Sorry, the running order has already slipped, due to yesterday being a lovely day of family, friends, and boardgames, but here’s today’s scheduled Games article. Comics should be with you tomorrow. It’s been a big year for games, in about every conceivable way. Between the rise of Kickstarter, and the continuing flood of Humble Bundles and its ilk, it’s not hard to look at 2012 as a year that awealth of alternative approaches opened up to game developers.But looking at the industry – which also spent a lot of the year showing its ugly side – isn’t really my forté, or that interesting. It’s not about the machine, it’s about what it produces. On to the games! Probably the most ‘important’ game of the year is Thirty Flights of Loving, which introduced a bit of fresh vocabulary to the medium in its hard cuts and hypercompression. Over the 20 minutes it lasts, the game jumps around non-linearly, squeezing in enough story, world and character for your average blockbuster. It’s not a game I fell in love with, but it is a useful game, the kind you can expect to see name-dropped endlessly in articles about game narrative from now on.Dishonored‘s narrative is much more traditional, telling Dunwall’s story with a mix of cutscenes, overheard conversations and level design (graffiti, audiologs, books, bodies, etc). The real story, of course, is in how you played it – leaping rooftop to rooftop, freezing time and possessing rats; switching cups of poison and hiding under tables to watch the outcome; silently dispatching roomfuls of men and leaving their unconscious bodies on top of chandeliers.It’s not quite the machine for memorable anecdotes I’d hoped for, but partly that’s down to how I played, strictly sticking to a set of rules I’d assigned myself – never get spotted, never kill (with the exception of those who framed me for the murder of the Empress). It meant I found myself restarting at the slightest provocation, getting into sticky situations becoming a nuisance rather than a chance to improvise with the excellent toolbox the game grants you.It made me realise how much I love games which force me to live with my actions and mistakes – more on that later.Halo 4. Now there’s a game I didn’t expect to see on this list.I’ve played every game in the Halo series, now six installments deep (not including last year’s remake). Together, I’ve probably devoted more time to it than any other series in videogaming (and therefore probably more than any other hobby full stop).The game picks up, two games later, where Halo 3 left off back in 2007, with Bungie handing over the reigns to first-time developer 343. It wasn’t too promising, especially once I heard about the CODification of the multiplayer, introducing levels and points and perks, abandoning Halo’s trademark simplicity.And then the chatter came through the wire. Twitter suddenly blossomed with praise, throwing around phrases like “ballet” and “finely tuned” and expressing their surprise at just how good it was.On paper, Halo 4 shouldn’t be as good as it is. There’s nothing particularly original on offer – the opening of the singleplayer campaign, at least, is so structurally similar to the 2001 original it could be a remake. It even trims off some of my favourite features – multiplayer minus my beloved Invasion mode, and the rather-good Firefight has been replaced. But most damningly, there’s not even a good control setting, or even a customisable one.And yet everything somehow feels fresh and elegant. Both the visuals and handling are satisfyingly chunky, delivering on the promise of Halo at its best. Maybe it’s just down to streamlining the experience and turning all the dials to 11 – in multiplayer especially, where respawn time is erased completely, and weapons and vehicles are thrown into each level with careless abandon.I don’t know, it’s just an utter joy, and I need to play more. Now.One of the great pleasures of having spent so much time with a game’s predecessors is being able to really appreciate the various tiny changes – in the case of Halo 4, take the way the singleplayer campaigns provides with much more limited ammo. You can see why it was changed – it forces you to constantly switch around your arsenal – and it’s a satisfying process of discovery, even if you disagree with some of the changes.It’s a similar story with Spelunky, an Xbox Arcade remake of possibly my favourite PC game ever (and the other contender for the game I’ve spent most time spent playing). I love that there’s no ‘restart’ button, encouraging you to live with the consequences of getting stung by a scorpion in the first 10 seconds of a game, which really focuses the point of the game. The in-game encyclopaedia, as much it offends my inner Spelunky purist, is rather smart, and I love the way the Tunnel Man asks for items rather than/as well as cash to dig his shortcuts, which adds a sprinkle variety and