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.

Journey

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.)

Journey

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: Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale

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.

Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale

I come before you tonight to disappoint you. Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale is not the sleeper hit of the century, nor is it a bomb that would deserve a Guy Fieri-style takedown. I can’t remember the last time I felt so middle of the road about a game. (Most of this post will compare the game to the Super Smash Brothers series, which PASBR is widely accused of ripping off.)

The roster? It’s fine. There are some logical choices (Kratos, Nathan Drake, PaRappa, Ratchet); some fun outside choices (Noriko from Heavenly Sword, Spike from Ape Escape, and the feline majesty of Toro); some strange outside choices (Sir Daniel from MediEvil, Colonel Radec from Killzone); and some terrible choices (Dante from DMC, but the new one, not the traditional one; Big Daddy from Bioshock, hardly a Playstation classic). Thing is, if you’re comparing this to Smash Brothers, it’s not significantly different, as that roster follows that same range. There’s this weird belief that Smash is immune to bad characters, but the roster there has plenty of hot garbage. (R.O.B.? Wolf? Pokemon Trainer? Meta Knight? Lucario?)

If you are used to Smash play mechanics, the gameplay will probably feel wrong to you. Rather than piling damage onto your enemies and then smacking them off the level, you build your own energy meter – and then smack enemies off the level. This can feel very backwards, but that passes and eventually feels like a reasonable design decision. The game hinges on the risk/reward decision of triggering your super early or waiting for a later (and better) level. It’s not a better or worse decision, it’s just different.

The title does feel pretty skimpy in terms of content, not helped by a poor menu interface. Story mode, challenges, offline/online play – and that’s about it. Story mode are just straight up fights and no “adventure” levels (which suits me fine, as I didn’t really dig them in Smash); the challenges are in the Street Fighter style of executing on your move list. You can customize characters (via a weird per-character experience point unlocking system), but there’s no sense of history to Playstation past as the capsule toys provide in Smash.

There is one unique feature that PASBR does very well, and that is save syncing. Buying the PS3 copy of the game gets you a downloadable Vita copy for free; the games are identical, save some minor control differences to accomodate the Vita. Given the dual-platform nature, this could have easily become obnoxious, but through some very seamless network syncing of the saves, you can bash through challenges on the Vita version and have all your unlocks on the PS3 side. It just works, and works very well at that. It does help fulfill the promise of “console gaming on the go” that seems to be the only pitch of Sony’s that rings true.

Should PASBR exist? It’s hard to say. Sony has never been a company that’s developed any true mascots of its own, something Nintendo never had a problem with. But there are plenty of recognizable characters, and there’s nothing really wrong with pushing them into a strange fighting game. (I shudder to think what a roster would look like if Microsoft tried to do the same style of game.) PABSR sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard – the battlegrounds mash games up, which is fine until a Metal Gear breaks through on the Locoroco stage for no reason at all. Other times, it feels like it’s not trying hard enough – a game with so many fighting game experts in the credits shouldn’t feel so weirdly unbalanced.

It’s a few steps from being an easy recommendation to buy, but also far enough removed from being something I couldn’t recommend at all. It’s fine. Pick it up when it goes Greatest Hits? Or don’t. It’s cool either way.

Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale is available for PS3 and Vita.

Games of 2012: The Unfinished Swan

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.

Today, a friend of mine lashed out on Twitter over a familiar argument bubbling up again:

I don’t blame him. The Internet loves to argue about things that can never truly be settled, and “are games art?” is up there on the list of Never Ending Debates. It gets particularly bad when titles with lofty aspirations and long lead times are nearing release; their game designers make grandiose statements to the press, someone disagrees, and then everyone throws down.

“Are games art?” is a pretty ridiculous question, so very broad in scope. “Is this particular game I’m talking about art?” is slightly less ridiculous, but still an exercise in subjectivity, not logic or reason. The best question I can form, if I’m trying to be introspective, is “Is this particular game doing something interesting with the medium of video games?”

My initial time with The Unfinished Swan was one of the times this year I could answer that with a “yes”. The first moment the game hands control over to you, the screen is completely white. Pressing on the joysticks appears to do nothing. With enough pawing at the controller, you summon and fling a black ball through the air, which splats satisfyingly against a wall. In the inky mess, you get clarity as to what your charge is. You throw more ink, and the world suddenly begins to reveal itself around you. Maze-like walls open up to reveal sloping paths, trees and ponds fill in around you. You’ll see yellow footprints in the distance, your breadcrumbs to help you chase down the titular swan. The game does next to nothing to hold your hand in this stretch – you will have to find your own way.

That sense of discovery and wonder in the beginning is incomparably wonderful. The way the ink splatters across the landscape created a beautiful contrasting landscape. I have deep respect for games that can run with a unique visual style, and The Unfinished Swan had it in spades. It was reminiscent of the opening minutes of Portal, as you gradually learn without the game resorting to signposting or explicit tutorials.

I loved that opening motif so much that I felt let down when the game started to add other visual elements and change the mechanics. Shadows appeared, then colors; my ink blobs changed to water blobs and I was forced to solve some more puzzles. What started as unique quest of discovery turned into a first person puzzler that feel conventional. (It’s somewhat telling that most of the media and marketing descriptions of the game don’t mention this change.) Even as the plot continued to unfold interestingly, I found myself losing interest, and left it unfinished (oh the irony!) despite what I’ve been told is a terribly short running time.

I will probably get back to it later this month and polish it off, but it’s difficult to find the motivation. I know that combination of what is essentially a bedtime story with a video game – with gameplay and visual style so tightly entwined – isn’t what awaits me if I re-enter that world. I don’t care whether or not The Unfinished Swan meets anyone’s definition of art. What I care about is if it’s interesting or unique within the expansive spectrum of video games. The beginning absolutely was; the rest, not so much.

If only there was a way to turn young Monroe around, to stop worrying about that eternally honking swan, and return to that pond I stumbled onto at the beginning.

The Unfinished Swan is available on PSN.