Games of 2011: You Don’t Know Jack

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

2011 felt like the year that a number of old franchises were dusted off, given a warm bath to get the color back in their cheeks, and re-presented to the world.[1. It may be worth noting that Duke Nukem Forever is not on my list of games.]

Of the three that made my list, I was most excited about the return of You Don’t Know Jack. The original series was one of the few games that delivered on the promise that CD-ROMs offered. It was whip smart and absurdly funny.

The world has changed in the sixteen years since the series premiered, and that manifested itself into a more console-friendly experience. The randomly selected pool of questions is out, and a series of episodes each with eleven questions are in. With a nod to other quiz games trying to keep all players engaged, there’s no longer buzzing in – everyone can play every question. Some question types are gone (the much beloved Gibberish Question being the most notable), and some new ones are in (including the amazingly named Cookie’s Fortune Cookie Fortunes (with Cookie “Fortune Cookie” Masterson)). And so on.

These changes are fairly hit and miss – the biggest shortcoming being that an eleven question game feels pretty damn short. Luckily, you won’t always notice, as the strength of the writing is just as good as it was during the original series peak[2. Which, in my opinion, was Vol. 4 The Ride.]. Tom Gottlieb returns as host Cookie Masterson, and the tone of the game just feels so perfectly right. Few games can manage to have such a clear house style as YDKJ has managed to over the years.

In a perfect world, someone would combine the writing and style of YDKJ with the robustness and functionality of Sony’s Buzz series. And given THQ’s rumored monetary problems, the odds of us seeing another title in the series are probably pretty low. Even if this is one last gasp at YDKJ returning to the world, it brought me a lot of joy, as it will to anyone who enjoys trivia, puzzles, and lisping ventriloquism dummies.

Games of 2011: Ascension CotG

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

As someone who spent a disgusting amount of his childhood allowance on collectable card games (CCG), I have a hard time resisting their siren song. It’s a very weak spot in my gaming spectrum, and one that can quickly lead to financial ruin – especially digital versions where booster packs are a click away.

I’m happy to say that Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer scratches my itch for a CCG without exposing my wallet to trample damage. Those of you who get similarly itchy around Magic: The Gathering cards, pay attention.

Most CCGs work under a prebuilt deck model: you enter the game with your personally assembled deck of cards, and compete against one or more other players with their own constructed deck. Ascension is not one of those games; it is instead a deck building game. All players start out with the same ten card deck, and uses their five cards drawn per turn to generate Runes and Power (if you’re a M:TG player, think of mana). Runes can be used to recruit Heroes or Constructs out of the communal center row, which then get added to your deck. Power can be used to defeat Monsters in the center row, which tend to include a side effect. The overarching goal is to collect more honor tokens (through recruiting heroes or defeating monsters) than your opponents before they run out.

Because you’re constructing your deck as the main game mechanic, there’s no concept of add-on packs, saving you the pain of opening virtual boosters in the hopes of getting cool cards. One might worry there’s not a lot of variety in strategy when you’re working off a shared deck of cards, but you won’t see all the cards from the main in the course of a single game, so you do get a lot of variation from game to game.

While A:CotG is available as a physical card game, I grew to love the game through the iOS version. Playing a lot of board and card games on my iPad, I can say it’s one of the best designed experiences since Carcasonne[1. If, by some chance, you don’t already own the iOS version of Carcasonne, you should drop everything and go buy that immediately.]. The interface is extremely well designed: appropriate controls are in reach, game prompts are intuitive, and the card art is clear. There’s asynchronous online play through Game Center[2. Developers that choose to use OpenFeint as their primary matchmaking method frustrate me. Developers that choose to write their own account systems – as one did when adding multiplayer to a title I’ve owned for over a year – piss me off.], which allows you to juggle multiple games at once in an effective manner. It’s about a solid as an online implementation as you can get for a card game, although it does lack chatting functions from what I can tell.

