Here’s my favourite games of 2014 so far. I usually find that about half of the great games in any year I only discover later, so this is the half that I have found so far :).
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes And Misdemeanours. By far my favourite of the larger scale, story-based games that I’ve played this year. I love the rich backdrops, the details of the characters, the weird contradictory bits of evidence and the absolute mind-bending drive to try and solve these six cases, which basically are created to try and confuse the mind and offer contradictory conclusions. Definitely the most fun I’ve had gaming this year.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. I have slight mixed feelings about this one – I just find the lore and the setting a bit leaden, it’s basically a mud-filled dark place full of orcs, so there’s not a lot of light and shade here. But as a virtual playground to feel powerful and to test complex systems, it’s an absolute masterpiece – you can literally lead 60+ orcs on a merry dance as you nip up and down around them in a ballet of satisfying traversal and neat combat techniques. I think it’s the only mainstream game I’ve played this year that has that ability to make the jaw drop with sheer excitement.
Banished. This is a vanilla medieval-themed town building simulation, with no real grand endgame or any aims as such – it just works because the systems are satisfying and the presentation is just so polished. In a genre where you get used to a fair amount of clunk and limitation, to be able to swing around the landscape with such freedom, and set up dwellings with such ease and simplicity, and watch as the AI for once does exactly what you would want it to do – it’s just a treat for the senses.
6180 The Moon. Probably more strictly a 2013 game, but I’m including it because it had a deluxe edition and a Steam release this year. Simply a joyous platformer, the simplicity of the presentation belying a game that explores its rules so thoroughly and with so much depth.
Betrayer. A formidably bold and deep game that sits somewhere between shooter and RPG. It’s currently my biggest source of gaming guilt because I haven’t finished it, and what I have played was simply outstanding. Perhaps its only weakness (or strength) is that with the black and white and the richly written text, it’s just a little po-faced to stoop to the level of easy entertainment – it’s an adult, boldly original gem that requires real thought to play and appreciate.
Lifeless Planet. This atmospheric exploration game about a lone survivor of a space expedition is eerie and enigmatic – there’s not a whole lot of actual game in there, but what there is is so quietly enthralling that I simply felt compelled to finish it in one sitting, a feeling that is actually quite rare for me these days. It’s the geography, or the depiction of it, that is so memorable – the feeling of being small in a vast expanse, of being insignificant among strange nature, is just an incredible feeling that I won’t forget.
Monument Valley. This feels like the standard indie darling of 2014 – a wonderfully presented game with an incredible, indelible art style, and lots of clever puzzle mechanics, that doesn’t outstay its welcome and feels like a perfect experience. What it doesn’t have is the bold originality of something like Braid or Fez, but it’s moment to moment feel just brings aesthetic pleasure to the senses time and time again. It is beautiful.
Threes! I love my puzzle games, and this is one of the finest in years – a deceptively complex number sliding game that has that special mix of being pleasantly tactile, of having a sense of flow and rhythm, yet every decision having a knock-on affect on your progress or lack of it. And the subtle pleasure of encountering a thing that seems like it was hewn out of the very nature of numbers and patterns, like a thing that might have been discovered not created.
Lyne. The thing I really treasure about this pattern-sorting puzzler is that actually it’s not that difficult, and the solving each level is not a battle of the intellect but a sort of gentle pleasure for the most part. It feels like a brain exercise rather than a war of attrition. And I think that’s how some puzzlers work best – they tickle the brain rather than confound it, and its ongoing sets of daily puzzles underline the idea of a puzzle game as a pleasant habit rather than a measure of uber-achievement. It’s also elegant and occasionally sublime.
Lexica. Another puzzler, and nothing incredibly groundbreaking as a digital game – this is simply a fairly slick version of a word puzzler that has appeared in newspapers for a while. Think of it as Sudoku with letters. I just think it’s a great puzzle design, almost endlessly replayable, and elegantly bridges the gap between Sudoku and Scrabble.
