Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Best Games of the Year (So Far)

I just wanted to make this list before all the big-hitters come out. The Assassins Creed's, the Call of Duty's, the Battlefield's and whatnot. This is the time of year where there's a wee little game drought. Not in the indie sector, mind. There's been quite a bit of content coming out from there. Not very GOOD content, but content nonetheless. Anyway, let us revel in 2013's best games. Indie, big budget and what bog's ends. Lets go:

5: The Last of Us
I bashed The Last Of Us quite a bit in my initial review, but the truth is that it's not bad. It's pretty competent at best. It's just furiously overrated. 'An emotional journey' my arse, but it's actually just a pretty fun time. It has an awesome world that you can completely lose yourself in. It's achingly sad yet relentlessly beautiful. The Last Of Us is kind of a mess, but it's an entertaining mess at that. It just could have been so much more. The gameplay is alright too, sort of balancing stealth and action whilst having a crafting system that fits with the tone of the game. Explosives and Health Kits are made from the same ingredients, but which one do you value more? I found that to be an awesome touch. Overall, it's pretty fun and well presented, but certainly not gaming's Citizen Kane. 

4: Antichamber 
A cerebral masterpiece. I haven't played a better puzzle game since Portal 2. It isn't as good as Portal 2, but what is, right? It's absolutely mind-bending; distorting reality and physics but it all makes sense within the rules of the game. Making a world as twisty and as sprawling as Antichamber yet still having a consistent rule-set is an incredibly hard thing to do, but the game pulls it off with wonderful style and consistency. 

3: Dota 2
I was very critical of Dota 2 in my previous posts, but once you really sink your teeth into it, it's really God-damn engaging. It's certainly not an easy game, that's for sure. It doesn't have a really low XP barrier for level 2, like after 2 kills you get to level 2. No, it's not like that. It's 1000 XP all the time for every level. It gets better as you get further into it, but it's not impenetrable per say, you want to get better at it. It's like you can see the depth but you're not in the depth, but you want to. For a game with one map, it's huge and varied and awesome. There is actual weight when you a kill an enemy. There's actual weight when you level up. This is all just personal preference, by the way. Other people like the game for different reasons, but I like it most for its depth of challenge. Also, there's a Bastion announcement pack. Not only can you enjoy an awesome MOBA, but you also have Rucks from Bastion doing the game announcements. 'Dire structures... didn't make it.' Thank you, Valve. 

2: Papers, Please
There hasn't been a more original game this year. Original in how they can turn and *insert boring job here* simulator into something with actual charm and engagement, which isn't at all superficial nor does it rely on Skinner Box techniques. The boring job this time is not Euro Truck Driver or Airport Firefighter (yes, Airport firefighter simulator is actually a game that exists and requires money in order for you to play it), but is a border patrol man. Which is mostly a boring job in the civilized western world, but setting it in Communist Russia (A.K.A. Arstotzka and other made up names seemingly lifted from Borat) means that forged passports and terrorist attacks are part and parcel in the divided world of Communist Russia. It manages to balance humour and hilariously fake passports with some serious themes like segregation and xenophobia. Should you let the poor wife in without the correct documents, after her husband passed the border? Or shouldn't you? Because letting the wrong people in who don't have the correct documents or those bearing forged documents can take a toll on your credits. Which you obviously need to pay for your son's medicine because he get's the flu more often than a Somalian. Anyways, it's the most amount of awesome you can get out of $10-£7 this year without buying Breaking Bad Meth Candy (That's actually a thing: click here). 

1. Bioshock Infinite
People complained that there was no weight to any of the gore or killing, which is true for Booker's character, because he's a remorseless bastard who only wants his money. For Elizabeth, however, we actually saw the arc of her character from an innocent woman exploring a fresh new world to a darkened, frightened assistant to a killer, with just a little bit of hope of getting to Paris. Combat-wise, it's awesome. Sky-hooks and all. The Vigors don't really have a place here, as it's mostly in service to the brand, and that's true that they didn't need to be there and didn't have any impact on the otherwise perfect world, but that's (mostly) explained with the ending that I still won't spoil. Most of the flaws in the game (pointed out by Extra Credits and most The Last Of Us fans) are mainly flaws down to the main character. He's drunken, bottom-feeding scum who will do whatever it takes, not to save the girl, but wipe away the dept. But later on, it becomes more than that. Also, it's bloody fun as all hell to plough your way through Columbia. That's it. Fun and detailed and awesome. Play it. 

