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The Games of Christmas '11: Day 12

Pick of the season

I simply must go
(but baby it's cold outside)
the answer is no
(but baby it's cold outside)
your welcome has been
(how lucky that you dropped in)
so nice and warm
(look out the window at that meteorite storm)

Shelter with me inside the ramshackle construct behind door number twelve.


Adam: Terraria surprised me in many ways. First of all, the gap between first hearing about the game and actually playing it was incredibly small. Sometimes, the first details of a game reach me decades before I actually have a chance to play it. With Terraria, the process was something like this.

1) Oh, look, someone is making a side-scrolling game that has monsters, mining and extensive crafting.

2) I am now playing a side-scrolling game that has monsters, mining and extensive crafting.

That was a good feeling. It was (and is) hard to talk about the game without mentioning Minecraft but of all the many attempts to jump on the blocky bandwagon, Terraria is the one that has managed to forge an identity of its own. The viewpoint makes a huge difference but it’s the emphasis on combat, loot and progression that I find to be the big differentiating factor.

There are more obvious goals in Terraria, with tiers of equipment that tie more strongly to depth of exploration and specific events and locations to discover, even though each world is unique. It’s not only the terrain that differs for each player though, it’s also the nature of the challenge provided.

It’s rare to see so much variety in the way that people approach a game. When I see someone else’s path through Human Revolution, I am sometimes baffled by the particular method they chose to enter a building or cross a room, unnerved by the amount of unnecessary carnage they caused, or intrigued by the specific hideous alterations they have inflicted upon their body, but I never ponder how odd it is that they decided to build an Olympic-sized swimming pool and collect rabbits in it. When I see a certain friend playing Terraria, that is exactly what I am left pondering.

The amount of possibilities alone isn’t what I find fascinating, it’s that people so easily find their own way of having fun. It’s easy to offer an absurd amount of options for creativity and play – a blank sheet of paper and a pen will do that – but it’s not often I come across a computer game, with all of its rules and limitations, that people enjoy in so many wildly divergent ways.

For me, it’s mostly about digging, uncovering the horrors that lurk below and attempting to vanquish them, my last few torches and the reassurance they provide almost as important as whatever ridiculous sword I’m wielding at the time. For others, it’s about building giant phallic towers, or complex, stylised castles. Some want to be the best, working out how to gather the best materials, craft the best armour and duff up the toughest enemies. And, yes, some want nothing more than to collect rabbits.

So many people enjoying themselves, sometimes not even bearing in mind that there are other ways to play. For something that looks so simple and could be considered derivative in the extreme, Terraria manages to be both relatively complex and incredibly imaginative. With my occasionally self-imposed inventory limitations, I mostly enjoy the struggle for survival and the construction of an occasional ragged outpost.

How do you play?

John: Terraria is unfairly described as a Minecraft rip-off, no matter how heavily it may have borrowed. Because when you play it, it's a starkly different experience. Yes, blocks, yes day/night cycles and survival, yes digging for ore. But my memories of both have little in common, and both are games I spent exceptional amounts of time with this year.

The 2D, side-on view limits things just how they should be, while still allowing enormous freedom. Because although this is a finite world, with pre-generated locations to discover, and a continual sense of progress, it's still possible to wile an evening away just digging down to see what you can see. Which is a tremendous thing, and all too rare. Burrowing downward reveals treat after treat, with eventual discoveries of rarer, more interesting ores, or terrifying boss baddies, and more cool stuff to allow you to feel stronger, braver, and explore further.

That's what makes it so special, I think. It manages to go beyond aspects of Minecraft, and somehow finds the balance between a pseudo-open world, and narrative journey. It also features double-jumping, which is - as I have well established - automatic entry into Games Worth Noticing. In fact, you can augment yourself with tons of cool stuff if you persist for long enough, and have the patience to read the wikis to learn how to make any of it. Because, well, it's not quite a contained game yet. Relying too heavily on outside guides is a proper shame, and was more noticeable when I was entertained by the game for an eight hour flight, but ended up making notes of things I wanted to find out how to do.

Still, it's massively engrossing, and really there's little more a game needs to be. And like I say, that balance between mucking around and moving forward is so splendidly found, that you really can approach it as two games. Sometimes I'd fancy just digging around and finding caves, another time I'd want to defeat a boss and discover a new location, and it allowed both to be easily accessed. And that's a fine thing to have done.

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