Mind: Path To Thalamus. I can’t really work out if this game is an ambiguous triumph or a bit of a mess, but there’s no doubt that at it’s best it offers incredible landscapes, genuinely head-scratching puzzling, and a reasonably affecting storyline. That’s a pretty powerful trifecta.
Rehearsals and Returns. An odd, ambiguous experience involving some strange platforming, and the appropriation of known historical characters to encourage a randomly generated emotional reaction. I respect the game for being something different.
Secrets Of Raetikon. A lovely control scheme involving flying smoothly around a 2d landscape, mixed with some wonderful animal designs, and a strange futuristic tech. I haven’t finished the game, and I don’t really know what it’s getting at, but I just like flying around a loosely engineered space feeling that sense of intrigue and freedom.
Desert Golfing. It absolutely shouldn’t work, and theoretically isn’t any good at all, but this seemingly endless stream of featureless golf holes casts an incredible spell. I’d actually compare it to Demon’s Souls – it’s as if the game and the player have colluded to punish the player, and that the appeal is entirely masochistic.
Hearthstone: Heroes Of Warcraft. A great game and an obsession to so many gamers, it works because it’s beautifully designed, and the polish during actual play needs to be felt to be believed – just the way the cards flip onto the playing area is a joy, and it’s really made me think a lot about the almost tactile feel of great design. Not only is it free and incredibly deep, it’s also surprisingly a great game to watch, and I’ve had a huge amount watching International competitions and daily streamers on Twitch. My game of the year by a landslide.
A sinister trip to a mossy underwater underworld as what looks like a little green frog, who needs air supply from the bubbles while swimming to avoid these nasty mollusc-like creatures. There are other frogs swimming too – I treated them as enemies but actually I think they may have become fallen allies instead, trapped in the grasp of these creatures struggling for air. Drowning really isn’t very nice. These creatures all seem related to one another, though perhaps that’s a little bit of a spoiler. This is an elegant game with a simple structure and some satisfying swimming around, a little peril, and a hand-drawn understated quality, from the quiet notes in the background to the gurgles in the water, it’s a mysterious thing with quiet epiphanies.
Here’s their website…
Mind: Path to Thalamus (PC, 2014). I can barely think of a worse title for a rather terrific game. They spell their own title wrong on their site! Here’s the blurb on the game from the website, so I don’t have to describe it :).
“Wrapped in a mind-bending tale, the gameplay of “MIND” focuses on changing the very weather in order to solve puzzles: the player will cycle between day and night, modify the levels of fog and rain and even travel in time between seasons, changing the environment to advance the gameplay-driven story —indeed, the mechanics are directly related to who the protagonist is, what has happened to him and everything he is doing: a man trapped in his own mind, he must use all the tools at his disposition to escape to reality. Accompanied by the snarky yet heartfelt narration of this comatose patient, the player will guide him through fantastical forests, dark caverns and deceptive worlds of water and ice that directly relate to his emotional state at each point in his journey.”
“MIND” has some incredible environments, mixing ultra-realistic forests, caves and mountains with surreal elements like gargantuan stampy beasts and lots of floating islands. It wouldn’t be a surreal game about dreams if it didn’t have floating islands :). The attention to detail is astonishing, and in terms of the environments and details the game is the match of many triple-A blockbusters. If you like looking at amazing worlds, this will tickle your fancy.
It also has those puzzles where you feel like the answer is maddeningly close, but that the elements don’t ever quite go together quite in the way that you want. The puzzles involve picking up weird crystal balls and putting them in strange ritual circles that either alter the weather, the time of day, or the actual season. Those environmental changes are quite the beautiful thing. The game reminds me of Flower somehow, in that it’s full of empty beautiful spaces where so many games are full of ‘stuff’.
I can see that there’s a heartfelt story attached to the game about loss and forgiveness, but it never quite lifts off. It makes the game hard to write about, because I don’t want to be too high-minded about a game that tries to be very emotional and moving, but that part of the recipe just doesn’t quite hang together. I think I liked the empty spaces more than the thematic details. I think Dear Esther is a reference here, but Dear Esther is driven by the environments which are the story. Here I got the feeling that the cool environments were something the designers wanted to put in for their sheer beauty, and not because the story was driven to include them. The story itself could have been told in plain rooms and corridors. There’s a disconnect there.