narrative to your encounters with him.Mostly, though, I can feel how the distribution of monsters, damsels-in-despair, and traps has changed. They’re laid out more densely, which upsets my play style a little – and means letting a boulder loose can get you in a lot of unintended trouble as it steamrollers shops, shrines, and damsels – but ensures levels never get boring, especially with the addition of all the new monsters and secrets.The removal of end-of-level scoreboard is the change that hurts most. It always helped lend a sense of progression to a session of bashing your head against Spelunky‘s unforgiving world, and was tied neatly into the game’s physical levels.But, really, Spelunky is such a complete, rounded concept to start with that it doesn’t really matter, and the port is responsive and pretty. Plus, one of the changes is the ability to switch out all the Damsels for pugs, which eliminates pretty much any criticisms I could raise.FTL picked up many of the same […]
FTL describes itself as a ‘a spaceship simulation real-time roguelike-like’. That’s kind of true, but not quite. It’s neither deep nor broad enough to be a spaceship simulator.Instead, it simulates a particular feeling, a particular moment – one you might be familiar with from sci-fi films and TV. Specifically, Star Trek. More specifically, the bit where Captain Kirk/Picard/Janeway is sat on the bridge, in their big comfy captain’s chair, as the crew buzzes around them desperately. More specifically, the bit where they shout “power down the shields, and put it all into the weapons” and the immortal response comes back: “Aye aye, captain”. Its closest kin in that respect is Football Manager or Champ Man or whatever it is the kids are playing these days. Both games let you live out a fantasy – you’re the manager of a football team, you’re the captain of a spaceship – and then picks and chooses the necessary elements to help your imagination get there. Just like all the best spaceships, FTL is cobbled together from disparate pieces. Its combat is a real-time strategy game with a very small canvas. Whenever it wants to give you something more complex, a moral decision or familiar sci-fi scenario, it becomes a simplified text adventure. Travelling between each point uses an interface taken straight from boardgames. From RPGs, it takes loot and an upgradeable, customisable ship. From roguelikes it nicks the randomised levels and heartbreaking perma-death. Despite all those moving parts, though, the result is something neatly simple. It doesn’t take long to learn how to control your three crew – just left-click to select, right-click to send them somewhere – or what the HUD means – typically eight or so different systems, from weapons to shields to oxygen, which you can put differing levels of power into, draining your reactor in the process. It’s all controlled from a top-down view of the ship, with each system getting its own room. Putting crew into rooms , and helps fix them if – when – they break down. Frankly, FTL isn’t very sexy – like Football Manager, the graphics are barely there, and the pausable action always stays a step removed – but that’s not important. Like all the best games, it’s a token, a tool, a lightning rod. Something your imagination can grab onto and start telling stories with. My favourite sci-fi TV series, predictably, is Firefly. More specifically, my favourite episode is Out of Gas – an episode split between flashbacks and a disastrous breakdown of the spaceship all the characters live on. More specifically, my favourite bit, my favourite moment, is the opening of that episode. The ship, floating adrift in space. Each of its room, stripped of their familiarity by the simple fact of being empty. Captain Malcolm Reynolds face down on the floor as the oxygen seeps out of the ship… Doomed. I said FTL is a simulator of the Star Trek bridge moment, but it’s a simulation of that moment too. Of making a bad decision, and condemning your whole crew to a drawn-out death – or an extremely quick one, depending on the size of guns your baddies are packing. Of being the last one alive, whispering apologies, as the fires spread and you can’t fix everything at once, and holding on futilely until the crack in your hull sucks out that last 1% of oxygen. FTL is mean, and that’s great. One of the tips, which are meted out sparsely, one per playthrough, just tells you ‘Dying is part of the fun’. And it is. As in fellow roguelike-like Spelunky, death is where most of the stories come from. And just like Spelunky, there’s the sense of a Rube Goldberg device that leads, inevitably, to your death. This then this – why didn’t I buy those missiles at the last store? – plus this – where’d the lights go? who’s behind that door? – leads to this – why did I ever to help these poor, defenseless idiots? – and then you’re dead, a splat on the universe’s windscreen. And you