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The Player (Who Is Gillen) Of Games 2011

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So, games then.

2011 was my first full year away from the coalface of RPS. I’m regularly asked about games. Normally “do you still play them?”. Now, a lesser man would be paranoid they thought I was solely playing games so I could write about them for all the kudos and awards and golden chains and similar. Of course I still play games. I probably play about as many as I’ve played when I was on staff. Not having to do four posts on RPS a day has given me the lovely gift of a little spare time. Even though I filled some of it will unimportant frilliness like moving house and getting married to delightful girlfriend wife, it did leave a worrying amount of time to explore the boundaries of the tenth art form and/or kick the shit out of aliens who looked at me funny.

Looking at RPS’ calendar captures both sides of Being Out Of The Game for me. It’s the one I most disagree with (as I should, because I wasn’t involved in it. Lists are the start of a debate, not the end of one, etc, etc.) but I’ve still played the majority (14/24), loved the majority of them (9/14) and still had a number of games I adored which weren’t even included. This isn’t mine, but I’m still in the field enough to have a whole bunch of opinions. And, because I’m a gamer, they’re about games I haven’t played as much as games as I have. Because we’re terrible people.

What didn’t I play? Well, mainly John’s big crushes. Which is expected, as of all the RPS writers, John’s interests overlap the least with mine, and even when they do there’s a fair chance the game’s gained our love for completely different reasons. So no The Dream Machine (Adventure Game = Ugh), no Lego Star Wars: the Clone Wars (623rd in any series = Ugh. If you want to nail a key difference between John and me, it’s that he’s played every single Tomb Raider game and I’ve only played the first), no Cthulhu Saves The World (Comedy Genre Game= Well… not, Ugh, but not Yay! either) and not even To The Moon (Which I’m considering revenge for John never playing Digital, even after I wrote an open letter to him about the terrible boo-hoo-ing in games oversight he was making).

(In passing, Adam’s the writer on RPS who I’m most excited to see posting a new article, simply because I don’t know his aesthetic preferences nearly as well as everyone else. I can second guess John, Jim or Alec, but Adam is still in the new writer crush category when he’s still surprising me with posts. I’ve vaguely got him as a dream cross between Walker and Stone, but there’s still curveballs. I mean, how awesome was it when he did the first serious piece of Football Manager coverage on RPS? That wasn’t written by an Indie Pop Star?)

Well, I didn't play that much of it. Maybe I'll be more offended. I just started running ahead of people like a loonie.

Towards the mainstream… well, generally speaking, as a working games journalist I discovered that “you couldn’t pay me to play that game” was untrue. There is nothing you couldn’t pay me to play, because it’s always better that ditch-digging. However, as a retired games journalist, I did discover that I wouldn’t play a team-based shooter if you didn’t pay me. So while I did spend a lot of time virtual gun in hand by my lonesome, I didn’t bother playing Battlefield 3 and don’t regret it. Unlike Orcs Must Die, which I didn’t bother playing, and kinda regret it, being generally on side with the game from its genocidal title. I will get around to Batman: Arkham City, which had the misfortune to come out in a period which was full of games splenditude. I may get around to Dead Island, if only because it provoked the sort divided response which always wonder what my opinion is. And I almost certainly won’t get around to Rage, at least until I upgrade my PC and probably not even then.

There was a lot of shooting though. I didn’t find the little of Modern Warfare 3 I played nearly as objectionable as John, though got enormous amusement from following the ever-rolling ungame debate, which – as far as I could ascertain – was mainly caused by unreaders. I loved Saints Row 3, though there’s a lot more to it than just the shooting, and I wrote a load more elsewhere. Oh – it was also the first game I ever played to completion on OnLive, having picked it up for a quid. Which was a fascinating kind of development. Clearly, I’ve reservations, but for a quick weekend play on something basically disposable (i.e. Most modern FPS single player games) the rental fees are reasonable and with my ludicrous broadband, it runs worryingly well.