Now we wait for the swarm of games released at Christmas time that will one day inspire little Jimmy's high-school massacre. See you on the other side.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

There is no such thing as Game "Addiction"

Or internet addiction, or TV addiction, or film addiction, or lolcat's addiction, or anything like that. However, there is such a thing as 'Game compulsion'. This is because games are compelling, not addicting.

Gamers are compelled to play. There are levels, goals, objectives, characters to meet, worlds to explore. All of these factors make games compelling. Because the typical game is longer than the typical movie, and with Humble Bundles, Steam Sales and Gamestop, games are becoming cheaper, there's more games to play and more time to play them. We hear stories of children killing their siblings after playing Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, but it's mostly due to bad parenting. Why would they leave a loaded handgun in the reach of a child? And because they can't accept the blame, they blame it on Call of Duty, on violent movies, on rock music, on wh
atever the child was mildly influenced by so they can dodge the blame themselves. Who's fault is it that Adam Lanza turned his gun on elementary school students last December? Easy. It was his fault. Just because he played 'violent video games' doesn't make him any less of a mad man.

We hear stories of people ruining their lives playing video games; becoming so heavily invested in games like World of Warcraft or League of Legends that they avoid any kind of human interaction, that they lose their jobs or don't attend school. This can exist without making games a bad thing. I play(ed) both of those games without becoming a basement dwelling troglodyte, and so have my friends. It is the fault of the players for not playing in moderation, or for not controlling themselves or whatever. The reasons why you hear people becoming 'addicted' to World of Warcraft or Call of Duty and not Bastion or McPixel, is that the former games are far more compelling than the latter two independent, smaller games. And that's the bottom line here: video games are not addicting, they're compelling.

We're compelled to play the next dungeon of World of Warcraft. It offers us in-game rewards and suchlike. We're compelled to play the next game of Call of Duty. It offers us XP so we can better our weapons and upgrades and suchlike. If we played 20 hours of it and had our whole data wiped, we'd be in tears. That whole 20 hours is leading up to something. Or is it? Is it just the joy of becoming more leveled and skilled and earning more bragging points? Or is it something deeper than that?

In life, we go to school, then go to work, then earn money, then have a family, then work more, then retire, then we die. A lot of people are happy with this fact. A lot of people also aren't happy with this. Video games offer those people a place, they offer people comfort and a home. Most of our community is very open. We accept outcasts. We accept 'losers'. We accept those with downs syndrome. We accept war veterans who aren't able to participate in some-such sport or other activity. Games give people comfort in a world they wouldn't have normally found comfort in. We can escape who we are. For 4 hours, 12 hours, 40 hours, or 100 hours, we can become someone else. We can elicit power fantasies we normally wouldn't have.

Sadly, people become too invested in video games, and they become the aforementioned basement dwelling troglodyte. Those who play Grand Theft Auto or any other violence video game and turn their gun on innocent people, they don't do that because their life is perfect. No one picks up a game and wants to kill someone. Likewise, no one picks up a game and becomes 'addicted'. Spending over 500 hours on a game isn't an addiction, it's a compulsion. They're compelled to play more because they've already spent 500 hours on it. Nonetheless, these things can exist without games being a bad thing. We drive cars, right? We know the risks of driving a car, right? We still drive cars, right? Just because cars cause accidents and kill people doesn't mean we should ban them. They are essential to our lives.

