Best Of Created Enjoyed

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.


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.