So, games then.
Last year I played as many games as I did when I was on staff. This year, I didn't. This year was, in the language of the sweary people, a right shitting fucker. How much have I done? This much (Spoilers: A lot). You have no idea how much time you have to spend thinking of who superheroes are going to punch next.
(Er... for relative newcomers to the site. I'm one of the guys who founded the place. I left a couple of years back. I now write fiction, primarily a bunch of comics for Marvel. I like to pop in occasionally at this time of year, like the sort of relative who sends you a Christmas card even though you haven't returned the favour for a clear decade.)
Haven't the RPS chaps done well this year? I don't even hate their Calender that much. It's primarily a mixture of stuff I dig and stuff that I've actually bought and not had a chance play yet. That last grouping includes the unanimous choice of the team for Game of the Year, FAR CRY 3. I would have thought that someone would have disagreed, but it seems not.
I did follow the debate with interest, though not so much the writing is-it-colonialist-tripe-or-cleverly-ironic? (Though everything around that screamed out the relatively little power one member of a creative team has when the vast majority couldn't give a toss about you being a pseud). The conversation looked like people chewing over the relative merits of the freeform game approach, with the objecting to the theme-park here-is-a-ride-on-the-map model versus those feeling verisimilitude has been lost – that, fundamentally, it's too much game.
I think the debate is conflating various poles of what's possible, and it was brought into sharp contrast when I played DROX OPERATIVE. Soldak have been doing action games that have the most febrile living simulation in pop-gaming, bar none (including Dwarf Fortress – note the word I use is “febrile” rather than “complex”.) In Drox, you're positioned as a space-ship agent in a top-down world, and sent off to interact with this fucking mess of a universe. Within seconds, the game is alive with alien races going to war, trading, begging for help, begging for supplies, begging like Captain Beg ruler of the Seven Begs and generally giving the impression that they'd be happy having a game entirely by themselves, but since you're around, they may as well put you to good use. It's astounding stuff, and it hurts that I've not given it nearly enough time. However, it's worth noting that it manages to beat both the game-y system-heavy elements hailed by the Far Cry 3 crowd and the real-living-world of the STALKER-philes. However, its living world is simply not real – it's gamey. It's shamelessly abstracted, and occasionally feels like a rediscovered evolutionary branch that has been churning on since Defender changed everything back in the early 80s.
Oh man! I've just dissed everyone's taste. I'm remembering how this works.
I haven't played THE WALKING DEAD, but I do have an anecdote. At One Life Left/Hookshot Inc Christmas Party, standing outside and chatting to Master Of The Cheap Lewie about it. He quotes Andi "Midnight Resistance" Hamilton who had a fairly pithy take on anyone who adores it. “If you say your game of the year is The Walking Dead, what you're really saying is that you're shit at Hotline Miami.” Which made me smile, even before I'm immediately introduced to someone else who – unknowing of the previous conversation - said his fave game was The Walking Dead.
HOTLINE MIAMI was astounding. Generally speaking, I'm in the corner that's pro-transgression. I'm also, generally speaking, in the corner that is pro-games inducing the pure state of annihilation of sense that dance does. You know what I mean. And if you don't, go google essays on flow. So, reaching a GENERALLY SPEAKING CROSS-OVER, my love for this gloriously mean bastard is unsurprising. Micro-remixing its puzzles as the repeats chew along, this game finds its groove, but it's a smart groove that's always asking you the sort of questions you want to answer. Frankly, I loved it since I first saw it on the floor of the Eurogamer Expo, when its dirty snyths spraying all over the gathered crowd felt like some kind of Baptism. I was hardly going to stop now.
The other king of flow was SUPER HEXAGON, which is amazingamazingamazingamazingamazing. The slow moments of Christmas this year was spent with my brother playing it on his iPad and me playing it on mine. And then I got into a car, and played it as we headed elsewhere. And then I got back home, and played it on my PC. And I play it in my sleep. It's Veni Vidi Vici from VVVVV expanded magnificently into a full game, a game of reflex, memory, pattern recognition, instinct and screaming for the death of the soft-spoken dark-hearted Terry Cavanagh.
(Cavanagh says it's more an expansion of Super Gravitron, but that's all about the forced-movement of the character. BUT WHATEVER GETS YOU THROUGH THE NIGHT, CAVANAGH, YOU MONSTROUS DUNG.)
Super Hexagon Is the closest gaming this year has got to Sex. I last about seven seconds.
The shocker with MASS EFFECT 3 was discovering that people actually did care about what was going on with the Reapers.
I'm not sure I have a game of the year, but it could be XCOM. Just a brave, taut remix of the games' core principles. It's absolutely how you'd imagine a company with the Maximum Number Of Meaningful Decisions dogma at its core would approach the setting. The two actions married with increased meaning of abilities is pure that - as opposed to the simulationist approach of the Gollops'. Its my favourite example of developers lifting from the last decade of boardgame design.
(Fuck me, I did smile to see people who were sneering at XCOM for being dumbed down slagging off the two-action approach because it made it harder to recover from a mistake. It's the sort of thing which made you realise the majority of the reservations weren't about the game, but rather the fact that you're never going to be 14 ever again and DYING IS RUBBISH.)
Boardgames have been more core to my gaming this year, just through time. With Rab and the QuinnsPaulbeast guiding me, I've bought and played all manner of stuff. It's just more efficient. When I have less time, if I go play a real world game, I get to tickle my Ludic urge and my socialisation urge and (often) my alcoholism. Triple win!
