Hey folks, it’s your editor, John Teti. We here at Gameological enjoy a good year-end retrospective as much as the next. It’s a pleasure to sit back as December winds down and ponder the year that was (probably as we drink egg nog and put useless crap on our Amazon wish lists). So throughout the week, we’ll be presenting Games We Liked—Gameological contributors’ short reflections on some of their favorite games of the year.
The brief here was simple: We chose a bunch of games that left a mark on us in one way or another. In each entry on the list, one of the Gameological critics will share a game they liked, and a reason why they liked it. Each one is a personal opinion of the writer—not a unanimous call. Believe me. I mean, I think a couple of Drew Toal’s choices are bonkers, but who is going to argue with a smart, debonair fellow like him? Not me. So everyone gets their say. (As long as they are smart and debonair, which we all are, obviously. The Gameological moms told us so.)
I’ve never been much for the assigning of points and tabulating of spreadsheets to create thundering institutional “Best Of The Year” proclamations, so these selections aren’t ranked or anything. But there will still be plenty of pith and fun and argument-starters. At least, I hope there will be, because I got a website to run here.
We invite you to write your own “Games We Liked” mini-retrospectives in the comments. We’ll pick our favorites and collect them at the end of the week in a feature we’ll call—this is going to sound crazy—Games You Liked. It’s okay if some of your choices overlap with some of ours. People can like the same thing for different reasons, after all. So enlighten us. Enlighten the bejesus out of us.
First up this week are Cory Casciato, Steve Heisler, Joe Keiser, Derrick Sanskrit, and Ryan Smith.
Duels Of The Planeswalkers 2013
I liked Duels Of The Planeswalkers 2013 because it’s a quick game of Magic. There are always too many great games to play, and not enough time to play them. That makes it especially difficult to justify the kind of time investment it requires to play the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, even at a casual level. There’s no arguing that Magic is a great game—you don’t thrive for 20 years with such a niche enterprise without being a great game—but it is an almost unparalleled time suck, in both its paper and digital versions. Buying cards, sorting cards, and building decks can take hours before you even get to play a game. A single “quick” online draft can easily take three hours to complete. Trying to fit that into a grown-up life, with a wife, a baby, and a job—not to mention all the other games I’d like to play—is, to put it mildly, a challenge.
Enter Duels Of The Planeswalkers, a slimmed down, introductory version of the game that has you playing in minutes. You can get in a quick game against the computer in less time that it might take to shuffle your deck thoroughly in real life. Sure, it lacks the complexity and vast card selection of the “real” game, but that can be a blessing when the baby’s only going to nap for 20 minutes anyway. And while the computer opponents aren’t nearly as savvy a real player of even mediocre skill, Planeswalkers 2013 still does a fine job of teaching newcomers the game, scratches that Magic itch, and helps keep my skills sharp for the day when it’s time to make the plunge into full-blown “cardboard crack” addiction once more.
I liked Borderlands 2 because it didn’t take itself seriously at all. Meaning is subjective. I might come across a crumpled poem on the sidewalk and see it as a sign from the universe that I need to write more. You might stumble upon the same paper and shove it down your pants to use as “insulation.” (What? You might.) A typical day can be broken down into a series of tasks, and each of those tasks could be considered the application of meaning, because how else would things get done if there weren’t some implicit purpose—some cosmic reward—for checking it off your to-do list?
Borderlands 2 knows that players often expect to feel accomplished when they get something done in a game—and that therefore, those things have meaning. Yet this game uses that knowledge to turn the entire concept on its head. When you’re asked to track down a lost porn magazine, or give the cyclopean robot Claptrap a high five, the reward is just as lavish as when you wipe out an entire nest of the Bullymongs—those ubiquitous abominable-snowman things. That ludicrous reward system is Borderlands 2 making fun of itself, and also making fun of all games that require you to save the world—or else!
There is a lot of humor to be found in Borderlands 2’s refreshing self-awareness. There are so many guns it’s impossible to keep track, and to expand your never-ending arsenal further, you dig up weapons from vile public toilets. When your assassin saves the life of another party member, he speaks in haiku about how important he is to the mission’s success. But mostly, it’s hilarious how the mere fact that somebody asked you to kill a super powerful beast sends you off to your doom, knowing full well the mission is literally called, “You. Will. Die. (Seriously.)” And the meaning behind these actions is entirely your own.