Then there was Crysis 2, which created a hefty backlash upon release, but appears to have come around to being quite well respected by the end of year reader responses. While the smaller environments were a little disappointing, its integration of the armour’s abilities was so much slicker than the first game that I was gnawing at my knuckles at people in comment threads arguing that they actually preferred to have the original system where you couldn’t activate your shields when you were under attack or swiftly focus energy to your jump-boost when you’re about to jump. At its best, this was X-Wing’s shield/ammo/speed allowance in an FPS, and all kinds of neat. Admittedly, I’m not sure I would have pushed for it in the Advent calender were I still here, but well done them.

A STORM OF BULLETS. It could only be better if it were called BULLET BUKKAKE.

I’d have saved that critical outrage for Bulletstorm, which is the single biggest example of the effect of changing staff on an end of year list. Bulletstorm’s loudest advocates were Quinns and myself. We disappear, and Bulletstorm does too. Pah! Shooter of the year, I’ll say, if only so I can change my mind in a couple of paragraphs. I’d also say it was the funniest game of the year, if it wasn’t for the aforementioned Saints Row: The Third and…

Well, Portal 2, innit? Brilliant. Expectedly brilliant, which was its main problem. For the first hour or so, I felt I was in the presence of something genuinely insanely off the scale in terms of being escalation on a previous triumph. It didn’t last, in favour of settling into a the canter of the original (with enough wind for a sprint to the end). The slight ritualism of its structure nagged at me (enter room/joke/puzzle in silence/joke/leave room/repeat), but that’s a minor problem in something that’s as witty and considered as this. I sort of pray that a Zelda was as well written as this, if only to see Edge try and work out how to expand their marking scheme. Also, the afternoon where Dan Griddleoctopus and I took on the Co-Op will live in sweary infamy.

The best Duke Nukem game of the year was Serious Sam 3: BFE. Which isn’t fair. As in, fair to Sam, as its macho-styling was never really akin to the Duke’s in any real way. Let’s just say it’s shooter of the year instead, and cause little minds some hobgoblining. After its slow build across the first couple of hours – there’s undoubtedly some Modern Warfare parody mixed in there, but the joke is both overlong and underplayed – it blossoms into bloody rose. I think filing it solely with the classic 90s shooter is a mistake. It’s a game that owes as much to Robotron and Smash TV as Doom, and it places incredible demands on your ability to filter information. Movement – both of your character and between your various weapons – is of paramount importance. When I finish a level, it just leaves me ecstatic and drained.

My brain hurts. Also, it similarly hurts when I pee. But not my brain. My penis. My penis hurts when I pee, you understand? Do you understand? I don't think so. :(

Which makes it a little ironic that a game with a reputation for dumbness finds – for me – its closest bedfellow with the game with a reputation for overwhelming smartness. When I LTK noted this in a comment thread, I could only nod. |I haven’t played nearly as much SpaceChem as I wanted to, but only because what I’ve mainly looked for gaming this year is unwinding – and SpaceChem is the absolute antithesis to it. But frankly, this is the best piece of game design I’ve seen since January, and should be gazed at in sheer wonderment.

Which leads us back into the world of the Indie. And… okay, this is me at my absolute worst, but seeing the games selected there’s a sense of I told you so. Rogue-likes, exploration/building games and all that? I spent the 00s banging on about this stuff and finally you get around to playing them, you wankers? Fuck the lot of you! I quit! Again!

The only odd thing is that the games being hailed just didn’t click for me. I could admire Dungeons of Dredmor‘s entryist charms, but felt like a jaded porn-aficionado being offered the Lingerie pages from mum’s mail-order catalogues. Realm Of The Mad God was a giggle, but only that. The one I tried longest on was The Binding of Isaac, which annoyed me from the use Pad2Key gag onwards. As much as I did love the theme, the aesthetics and the genre mashing, the basic mechanics of moving and shooting were so flat to kill any desire to persist. And – er – I didn’t play SPAZ. I don’t know why, but I suspect the name didn’t help.)