I’ve spent all of $8 on Ascension – $5 for the core game and $3 for an expansion IAP that adds a whole new set of cards to the core deck. That’s 1/5th the cost of my horrible 14-year-old self’s decision to buy a full box of [Fallen Empires](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallen_Empires) boosters, and I’ve gotten far more enjoyment out of this. If only I could’ve saved 14-year-old me.

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer is available as a physical card game as well as a Universal iOS app.

Games of 2011: FIFA 12

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

FIFA 12

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with “serious” sports games.[1. By “serious”, I essentially mean “not NBA Jam, Mario Kart, or anything with motion control.”] They are rarely intuitive or come with strong tutorial modes. With manual size decreasing and annual releases churning out regularly, there’s a certain expectation that you’re intimately familiar with the series even before you touch a controller.

This is especially pronounced in EA’s FIFA 12. A scant manual of about eight pages highlights a handful of changes but doesn’t concern itself with telling you how the core game works. The game does launch with a tutorial, but mostly of a new defensive control system that doesn’t do a great job of explaining itself. Then, you are thrust into a giant menu system and left to find the mode you maybe heard about, once.

The gap between what you’re told and what you are expected to know how to do is greatest during the Virtual Pro career mode, where you join your favorite team and attempt to break into the starting XI over the course of a season. You typically only control yourself, and the first thing that will jump out at you is a numerical score next to your stamina bar. It starts at 6.0 (like most actual player rating systems do) and will fluctuate over the course of the game based on your performance. But the game never really tells you what raises your score and what lowers it. It’s pure trial and error in the hopes of eventually learning how to play in a way that the game feels is acceptable.

I understand that as the world’s best selling sports franchise, there’s little impetus in EA Vancouver spending time on a well written manual, or a tutorial mode that goes beyond “well, here’s a penalty kick, take it already, you fool!”. But I worry that so many sports games seem to be going down this road.

That said, I can’t be entirely down on FIFA 12, as it finally fulfilled my dreams of a online multiplayer sport. Shockingly, all of the FIFA 12 games I have played online have been lag free, have not been subject to any griefing or abusive voice chat, and generally have people who are not terrible playing. Strangely, it may have been the best multiplayer experience I had this year.

FIFA 12 is available for PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii, 3DS, PSP, iOS, PS2, and the Mac.

Games of 2011: GROOVE COASTER

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

GROOVE COASTER

Genres come and genres go. The first person shooter came in strong in the 90s, languished a bit in the middle part of last decade, before exploding again over the last few years. Real time strategy tends to ebb and flow entirely around when Blizzard releases titles. Pinball, despite some nice digital options lately, is unlikely to ever stage a real comeback.

Rhythm games, after experiencing their explosion between 2000-2007, went into a sharp decline for the last three years. This isn’t to say there weren’t some excellent releases (see: Rock Band, Singstar), but they didn’t translate into overwhelming success. When Activision opted to shelve Guitar Hero instead of trying to keep squeezing blood from a stone, you know it’s a bad time for the genre.

But the last year has seen a modest return, primarily in the form of camera-controlled dancing games (Harmonix’s Dance Central, Ubisoft’s Just Dance). Given the explosion in mobile gaming, it’s not surprising to find that there’s increasing options on the iOS front as well.

My choice this year is not from Konami – jubeat plus too simplistic, REFLEC BEAT too complex, both requiring IAPs to have any real substance – but instead Taito’s GROOVE COASTER. The game comes from the Infinity Gene Project, the same team that brought us 2009’s excellent Space Invaders Infinity Gene.

Groove Coaster is a pattern tapping rhythm game. Your icon will move down a twisting, turning line and indicators will appear in front of you. When you cross them, you tap the screen. Simple, really – although later levels and hard difficulties add held notes, swiped notes, and tap-repeatedly notes. (Thankfully, it avoids the common iOS music game failure of requiring people to shake the device while playing, which has never worked right in any game I’ve played.)

