Category Archives: Things Enjoyed

Liked, preferred, or otherwise appreciated.

Games of 2011: Sleep No More

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. This is the last post in the series. See all Games of 2011 posts.

Surprise: my Game Of The Year isn’t a video game. (I never said they were all going to be electronic.) And yes, it’s Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, which I’ve talked about on this blog twice before, and is perhaps the closest thing to a real life video game I’ve ever found, and perhaps ever will.

Those of you who follow me on social networks have probably missed out on the incessent gushing about the show I tend to do in person. It has become an all-consuming experience; I have made a somewhat absurd four visits to the McKittrick Hotel for performances, including one just over a week ago. Some might feel this is three times too many. (Others might argue it’s four times too many.) I am fully and well hooked on this thing, and I won’t be surprised if I notch a fifth trip sometime in 2012. The friends who have been tend to be understanding and share a desire to go back. Here’s why:

People who have played games for a significant length of time have certain behaviors become hard wired into their play style. If you grew up with Wolfenstein and Doom, you become accustomed to pressing on every wall, hoping for a secret passage to open. RPG addicts know to search every container in the hopes of finding something useful or interesting. Stealth-action gamers are used to slinking along behind characters, hoping to figure out their secrets. And so on.

These skills are generally not acceptable to use in real life; most of us don’t spend our days exploring strange spaces, investigating someone’s bedroom, or following strange people about their business. This is where Sleep No More fits in perfectly – it’s a meticulously designed playground where you can make use of these habits and skills. This is a space where you want to be looking, touching, feeling, and exploring at every turn.

There’s no way to win this game, of course – the show ends after three hours, and you are gently ushered out of the hotel space. There’s also no way to see every last thing that happens during the show in a single visit. But you may have pieced together how some characters interact, or found a secret passage, or even helped run messages between characters.

Punchdrunk has designed the show to allow the audience the freedom to indulge in anonymity and voyeurism – the masks, the mandate that there is no talking inside the space, the use of light and shadow. The experience makes it easy to detach from yourself and become your own avatar, so long as you can break down some of the psychological barriers that tend to prevent people from doing the things you should do in this world. (More on these later.) The cast has a trick up their sleeves, of course: they are fully allowed to interact with you, and will choose to do so with those that are clearly engaged and unafraid. As you are told in the elevator, fortune favors the bold.

This is not a world for the faint of heart. The company now warns that the audience may experience “intense psychological experiences”. There is violence (multiple murders), nudity (both genders), and absinthe served at the bar. There are strobe lights, smoke machines, and in one scene, some incredibly loud drum and bass music. There is running up and down flights of stairs, and the slight-but-ever-present danger of being hit by one of the staff as they perform their dances (as Katie learned when she was kicked in the arm during our last visit). The show lasts at most three hours, which may be more than those with low stamina can withstand.

But no matter how much my feet hurt when I exit back into the streets of Chelsea, there is nothing else like it I’ve ever experienced in my life. I feel so fortunate to have gotten to go as much as I have, and yet I always want to go back as soon as I can. Everyone who enjoys games as a hobby should make a point of going before the show ends its run, whenever that may be.

The remainder of this post, as some sort of twisted holiday present, are essentially my complete set of notes about the show – how it’s structured, how to plan your visits, and even a set of imaginary achievements. The information in that section is extremely spoilery, and I agree with the common wisdom that you should take in your first visit to the show essentially blind – it’s more fun that way. So save the details in the rest of this post until you’ve gone once.

Sleep No More is currently extended through February, and may continue to extend as Punchdrunk sees fit.

Continue reading Games of 2011: Sleep No More

Games of 2011: Bastion

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.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether or not you’re going to love a game. Ain’t so hard with this one. I knew within five minutes.

Supergiant Games’ debut title, Bastion, is extraordinary by every measure.

The art style: lush and meticulously drawn watercolors gives the many worlds of Caelondia a unique feel and personality. It’s not just the art, but also the animation, as many of the worlds within Bastion are either forming or disintegrating before your eyes.

The gameplay: Bastion is a well refined twin-stick action RPG. Multiple weapons, skills, and abilities allow you to adapt to your play style. The combat is not quite twitch combat, but certainly not slow by any stretch – it feels real and substantive.