Away from the procedural indie world, I was only mildly impressed with Christine Love’s sophomore game, Don’t Take it Personally Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story. While it had its emotional moments, some interesting formalist choices, an unusual theme and something to say, it’s generally undermined by a sense of self-satisfied smugness. Much like Limbo, which wasn’t in the advent calendar, but I like getting my digs in where I can. On a similar smaller-scale high-quality game front… well, Magicka had some of the most wonderful marketing of the year, some inspired DLC, a genuinely innovative magic system and even some funny gags. Sadly, I never could get the multiplayer working before I lost all interest in trying to get it working, and the single-player’s difficulty spikes were all over the place. I never played Rock Of Ages and am disgusted with myself for the fact. I’m sorry. And then there’s Bastion, which – as I said elsewhere – found an undiscovered country on the boundary of old SNES arcade games and Cat Power. An elegant and compulsive streamlined action-RPG (No, shut up) married to a uniquely old story with real heart lead to something that’s an absolute charmer, and could even be my game of the year.

(Despite fifteen years of doing it, I’m not really a big person on favourite lists. Even when I’m doing them, I know the next day I could have switched around the top few.)

Ninja or Samurai? It's so difficult to tell with these modern haircuts. (Joke copyright AP circa 1994)

Then strategy! I liked both the games in the advent calendar, with Fate of the World being arguably the scariest game of all time and Shogun 2 being the Total War design equivalent of the prog band deciding they wanted to get back to basics and do a garage album. They always were big in Japan. Outside the calendar, I’m currently enjoying Unity of Command, which really is your chance to play an accessible wargame – an actual wargame – and pretend you’re as cool and clever as Tim Stone. While it’s the least of Cryptic Comet’s games, Six Gun Saga‘s cowboy-solitaire-war-card-game-thing really was oddly compelling. And strategy game of the year was Frozen Synapse, which was i) amazing and ii) robbed. It even made me try and be Total Biscuit for an afternoon! I stress, try.

(I think my most profound backseat designer thought of the year involved Frozen Synapse. After seeing people’s main complaint about the combat was the randomness of the duels, I believed all games should start with the enormous text legend THERE IS NO LUCK IN COMBAT. I’m the new Miyamoto, me.)

Which leaves us with the big-boys, I guess. The dual RPG godheads were stunning achievements, in completely different ways. Witcher 2 was all about intensity of narrative, moral choice, and the sense of entering a literary world. Skyrim was all about choice of experience, functional choice and the sense of entering a simulated world. Both are contradictory urges, and that they serve their own master so shows that any fundamentalist idea of what an RPG “should” be is reactionary, self-defeating ghettoist nonsense. If I had to choose between the two, I’d plead the fifth. I completed Witcher 2, and am only ten or so hours into Skyrim (I got distracted by Saints Row 3 and Serious Sam whose short-sharp-bursts fit better into the busy run up to Christmas). Ask me next year, eh?

(Though I found this comments thread moment from Hematite an interesting argument about why I suspect, in the long run, I think it’ll be Skyrim. And it’s also a wonderful defence of the whole aesthetic. The Stalin paraphrasing “Quantity has a quality all of its own” is particularly key.)

I’ve yet to play Old Republic. Forty-five quid? Pull the other one, Obi-Wan.

Which, at least today, leaves what I guess has to be my game of the year. Deus Ex: Human Revolution had a pun in its title, which before I played it took as a very bad sign and after I played it took as a playful badge of honour. Frankly, I can’t believe the Eidos Montreal team pulled it off. It’s a game which focuses as carefully on what’s important to its design as Arkham Asylum did, and manages to make the most maximalist of games actually tight. It looked at Deus Ex under a microscope and worked out a way to square the circle by doing something that was simultaneously enormously faithful and necessarily modern. I’m not sure anything compares to it. Game of the year!

I'M GOING TO EMERGE MY GAMEPLAY INTO YOUR FACE!!!!!!

Or maybe it’s Bastion. Flip a coin and decide for me.

Well, there are alternatives. I could go with Games Journo Story, because it’s got me in it. Or my RPG Campaign, because I run it. Or At A Distance, because it’s only playable at parties and the one I played was where Cavanagh bought booze for everyone. Ah – You can take the boy out of games journalism corruption but you can’t take the games journalism corruption out the boy.

Oh, ignore me. I’m pretending to be a curmudgeon. Basically, my 2011 was a bit like this…

And my only regret is that I never had a chance to play co-op Saints Row: The Third while blaring out 212.

I can only hope everyone’s 2012 is half as good.

And now I’ve finished this behemoth, I can have a booze. Hurrah!

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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