The foremost of them was RISK LEGACY, which I wrote about over at Eurogamer. It came out just before Xmas last year, but that it's a longform campaign “thing” meant people only really got to see its glory this year. As I said over at Eurogamer, this is the one which I'm hoping game devs will try and rip off. As Rab said, it's a landmark. And that means it's a bloody big thing we can all look at and help us work out where we need to go next.
(Other tabletop stuff? A lot of the GAME OF THRONES boardgame, which primarily involves me playing Pyke and shouting Come At Me Bro and demanding people pay the Iron Price in a phenomenally annoying way. The X-Wing miniatures game, which is hyper-lovely, especially if you're playing the Star Wars soundtracks on spotify. I also finished off my WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY campaign, which probably needs an article of its own at some point. “Do”ing Naomi Klein Disaster Capitalism in the Old World was all sorts of interesting. Also interesting was realising what horrors a warped adult imagination can unleash with Slaneshi cultists. Other stuff? LIBERTALIA was neat, though did lead to a predictably large number of booty gags. Also, playing THE RESISTANCE was always amazing, especially when my Mum took everyone to the cleaners with her awesome mouth of lies.)
Fuck it. Let's say Risk Legacy was my game of the year. I still owe Quinns a big personal piece of writing about it for his site, and that I'm not going to dodge that promise says much.
It's not the only game that made me want to write, of course. I've actually got a 2000 word essay I wrote after playing THIRTY FLIGHTS OF LOVING that I still need to get around to proofing, but that was a complete tour de force of technique that deserves serious picking over. Joy, intelligence, style and sheer fucking velocity, it's a pure example of what a truly unleashed level designer can achieve. Also touched on the essay is DEAR ESTHER, which is important in proving that this kind of thing can actually find a commercial audience. It was me that John was arguing with in his end of the year piece on it. Somewhere out there is a developer who has just realised that a game idea they thought was literally impossible to try and still be able to eat has seen what Dear Esther has managed, and decided to give it a shot rather than the safe genre game they were considering. Anything that expands the boundary of what a commercial game can be is a fundamental good thing. You'll thank it eventually, Walker.
People writing ripostes to arguments I've made privately has been something of a theme this year. There were at least two to my observation that DOTA was a machine for generating shitheads, from Quinns and Cara. Both of them have been attacking DOTA 2 in their own cheery way, with Quinns stressing the incredible macho dick-waving I-will-climb-this-mountain nature of its sprawling design, and Cara whispering (i.e. shouting) the important truth that it's-okay-to-be-shit. I lean heavily towards Cara's corner. Seemingly every mechanic in DOTA2, from the macro to the micro, breeds sociopathy (And anyone who argues that a game where Denying - the slaughter of your own men – is a core mechanic isn't actually sociopathic as the creeps aren't anything real is only proving my point. Gandalf doesn't set fire to his hobbits when they start looking a little peaky). The only cure for it is the bonhomie of realising that when you've got a game as gloriously intricate as DOTA, you're almost certainly never going to be “good” at it, and the point is the journey and the best journeys are with friends. Repositioned mentally as less of a grudge-fuck and more the spiritual successor to the social niche that Gauntlet filled in 1985, this is even harder to (ahem) deny what a genuinely astounding game this is. I just hope one of the main RPSers comes around to it before its release.
DIABLO III was released this year.
I had hope that I'd find time to really dig into GUILD WARS 2, but knew that any MMO – even one as sprightly as Arenanet's – was going to be something I played, enjoyed and then simply left behind. A strong game that did almost everything that it could to try and rejuvenate the traditional Fantasy MMO format, its relative failure (i.e. not being game of the year) makes you suspect that the traditional Fantasy MMO format is close to dead. In terms of diminishing returns, I'm starting to wonder if the Emergent Sim may be starting to creep towards similar ground. Not exactly a disappointment of the year, but I bounced off DISHONORED after the first few hours. I'll return in the new year, but there's something strange about a game where I spend so much time waving a reanimated psychic heart at anything that passes my nose feeling so oddly lacking in personality. Also in the return-in-new-year-after-initial-bounce is CRUSADER KINGS 2, which looks like a lovely soap-opera-with-large-scale-warfare-em-up, but almost certainly involves reading a manual or something.
The game of the year for Games Journalism – i.e. the best game to write about – was undoubtedly DAYZ, which lead to a huge number of wonderful pieces. Seeing Jim discover a micro-Eve (i.e. a game which primarily exists for Jim to tell me stories about) is always fun. Having to wrestle with its servers meant I only played a couple of games before deciding to give up and wait for its proper release, but when a game which solely consisted of creeping around in the dark doing fuck all is this compelling, I can't wait. Similarly left in my must-play-more pile was LEGEND OF GRIMROCK, whose resurrection of the eight-legged-groove-machine model of RPGs highlighted the specific merits of that particularly approach to the dungeon crawl. Meanwhile, the splendid WAKING MARS made all the Americans shout “Metroid!” and the British folk of a certain age roll their eyes at the yanks and go “Biological Ecosystem EXILE!”. Just a lovely game of exploration and quiet experimentation. More like this, please. Oh – and SUPERBROTHERS: SWORD & SWORCERY EP took the prize as being the only game I reviewed this year. Oh – and DARK SOULS killed me lots and lots.
It's a lovely platformer, but I will always primarily remember RAYMAN: ORANGES as my favourite RPS running joke of the year. Except it was apparently made up by Tom "Tom Bramwell" Bramwell, so that's that sketch knackered.
So: "Tom "Tom Bramwell" Bramwell" remains my favourite RPS running gag of all time.