The game comes with a wide variety of songs over a range of genres. There’s leaderboards, unlockable bonuses, three difficulty levels per track, and even has some IAPs for additional songs (of course). It’s well presented, well packaged, and just a solid, well-executed music game. And sometimes, that’s enough to make something worth playing.

GROOVE COASTER is available as a Univerisal iOS app.

Games of 2011: The Tiny Bang Story

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

The Tiny Bang Story

Colibri’s The Tiny Bang Story has some flaws. It is remarkably short — I think my play-through clocked in just over three hours. There’s not much of a story. There’s no incentive to go through the game more than once.

But even with its impairments, TBS is worth a jaunt through. It is part hidden object game, part traditional puzzler, part adventure game, all wrapped in gorgeous art and sound. It’s a welcome vacation from the flood of twitch games that are the bread and butter of the gaming industry.

Think of it as a palate cleanser of a game, one that’ll put a smile on your face and refresh you for whatever’s next on your list.

The Tiny Bang Story is available for Mac and PC.

Games of 2011: Tiny Tower

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

Tiny Tower

There’s no avoiding it: the era of digital distribution is finally here. It has brought us many joys – sudden sales and new pricing models, better patch and upgrade management, and the concept that reinstallation should be allowed as often as necessary.

It has also brought pain, the most prominent of which is the dreaded microtransaction, small monetary charges for game content. In the iOS world, this is generally accomplished through what is dubbed in-app purchases (IAP). IAPs have gotten a bad rap not because of their existence, but because of their use. Given the endless joy the games industry derives from squeezing cash from customers, IAPs rapidly devolved from “buy new content” to “buy a power-up” to “buy a power-up you can’t advance in the game without”. This slippery slope lead to some great feel-good stories this year, such as “8-year-old buys $1,400 worth of Smurfberries and “Tetris Finally Gains a Subscription Fee“.

But again, IAPs are not themselves evil. Even in freemium world-builder casual games where you’re selling progress boosters, it’s possible to do it in a way that doesn’t break the game. But most game developers and publishers don’t have interest in finding that balance. Monetization is a more critical deliverable than thoughtful game design.

Tiny Tower isn’t on my list because it’s a particularly deep or compelling game. It’s most a time filler — some might call it a cow clicker — with a bit of style, humor, and grace. It is pleasant enough, but also addictive enough that one gets a sensation of relief when you delete it off your device, realizing how much free time you’ll get back when you’re not restocking shops every waking moment.

Tiny Tower *is* on my list because NimbleBit found the balance. IAPs are available to fill your coffers with “tower bucks”, which can be used for a variety of purposes to advance your tower. But there is no pressing, game-breaking need to purchase them with real money to progress in the game. The game happily throws them at you regularly – bonuses for fully stocking floors, or putting someone into their dream job, or even because it’s their birthday. Through diligent play, you can accumulate enough for every optional upgrade in the game without spending a dime.

Kudos to NimbleBit for wanting to make a game that appeals to both those who will splurge on virtual goods and those who don’t care to. I wish more developers would spend the time to find that balance.

Tiny Tower is available for iOS as a Universal app, as well as for Android.

Games of 2011: The Binding Of Isaac

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

The Binding Of Isaac

It is remarkably easy to dismiss The Binding Of Isaac. At first glance, the game appears grotesque, sickening, perhaps even juvenile. In a world full of games trying to be art, why would anyone want to dive into a game that looks like it revolves around bodily fluids?

To answer my own question: because it’s the most emotionally charged game you are likely to play this year.

Let me take nothing away from the game itself. It is a brilliant hybrid of roguelike games (levels and items are randomly spawned), The Legend Of Zelda (the familiar dungeon perspective, keys, bombs, bosses), and twin-stick shooters (primary control method). Experienced gamers are in for a treat, as the game scratches some serious arcade and RPG itches. Even if the game was abstracted away from the atmosphere of Isaac’s world, it’d be worth playing.