Apparently it wasn't the teenagers fault for going on a rampage,
it was the games fault, somehow. It's just another way of dodging
As per Wikipedia, 'There is no formal diagnosis of video game addiction in current medical or psychological literature. Video game addiction was excluded from the DSM 5, the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.' In my own words, you know how people become addicted to cigarettes and alcohol or heroin? It's because of a singular drug. Nicotene in cigarettes is addictive. The alcohol in beer is addictive. The heroin in..er..heroin, is addictive. These are drugs that require a dependency. You experience withdrawal without taking the drug frequently enough. This doesn't happen in video games. I can easily spend a week away from video games. It would be harder to spend a week away from heroin. There is no fundamental altering of brain chemistry that makes you 'addicted'. I dislike how people can throw around the term 'addiction' like it's nothing. Game 'Compulsion' is real; Game 'Addiction' is not.

video-game-addiction.org is possibly the worst website to visit about this subject. I suggest you watch this 25 minute long personal story about game compulsion. It shows that there's a difference between a lot of play and a serious compulsion. "Life always welcomes you back."

Thursday, 22 August 2013

In Defence of Call of Duty

Many of those in the 'highbrow gaming community' slag off COD as being nothing more than a stupid, mindless, racist, artless, homogenized piece of tripe for the masses of annoying 9 to 14-year-olds. Which is mostly true, but there are many things that Call of Duty gets right; things that people don't appreciate as much as I do. So please, at least try to indulge me.

Firstly, 60 Frames-per-Second. Many people complain that Call of Duty has subpar graphics, which is true, the graphical fidelity is inferior to most games that come out, but that's fine, because I prefer swifter, more fast-paced gameplay that an ugly, slugging 30FPS. And Call of Duty is very fast-paced, and the 60FPS benefits the game extremely. Most games prefer huge, sprawling, pointless sky-boxes over swifter gameplay, but Call of Duty doesn't, it prefers a smoother game-feel.

Secondly, the level system. Leveling up in Call of Duty multiplayer mode feels awesome. The first few levels start out easy, then it gets harder, then a lot harder. The difficulty curve on leveling is perfect, encouraging you to play more so you can gain more XP and unlock the new equipment and whatnot. The most interesting part of the multiplayer is Prestige mode. This gives you the option to restart your entire progress from Level 1 to Level 80 or 55 or whatever. All your guns, XP, camos, equipment and unlockables go. And for what? Isn't it much better to be loaded out? But prestiging higher means that you're more respected and well recognized. This isn't a number that goes steadily up, or a bar that gets higher, this is the equivalent to street cred. People treat your ability by your prestiges, and that's awesome. Getting to level 30 on League of Legends is cool, but doing it all again just for a little emblem? That's even cooler. Once you've completed a game, you lose to will to want to play it anymore, but with prestiging, you can play it all again with the added bonus of 'street cred'. You are now a higher being. Awesome.

Thirdly, the aforementioned fast-gameplay is awesome. Small maps are generally better, as they require less trudging from the corner of the map to the battle zone. With a small map, everywhere is a battle zone. With the 60FPS, everything is more clear and fluid, so small maps are actually fun and remind me of the days when shooters weren't a conveyor belt of chest-high walls, which coincidentally is what most Call of Duty campaigns consist of.

Lastly, Black Ops 2 is actually not that bad. It's campaign, whilst short, at least tries to do something more interesting with the series. There are choices, there are alternative endings, there are mini RTS side quests, and the aesthetic and game feel is awesome. The zombies, whilst not great, is still a fun distraction, but it suffered from trying to do to many things, and many of the maps suffered from being heavy on corridors, which just slows down the fast. fluid gameplay to a screaming halt. The multiplayer is pretty much the same with some minor differences, but that's ok, because the multiplayer is actually pretty fun. There are unique game modes and cool guns and there's a focus on small maps, which is much better.

Sure, there are loads of things wrong with Call of Duty, such as a stupid, gaming-illiterate community, most of the campaigns are short and stupid and boring, it's extremely over-rated, it's an incredibly safe series, it's designed for the masses and it made an entire generation of gamers care exclusively about multiplayer and graphics... ok maybe there's a lot wrong with Call of Duty but I still find it to be at least a functional shooter with some cool bits like Zombie mode and those RTS mission in Black Ops 2.

I just felt I needed to defend this game among those who consider themselves to be too high brow for Call of Duty (me partly included), because this series gets a lot of hate, and it seems like most of the hate is for the sake of it, which sucks, but I can understand it. After all, it's got the worst bloody fans in the world. They make me too ashamed to admit that I kinda like Black Ops 2. Defence over. Go back to over-thinking the metaphors of Braid now.