The voicework: Logan Cunningham’s voice work as Rucks, the narrator, is unforgettable. Not just his voice, or the style in which he tells the story as you play through it, but the multiple versions of each line recorded, ensuring that even the slightest change in attack plans is accompanied by an appropriate monologue.

The music: Darren Korb’s beautiful, haunting soundtrack rounds out the performance, and is easily the most memorable soundtrack I’ve come across in years. I’ve embedded two tracks below to show the range of what Darren called “acoustic frontier trip-hop”:

This is a game that oozes love from every pore, and yet they chose to release it at a $15 price point via digital channels. If youve been reluctant to download games – if you’re the sort of person who only shops at Gamestop – Bastion is the game that will change your mind.

Do not miss this game, under any circumstances.

Bastion is available on Xbox Live Arcade, Windows, and somehow also through Chrome.

Games of 2011: Skyrim

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.

A lot of the games I’ve feature in this series this year have been small titles, ambitious in their vision towards a single idea or aesthetic. It’s no secret I have great love for tight, well-crafted experiences over sloppy games that try to be everything to everyone.

The general lack of the big-budget games from this list should not be taken as me rejecting epic, sweeping games out of hand. I play many of them all the same – the problem is that many of them fail to live up to their aspirations. I had big hopes for some epic games this year – titles like Uncharted 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and RAGE all had my interest piqued. But they each failed to hook me or came out the door in such a broken fashion that they were practically unplayable.

One epic scale game did manage to pull it off for me this year, and that is Bethesda’s wonderfully rich Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. [1. Kean-eyed gamers may notice that two of the games on my disappointing list – Fallout: New Vegas and RAGE – are also Bethesda titles. Their reputation was so shot with me late in the year that I nearly passed on picking up Skyrim. I am glad I came around.]

If you’re unfamiliar with the Elder Scrolls series, it’s best described as a giant medieval fantasy world with more backstory than one person could ever appreciate. This is a game with so many in-game books that you can read, people have converted them to eBooks so they can be read outside the game. It can be overwhelming, to say the least. In any case, the game plays as a first person RPG – you can explore the world, plunder dungeons and caves, get quests from people in towns and cities, and generally get in a lot of fights. Combat is real-time and characters tend to either use melee, ranged, or magical attacks.

Skyrim has one main plot line, but as is traditional with the series, you should leave it till later, as there’s no real reason to finish it early. The best course of action is largely to meander and explore, getting wrapped up in some of the meaty side quest strings, and using them to help launch you into even more adventures. Most players will pick out one of the main four guilds (fighters tend towards the Companions; magicians find brotherhood in the Mage’s School; the sneaky will fall in with the Thieves Guild; the cold-blooded killers join the Dark Brotherhood) and run through their quests. I say, why choose one? Do them all – they don’t conflict with each other, and the storylines are enjoyable. At the time I’m writing this, I’ve completed all but the Mage’s School, and found worthwhile twists and turns in all (but especially the Dark Brotherhood).

One of the things Skyrim gets very, very right is the balance of exploratng a huge world versus the pain of navigating it. The world is dotted with points of interest, but many you’ll have to trek to the vicinity of to get them to appear on your map. Once a point is found, you can “fast travel” to it, rather than having to slog it out on foot. But because a quest could take you potentially anywhere on the map, there’s a subliminal benefit to indulging in some wanderlust.

The world is also packed full of quests, even beyond the above mentioned storylines. The game reportedly has a random quest generator, which gives you a seemingly endless set of missions helping out townspeople. But there’s plenty of well defined, structured quests as well, which can sometimes sneak up on you. In one town, I stepped into a tavern and was soon approached by a guy looking to challenge me to a drinking contest, with a nice looking staff the reward. After accepting (and promptly blacking out), I awoke to find myself in the Skyrim equivelent of The Hangover, as set out across the land to piece together the events evening and right the wrongs I had made.