But not every game is perfect. This game is very good indeed. Available on Steam.
I really loved my experience with the new Sherlock Holmes game, Crimes and Punishments. Despite much of the actual gameplay being quite shallow, and a lot of the stories quite linear in plot, I think it’s one of the deepest, most adult adventure games I’ve ever played.
A quick glance at the wiki reveals that this is the 10th game Frogwares have released about Conan Doyle’s legendary detective. Considering that I played the previous game, and that in many ways it was very awkward and ‘janky’, this is a real step forward. Faces are expressive, voices are convincing, and the environments continue to be a rich evocation of Victorian England. Not quite sure about the details, as for example Bridlington is not ever a stop or two down the line from Nottingham. But in terms of production polish, this game very much deserves to be considered ‘next-gen’. And there are lots of new ideas in the game, influences from Dostoyevsky’s novel to LA Noire and even The Walking Dead.
What’s most interesting about it is the six cases, mysteries populated by a cascade of clues, bits of evidence, and various suspects and theories about how they relate to the crime. Rather than just present an either/or choice, or a linear progression, the game has a system of connecting clues and deductions, presented rather like ideas in the brain, connected through pulsing nerve-endings that crackle with electricity when a connection is made. So in theory, rather than coming to a conclusion on your own, the various deductions that you make lead you towards the inevitable result of the evidence.
And the game doesn’t mind if you’re right or not, if you come to the right conclusion all the better, but if you hang the wrong man then that’s just fine – no real judgement is made on your choices. Though perhaps in practice it’s mighty tempting to reveal the ‘right’ answer, and then go back and retrofit your decisions to be the perfect Sherlock. I did read reviewers criticise this approach of letting you convict the wrong man and then carry on without punishment, but without that open-ended approach the game would be much the worse, basically funnelling you towards one course of action at every juncture.
This open-ended set of decisions also makes the game maddeningly infuriating at times. As it cannot condemn you for a bad deduction, nor signpost each decision as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at any point, the cases become a complex lattice of deductions, all of which seem as good or bad as each other. Game-players are used to knowing who the bad guy is – this game presents a more nuanced reality where it may simply be hard to tell what shade of grey each character may exist in. All suspects have motives, all have evidence that points towards them, and as a detective your job is often to decide which are the least worst decisions to make within what is offered in the game. That sounds like a painful and frustrating task, because it is, but I love it for the many hours I spent discussing with my daughter what the best course of action might be. I can remember difficult decisions that I have made in games, but rarely are they as complex as this. Yet this game may be destined to be dismissed as ‘casual’.
What’s more, I simply don’t agree with the game in a number of the cases presented. This bemuses me. Is it a sign of a badly made game, or a game so open that it may have missed the implications of its own evidence? I think it doesn’t really matter why, but it’s fascinating to me that when presented with a set of evidence, that I can actually come up with a logical explanation that the designers may not even have thought of.
Not everything works. The set of moral pronouncements implied by the title are really the weakest part of the decision process – in only one of the cases did I feel there was a justifiable moral dilemma over whether or not the guilty should be handed over to the authorities. And not all choices actually ended up moral choices at all. Also, as the moral choices were often either/or decisions made at the conclusion of the case, they lacked the ability to tie up the loose ends or offer the closure that perhaps they were designed to avoid. But I do think it’s something that could be tweaked in the future.
Frankly, I can’t wait to see the next iteration of these concepts. The possibilities seem incredibly exciting. I can imagine a bunch of evidence that offers the sort of complexity one might associate with real detective work, not just the narrative conceits of a linear adventure game. I think the designers could broaden the number of conclusions possible – all suspects could be guilty, or any one or a number innocent. I think they’ve hit on something that really works, simply because it doesn’t treat the player as an idiot, and allows them to think. Apply that principle to the rest of the game and you might end up with something that trailblazes a new era of open-ended storytelling.