Monday, 19 August 2013

It's Been a Dull Year (So Far)

Seriously, how many good games have come out this year? So far, my Game Of The Year is BioShock Infinite,  which was really bloody good, but there was loads wrong with it. There was also The Last Of Us, which was heavily flawed but still fun and entertaining and was well presented, it's just not the Citizen Kane of gaming. There hasn't been a Spec Ops: The Line yet. A game that really challenges you and the industry as a whole. Maybe Binfinite, but still not as good as The Line. There hasn't been a Journey; a game that's really unique and beautiful. Hell, I'm not asking for beautiful this year, I'm asking for unique. Something short and different and quirky. There was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, which was pretty much Team America meets the 80s. It was really cool, but was just a Far Cry 3 re-skin. Antichamber is possibly the Fez of 2013. Different, challenging and indie. I haven't completed it, due to how complicated and huge it is, but it's still possibly my second favourite Game Of The Year.

There have been so many disappointments. Crysis 3 for example. On consoles, it runs like a narcoleptic on a PowerPoint Presentation. But as a game, it's just a dull shooter that doesn't even look that nice. It runs at 30FPS, it's in desperate need of ambient occlusion, and it's just really god-damn boring. To think I was actually looking forward to this. Gah. There was also Dead Space 3, which I knew was going to suck, but still, I was expecting it to be somewhat entertaining. It was; I didn't complete it, but it held my attention long enough to stop me remembering that the game is actually really bloody bland. Look at it in contrast to the original Dead Space games. Sure they weren't great, but it was refreshing to see a mainstream game at least try to be survival horror. If not that, they at least they were trying to be something different. Now, it's just Gears of War in space, which is really freakin' disappointing.

And then there were the crap games. Aliens: Colonial Marines, in which Dead Space 3 was a better Aliens game than Aliens. I'm pretty sure it goes without saying now; birds fly, fish swim, and Aliens: Colonial Mariens was crap. What about Star Trek? We all know that video game adaptations of films suck weenus, but I was hoping that this would be at least mildly entertaining. Whatever. Video game adaptations of TV, however... The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct looked quite cool. I like a good DayZ clone that isn't laggy and still in Alpha. But no, it was bland, boring and crap. And too short, like all the other games I've mentioned.

Since there seems to be no life or originality in the Triple-A market, it's up to the indie market to remind us that gaming is still worth defending. There was Antichamber, but what else? Seriously, what else has there been? There was Gone Home and Bleed that look mildly interesting but still haven't played. There was Battleblock Theatre which looks so hilarious and awesome but I don't own an Xbox. It has to come to PC at some point. I mean, it has to.

Oh, DotA 2. Hasn't that been out for a while though? Oh no, it was just in Beta for ages. Its official release date was July 9th, and yes, I have played it, and it gives me a headache. I can tell this is only for the hardcore crowd of PC gamers. I really don't see the appeal in things like DotA and League of Legends. It's bloody impenetrable. I've played an hour of DotA 2  and surely by that time things would start getting interesting, but it doesn't. Oh, you know how when your character moves, the camera moves with you? There's an option to change that on LoL so you have to manually move the camera separate to the character. I hoped the same would be for Dota 2, because they're the same genre. "Well, hope into one hand and s**t in the other, and see which fills up quicker!" says Valve, "Because we don't want you horrible console gaming scum on out turf!". "What's that?" says Valve, "Approachable? Options? FUN?! Not on our PC gaming hardcore crowd, you don't! Paint yourself generic fantasy, add hats and an asshole fanbase, and you've got yourself a hardcore PC game!" I'm sure it gets better later, but that's not an excuse. There are so many brain-cells I'm willing to squander. 

On an unrelated rant, where the bloody hell is Half-Life 2: Episode 3? Valve seem to have enough time to make Left 4 Dead 2, Portal 2, and DotA 2 after the last episode, but not enough time to wrap things up after that?! Valve are really starting to piss me off. They don't even make any announcements about it. Portal 2 was my game of the year, yes, but I would have preferred another episode. Half-Life 2 is my favourite game ever, and Valve fear that. They fear that they will cock-up a beloved franchise, and it only gets worse with time. Do Valve have the ability to make a game that lives up to 6 years of expectations? I think so, but I doubt Valve think so. 