take a moment to mourn the good ship Crushinator – and AJ Hager, your Engi who saved everyone’s asses that time – then flip on the wipers, clean off the mess, and start again. Or maybe you pull it back, praying you’ll make it to the next store and its valuable repair equipment, before you undergo another one of those misadventures. And you do, and suddenly your ship is all-powerful and it’s glorious, each new location handing you generous piles of scrap, the game’s currency, new weapons to bolt onto your hull, a new crew member of a species you’d never even encountered before… But more likely, you land in an electrical storm, next to the baddest pirate ship in the known universe, and it puts in those final hits to your hull. And, after you spent so long repairing everything, and healing your crew, and Captain Elnubnub just levelled up his repair ability, your ship falls back into those pieces its cobbled together from. That’s the nature of being randomised. Like the universe itself, it can be completely unfair. It took a dozen or so playthroughs (read: deaths) before I started to get the hang of the game. And then, just as I did, I got hit, again and again, with the same scenario – battling a rebel ship too close to a small sun, with solar flares . I must have died close to a dozen times, more or less consecutively playing that same scenario. A different ship maybe, but always getting torn apart by solar flares. And so I thought, well this is it, this is how it beats you. But I haven’t seen that scenario since. It’s just the way the deck gets shuffled, I suppose. Besides, if it all gets too much, you can switch over to Easy mode, which is more generous with scrap and combat’s a little more forgiving. It’s a good palette […]
Here you go: an oral history of my possibly-favourite-game-ever and definitely-most-written-about platformer Spelunky that tries to explain, through fictional interviews with the characters, everything you need to know about the game Spelunker #1 (professional adventurer): Putting the faded photo in my pocket, I squeezed the whip at my side, and thought of her one last time. That’s all it took to get me down here, beneath the surface of the world. Of course, it’s different for everyone. Now, shh. That statue’s a trap. You’ve got to time this just perfect–erkkk Spelunker #23: I’ve never seen another spelunker. No bodies, even. Not a soul. It’s almost as if – nah, that’d be impossible – as if there’re an infinite number of caverns down here. But damn me if those caverns ain’t full of good-lookin’ dames. Marion (damsel in distress): Just because this dress shows off my curves, doesn’t mean I’m not up on my feminism. And frankly, the gender politics are appalling. These fellas’ll use you as a shield as soon as rescue you. And then they expect a kiss? Don’t even get me started on the Parlours. Rudy (proprietor, Rudy’s Kissing Parlour): Look; I provide a service. A man like that, big adventures on his mind, sometimes he just needs a kiss, eh? Pancho (proprietor, Pancho’s Speciality Shop): It’s a dangerous business. But a man like me, knows how to specialise – capes, jetpacks, teleporters – there’s big money in it. Spelunker #72 (ex-adventurer, spending his retirement fused irrevocably into the scenery): …the time I got a teleporter? Ah, I remember it fondly. Course, I probably should’ve looked where I was going a little better. Ivan the Shopkeeper (proprietor, Ivan’s Armoury): One of the buggers shot me! It’s just not cricket; a man stocks a handy range of shotguns, down in the dark places, he shouldn’t have to expect this yobbery. Spelunker #99: By means we needn’t go into, I acquired a shotgun. Deep in the belly of the beast with a handful of boomstick. I was invincible. Those blasted spiders melted into red mist before me. Then some old bearded bloke with a grudge – and worse, a shotgun of his own – was waiting for me by the exit. The rest was bloody history. Jethro (professional tunnel man): Here I am, no-one to talk to, shovelling dirt. They’re off having adventures with a girl over one shoulder. They’re all addicts, if you ask me. Get what’s coming to ’em. Spelunker #118: They’ll tell you it’s all about greed. Don’t listen. The gold, jewels, that little number that ticks up somewhere in your head, that’s just window dressing. Why do so many of us do it? It’s about seeing new places. And they’re always new. People talk about travelling, broadening your horizons. Finding yourself? Try finding a bloody huge mutant psychic brain. Spelunker #199: This was it: just a giant stone head between me and the big time. I dispatched it quick enough, right into the lava. A door opened. Glory! Except… I forgot to leave a way out. Sigh. I’ll jump into the lava meself, then. Olmac (giant stone head): Ummmg. Spelunker #199: The afterlife turned out to be a lot of numbers carved into a rockface. And I wasn’t even the highest score.
