Games of 2012: The Grading Game / Cook, Serve, Delicious

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’m breaking my own rules tonight and highlighting two games that seem like absurd things to have been made into games. Both of these games were released after I originally put together my list of games for this blog post series. In the end, I couldn’t decide which deserved the feature more – and seeing as I can’t stop playing either of them, here’s praise for both of them.

The Grading Game

The Grading Game is proof that eventually, everything will get turned into a video game. In this case, you are a poor hapless TA trying to pay off your student loans. Grouchy faculty member Dr. Snerpus is more than happy to give you sums of cash if you’ll just do one thing: flunk your fellow students.

No, really. A virtual term paper (culled from various places online) will be thrust in front of you, and your job is to tap on the randomly added errors. Typos, capitalization errors, grammatical mistakes, and run-on sentences are all right before your eyes, in an assortment of different game modes. Sometimes there’s only one error in a fairly long paragraph. Others, there’s more errors than normal, but tapping on a non-error drains your clock heavily.

As a gaming concept, I know this sounds completely ridiculous. Who would want to grade papers (particularly terrible ones) for fun? But like any good “find the hidden object” game, The Grading Game works because you’re having to process information very quickly to find the things that are out of place. The pressure of the clock and the bizarre topics for the papers (Grief houses! Sun sneezes! Jigglypuff! Shoe Throwing!) make it a tense, abstract puzzler.

Besides, is any game that can help improve your writing skills that bad? (Everyone loved Mavis Beacon way back when.)

Cook, Serve, Delicious!

Cook, Serve, Delicious! is a little more traditional, but only just – it’s a “hardcore restaurant simulator”. The daily grind of operating a restaurant is an exercise in planning and multitasking.

Take menu construction: do you go with simple foods like french fries, which you can turn out quickly for limited return? Or do you tend towards expensive soups that require more prep work? You may think maximizing profits sounds great now, but when you’re fielding three orders and a sink full of dishes during the lunch rush? Not so much.

You’ll balance the need for equipment upgrades against buying new and upgraded recipes. Health inspectors will come by. You might get robbed and have to provide an artist’s sketch of the perp. Catering gigs become available. Invites to an Iron Chef-style competition arrive. I think there’s even a dating component and some sort of Kickstarter system.

It sounds like work, and it is work. And like all work, sometimes the reward is in doing a job well. When you get a large combo rolling and juggle complicated orders without missing a beat, you feel firmly in the zone. Completing a round in Cook, Serve, Delicious! provides a lovely sense of relief and completeness.

It’s a bit reminiscent of the original Cooking Mama, but with a shorter fuse and higher stakes. Definitely worth a look.

The Grading Game is available as a universal iOS app. Cook, Serve, Delicious! is available on Windows, OS X, and for the iPad. My experiences were largely with the iPad version. Both games are on sale for the immediate future.


Games of 2012: FIFA 13

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 originally hesitant to include FIFA 13 on my list this year. Despite playing more in my third year with the series than either of the two previous, most of my confusion from last year remains. The game remains difficult to learn the nuances no matter how much time you spend with it. Just a week ago, I finally figured out that when you’re taking a free kick, up and down are for the direction of spin, not where you want to place the ball (ala how you take a penalty). Yes, this took me three years with the series to figure out.

Even with its obtuseness, I have a much deeper appreciation for FIFA this year, because I’ve had a chance to see what an institution it is worldwide.

– Just about every soccer player cares deeply about how they’re represented in the game. There’s a certain measure of self-worth and pride related to how close to reality one appears in the game. Stats, placement in the lineup, and accuracy of the player model all matter on different levels. Dax McCarty, the defensive midfielder for the Red Bulls, was perhaps the most glum on the team about FIFA 13; mostly because he wasn’t in the team’s starting lineup (despite starting nearly every game this season), but also because his character model had been given clown-red hair instead of his actual strawberry blonde hair.

– It’s become the sort of game where EA must blow millions of dollars on promotion. There were a variety of game changes from 12 to 13, but the biggest (and most costly) was easily EA wrenching away the image rights for Lionel Messi from Konami. Observe this year’s “JOIN THE CLU13” ad and try to ponder the budget involved in getting some of the top names in the sport crammed in for so many little cameos. Even the parties are absurd, as best illustrated by Graham Parker’s amazing recap of the NYC launch party. (I didn’t get an invite this year; clearly this is the next big step towards my legitimacy as a sports journalist.)