Let us be looking forward. We still have Saints Row 4 and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified to keep us busy until the annual series' start showing up. The COD's, the Battlefields, the FIFA's, the Assassins Creeds, and with the new consoles coming out soon, we might be able to see some new, revolutionary games. Or they could all suck. I'd say 50/50, apart from The Bureau, because there is no way Mad Men combined with XCOM can fail. No way.  

Sunday, 18 August 2013



Play it first, then read this. 

It's a 3-minute flash game. It was made by two guys. One guy did the music and another guy did the actual game. It consists of one block moving into other blocks, and the other blocks disperse once you have done so. Yet this the most touching and deep flash game I've played.

This is an article on the typical school week in Korea. "The Korean Teachers' and Education Workers' Union (KTU) found that 27.9 per cent of students say, "I eat alone."" My friend said that an average study period for a Middle Schooler in Korea is 12 hours a day. More often than not they have a 1-day weekend. Yet South Korea are such a progressive country, economically and culturally. Working that hard and that consistent leaves out any kind of human interaction. But that's off topic...

The topic of Loneliness is indeed loneliness, in which a title has never been more clear in describing the game. It's incredibly simple; you move your block until the game ends, but along the way there are other blocks that are jumping about and moving and having fun, but when you go up to them, they stop, disperse and fade. It has no tutorial, no little speech bubbles or objective markers along the way, no forms of text at all until the end; it simply conveys its message through the gameplay. It does this so powerfully.

Its power is not only expressed through the beautiful, looping piano riff, but through the implicit choice. What did you do whilst playing Loneliness? Did you purposefully avoid the other blocks because you didn't want to ruin their fun? Did you go up to every single group? Did you go up to every group then give up after a while because you knew they would go away? Did you avoid them all throughout the game, but approached that last block in hope that he would partner with you? Only to find out that that block would disperse like the rest of them. More importantly, what do these choices say about you? Are you a person who doesn't want to get involved with other peoples business, and stays away from them? Are you a confident type who approaches everyone anyway? Do you give up trying to socialize after everyone rejecting you?

Think of the symbolism as well. These are small, black blocks. You are a small, black block. You are the same as them. They don't know that though, so they stay away from you because you're not part of their group. You're the same as them, just that they fear change, they fear being challenged by another block. So they leave. There's also the symbol of a black block on a white background. You're black, and the background is white. Hell, the world is white. You contradict the world. It would be better for you to fit in with a crowd of black blocks, so the world wouldn't feel so different, so opposite, so scary, so big.

The background then stops being white, it starts becoming grey, then darker, then darker, then black. You descend into darkness. This means two things. One, that you have become so used to being isolated and lonely, that the world becomes the same colour as you. You are now used to a cold, unwelcoming and lonely world. A world where you fit in. Two, that you descend into darkness. You have become lonely and isolated that you become a darker person. You become darker, and darker, then black.

We've all been lonely once in our lifetime. I had a lonely childhood. I had one or two friends that I had when I was younger, and a friend I was really close with when I was younger. But then he left to Australia. I was on my own from then on. I was constantly excluded, bullied, lonely and picked on. I was picked on because I had no friends, and I had no friends because I was picked on. This game feels a lot like my early school life. I was alone, and decided I was going to join in and play with someone else. They rejected, and went off. I went to another group, which rejected me and went off. This has happened to all of us at some point.

Once you finish the game, it ends with a message. It's a message so powerful and thought-provoking. A message that can convey so much emotion and satisfaction that many games with big budgets and huge man-power fail to do with pages of script. It reads:

Now read that article again. These kids are so forced and pressured into doing well that they don't have time for any human interaction. Despite them doing really well in school and whatever instrument they play, they will still be alone. This is what I think Edmund McMillen's Aether is about. That a kid riding on a monster goes round solving problems and becomes so focused on his work and objectives, that when he returns back to Earth, it's so small that when he touches it, the Earth shatters and then just goes floating in space. It says that when you work so hard and so long on something, you lose sight of Earth and what is real, that when you come back to it, it breaks under your feet.