As I might’ve mentioned, oh, two or three hundred times by now, it’s basically the end of 2009/the decade/time. To celebrate, some lists of Good Things, and, where the inspiration strikes me, a bit of explanation. Top 5 Albums of 2009#5 Horrors – Primary Colours(People are talking about this as, yay, Horros reinvent themselves as good. But I actually quite like Horrors mk.1. Still haven’t given this the time it deserves, but enough to recognise, if I do give it what it deserves, it will be probably one of the most long-lasting likes on here. So ludicrously tasty and thick sounding: thanks new sound system!)#4 Karen O – Where The Wild Things Are(Still a little unsure about the film- more on that later – and haven’t listened to this since seeing it. Beautiful, but probably the most likely record to get kicked off the list, retrospectively. Realise now I never linked to my Redbrick review.)#3 Emmy the Great – First Love(This year’s largest sufferer of ‘love-the-band-but-I’ve-heard-the-songs-enough-by-the-time-the-album-comes-out’ syndrome. Will, no doubt, rediscover at some point, like I did this year with Dan Le Sac/Scroobius Pip’s Angles.)#2 Patrick Wolf – The Bachelor(I’m probably wrong but, my favourite Wolf. It is, as I learnt this summer, great runnning material, really determined stuff; though, thanks to my limited stamina I’m not that familiar past the first half an hour.)#1 Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz(I’ll write something huge on this at some point, no doubt. YYYs have been by far my biggest band this year- in both gig and album, but I haven’t had a proper Think about them since 2007ish.)Top 5 Games of 2009 #5 Wii Sports Resort(Screw you, Borderlands! A more pop choice, for the sheer family-uniting powers it has brought to bear this holiday. And I’m still interested in exploring its single player modes…)#4 Batman: Arkham Asylum(Was tight. Did tights right.)#3 Time Gentlemen Please(For making me laugh more than anything else this year. A perfect year would’ve provided me with Brutal Legend, to make a pure comedy Top 5; drop Batman and everything on here has provided more laughs than your average Apatow film, in one way or another. Oh well, no year is perfect, right?)#2 Red Faction: Guerilla(Second-biggest laughs provider. A game about revolutionary freedom-fighters/terrorists blowing up builds not funny? Wrong.)#1 Spelunky(This one has definitely got more coming. Not that there has been a lack of writing already. Haven’t touched it much since Autumn, but it’s left its mark. No doubt I’ll buy the upcoming 360 version too.) Top 5 Films of 2009#5 Let The Right One In(Beautiful, creepy, Swedish. Still annoyed I missed this in the cinema, but it’s possibly the film that’s held my mind for the longest#4 Inglourious Basterds(Provided I’m actually right about it. Recently found Tarantino’s introductory speech for it, and am a bit concerned about my reading. Although, death of the author and all that, does it really matter?*)#3 The Wrestler #2 Milk(As my girlfriend put it last night: “Why are all the films you like the ones that make me cry?”)#1 Up(More than any other, this is the one that made me realise how are hard, and rubbish, lists are. I forgot this until a quick Google. It’s the only film I’ve seen twice this year, and it genuinely held up. I think pretty much everything has been said by now- it’s surprisingly heartbreaking at the start, loses it a bit here and there, but still has a lot of the year’s best moments. Even the action-hero bit at the end doesn’t feel forced, and genuinely worked. Wouldn’t bother with 3D though.) This one was, surprisingly, the hardest to cut down. So much extra stuff that I really loved this year- I guess it’s easier to give yourself to something once. Pending a second viewing, Where The Wild Things Are might have a shot at knocking, I dunno, Inglourious Basterds off the list.All in all, it hasn’t been a year where I’ve cared much for the contemporary. I do love the YYYs album, but haven’t visited it as much as I would’ve had it come out in, say, 2006. And I have, as usual, struggled to keep up with the cinema, while discovering stuff like the Coens’ back catalogue. Probably played more TF2 than any other (non-Spelunky) game this year. In the case of gaming, money’s probably an issue. One free game, one that cost me £1.99, two I had on rental and a Christmas present. Hey, I started the Moneyless Gamer for a reason. Musically, new was even harder than