I liked Dishonored because it allowed me to watch the results of my inaction. I did this a lot while playing Dishonored. I would rush into a group of soldiers who were looking for me because I, the former bodyguard of the queen, had been wrongfully accused of her murder. They’d spot me, obviously, because I wasn’t being too careful. But rather than dish out the hurt with my spring-loaded knife, I’d use my magic powers (you have magic powers) to dash away and hide. When you play Dishonored, you’re going to have moments like this where you leave the mere mortals in confusion—after all, it’s not every day that somebody vanishes into thin air—and watch them deal with it. The soldiers would look around, they’d grumble, they’d chatter about what they’d do with me. Eventually, they’d give up and walk away. Meanwhile, I’d watch with sick fascination from a perch high above, nearly invisible.
In Dishonored, you’re given the rare chance to watch what happens when you disrupt the world just a little bit and then do nothing. You ruffle a few feathers and then disappear to watch those feathers get smoothed down again. It’s like being a ghost who haunts an apartment by flickering the lights and jiggling the refrigerator door at odd intervals. Less haunting, per se, than straight-up messing with people. It’s an effective way to unsettle your opposition, but ultimately it’s less about strategy and more about the delight of being an omnipotent voyeur. Dishonored is imbued with that playful spirit, and it gives you the tools you need to invoke it again and again.
I liked Spelunky because its music reminded me how little progress I’d made. Music in video games is meant to be heard more than once. It’s a background track that abhors dead air, looping to ensure that even when you’re standing still, you have something to listen to. In Spelunky, you hear a lot of the same music over and over. But you’re never still: You’re digging deeper into a cave full of perils like deadly spiders and killer arrows. With perseverance, you might even escape the mines and descend to the jungle—or beyond—and hear an entirely different musical score.
But probably not for long. Spelunky is unforgiving. Your character is pitifully human. Your whip is wimpy. If you’re not careful, the bombs you use to take a chunk out of the wall might take a chunk out of you instead. Fall from too great a height, and you instantly die. Back to the beginning. There’s a lot of dying.
Which brings me back to the music of Spelunky. There are about four tunes in the mines, the first section of the game. The layout of each room is randomized, forming a new mine each time you play, but the musical accompaniment hews to this same handful of tracks. Its genial, upbeat easy-listening groove is a constant reminder that even as the landscape changes, you’re still in much the same place as you were before. It’s a lack-of-progress indicator, and each time you find yourself anticipating the next note, that’s a sign you’ve lingered far too long, and you should really get a move on. If only you could stop dying so much.
I liked Xenoblade Chronicles because its voice acting was uniquely accented—and its characters happy to chew the scenery. Voice acting is a tiny industry in the United States, with the same old pros playing the same big roles year after year. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it can keep the work at a consistently high quality, and (Nolan North notwithstanding) most of the time it’s almost impossible to notice the straight-faced sameness of it all. Until you get something like Xenoblade Chronicles, Nintendo’s excellent Japanese role-playing game that was seemingly never intended for American shores. When Nintendo Of Europe wanted an English version of the game, it couldn’t simply get a dub the States as per the usual arrangement. Instead, it had to produce the voice work itself.
The result was…eclectic, with a varied team of British voice actors, soap opera stars, and game show announcers brought in to fill the roles. It was also delightful. The ham-fisted, heavily accented voice acting sounded like nothing else in games. In America (where Xenoblade Chronicles earned a limited release, probably thanks to a vocal minority) the Euro-centric performances and occasionally foreign sentence construction were strange on the ear, enhancing the game’s sense of otherworldliness. It made other voice work seem beige and lifeless by comparison. It’s so refreshing and different that it almost makes some of the one-liners you’ll hear a thousand times before the end—”Man! What a bunch of jokers”—almost forgivable. Almost.
Spec Ops: The Line
I liked Spec Ops: The Line because it dared to simulate PTSD at all. The most ambitious and intellectually challenging military shooter of the year, Spec Ops: The Line nevertheless failed more often than it succeeded. Its successes were so soaring and brave, though, that the game deserves respect for trying, and its most complete success was in its depiction of the emotional trauma that war inflicts on soldiers.
Playing as Captain Martin Walker, the game looks and sounds like any other game made to ape the success of the blockbuster Call Of Duty series. But as The Line continues, your atrocities mount, and the mission—a search and rescue in the sandstorm-beaten city of Dubai—becomes too complex to resolve in a just, moral way. The stress this puts on Walker makes his narration increasingly unreliable, and since you are seeing the game from behind his eyes, the experience is warped by his encroaching disorder. Sights and sounds become untrustworthy, and the decisions you make based on that information are wrong, so when the game reveals that some or all of the last hours are hallucinations, it hits Walker—and you—like a bullet between the eyes.
The impossibility of making reasonable life-or-death decisions while being crushed by the weight of conscience, and the resulting shattering of the mind, are so difficult to render in a compelling fashion. That Spec Ops: The Line even attempted to do this makes it one of the more interesting games in recent memory.
