Games of 2012: Journey

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, 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 2012 posts.


I was born in 1980. It wasn’t too long after my birth before I could be found playing video games.

I have lived through the Atari age, the Nintendo hey-day, and the 16-bit wars. I have watched the popularity of arcades rise and fall in long cycles. As a song famously states, I was there.

As happy as I am to gripe about the state of the industry, there are positive threads that run counter to the negative ones. And one of the best success stories of those threads is thatgamecompany’s Journey.

Journey 2

Journey is a beautiful but simple game. It resembles a 3D platformer, with a very limited control scheme – I believe there may be two buttons to use. Your goal is to travel to the light you see coming off the mountain in the distance. You may travel alone, or you may happen onto a companion – played by a randomly matched player on the network, who you can’t really communicate with.

When I consider Journey’s existence, this is what strikes me:

Journey came from a relatively small studio, one that started making games for USC game innovation lab research projects.

Journey was initially released digitally only, avoiding the cost and risk that comes with trying to get a title onto a readily shrinking number of retail shelves. (A retail version did come later, but it was a bundle of three games.)

Journey has a friction-free network function – companions drift in and out of the game, without server browsing or firewall reconfiguring or friends requests. It’s less a game with multiplayer and more a game that just involves other people.

Journey has a strange, ambiguous storyline that’s open to interpretation. I’ve read people argue it’s about life, or death, or rebirth, or companionship, or religion, or God. (I have my own opinions but I don’t wish to argue them tonight.)


Could a game like Journey exist at any other point in the gaming industry’s lifespan than right now? It feels like it could not, like the pitch would’ve been shot down and laughed out of the room by business executives. It needed to wait until the industry changed as much as it has in recent years.

For all the negativity I have about the gaming industry, I have to recognize that titles are emerging unlike anything we’ve seen before. I can only hope the industry keeps evolving, because the world needs more experiences like Journey.

(There are five games left in my Games of 2012 quiver, and all of them (save tomorrow’s game) share a similar pedigree: I can’t imagine them existing in any year other than now.)

Journey is available for the Playstation 3.


Games of 2012: McPixel

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, 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 2012 posts.


I spoke of “anti-gaming” as a concept earlier in the month when praising Frog Fractions. It’s a growing genre where antagonizing the player – or the gaming industry itself – is the fun. And no game did that better this year than McPixel.

McPixel is a point-and-click adventure game without the adventure. A level starts, 20 seconds appears on the clock. You know there’s a bomb *somewhere* on the screen. Clicking on something interacts with it – picking it up, manipulating it, or trying to kick it in the genitals. Your goal: prevent the level from exploding.

Sometimes it’s obvious. The bomb is exposed, you pee on it, the fuse goes out.

Other times, it’s not. You’re in a volcano with a lady, a cow, an oversized bone, and a river of lava that says “INSERT VIRGIN” next to it. Pick up the lady and throw her in the lava? Volcano explodes. Pick up the bone and insert it into the cow? The cow loves you, and the volcano explodes. Throw the bone in the lava? Volcano explodes. The correct answer: just click the lava. You jump in, and the volcano is calmed.

The game is an endless trial-and-error experiment; screwing up a level doesn’t penalize you, it just takes you on to the next in the series of 5 that you haven’t completed. But to fully complete the game, you don’t just need to find the right solution – you need to see all the wrong ones, too. Completing all the possible actions across the three rounds in each level unlocks a bonus set of levels. The humor takes ridiculous flights of fancy, and is often crudely animated, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t snickering the entire game.

The biggest joke of all comes when you unlock the final round. I don’t want to spoil it – because after you’ve played through something like 80 levels, you start to think you’re getting the hang of how the game thinks and acts. And when you see that last level, you can’t help but burst out into a full laugh. It’s that absurd.

For gamers who have lived through the rise, fall, and rise again of point-and-click adventures, the game is a reminder of the futility of the medium – clicking blindly, trying everything in the room, hoping something leads you to the solution. Most everything in McPixel is a solution – they’re just not all the right one.

Highly recommended for people who appreciate adventure games and have a sense of humor similar to mine.

McPixel is available on iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, and Linux. My experiences were with the iPad version.


Games of 2012: Diablo III

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, 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 2012 posts.

Diablo III

This past weekend, one of the most reviled – and (it should probably be mentioned) most successful – figures in the gaming industry received a lengthy profile in the New York Times:

Mr. Kotick, 49, has reason to be annoyed. Not since the music industry’s heyday has there been a business with such a wide disparity between the popularity of its products and its customers’ perception of the chief executive who made those products possible. Video games are among the most successful segments in the entertainment industry, and the disdain heaped on Mr. Kotick in video game blogs is second only to the admiration for him on Wall Street.

Bobby Kotick is seen in such negative light not because of the success of Activision, but because of how he gets there. Notorious for rejecting games that couldn’t be “exploited” into yearly franchises, Kottick personifies a lot of disliked trends in the gaming industry.

Blizzard, which is part of Activision, has generally been seen as the exception to Kotick’s rule. The studio famous for World of Warcraft and Starcraft, it is believed, tends to follow their own hearts and dreams. And when Diablo III began its long gestation (around 2005), it was widely given that the game would turn out magnificently. A ship date of “when it’s done” was grumbled about, but accepted. Genius takes time.

But with that long a development cycle, some questionable choices are always going to get made. The color palate went from traditional Diablo to something more akin to watercolor; gamers revolted, and it went back to dungeon-esqe. Achievements were added, something the series had never had before. Then came news the game could only be played online, leaving those people who might want to play without an active internet connection out of luck.

If there was any design decision that sucked the fun out of Diablo for me, it was the inclusion of an Auction House. I generally have nothing against the transfer of digital goods, but it defies the model under which I played Diablo in the past. The joy of the game was always doing runs through levels, hoping that some amazing loot would tumble out of a corpse or a chest. But why leave the game to chance when there’s seemingly every permutation of item in the game available in the auction house, so long as you have enough gold?

Once the auction house went live, my entire style of play shifted. I found myself no longer hoping for that magical drop – most of my loot drops were getting thrown into the auction house for someone else to buy. Once I stockpiled enough gold, I’d do a quick appraisal to figure out what I needed the most, and then quietly stalk the auctions until just the right gear was available. My character evolution became less about playing the game, and more about being a good shopper.

That’s what killed Diablo III for me. Not the lack of PvP all these months later, and not the rather dull end game. It was that they implemented a very modern, very smart revenue stream that ended up sucking the main reason I play right out of the game.

I blame Bobby Kotick for that – even if he had nothing to do with it.

Diablo III is available for Windows and OS X. My experiences were largely with the OS X version.