contemporary. My favourite albums are almost all by bands I already knew and liked before. Even though, when I’ve got my Music Editor hat on, we get a constant stream of new into our inbox, and people are raving about this and that, I’m falling behind. Looking at Top Album lists for inspiration, I feel passed-by. Such band names! Crystal Stilts? Neon Indian? They sound like futuristic versions of bands I like. Can these really have come out without my noticing?. And bands I remember hearing about a few years back, when I couldn’t keep my nose out of the NME/blogs. Wild Beasts. Future of the Left. Bands I’ve tried with, and nothing’s happened. Bands I like who I didn’t even know had new stuff out. Sonic Youth. Gallows. Perhaps I’m just getting old.
As my life takes on the traditional summer-holiday form of long days of gaming with little other nutrition, so do my for-the-blog scribblings become a games-only paradise*. But none of them still quite scratch the lingering itch that only Spelunky can satisfy. That is, something elegant yet mindless to do with my fingers while I chat/watch TV/listen to music. It’s why my girlfriend plays Tetris and Spider Solitaire while she catches up on Smallville**, why my flatmates play endless hours of Football Manager; it’s the unique debt we owe to laptops. 5 of us in a room, following (currently) the many running-people on TV and listening to the Ramones and discussing the “is she a man” controversy and never breaking the illusion of social contact.There’s a sense of pure uncomplicated flow to all these games that just fills a need. And even in console games- which tend to be a just-for-me, more serious time-consuming activity, I’ve found myself craving that flow. I think this is exacerbated by the death of my 360 and, in lieu of shooty games, seeking that other love of mine, the jumpy game. And it’s something I’ve just failed to find in the amusing, interesting mechanics of Super Paper Mario, or the pretty cartoon landscapes and addictive challenges of Wario Land: Shake It. They’re just not bouncy enough, frankly. It’s the same reason I love the Ninja Gaiden games, infuriatingly difficult though they might be at times, over more artistically interesting (and equally infuriating) games like, say, No More Heroes***. Now, having not touched Ninja Gaiden for maybe 6 months, if I close my eyes, I can imagine the exact moves. My fingers twitch automatically, dancing for where the buttons should be- a quick bounce of that guy’s head (R + A) to flip back off wall (A), then shoot myself (Y) back at him, get in a quick couple of slices (XX) before finishing with a uppercut stab (Y). There’s a sense of these games as an extension of your body, and the repetitive motion is their draw. It’s not a longing to do a particular level or move in Ninja Gaiden that causes me to inevitably crack open the case every six months- it’s a desire for its familiar mechanics. It’s soothing and at the same time I feel powerful. Which might seem a bit of a paradox in a game so infamously difficult, and with Spelunky being almost as hard. Sometimes the actual flow of movement on screen gets interrupted, often by death, but as I learn, I internalise the game’s mechanics. In Spelunky (and when I watch my girlfriend play Spider Solitaire I can see it happening in her head), I can look at a situation and, if I take my time, imagine the many- but finite- possible outcomes. The arc this thrown rock will take, how and when that spider will fall- into an arrow trap, which might wake the skeleton-is it an undeador just a throwable skull?- a simple bombshould solve it and let me safelydown to the next– I’m sorry, I need to go and play Spelunky. I’ve spent too long quietly typing this and not paying attention to the running-types on TV.*And, I realise, quite rarely committed to the blog itself. Internet’s been in a mess, etc. Comment if you’ve really missed me enough that you feel left down.**This isn’t an activity I encourage, but am consistently morbidly curious about it.***You can’t even jump in NMH. This is a travesty. (Confession: I’m aware this is about the most autobiography-heavy post I’ve ever done, for which I apologise. Handsome or no, I’m certainly less interesting than ninjas, tomb-raiders and Britney Spears.Confession II: I’m also aware the point of this post meandered more than a little. Apologies to the many teachers and markers who I am sure will recognise this quirk from every essay I’ve ever written.)
