You might remember Sam Willet’s guest post for this blog. Or, alternatively, you might be able to scroll down a couple of inches and see it directly under this post. A recap for the short-of-memory or too-lazy-to-scroll: he came into this shrine to lists, best ofs, and Top 50s, and said that having favourites was a load of old pants. Well, now it’s my turn, squatting over Sam’s Escape Rope blog and, as he puts it, taking a massive dump on one of his passions – in this case, the exciting world of sport. “In my brief dalliances in teaching English Literature, trying to convince a room of teenagers to pick subtext and meaning out of the literary devices in poems older than the town they lived in, I often found myself butting up against the same argument. Yeah, sir, but what if he just wanted to do it like that? It’s a conversation I’ve found myself in endlessly in my life as an arts student, journalist, and all round massive ponce. Aren’t you just overthinking it a bit? When it comes to sport, oh, how those tables are turned.” Oh, that’s whetted your appetite, hasn’t it? Well, head over to Sam’s blog for the full piece.
It’s been a little while, but we’re still rumbling along the trail of games I really liked last year; I’m still illustrating each post with a set of posh felt-tips, and WWE All Stars is still the Greatest Videogame of 2011. But we’ll get to that. Bastion A unique voice. It’s something that’s all too rare in videogames – style, look, and feel all adding up to a coherent identity that feels new and vibrant. It’s what made Portal so special. It’s something Valve are good at, actually – look at the way TF2 built a uneven but hilarious world around a multiplayer team-based shooter. It’s the reason why people – thinking back to Psychonauts, and Grim Fandango – are excited enough about this new Double Fine project to donate three and a half million dollars towards its creation. Ico and Shadows of the Colossus have their own voices. So does World of Goo. It’s not a long list. At best, each year will produce a fistful. Of the games that came out in 2011, Bastion’s voice came through loudest. Which is impressive, given that Bastion is basically a tarted-up Diablo clone. It’s an action role-playing game (ARPG), which means you walk your little guy – in this case, the adorably tough, pudgy Kid – around the screen, picking up loot and clicking on baddies to make them explode, so you’ll get some experience points. It’s even more impressive given that Bastion takes place in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, perhaps the most played-out setting in 21st Century pop culture. But the pleasure of Bastion is that it treads so close to the familiar, and then tweaks and builds on it, or introduces something completely new. That’s obvious from the moment you set eyes on it. Bastion’s squishily-proportioned, anime-eyed characters are set against delicately painted backgrounds. It’s beautiful in the way only game’s manuals used to be. All of which complements a fairly unique style, which lifts a little from steampunk – it certainly shares the same unhealthy preoccupation with cogs – but equally from the illustrations in children’s books. That combination, deconstruction, and recombination of familiar elements run through every part of the game. Not least, you know, the actual game bit. Familiar tropes are expressed in a fresh way. The rewards from levelling up turn into a brewery of switchable tonics; difficulty modifiers into a shrine to the gods; Achievements into sketchy notices, pasted on a monument to the dead. Into each and every corner, the game squeezes lore and history and, most of all, personality. They feel like a natural part of the world. But they also work very neatly as parts of the game. I never felt the need to turn on any of the shrines, to make the game harder, but each unlockable modifier finds something more interesting than just “more enemies” or “less health”, and can be combined as you see fit. The way that the ground rises up beneath your feet as you explore levels is an an elegant solution to the item-rich tangents each level offers. It can be easy to lose track of where you’ve wandered already, but here, there’s a simple test – does that path lead into fresh air? Then it’s not one you’ve already trodden. (Unfortunately, that fresh air is something you’re going to become quickly acquainted with – playing on PC, with keyboard controls, is jarringly inelegant. You see the world from a Sims-esque isometric angle which, coupled with the four directional options presented by W, A, S, and D, makes moving diagonally near-impossible.) But it’s also a subtle hint towards the game’s thematic underpinnings. From the very first moment, as the Kid rubs his eyes and gets up, his first footsteps narrated by a mysterious voice, the world is being created right in front of him. Bastion is all about storytelling. That mysterious voice, for example. Which belongs, it turns out quite quickly, to fellow survivor Rucks. Living on the titular chunk of earth, he provides the game with its narrative drive. And its narration. Like a kind of ethereal John Motson, he gives a running commentary throughout, in the most handsome bass rumble of a voice. He says things like: Rucks provides exposition, making his words the reward for progressing, taking the role often filled by experience points and levelling up, providing a reward for progressing. Or Rucks reacts to your choices, big or small. It’s one of the things which Human Revolution missed from the original Deus Ex, actually – that sense of feedback. After a mission, you’d get congratulated on taking the sneaky route, or chastised for sneaking into the women’s toilets back at base. So little decisions, like which pair of weapons to equip, will get a fitting comment: Or Rucks nonchalantly hands out tips, giving a little nudge in the right direction. Or just provides colour. It all works to consolidate the storybook feel set up by the visuals. It’s like playing a fairy tale. But, as in all the best fairy tales, there’s a hard edge to Bastion. As becomes clear in the final act. As the story lays all its card on the table, the storytelling motif is turned on its head, to remind you how blurred are the lines between telling tales and telling lies. The wait, as lines are fed drip by drip, becomes torturous. Pauses are perfectly spaced. Vital “but…”s are left hanging. And a rather leisurely game suddenly shifts to frantic. It’s that end-of-book feeling, as you race over words – or in this case, click desperately through fights – to find out how it all ends. Bastion isn’t a skinny game, but not a single element of it feels wasted. Everything threads together into one extremely neat whole. Elements borrowed from elsewhere and streamlined – the Bullhead Shield, which is hardly original in its ‘time the button press just right to counter’ mechanics, but is smooth and satisfying, and deserves an essay of its own. […]