The game isn’t perfect by any stretch. There are plenty of bugs and glitches, most of which manifest themselves in hilarious ways. The inventory system, very console-like in nature, leaves a lot to be desired ( looks like a compelling option for PC players). And the PS3 port continues Bethesda’s long history of not being able to properly program on Sony’s platform. But the game transcends the niggling concerns and makes a strong statement that when a big budget game goes right, it truly can be epic.

Skyrim is available for Windows, the Xbox 360, and the Playstation 3.

Games of 2011: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

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.

iOS gamers are this year’s gaming community scapegoats. With Nintendo and Sony’s handheld platforms under siege, there’s a certain level of disdain that generally comes up when discussing the ascendancy of smartphones. “Touch controls are terrible!” they shout. “Angry Birds is a terrible game,” they whine. “The App Store is full of garbage,” they blabber.

Should anyone take a step back and look at the library of any mobile gaming platform, there’s always a lot of poorly written garbage. The DS has been predominantly shovelware and the PSP has been a graveyard for the last few years. The key, as with any system, is to find the diamonds in the rough.

There are plenty of great games available for iOS, but generally the gamers who complain are looking for a critical success: something arty, something with a stark art style, something with a deep and symbolic story. In short, they’re looking for a game that can be put on a pedestal.

Beyond all other iOS games this year, that game was Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. It won seemingly the most superlative praise of any game this year.

Kill Screen:

> It manages, with reverent deftness, to evoke and honour the influences of its creators, while simultaneously providing a multisensory experience that feels novel and groundbreaking today. A landmark achievement, it raises the bar for independent game design much as the Washington Monument did for independent obelisk design.

The Wall Street Journal:

> If Roy Lichtenstein were weaned on things like 8-bit games, “Kid A” and the iPhone, these would probably be his Benday dots. Yes, in the end, “Sword & Sworcery” is just a game, but in its own meta way it’s also a kind of pop art for the digital age.

MSNBC:

> Steve Jobs may have promised all you Apple fans some magic … but it’s the Superbrothers and company who are delivering it.

Wired:

> It’s a game that will make you believe.

Destructoid:

> Gaming doesn’t need to find its Citizen Kane, but it may have discovered its Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead without even trying.

I can vouch for it being a beautiful and absorbing game, but like many other titles I’ve played this year, it was one I failed to make much ground in. I have placed it in this list not only because it’s won widespread praise from critics and friends alike, but also because it represents that iOS can indeed have those critical-smash titles that gamers so deeply value when measuring the worth of a platform.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is available as a universal iOS app.

Games of 2011: Gemini Rue

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.

I’ve always been a big adventure game fan. The first serious PC games I ever dove into (Maniac Mansion, King’s Quest I and II, Space Quest III) all fell into that genre. I probably had more Sierra 5.25″ floppy disk sleeves than plain white ones.

There’s been a big resurgence in the genre as of late – which has generally been great. I hedge that with “generally” because there’s a common theme through nearly every adventure game series that has reappeared that didn’t used to be the case. Monkey Island, Sam & Max, Back To The Future, Hector, and Strongbad[1. I realize I’m probably picking on Telltale here, but seeing as they’re mostly the ones doing this revival, I’m going to allow it.] all are humor-focused games. What I’ve missed are the adventure games where the focus is storytelling, and narrative, rather than puns.

It probably comes as no surprise that the first time I fired up Gemini Rue and watched the opening – a man only referred to by his captors as “Delta-Six” has his memory erased, and seemingly not for the first time – I let out a huge sigh of relief.

Gemini Rue is one of those games that I haven’t spent enough time with yet. I have only made it through the first five chapters or so. But what I’ve seen so far reminds me so much of those old Sierra titles – the pacing, the atmosphere, the interface design. It’s a welcome reminder of some of my gaming roots.

People who fondly remember Sierra’s best work should give this one a look.

Gemini Rue is available for Windows.

Games of 2011: Mortal Kombat

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.

When it came to fighting games, I have always been more of the Mortal Kombat type than the Street Fighter type. It wasn’t the blood or the violence (although as a teenager, that was certainly a lot of fun), but more that the games felt more accessible. They took themselves a little less seriously. Or maybe it was just that I could never pull off the 360 rotations necessary for some of the Street Fighter moves.