Double Fine Happy Action Theater
I liked Double Fine Happy Action Theater because it was a theater for acting like an idiot. So many of the heroes we play are little more than silent mountains of sweating, stubbly badassery—the likes of which men should aspire to be, supposedly. The type of man that straight women should fawn over because his grunts are poetry. How and why did this caveman commando become the perfect icon of humanity so worthy of our unwavering respect and admiration?
More than any other game-related innovation in recent history, Microsoft’s Kinect—a three-dimensional motion-sensing camera—seemed the most predisposed to put an end to this sense of posturing-by-avatar. Kinect games have been, more often than not, about getting physically active and stepping outside players’ comfort zones. You thought people looked silly the first time they waved a Wii Remote around pretending it was a tennis racket? They look even sillier when you take that remote away. Microsoft knew this, and they even designed their gizmo to snap quasi-Orwellian pictures as players frolicked, so they could laugh at themselves after the game was over.
Double Fine Happy Action Theater goes one step further, by constantly showing players how silly they look and layering more wackiness on top. Instead of a space marine chopping zombies in half, you see a live video feed of yourself spreading glitter over the forest with your fairy wings, or dancing uncontrollably at a disco. Your on-screen counterpart might put yourself in a headlock—and your bully self might end up on the receiving end of a wet willy administered by yet another yourself. It’s a grade school version of that scene in Being John Malkovich where Malkovich enters Malkovich. Even if you try to look tough and cool, you just wind up as a glowing silhouette with rainbows shooting out from your back. Double Fine Happy Action Theater sweeps away the often joyless self-images we construct for ourselves, melting our icy hearts and allowing us to stop caring about how we look. We know how we look. We look awesome.
I liked Lollipop Chainsaw because it advanced an image of feminine security. Juliet Starling is a perky blonde cheerleader who slays zombies while practically drowning in sexual innuendo. It was easy to write off Lollipop Chainsaw as misogynistic snuff. Nobody expected the pigtailed Juliet to be one of the most well-considered and modern takes in femininity since Laura Holt on Remington Steele. But she was.
A lesser game would drag us through the hero’s origin via flashback movies or long speeches. Instead, we learn who Juliet really is by meeting her support system: first her boyfriend Nick, then her two sisters, father, and mother. Their personalities and interactions inform the audience more than a direct account ever could, and the game forms an image of Juliet’s upbringing. She had two parents who clearly just wanted their daughters to be happy and discover who they were on their own. Parents who trained them to ignore anyone who tells them otherwise and utterly destroy anybody who stands in their way. In Lollipop Chainsaw, Juliet doesn’t provoke the attention. She’s simply comfortable in her skin, regardless of the comments from her classmates (and from the occasional demigod). Juliet knows where she came from and who she is, and nobody can take that away from her, no matter what words they use, even when those words open a portal to hell to unleash armies of the undead. Heck, that just reinforces her self-inscribed identity.
In the year that Bronies became a mainstream phenomenon, traditional boundaries of masculine and feminine stereotypes seemed to be crumbling. Men can wear pink and like ponies, women can be cute and kill zombies. We all get to decide who we are and what we like. Haters gonna hate, but they can only take away our sense of self if we let them, and ain’t nobody taking anything away from a girl with a chainsaw.
Kid Icarus: Uprising
I liked Kid Icarus: Uprising because it connected me with strangers every day. Mobile computing is a double-edged concept. Theoretically, we’re out and about, seeing other people, hanging out in parks, chatting with strangers, and bonding over shared interests. In actuality, we’ve got our headphones on and are intensely focused on the tiny screen in our hands, ignoring the dozens of people within conversation range, oblivious to nature and the world around us.
Nintendo tried to bridge this divide on its 3DS portable with a feature called “StreetPass”—a sort of “always on” wireless connection that swapped information with other 3DS owners within your vicinity. That girl at the supermarket would drop into your game of Mario Kart. Your Nintendog would have a playdate with your local bartender’s virtual kitten. It was a neat idea, but I never felt like my game benefited from the connections, nor did I especially look forward to these encounters. Until Kid Icarus: Uprising, that is.
A huge part of Uprising was taken up with collecting and crafting newer, more powerful weapons, and with StreetPass, players could gift their favorite weapons to anyone they passed throughout the day. In densely populated areas like Brooklyn, players would collect a dozen or more unique tools from complete strangers during a 20-minute commute every day, all while their 3DS was asleep in their bags, awaiting the wonders to be discovered during a lunch break. I was so inspired by the kindness of these strangers that I put more effort into crafting my own super weapons so that I could gift them right back, and there were others who wanted to “pass it on,” too. And so the cycle continued. We began to recognize each other based on our Miis and nod in silent recognition. For a few brief months, the L train was no longer a hotbed of hipster gossip and vomit-stained vagrants. It was the secret clubhouse for a brotherhood of arms. Gaming had never before felt quite so “social.”