I’m really enjoying Brendan Keogh’s video series on the single player campaigns from the Modern Warfare games – he’s christened his playthrough a ‘critical let’s play’ and I like the idea, or just the notion of approaching such a thing with a focus on more serious critique. It might not bring him the hits of PewDiePie, but it’s certainly got me thinking.
I must admit I have played through the Modern Warfare and slightly dismissed them from a critical standpoint. Quite unfairly, really. Firstly I think I’ve been too willing to just reject them on the basis of the surface politics on show – the jingoism, the war porn aspect – but I think it’s a bit shallow to just ignore the positives of a thing just because it has troubling aspects. Just as Anita Sarkeesian has persuaded me to think again about certain games in a more negative way for their portrayal of women, but without dictating that anybody should simply ignore them for their weaknesses. There’s also been a common view expressed that the Call of Duty games are only interesting for (or successful because of) their multiplayer, which I think is mainly a view promoted by that brand of gamer who love the multiplayer above all else! I have friends who’ve never touched the campaigns, that’s for sure.
Anyway, here are some notes on the first Modern Warfare, otherwise known as Call of Duty 4.
– The AC-130H level in the game is an absolute standout gaming moment. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s where you get to control one of those heavily armed ground attack planes, where using thermal imaging of some kind you get to rain destruction on a place with the sort of cold precision of a scientist playing with an ant colony. You get to play God basically, several steps removed from the horrors of war, experiencing instead the horror of ultimate power with little responsibility. It works on several levels, one of which is the irony of playing a game with controller in hand, yet the ultra-realistic experience very likely being similar to how such a thing might well control out in the field. Suddenly the idea of a gamer having real power feels like a more terrifying reality than ever before. It would make a nice double bill with Molleindustria’s excellent game Unmanned, which depicts the eerie banality of life as a military drone pilot.
– As with other elements in Call of Duty, I actually wonder if elements of the game carry weight despite the intentions of the developers. Is the depiction of shallow Johnny Foreigners presented with a satirical tongue in cheek – are they presenting these stereotypes with a playful nudge? In the AC-130H the bored chatter of the other operators carries a chilling menace that undercuts the brutality of the actions, but is this intentional or is it just the way the game feels for me?
– Connected to the previous point, is the tightrope the game walks between being a military simulator and an action movie. I used to find this a really uneasy relationship, but I’m starting to see it as a strength, as it leaves you unsure quite how to relate at every turn. Will it be pure escapist action fantasy, or something more of a technical depicition of a battleground, or something couched in storytelling and pure narrative. I think the game itself really isn’t sure from moment to moment, and I like that. It stops the game ever seeming like it takes itself too seriously, which would have made it that much more offensive.
– The other real standout is the two-part Chernobyl sniper section, which swaps action movie style events for slowly building tension as the player creeps through an abandoned tower block complex to carry out an assassination. Something about the architecture, apparently based on the actual location, that you scurry through almost holding your breath, and just the way that the history of that locale permeates the gameplay experience. It’s some of the best action stealth in a shooter, and also ramps up into a panicked escape as thrilling as anything I can remember.
– I’m fascinated with the way the games employ a elements of three-act structure to every section of the game (I think it’s even more noticable in the sequels). One of the most common is the mini-structure whereby you explore your way towards an objective, but when you find it there’s a dramatic twist, and suddenly the emphasis completely changes and you have to fight or discover a new way out. It happens on the boat level, in the Chernobyl level, in the two part section among Russian farmhouses (which presumably was planned as one level then split into two) and the final level in a Nuclear Silo. Think also of the discovery of the flood section in Halo, or the first tomb in Uncharted.
– As Brendan points out in the videos, there has rarely been a game or a series which so specifically invites the player to act as an actor in their own film. It’s famous for being full of missions where you follow a soldier or soldiers through a battlefield, rather than plotting your own course. There is barely a moment in the game where you aren’t explicitly told what you should be doing and how you should be doing it. If you don’t follow those orders, you probably won’t enjoy the game. It’s either a limiting straitjacket, or an invitation to submit to the narrative on offer.