Regardless, Mortal Kombat as a series fell on hard times after MK3 was released. Practically every title since 1997 disappointed, bloated both the gameplay and the world in which it takes place, and messed with a formula that didn’t need messing with. Weapons in Deadly Alliance? The start of a bad trend. The terrible quest mode in Deception? Laughable. The kart game that was inserted for no reason into Armageddon? Ugh. And how about the neutering of vs. DC Universe, taking what promised to be a dark gritty game and making it rated T for Teen?

The franchise has needed a massive kick in the pants for nearly fifteen years, and I am relieved to say that this year’s release of Mortal Kombat (named just that, no modifiers afterwards) is a pitch-perfect return to form.

No matter where you land in relation to fighting games, it feels like Mortal Kombat has something for you. The story mode is surprisingly well written and seamless jumps between cutscenes and battles in a pretty impressive manner. The game looks fantastic and the sound design is excellent as well. There’s a whole range of competitive modes – tournaments and online battles and such. People who like objective-based progression can find relief in the Challenge Tower, which throws 300 different challenges at the player. Those who are into unlocking things will be relieved to still find The Krypt allows unlocking of plenty of concept art and other content. And those who don’t like to take things seriously will love Test Your Luck mode, where a slot machine gives random modifiers and can make fights completely ridiculous in the blink of an eye. Broad appeal is pretty much guaranteed here.

It’s been great to see increased attention given to fighting games over the last few years, with the rise of competitive gaming and the fighting game community really carving out its place in the world. While I have nothing but respect for Capcom giving Street Fighter renewed love for the last few years, to see Mortal Kombat get such a well done revival this year sent me into sheer levels of joy. This was the fighting game I’ve been waiting for all generation.

Mortal Kombat is available for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

Games of 2011: Pushmo

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.

Nintendo has had a tough year. The Wii U debacle at E3, the “Miyamoto might be retiring” interview, their market share and profits being eroded by smartphones – they come across as a company who’s at their peak and the only way to go is down. One might even say their position looks a lot like Sony did in 2006.

2011 Nintendo is perhaps best encapsulated in the Nintendo 3DS – a new handheld that looks and functions remarkably like their last four (DS, DS Lite, DSi, DSi XL) handhelds. It launched at $250 with no compelling launch titles. It posted decent first days sales before swan diving off a high cliff. A $70 price cut came just four months after launch, which solved one problem – but the software problem lingered until the holiday season.

I picked up a 3DS right after launch despite my hatred of 3D entertainment – practically always gimmicky and an excuse to add cost – and despite knowing there wasn’t really anything at launch worth picking up. I subjected myself to it mainly because my DS Lite was getting run down, and it was the prime time to trade it in. Even with the lowest of expectations, I found myself disappointed, as the features I was looking forward to – the eShow, StreetPass, the camera – all had notable flaws.

And so, I joined the hordes waiting and hoping for that One Game, the one that can justify the cost of the device. And last week, I discovered it – and it wasn’t the anticipated Super Mario 3D Land or Mario Kart 7, but instead a title in a genre Nintendo executes better than practically anyone else: spatial puzzles.

The game in question is Pushmo (or Pullblox if you’re in Europe), a $7 downloadable title. A pushmo is a giant pixelart installation in a park (Pushmo Park, naturally), and children appear to keep getting stuck in them. To climb the pushmo and save the kids, you need to grab, push, and pull the blocks to build ledges and stairs that you can scale.

The gameplay resembles Atlus’ Catherine, which was also released this year and is targetted solely at adults. While Catherine challenges players as both an arcade game and a puzzler, Pushmo is more of a pure puzzler. As such, the game is able to focus more on the challenge of the level rather than you racing against a clock.

If the roughly 250 core levels aren’t enough, Pushmo also features a level builder, and levels can be shared via QR Code. Communities have start sprouting up to share puzzles, like this NeoGAF thread.

I hope that Nintendo can keep focusing on these smaller, well polished titles. If that Miyamoto interview is any indication, my hopes may come true.

Pushmo is available for the 3DS, via the eShop.

Games of 2011: Jamestown

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.