With Loneliness, you're not encouraged to do anything apart from move until the game ends, just that there are other blocks along the way in which they are optional to interfere. And that's what life is. You keep on moving. It's depressing and unwelcoming, but you deal with it because you have no other options. Your option is to move forward. Move through whatever curve-ball life throws at you. After all, what other option have you got?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Video Games Don't Need To Be Fun

I had a discussion with a friend the other day about Spec Ops: The Line. It mainly consisted of me persuading him to buy an play it. Unsuccessfully, however. I don't know if it was my pitch, or the fact that he doesn't particularly like linear shooters, or the fact that I said the game 'wasn't fun' (which it isn't). He seemed startled by the fact that I spent 10 minutes rambling about the thing then proceeded to call it un-fun. He then asked 'Why would I want to play a game if it isn't fun?' No, not just shooters, which is understandable, because what's the point shooting foreigners to death if you don't get a raging, racist hard-on. He said 'Why would I want to play a game if it isn't fun?' A Game. Just any game. As if all games are supposed to be fun.

A year prior, I also had a heated discussion with a friend about the same topic. He said 'Games are supposed to be fun, that's why they're called games.' It seems the popular opinion is that games are intended to be fun; that they only live to deliver fun. The 'Games' thing really ties into that, almost as if 'games' are synonymous with 'fun'. And it's true, 'games' are synonymous with 'fun'. They're also synonymous with 'distraction'. The gaming industry has evolved enough to become an artform of sorts. We're still working on it, but we're close. I think it's time to shake off the name 'game' the same way Comic Books were then called Graphic Novels.

With Comic Books, because automatically assume it's a lighthearted, fun distraction, primarily for kids, which is untrue, but also understandable. They're called comic books. Comic. Comedic. With the name Graphic Novel, it implies it is as serious and a Novel, but contains animation. Film Critics don't look down upon Pixar because they're animation-focused, so why should Literature Critics look down on Graphic novels simply because they're animation-focused? This can be related to games too.

To me, Video Games are the most interesting medium there is. Not the best or the most artistically profound, but the most interesting. It's interesting as in there's so much to do. Whole genres and ideas that haven't been explored, and all it takes is a little money. All this creative prowess in the industry that can make some of the greatest game experiences; they never lift off due to a lack of money. So we have different consoles, different platforms, different means of playing a game, unlike film, in which the only variation in the experience is what size/quality the screen is. No, we have Steam, XBLA, PSN, Browser-based, iOS and OnLive, all which offer different, unique experiences. What does literature have in comparison? Paper or Kindle? Pff. Also, the artistic side. We can explore worlds, role-play as other people as if they're real living people, discover the undiscovered, tell entire stories though a world. How awesome is that?

Yet, this isn't reaching it's full potential. We're still held back by the idea that is has to be 'fun'. So we shoe-horn Gears of War-like shooting into The Last Of Us, we add ridiculous amounts of blood to BioShock Infinite, and we add loads-guns to a bloody Stealth game (you know who you are, most stealth games). It's silly and unnecessary, and it's halting progression in our medium.  It seems there's only one main theme in triple-A games: fun. And that's it. There are a few exceptions, yes, but imagine if all movies only had one theme, or if all books only had one theme. It would suck, an yet the same happens with games, and people don't seem to care. This is in issue here, an issue involving a medium we all love, that isn't getting the respect and attention is deserves by other mediums.

I don't want all games to stop being fun and start being serious, we can of course have a mix here, like District 9 or Juno, but I do want to see more games prevail as artistically relevant and not just a mindless time-waste like most of television. I recommend you watch this video. This guy expresses my points in a clear manner, as well as being a cool, talented guy.

A good way to stop developers making mind-numbing shooters is with the power of money. If Valve make another masterpiece, go give em some money. If Ghibli make another awesome JRPG, give em some money. If Epic Games make yet another mind-numbing shooter, don't give em your money, and encourage everyone else to side with you. We are not consumers, we are champions. We are going to champion your games, not consume them. We control the success of your product, we are not bloody cattle.