In my previous post, not only did I confuse Commando with Predator, but I completely forgot to mention a couple outstanding games from 2012.
Thirty Flights of Loving
Blendo is dependably brilliant, but even by that high standard, 30 Flights of Loving is remarkable. It’s ostensibly a sequel (I guess? Prequel maybe?) to Gravity Bone, but in character design and game engine only. The game itself is completely nuts: an experiment in cinematic, non-linear storytelling in a medium that does pretty much everything it can to discourage non-linear storytelling.
The game is constantly lurching forwards and backwards in time, going from flashback to flashback within a flashback; dropping you into situations with no context, leaving you to figure it what’s going on; and editing out stretches of action while you’re taking part in them. It’s all stuff we take for granted in movies, but would seem to be impossible in a medium where you control a character in first person and in real time.
Does it work? I’m still not sure. I still can’t quite piece together what the narrative is, so if clarity’s your thing, you might be disappointed. Did I enjoy it? Definitely. It’s overloaded with style and imagination, and it perfectly demonstrates the power of suggestion.
Whenever I hear the complaint that adventure games aren’t really games, my response has always been that of course they are; the object of the game is to finish the story. It feels as if 30 Flights of Loving takes this one step further: the object of the game is to figure out the story. You see suggestions of story elements — a band of rebels, a betrayal, a wedding reception, a frantic escape — and have to piece them together. Each is a billion times more provocative than a more traditional presentation would give them. By dropping you into a story with no context, and by filling the game with brilliant world-building details (Blendo’s the best at made-up place names), everything is more real and more memorable than a simple linear action story.
Maybe the highest compliment I can give 30 Flights of Loving is that it made me feel lazy. I’ve been speculating about how narratives work in a medium where the player’s in complete control over the pacing, how unreliable narrators could work in games, and how to borrow aspects of cinematic storytelling without losing the essence of what makes a game. And then Brendon Chung just came along and did it all, and took the experiment even farther than I would’ve thought was possible.
I contributed to the Kickstarter for Faster Than Light because it seemed to have an aggressively old-school mentality: you’re in control of everything, and more significantly, the game doesn’t care if you live or die. Making a roguelike in a non-fantasy setting that lets you blow up enemy spaceships is such a no-brainer that everybody should buy it and play it.
I still haven’t finished a game; in fact I think the farthest I’ve gotten is about a third of the way through. There’s two reasons for that: one, I keep underestimating how devastating a fire in a major system area can be, and two, I convinced myself that “normal” difficulty was the way to go. That’s actually the cruelest trick of the game designers: actually, “easy” is normal and “normal” is really unforgiving. It took me a few games to swallow my pride and choose the “easy” setting, but doing that made the game a lot more enjoyable for me. Not getting annihilated in sector two helps a lot.
I played the original only once, so it’s not nostalgia that’s making me like the new remake of Karateka. It’s that they took a straightforward game and made all the right decisions with the update. There’s the clever teaser video by Adam Lisagor. There’s the great character design. The soundtrack that’s a lot more polished than you’d expect from a game of this scope. The forethought to make it available on every platform, and to make sure that it plays as well on iOS as it does on Xbox. And there’s the simplicity of the controls: it’s essentially a rhythm game, where your accuracy at blocking attacks determines how many hits you can get in.
My favorite aspect of it, though, is how it perfectly integrates difficulty with the storyline. You get three “lives” in the form of three different characters all trying to save the princess. If you mess up on your first go-round, then you can still finish the game… but the ending won’t be quite as satisfying, because you failed to reunite the princess with her True Love. (For the record, the only time I finished was with The Brute, and even that was after a couple of failed attempts). It’s ingenious.
On top of everything else, the game is exactly as big as it needs to be. There’s no sign of bloat, absolutely nothing that’s extraneous. Characters are established with nothing more than character design and animation, and you get a complete story of a daring assault on a castle to rescue a princess from an evil warlord. (And his asshole hawk).
You Don’t Know Jack
I love You Don’t Know Jack, but ever since its original glory (the Movies edition is possibly the best written video game ever made), they’ve never quite nailed the distribution. There was diminishing returns on the original sets; the randomization of the questions was unpredictable, but also meant that you’d get repeats of some of the questions before you’d seen all of the content. By the time The Ride was released, I’d pretty much lost interest. Later on, with the dedicated website and daily games, it got to be kind of a chore to keep up with them: you’d have to dedicate a good 20 minutes or so each day to go through a game. And the recent console release fixed a lot of the problems with repetition that the originals had, but still felt somewhat static. If you had a party to play with, it could be fun; otherwise, I didn’t have much compelling me to finish all the episodes.
The current Facebook incarnation nails it. It turns out that five questions is the perfect length, there’s a good variety of question types, the achievements kept me engaged longer than I ever was with the website version, and the asynchronous competition against Facebook friends makes it perfect to play against people you can never get into the same room. Even better, they’ve released iOS versions that integrate with Facebook, so you don’t even have to open a web browser to play.
If there were any lingering doubt that 2012 was a tremendous year for video games, I only have six words to offer as proof: Elephant, Mustard, Teddy Roosevelt, or Dracula.