– If you think free-to-play games on Facebook are terrifying, then you must not be familiar with FIFA Ultimate Team (or more commonly, “FUT”). FUT has a simple enough premise: open packs of cards, assemble a team, play as that team through seasons or tournaments. But the cards have limited contracts, so they can only be used so many times before you have to apply a contract card to extend their usefulness. You have to be cognizant of preferred formations, chemistry with nearby teammates, fitness, morale, and possibly which month the player’s birthday is. The in-game currency for winning matches is rarely enough to keep your team operating for very long, so soon you’ll turn to the marketplace in an attempt to buy and sell cards to achieve enough of a profit to keep things going.

There was a big rash of Xbox Live account hacking last year that was linked to FIFA. People would crack accounts, quickly purchase Microsoft points, buy gold player packs, and transfer all the cards to another account. It became known as “getting FIFA’d”. How many freemium games do you know that get used as a nickname for a specific type of criminal activity?

FIFA 13 is so engrained in soccer culture, it’s hard to not be into it if you’re into the sport. Journalists, players, front office staff, musicians, fans – everyone’s in. Come on – how many other games are going to lead to me talking smack with a player I respect?

FIFA 13 is available on just about every system known to man. My experiences were largely with the PS3 and Windows versions.


Games of 2012: Dishonored

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.


If my post on Skyrim last year didn’t make it clear: I love games with a sense of place. I love games with plenty of ephemera and tiny things to explore off the beaten path. I love games where you can disregard the main plot and still have plenty to do.

It will then come as no surprise that I love Dishonored, this year’s big title from Arkane Studios and Bethesda. The world is not quite as wide open as Skyrim was, but I’d argue it has more character. The elaborate confines of Dunwall are a strange cross-pollination of London and steampunk, and the game gives you room to explore and plot your own paths rather than being shepherded down a straight line.

Dishonored – or rather, someone writing about it – opened my eyes up to an aspect of game design I hadn’t considered much before. Alec Meer’s “Dishonored: The Onion” was probably my favorite piece of writing on the subject of games this year, and may have also been the article that pushed me over the threshold to buy the game at all. Alec’s main message: *turn off the quest markers and slow down*.

If you want to rush around with a gun, shooting anything that moves, don’t buy Dishonored. It has put those things in there for you, and it offers slick, brutal, varied permutations on how to use them, but they are not its all. If you’re looking for 10+ hours of shooting men, or even stabbing men, you are well-served already and forever by games that do that, do it well, and do it for a long time. You and those like you are the victor of the great games race, and you have the spoils, many times over.

So let us have Dishonored. Let us have this one expensive, luxurious game that only truly works, only sings a glorious tune, only becomes a 20+ hour game if met by those who treat it in the spirit with which it is offered. Don’t tell us it’s too short and too slight just because you don’t find combing through its many layers, peeling back every last millimetre of artfully subdued skin, of interest. Because you want to rush to the conclusion, and you don’t believe anything that doesn’t explicitly inform reaching that conclusion is worthwhile.

I had not yet completed Dishonored. It was a conscious choice, as I’m saving the rest for after I can upgrade my desktop later this month. But I had experienced and greatly enjoyed the “layers” Alec describes: stumbling my way down unknown streets; creeping in the shadows through a house I’m not sure I needed to break into; opting to not go straight through the front gate but always around the side.

And he’s absolutely right – turning off the quest markers DOES make the game better. Without an omni-present waypoint beckoning you into the distance, you are left to your own devices. You’re more prone to wander down a side hallway and discover something that helps enrich your understanding of the world. You’re less likely to know when a set piece is coming. It wouldn’t work if Dishonored was meant to be played linearly, but with so much in Dunwall that’s worth exploring, it’s a better choice than becoming a slave to the marker.

The next time you’re playing something, and that waypoint pops up in your view, ask yourself: can I find my own way? It may just be the better choice.

Dishonored is available on Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows. My experiences were largely with the Windows version.