A continuing look at games that I really liked, but not quite as much as WWE All Stars, in the year of our Lord 2011. Deus Ex: Human Revolution “He’s more machine now than man” – Benjamin Kenobi The Deus Ex series is about two things: the meeting of man and machine, raising the question of whether developing and getting stronger means losing your humanity, and, famously, freedom. You’re handed a level, one small chunk at a time, and asked how you’d like to approach it. To use the immortal Terminator 2: Judgment Day as an example – will you be the T-1oo0, infiltrating into your enemies’ homes and then running them through with razor-sharp arm blades? Or maybe an Arnie-style terminator, toting a mini-gun and launching maniacally as you bat away incoming rockets? Or the pacifistic PoNY-3000 (which only features in the version of the film that exists inside my head) preferring to just be friends, avoid the violence altogether… and putting the odd person to sleep if you really, really must? Like our last game, playing Human Revolution, you can feel the gravity of the seminal original, but in this case it’s a much looser adaption. Deus Ex was, after all, made by entirely different people over a decade ago. Born into our modern world of third-person cover and DRM, where everything has to be a shooter, it was only natural that this would be a very different game. Still, as much as Human Revolution throws out from the original – it rewinds the plot to the immediate future, ditching the whole cast in the process, trades in the grey and blue colour scheme for black and gold – it holds onto more. The cyberpunk setting, the customisable Six Million Dollar Man-style augmentations, the philosophical leanings. Most of all, it holds onto that idea of choice. Each level has a startpoint and an endpoint, but how you get from one to the other is up to you. There are connecting doors which skip out sections of corridor; ladders which take you to the roof, far above the action; ventilation shafts to crawl in. So that, then, is the core essence of Deus Ex. An overarching plot about control and loss of humanity, propping up a game that invites you to do what thou wilt. It’s not necessarily the most natural combination. But, for me at least, the way that freedom works is a perfect expression of the theme. It turns out, given all that choice, something flips deep inside me. I can’t choose – won’t, shan’t – and so end up searching for the most obscure route, the one they’ve hidden behind a series of crates and down a pit you can only access with the augmentation that negates fall damage. Then I’ll backtrack, and find another way I could have done it. I want to see the puzzle the developers have crafted for me from every possible angle. I have to see everything, I have to interact with everything, hack everything, (for a first-person action game, Deus Ex gives you a lot more possible verbs than just ‘shoot’, ‘jump’ and ‘stand out in the open until you die’), find every hidden vent, pick up every item. I’m not even a robot. I’m a hoover. It could be more open, of course. For all those extra verbs I mentioned, Human Revolution still manages to be slightly more limiting than the original Deus Ex, now over a decade old. It turns its attention instead to being slicker. The amount of thought that has gone into making the world futuristically plausible and beautiful, the nicely honed controls, the fact it actually has a story and some characters… there’s a lot of stuff to love here, even for hardened Deus Ex purists. A good example of this trade-off can be seen in the item glow – any object that can be interacted with has its edges picked out with a fuzzy gold light. It highlights how much scenery is decorative, tied down, and the relatively limited interactivity. No strength rating here. I believe it was mildly controversial, and can be turned off in the options menu, but I see no need. It fits nicely into the game’s aesthetic, makes diegetic sense, and makes it easier to spot hidden items and routes, which is exactly what my lizard brain wants. And it couldn’t possibly break the hypnotic effect a play session has over me. Human Revolution is one of those games that makes you constantly late. The type you struggle to tear yourself away from, a mysterious substance keeping your hands glued to the controller (…Oh, not like that. Ew. Grow up.) And the team at Eidos Montreal use the compelling systems of the game to immerse you in a sci-fi world stronger, even, than Portal 2‘s playful series of ideas – one which extrapolates headlines, technology, architecture and even fashion into something plausible and enticing. And, even after I’ve managed to power down the Xbox, a dip into that world leaves me seeing our own a little differently. Like the long sessions of Guitar Hero that translated all my dreams into five-colour blocks, like the week I longed for my own Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. Like… a post-Christmas weekend back home, most of it spent with my nose pressed to the 38” flatscreen, controller in hand. It’s a nice day outside, and I almost feel bad about not leaving the house. Almost. I look out into the back garden, just as the sun clips the top of the fence. Its glow catches the edges of a shirt, hanging on the line, outlines it with a sharp halo of –gold. Ooh, I think. It must be interactive.
