different objectives. It’s become the perfect travelling game.
The other pleasure of Mercenary is a very simple one: good graphics (and yes, I mean ‘graphics’, not ‘visuals’). There is a simple pleasure in playing a game with this many polygons on such a small handheld device. It’s a technological spectacle, and I won’t deny the simple entertainment that offers.
So, what I’m ultimately saying is that Killzone: Mercenary is the Angry Birds of Call of Duty games. That might not sound too appealing, but its overall design does such a remarkable job of tailoring a certain experience to a certain platform, and then connecting that experience/platform combination to an existing franchise’s themes.

Saints Row IV (Volition)
I was unimpressed with Saints Row IV when it first came out. Using an identical city to Saints Row: The Third, it was hard to shake the suspicion that new publishers Deep Silver had coerced the developers into relabelling a final DLC project into a numbered sequel. It felt flippant and insincere, not just in the typical clever nonchalance of the previous game, but in the same kind of ‘B-side’ way as Red Dead Redemption’s “Undead Nightmare” DLC. I played it for maybe an hour at Cameron Kunzelman’s house, jetlagged as all hell, and felt equal parts bored and deceived. When I returned home to find my own press copy in the mail, I didn’t even bother unsealing it.
Then, in early December, I had done all my writing for the year, and I wanted a mindless grind to chill out to, so I returned to Saints Row IV with fresh eyes and the right mindset. It still feels cheap and flippant and kind of just ‘thrown together’, but there is a keen edge to the satire that I’d not sensed earlier, one that takes a while to emerge as the game begins at a glacially slow pace. There’s the typical satire of making nods to things that exist, that base level of satire that Grand Theft Auto V never surpassed (“Hey, remember this moment in that game?”), but there are also moments of incredible subtlety. Parody in a camera angle, such as the Sorkin-esque walk through the White House, which the game never explicitly draws attention to. Another mission digs deep into theoretical musings on fan fiction and alternative universes. What on the surface feels like a typical videogame adolescence is a subtle, almost modest intelligence. 
But what is most fascinating about the game is its ludonarrative harmony and glitch aesthetic. People have long mused about whether you could deliberately produce glitches, and if you did, would they still be glitches? There’s an artistry to Skate 3 glitches or the body horror of Fifa or Oblivion. It’s like going right up to a painting and looking at the individual brush strokes. It’s the materiality of digital media, often repressed and rarely embraced by anyone except individual digital artists. Saints Row IV is the first commercial game I’ve played committed to this aesthetic. Tears in the system (the whole games takes place with a program, a game in a game) glitch out nearby NPCs and cars. Pedestrians' limbs warp and stretch; an upside down person walks by; an invisible car driven by two giant eyeballs bumps along. It’s a deliberate glitch aesthetic, but one majestically achieved.
But on another level than just visual glitches, the game is unabashedly broken. Pick up a few superpower upgrades and the world that contained Saints Row The Third is unable to hold you now. You are able to engage with the world in ways that this world was never designed to be engaged with. Challenges become ridiculously easy; vehicles of any kind become redundant. Whereas most games of a similar plot would give you challenges within that world you require superpowers for; Saints Row IV gives you challenges utterly unmatched by your super powers.  It matches perfectly with a plot about breaking the simulated world—because you actually break a simulated world. But A broken and unbalanced game simulates a breaking and unbalanced game. It’s clever, very clever, and far far more than the cheap DLC-cum-sequel I initially thought I was playing. This is a game I am glad I gave a second chance.
Oh yeah, and the dubstep gun.

Contents: [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four

Thursday, December 5, 2013

2013: Some Writing

2013 is almost over. It's been a pretty intense year! My December is going to be full of travel and events and I'm going to have precious little time to spend on my usual, self-gratifying retrospective end-of-year posts. So this is going to be a bit rushed, but here is a list of some of the writing I did this year that I am still pretty happy with.

1. My interview with Spec Ops: The Line writer Walt Williams. I mostly wanted to talk to Walt about what it is like to read criticism about your own game, but our conversation went much further than that. I didn't want to dissect it into pull quotes, so instead I published the entire transcript on Unwinnable. Related, that there is a site like Unwinnable where I know I can always publish an article makes me very happy.

2. My feature on the Queer Games Scene for Polygon. I struggle to feel proud about this piece because I know it isn't perfect. I know that, despite my best efforts, it still homogenises a diverse range of creators under that 'queer' label. I know that, as a straight white dude, I wrote the article from a position of extreme privilege over my interviewees. But I also wrote the article with the sincerest intentions. The creators I speak to in this feature remain, I am convinced, the most important and exciting people making and writing about videogames today. I wrote this piece because I want other people to be excited about these people. Not in a weird, exotic animal kind of way, but in a "these are the people that are going to convince others your beloved medium is art" kind of way. I don't know. Writing it was exhausting. Seeing a select few people criticise it on Twitter even as so many others applauded it was exhausting. Knowing I could only ever do an imperfect job of this article was exhausting. Still, I know various people who have said to me they had no idea this side of games existed before reading this article, which is exactly what I wanted it to do. So I should be proud of that I guess.

3. My feature on game jams for Edge. This was a piece I was asked to write, but I'm really happy with how it turned out. I like how I try to complicate game jams and look at how they've seeped into the Triple-A space, and that blurry line between jamming and crunching.

4. My profile of Douglas Wilson for Edge. Essentially, I just wanted an excuse to meet Douglas Wilson and talk about his amazing games and research. Still pretty happy with how this turned out.

5. My article on Grand Theft Auto V for Overland. One of my goals for this year was to write for one of Australia's literary journals, to write 'criticism about games' rather than 'games criticism', if that makes sense. I guess the website of a literary journal is close enough (the actual literary journal is happening next year!). This was technically meant to be a review of Grand Theft Auto V but it turned into a longer discussion of how despite talking loudly, Grand Theft Auto V fails to say anything of substance at all.

6. My essay on Tearaway and Sontag and Immersion. Okay, this piece only got published today but I'm still pretty happy with it.

7. My Notes series of blog posts. I really enjoyed writing my Notes posts. It started as an experiment. Okay, it started after reading Susan Sontag's "Notes On Camp" and not being able to repress my desire to imitate every great author I read's style. But it turned out pretty well. The Notes format gave me the breathing room to just touch on ideas and move on to the next with no concerns for how the paragraphs flow, without having to make a singular 'point' about a game. Others have also done this this year, most notable Cameron Kunzelman's excellent post on The Last of Us. I would have liked to publish more Notes posts than I did (I still have drafts for Metal Gear Solid 3, Problem Attic, and Towerfall, but I'm also really happy with the ones I did post.