But oh, that world. Isaac’s plight is that his mother was told (by the voice of God) to kill her son. He escaped her murderous rage to a basement filled with other abandoned and disfigured siblings he didn’t know he had. The opening movie where this is introduced that feels tremendously unjust: watching a smiling stick-figure Isaac oblivious to his mother’s gradual insanity gives you a sense that maybe you can make this right, that maybe you can help this small child overcome evil.

But again – this is a roguelike game, and one of the core tenets of roguelike games is that death is permanent. I would go so far as to argue that death should be expected – you are going to die, and die often. You will space out temporarily and get in over your head, and all of your progress will be wiped as your character collapses. It happens — it’s part of the game mechanic, and generally part of the fun. But how I ached every time Isaac expired, as I was presented with the hand written note that starts with “Dear Diary: Today I died.” (It gets worse from there.) It wasn’t just that I had failed. It was that I had failed him, a poor character who’s only chance was my guiding hand.

The game is full of these little moments where the game twists the knife. Not long into game, you may realize that your primary weapon are your tears. All of the power-ups modify your appearance slightly, and sometimes disfigure you as well. The loading screens show Isaac in a fetal position, remembering injustices he’s suffered previously. And so on. It’s a constant emotional assault, a guilt trip to motivate you to play.

And at least for me, that works, because it makes me want to help Isaac out of this terrible mess he’s in. I want to see him overcome all the obstacles in his way. I want to get him out of that awful basement and back up to his toys. And that makes beating the game that much sweeter.

Lots of games don’t do a good enough job trying to get you to connect with your avatar. When you try to quit this title, Isaac asks “Are you sure you want me to die?”. It’s a little blunt, no doubt, but there’s no other character in gaming this year that I cared about more than poor little Isaac.

The Binding Of Isaac is available for Mac and PC.

Games of 2011: Portal 2

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

WARNING: This post is going to be spoiler-filled.

More than puzzles, rogue AIs, cake, lemons, or potatoes, I consider the Portal series – and especially this year’s Portal 2 – to be about space.

Consider the original game: you wake up in a confined cell, and are only released after a timer counts you down. As you progress through the stark white test chambers, they gradually open up in size. You begin to find cracks in the system, holes in walls that lead to clues that there’s something much larger going on around you. Then the much promised twist comes, and as you flee, you start to see how large this world might be. The game ends with you in the outside world, collapsed on the pavement, with the sun shining down on you.

It’s been over half a year since I played through Portal 2, but the bits that have stuck with me all relate to the use of space. In particular:

Waking up at the start of the game in a small, obviously fake hotel room. As the room is forced to move, the walls begin to fall apart and you take in rows upon rows of shipping containers – all presumably holding rooms similar to yours. Yes, it’s a set piece. Yes, there’s minimal interactivity. But it sets the stage, letting the player know that this world goes far beyond their view.

Throughout the game, while you may be on narrow platforms and ramps, the game areas typically have unbelievably high ceilings, with tubes and machines stacked as far as you can see.

The intermediary caverns, used to traverse between the major areas of the game, are huge. I actually disliked these parts – they were an exercise in zooming in to a distant platform, praying you might find a surface to open a portal on. Flawed as they were, they did convey a sense of distance and expansiveness to the world.

Portal 2 expanded on the idea that the test chambers were configurable, and often does so right before you, walls shifting mechanically to define the space. Sometimes this happens slowly — rooms that aren’t ready when you enter them. Other times it’s done as part of a chase sequence, forcing you to re-evaluate your options on the fly. You never lose sight of the fact that beyond the walls of the chamber you’re in, there’s a giant world.