It’s amazing how quickly a game of Spelunky can go wrong. One minute you’re looking at your dollars and health tick up as you rescue another dame and liberate another golden statue, modestly proud, and then a single mispressed key sends you falling onto those insta-death spikes. Sigh, press x, start again. And again. And again. Generally speaking, when I tell people why I want to do this journalism thing as a life, I say its because I want to let people know about things that are important to me, and why. Oscar Wilde spoke about the Critic as Artist, which is what I aspire to, but also Critic as Your Mate With A Mix CD Of Stuff You Need To Hear. This is something of an exception- Spelunky is not a game I necessarily want to recommend- its addictive and, like any addictive substance, its damaging to your health. But what you’ve got to remember about addictions, to quote Renton from Trainspotting, “is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fudging stupid. At least, we’re not that fudging stupid.” (Thanks, family-friendly-blog-censorship!)And the pleasure of Spelunky is its unpredictability. You’ll curse it as regularly as you praise it, but there’s a real joy to its randomly generated …everything. Even the opening story, told in three terse, pulpy lines, reveals new variations every time I play. And this saves the game. Because Spelunky is unrelentingly difficult, something you’ll discover in the first few minutes of play. Every level is packed with enemies and traps, which can be overcome easily – once you’ve learnt the patterns – but their sheer quantity leaves your tiny avatar outnumbered and outgunned. And you’ll die, over and over. My current count, according to the Scores screen, is approaching 300 deaths. Below this there is a box announcing your total “wins”. This is of course 0. A lot of the stress is taken off by the fact that many of your deaths, especially early on, are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. The first time your bouncing corpse kills three or four enemies, or is batted endlessly between two spike traps is as satisfying as any success you’ve had. And then you begin to discover, and that’s what makes Spelunky so playable and, more importantly, joyfully replayable. And death is necessary to your discovery- the first thing is realising how you can work the traps, even turn them against your enemies. Then you’ll meet a new enemy, or pick up a new item, and it’ll go wrong and you’ll die, until you figure out just how they work. Even though its a world rendered in pixellated sprites, there’s a amazingly genuine sense of discovery- the kind I haven’t felt in a game since GTA: San Andreas (and the lack of which is GTA4‘s major failing). It’s a game of accidents, glorious accidents. The most beautiful of which, so far for me, involved setting off an Indiana-Jones-style rolling-boulder trap, dodging it and watching the boulder roll into the nearby shop, trapping the shopkeeper in. “Vandal!” he shouts, as I slowly pick up all of his goods. “Thief!” I’m laughing evilly to myself as I bounce through the level, omnipotent, with spring shoes, climbing gloves and a cape. I’m still chuckling as I reach the end of the next level, where he’s waiting, with a shotgun. BLAM. And all that gold just becomes another high score, listed above the ever-increasing number of kills.(Confession: I wanted to make this a faux-feminist analysis of the game, wherein women are quite literally objects, listed alongside “loot” or “kills”, depending. They’re entirely helpless without you and need to be carried around, lest they run headlong, crying, into a trap. But I just couldn’t help talking about how fun the game is- and also the power of their kisses heals you and they’re near invincible. So that’s the end of that argument.)