– The use of multiple protagonists is a master-stroke. It not only adds variety, but it also gives the game license to play with the idea of playing a role. Not only do two of the roles you play end up in your death, but the ending of the game plays on the idea of the same fate as a recurring motif, and it makes the twist all the more thrilling.
– It’s not all good :). Even while watching rather than playing the story is a muddle, the presentation is a mystifying buzz of images, maps and exposition, and the plot itself barely hangs together. And given the nature of the experience, it’s hard to care what’s going on – just get me to the next set-piece bit of action. All of that money, all of that voice-acting, to contribute to basically what amounts to a slush puppy mush of content. Whichever way you appreciate the game, that’s a major weakness. That’s why it gets compared to Hollywood’s dumbest blockbusters – because there’s something indelibly dumb about it.
– The idea of the single-player game as a glorified tutorial for the ‘deeper’ multiplayer experience. I think it’s more of a symbiotic relationship than that. Okay assets and gameplay elements are carried over to the multiplayer, but vice versa, and other gameplay elements don’t carry over. Worth remembering when the game was made that multiplayer was broadly considered a sideline for blockbusters – a way of justifying a premium price rather than a reason for being. I still think that’s broadly the case by the way despite the obvious longevity of multiplayer components of games. There’s a lot made of the fact that only 70%ish of Call of Duty players finish the single-player campaigns, but I don’t think that necessarily means the multiplayer is that much more of a draw – it seems to me that a lower percentage of all players who play any game ever actually finish the campaign.
– These blockbuster games, where money has been spent on polishing every last second of the experience, really reward close inspection. There are lots of moments highlighted in Brendan’s videos that really passed me by on my playthrough – the shadows on a wall, the framing of something of interest, even the way the grass falls in and out of focus as you crawl through it. Like looking at beautiful frames from movies through the years, it’s a reminder that you can look up close at any second of a gaming experience, and usually find something to respond to, and even on occasions something quite beautiful.
On to Modern Warfare 2 – looking forward to it :).
I just don’t know how to really present it with knowing authority for a recommendation, but I find it fun to be a dog for a while and scare birds and piss on fire hydrants and catch frisbees and shake water over men on park benches reading newspapers. Does that make me innately childish? – maybe. Is it a worthless experience – I don’t think so. It brightens up my day and it just lets me do something I haven’t done before. And rather than rationalise away it’s sense of unimportance, I’d rather just enjoy it for what it is.
There’s a fair bit more to it than that as well. There’s gameplay here – trying to chain together actions for a higher score multiplier, and I like the marriage of straightforward score attack with the idea of trying to uncover new actions to improve your strategy in the future. When to jump for the frisbee at the right time to keep the multiplier going, that sort of thing. Presumably there are unlockables, and different scenarios (the seasons!). There’s a pleasant lack of consequence as well – the playful actions of being a dog in the park provide the sort of freedom that I suppose wouldn’t be the same if it were a human avatar. Or would it?
Here’s the website…
To finish a mini-trilogy of hybrid game designs, this is Flapping Bird, which I suppose is more of a parody or a homage to the ubiquitous Flappy Bird. But rather than just copy the game into some sort of tweaked graphical style, the game more directly inserts a whole storyline into the equation. And transforms or maybe clarifies how this type of gameplay can become (or already is) a metaphor for the pressures of life, capitalism, the experience of working life in general. You can play it here.
It’s creator, Ethan Levy, runs an excellent blog focussing on his developing career as a monetization consultant having left EA’s mobile division a year or two ago. He writes about his experiences here…
Matchstick Memories is another enthralling hybrid of different game concepts. A succession of grid-based puzzle concepts is linked with the gentle adventuring reminiscent of early text adventures, but with a more airy, contemplative feel. For a game with text and a few symbols, it manages to evoke moods through use of simple colour schemes, and little icons that you almost form a relationship with over time.
Like Gridland and A Dark Room, it’s a game that builds a convincing holistic experience out of building blocks you’d associate more with abstract game experiences. Human nature is to look for patterns and meanings in the most abstract shapes and colours, and with a little guidance a series of squares and symbols are more than enough to form a convincing and memorable narrative.