Consider GLaDOS herself as well. Originally just a person, her mind is transferred to a computer, and suddenly she is omnipresent within the walls of Aperture. In the middle of Portal 2, she is transferred to a potato battery — clearly a space too small, as she constantly shorts out — and forced to ride shotgun with you. Your main mission becomes to restore her as she was, as the alternative you’re faced with may be much worse.

And of course, there are the two big moments right at the end of the game: the roof caving in during the final boss fight, where you must use space quite literally; and your eventual departure from Aperture Science, left to your own devices in an endless field of wheat.

Portal 2 is better in practically every way over the original. The new mechanics, the writing, the music, the voice work, and the co-op options are all top notch. But it’s the sense of scale and space that made it transcend the first game for me.

As a postscript, I also want to cite Erik Wolpaw’s wonderful offhand comment about Chell’s fate in an interview he did with PC Gamer shortly after release:

> She does get a happy ending, there’s no point in being negative about it, I just can’t let go of the fact that we know where she gets that happy ending, and there could be some danger out there. I’m an adult, terrible shit happens to me all the time. I want happy endings for everyone, the kind I’m not gonna get in real life – I mean, we’re all gonna die, let’s face it.

Portal 2 is available for Windows and OS X on Steam, the Playstation 3, and the Xbox 360.

Games of 2011: The Stanley Parable

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

The Stanley Parable

> The Stanley Parable is an experimental narrative-driven first person game. It is an exploration of choice, freedom, storytelling and reality, all examined through the lens of what it means to play a video game.

> You will make a choice that does not matter.

> You will follow a story that has no end.

> You will play a game you cannot win.

> …it’s actually best if you don’t know anything about it before you play it.

I don’t want to give anything away, but those of you who enjoy breaking the fourth wall should not overlook the wonderful Source mod, The Stanley Parable. It’s a short experience (with fantastic narration), but you’ll want to repeat it multiple times to get the most out of it.

The Stanley Parable is a mod for the Source engine. It can be installed for free on Windows, but requires at least one Source game on Steam for Mac users.

Games of 2011: SAMURAI BLOODSHOW

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

SAMURAI BLOODSHOW

It goes without saying that the gaming world has an prominent uncreative streak. The last thirty years have been full of cheap knock-offs and riffs on wildly successful games.

The recent rise of mobile gaming has been particularly bad for this. Any game mechanic with even mild originality will inevitably be copied into oblivion. Look at what happened to Fruit Ninja, Tiny Wings, or Angry Birds.

Knock offs that intend to deceive the consumer is bad business. Derivatives that build on top of existing ideals can end up being brilliant.

Strangely, the success of Popcap’s Plants vs. Zombies in 2009 did not give rise to a wide array of grid-based base defense titles. So when Sega released SAMURAI BLOODSHOW for iOS earlier this year, there was some shouting that it seemed familiar. But it is far more than just a knock off – in fact, it’s easily a deeper title than PvZ was.

Taking place in feudal Japan and featuring lots of Edo-period style art, Samurai Bloodshow invites players to fend off waves of attackers from crossing their back line. The grid system and need to pair up units in rows to effectively defend against different units will be old hat to PvZ pros.

Everywhere that felt like PvZ lost a step, Samurai Bloodshow goes the right way. Be it build out strategy (card collection and deck building force you to adapt), unit management (life bars and being able to stack units to increase their level), or resource management (finite deck size prevents infinite builds), Samurai Bloodshow feels more mature strategy game across the board.

Bloodshow also attacks one of my personal weak spots by awarding measured specific benefits as you work through the stages. Every defeated level either sends another card into your library or increases your deck size. This slow trickle keeps you wanting to progress, as you’re only as good as your deck is.

Many gamers find derivative games to be anathema, as though every game of merit has to be completely original and devoid of connections to past titles. This is silly, of course. Good ideas can — and should — be taken and refined into greater ones. Samurai Bloodshow makes a strong case for the power of refining an existing concept into a better one.

SAMURAI BLOODSHOW is available for iOS as a Universal application.