Think of the music industry for a moment, and consider the transformation from 1995 to 2010. Distribution transformed from mostly retail to mostly digital. Indie labels became stronger and able to compete better in the new landscape than the big labels. Bands started self-publishing and crowd-sourcing funding. Audio software became prevalent, meaning anyone could produce an album where they separate their laundry. Media outlets like Pitchfork and The Silent Ballet appeared that we’re entirely devoted to independent music. Music festivals like ATP and SXSW blew up with people hunting for new sounds. Genres were invented, mutated, and redefined. And all the while, the old guard screamed bloody murder.

That 15 year trajectory have put us in a world where the music world of today only slightly resembles the one of old. The gaming world is in the middle of this same path, and 2011 has really felt like the tipping point, where the independent game world steps out of the shadows.

There are so many success stories this year – Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, Limbo, the Humble Indie Bundles – that this post series could’ve been entirely indie titles. But the one I wanted to highlight in the context of this shift is Jamestown.

Just consider the concept: it’s a vertical scrolling bullet hell shmup set on 17th-century British Colonial Mars. Just roll that around your tongue for a moment. What major publisher would fund this, let alone market it properly? I can’t think of a single one.

Instead, this game was self published, priced reasonably, and got prominently featured on Steam. People who bought it tended to love it, and told friends. Gaming media reviewed it seriously, as though it were a boxed title in a store. I can’t speak to the sales figures, but the remarkable thing was that it exists no differently than any other major game released this year.

And the thing is, none of this was unusual – at least, not this year. The giant changes that made this story possibly – the ascension of Steam, gaming communities that can generate hype, a pricing model other than “everything is expensive” – these are all second nature now for a lot of gamers and developers.

There’s still more work to be done, undoubtedly. While Steam and Apple are at the forefront of this movement, the major console makers are still fumbling around, much as the major music labels did with online music sales. Microsoft, who had repeated critical hits pass through XBLA early this generation, is now focused on the big publishers. Nintendo has publicly disparaged “garage developers”. Sony continues to find and work with small studios, but the PSN hack this year damaged the trust in their store immeasurably. Until the big three get their act together, a huge swath of gamers will be out of reach for independents.

I’m looking forward to a world where games like Jamestown are just as familiar to the average gamer as Gears of War. And I don’t think it’s far off.

As for Jamestown itself – it’s everything I want in a shmup. It can scale down to easy for people new to the genre, or up to ridiculous pixel-perfect bullet dodging for the hardcore. Going along with it’s “neoclassical” setting, it has a certain retro charm to the graphics – a game that wouldn’t look out of place in an arcade of the mid-90s. Like many modern shmups, there’s a unique mechanic to exploit and learn to maximize your score (in this case, the “vaunt” system). There’s unlocks and special challenges to keep people coming back. It walks the line between nostalgia and new incredibly well. It’s a great game in it’s own right, without question.

Jamestown is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It is also available as part of the Humble Indie Bundle 4, which you should buy now because every game in it is wonderful.

Games of 2011: Quarrel Deluxe

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.

For reasons that may become clear in a later post, I’m short on time for today’s post; as such, it’s perfect for a little game like Quarrel Deluxe.

Quarrel is 50% Risk – you have a map, and cartoon soldiers, and your goal is to take over all the territories. But it’s also 50% Countdown, that much beloved British institution, as the way you win battles is by spelling more complex words than your opponents.

That game combination is practically a mix of chocolate and peanut butter in and of itself. The well-drawn art, the AI personalities, the career mode and daily challenges, and the nice layer of polish on the game just make it even tastier.

The one negative I hear people throw around with Quarrel is that it doesn’t have multiplayer. I reject this criticism; if there’s anything online gaming has shown us, it’s that word games with multiplayer tend to be fraught with cheating and fraud. Dictionary tools and anagram finders mean that playing against unfamiliar opponents is often an exercise in “Great Vocabulary Or Cheater?”. Given the real-time nature of Quarrel (ties are broken by the fastest submission), I actually prefer the game without running into the game-breaking dangers of having an online component.

So here’s to a great single player board game. Quarrel’s sound design, style, and mechanics mean I don’t really miss online play.

Quarrel Deluxe is available as a Universal iOS app. There’s a non-Deluxe version available for free, although I can’t tell you what the limitations are.

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.