It’s made by CH Buckingham – here’s it’s page on itunes.
Thanks to Leigh Alexander’s fascinating interview with Doublespeak Games’s Michael Townsend I am now aware of his latest creation, called Gridland. Along with some of the thought processes behind it.
It’s one of a number of recent games that take the Match-3 formula, and twist it into something a little bit more meaningful. There’s another one I’ll be writing about in my next post. But I suppose if we think of Puzzle Quest’s battle system, but rather than playing a surreal puzzle game to score attack, Gridland actually makes the tiles both the resources in the game, and the actual embodiment of what will happen to the little stickman at the top of the screen. If we match stone or wood on the grid, he will pick up that resource and use it to expand his little civilisation. The game also has the superb twist that the same grid goes into a night-time nightmare mode of hack and slash battling.
And if it’s anything like Townsend’s previous game A Dark Room, which I really should have written about before (because it’s absolutely superb), there will be lots of other twists along the way. Like A Dark Room it is relentlessly and dangerously addictive. And I think the reason why is the way that every decision you take on the grid actually has a real affect in-game – it absolutely isn’t a time-waster in game terms, though clearly the game takes the form of a timewaster given the indelible connection to games like Bejewelled and Candy Crush. I suppose you could label this the anti-Candy Crush if one was a lazy hack :).
So there’s something indelibly elegant about the way this game is designed, and that beautiful elegance is something I treasure in games a lot more than plain ‘content’. There’s a connection to the games of Jason Rohrer and Jonathan Blow – the conviction that what we do in a game IS the message of the game, it isn’t just a meaningless platform for entertainment or content in a traditional way. You don’t just do things, things happen because of what you do. And the way that they happen is where the real heart of the thing is.
Oh, you should play the game!!!
The Evil Within does seem at face value to be a rather generic attempt to recreate the feel of Resident Evil for a next-gen audience, which is fine. But playing through the short demo at the EGX expo there does seem to be the beating heart of what could be a more offbeat experience. Typical, I suppose, of Shinji Mikami, who had a controlling hand in Resident Evil 4, Devil May Cry, Killer7 and God Hand.
Okay, wandering about dynamically light and dark areas with limited ammo and shuffling enemies to be knocked back, so far so good. But I was impressed by the open nature of the environments I encountered – part dream-sequence, part sense of dread, and part game-mechanic stealth sections. I’m intrigued to find out whether ‘The Evil Within’ suggests some sort of peculiar trip through aspects of the human psyche in the form of dream-like levels, with troubling dark imagery and bemusing symbolism throughout. Hopefully so.
I do think there’s a lot to be said for slow pacing in games. Wandering into a courtyard with a lit lantern, as the wind blows, with a sort of grainy indistinct look, and nothing really happening for minutes at a time, really gives you the space and the time to think for yourself and come up with your own internal monologue. So much more satisfying than the mainstream games that funnel you quickly from one experience to the next with barely a moment to catch your breath. I think you honestly need a brave creative vision to create a sense of emptiness within a game, and not have it pared down by groupthink pressure within a studio – that’s my theory anyway.
What frustrates me sometimes, with both mainstream gaming and mainstream cinema, is that its only the horror genre that seem to take any notice of the crucial importance of pacing to almost any experience. The problem with Call of Duty, for me, isn’t the content itself as I’m absolutely fine to play a good shooter, it is the absolute absence of any pacing. A slow section in a modern Call of Duty game is an entire stealth level where you knife people in the neck rather than shoot them in the face, but that’s really not what pacing means to me. It’s about letting the tension come out of the tone of the experience in the moment rather than turning the dial up to 11. It means letting the game breathe at times. And then letting the difference between each moment of the experience create the drama that we feel as players, operating almost as a montage of different tones and experiences to the way we respond and feel about the experience.
Um, I hope The Evil Within is a fine game. I was going to include a gameplay video on the post but the ones on Youtube seem to be a year old, and the game seems to look very different now.