So, in the pub the other week, conversation swung to the best pop culture of last year, naturally. When asked about my ‘game of the year’, I refused to pick a single game. Further pushed, I picked WWE All Stars. It was a choice born partially of the thrilling novelty of such a pop/obscure pick, partially of intoxication, but mostly of total honesty.It is a choice behind which I will of course stand. It’s also a choice which got me thinking about how hard it was (and almost always is) for me to pick a single Best Game, and how I’ve completely failed to write anything about any of my favourites from last year.Consider this, then, a loose tour through all the games I really enjoyed last year, accompanied with some hand-drawn doodles, and why exactly WWE All Stars was the absolute Best Game of 2011. But we’ll get to that. For now, let’s jump back to April, and take a look at… Portal 2 As the name suggests, Portal 2 was a sequel, with all the baggage that entails. Worse, it was a sequel to a truly brilliant game. The original Portal took a wonderful central concept – a gun that could shoot teleporting holes into walls – and expressed it perfectly, compressed into two and a half hours. On top of that, it added a classic antagonist in GLaDOS, some of the best jokes in gaming, and a song. It was a revolution, practically inventing the first-person puzzling genre, that seemed to come out of nowhere. Portal 2 wasn’t much of a surprise at all. Like all good sequels, it didn’t move away from the core principles of the original, but built on them. It kept the same setting – a series of test chambers in the Aperture Science laboratory. The same cast – silent Chell, ever-taunting GLaDOS. The same mechanics – solving spatial puzzles using your portal gun. It took all those, and then built on them. So, a journey beneath Aperture’s floors revealed the ruins of cavernous testing grounds from its past. The bumbling AI Wheatley (played by Stephen Merchant) and self-confident ghost of Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons) filled out the dramatis personæ. And the portal puzzles were expanded with physics-altering gels which could be guided through test chambers to make surfaces slippy, or bouncy. Most of it all, it adapted Portal‘s attitude and structure: a highly polished series of puzzles, bookended by chunks of narratives, with jokes. Portal 2 avoided the obvious pitfalls – pandering to the memes the original bred and sent out onto the internet; trying to turn the plot into something of world-shaking import; trying to repeat the surprise of that song – but, ultimately, it was more or less the same thing, stretched out and with some fancy bits added on. Which sounds really negative, but clearly that’s not the case. This is one of my favourite games of last year. Familiarity makes its structure – a series of chambers, bookended with a joke or bit of story – stick out a little too awkwardly, but it’s a better game than the original Portal in almost every way. It takes its extended length as virtue, providing more of an actual, story-shaped story, and a wider variety of settings and puzzles. Most impressively, Portal 2 manages to keep its difficulty curve every bit as smooth over those extra hours, with every new discovery telegraphed neatly and then built upon, and rarely repeats itself. I’d even argue Portal 2 is actually a funnier game. The jokes in the original mostly worked because they took the player by surprise. Abandoned laboratories are not a setting you expect to find jokes in, sci-fi puzzle games aren’t a genre renowned for their hilarity. It was a sort of comedy ambush. Portal 2 knows you know this, going in, and cuts loose with the jokes from the first comedy setpiece, which sticks you in a motel room and indulges in a spot of fourth-wall breaking ‘press A to speak’ action, all curated by Wheatley – the noisy robo-comic to your silent straight man, and every bit the equal of GLaDOS. It’s definitely the best written and acted game I played last year, and is in the running for best written and acted piece of 2011 culture full stop. It’s certainly the funniest. As a package, Portal 2 is so sharp that you hardly even notice its elegance until afterwards. When you do, it becomes clear how much silliness we have to put up with, how often people accept that the voice acting wasn’t too uneven this time as if that was something worth celebrating, how merely quite good plots have champions of the medium wetting themselves with excitement. Portal 2 is a darn good puzzle game. It’s not half bad as science-fiction. But mostly importantly, it is simply the funniest comedy game I have ever played. If it hadn’t been for that pesky original, Portal 2 could’ve had a shot at being the best game of all time.
(click to enlarge to an actually readable version.)
As a birthday present of sorts for my good friend Mr Geoffrey Maillard (not available in any conveniently-linkable corner of the internet, unusually) and as a stretch of the old artistic muscles, I made a one-page comic outlining how exactly we celebrated that most illustrious of event: Geoff’s 22nd birthday.(click to enlarge.)