The Walking Dead
I liked The Walking Dead because it allowed players to judge and be judged. We spend so much time in video games shooting aliens and saving princesses that we can become desensitized to the decisions we’re making—we can begin to lose track of our morals as genuine human beings. Who cares whether that Goomba has a wife and kids? He’s worth a hundred points when you stomp on his head!
The Walking Dead surprised a lot of people. Based on the immensely popular comic book and TV series about a zombie apocalypse, the game could have been yet another zombie shooter and gotten by just fine. Instead, Telltale Games delivered an experience about the decisions that make us who we are. Would you take the supplies from someone else’s car? Would you let a dying woman borrow your gun? While these choices made players instantly gauge their own personal moral compass, the truly interesting part happened weeks later, when Telltale posted the global results of those decisions online. Suddenly, our private shameful moments were part of a collective, and we each knew where we stood in the grand scheme of humanity (of people who played this game). We were no longer in a vacuum; our actions were on display for the whole world to see.
Where other games ranked us by our scores, this post-game meta-game judged us by our decisions. We knew how the average person would have acted in the exact same horrible scenario, we knew how our own choices compared, and we knew these results were honest because judgment day arrived too late to influence our decisions.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward
I liked Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward because it was a choose-your-own-adventure novel you couldn’t cheat. The game embraced the unique experience of playing a game to tell a wholly different story, one more akin to the Choose Your Own Adventure novels of my youth. Every choice the player made in Last Reward opened a new branching path in the story. The fatal flaw with the choose-your-own-adventure books, of course, was the ease of cheating—of simply paging through the variety of timelines in order to find a happy ending. Last Reward made failure an essential part of the experience, though, mandating that players gather information from at least 10 “bad” scenarios in order to save the day.
When things eventually went wrong, players could travel backward through their decisions and try another route. The other characters were unaware of what had happened, but the player, of course, retained memories from their self-inflicted deus ex machina. You, the person outside of the game, playing it, had experienced the impossible—seen possible futures and used them to inform the past. Where 2010’s Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors used the concept of multiple playthroughs as a metaphor for the collective unconscious, this follow-up title carried the idea in a much deeper direction. Two titles in, the Zero Escape games have proven to be as much a commentary on the philosophy of the save file as they are an exploration into chaos theory. It’s an inspirational concept in the craft of storytelling, and one that would be near impossible in any medium except for games.
I liked Tokyo Jungle because it was totally batshit crazy. They say it’s a dog-eat-dog world, but in Tokyo Jungle, it’s a dog-eat-hippo-eat-hyena-eat-crocodile-world. Humankind has been wiped from the face of Tokyo, leaving the animal kingdom free to fight over the scraps of the city (and each other). As a plant-munching Sika deer or a toy dog Pomeranian gone feral, you spend your days hunting for food, a mate, and a place to lay your furry head so you can start making babies.
It’s a strange concept for a game, even on paper, but the experience of playing this post-apocalyptic ecology sim is even more bizarre than it sounds. According to the game’s incomprehensible logic, consuming as many calories as possible makes you more attractive to the opposite sex, and settling for a sex partner classified as “desperate” will always give you the fleas. (Where’s the dog version of OKCupid when you need it?)
Tokyo Jungle partially paints an unromantic portrait of the animal kingdom by focusing on the brutal nature of the circle of life—it’s essentially all killing, eating, and screwing—which is perhaps why Steve Heisler interpreted it as secret libertarian propaganda. In that way, it’s a refreshing break from the usual portrayal of wildlife in video games as talking, walking anthropomorphic heroes or obstacles to be farmed for money.
But that raw National Geographic-meets-the-apocalypse aesthetic is countered by the cheesy techno music chirping in the background—not to mention the baseball hats, bikinis and other items of clothing you can drape on your otherwise fearsome carnivores so that they resemble characters from a Disney movie. And why the hell are dinosaurs running around town? Tokyo Jungle makes absolutely no sense, yet months after its release, I can’t stop thinking about it.
The Unfinished Swan
I liked The Unfinished Swan because it instilled a childlike sense of wonder. Both The Unfinished Swan and Sony’s vaunted “augmented reality” storybook, Wonderbook: Book Of Spells, dip their toes into the realm of children’s stories. But despite the name, the only wonder of the Wonderbook comes from the technology that enables the illusion of Harry Potter’s world coming alive in your living room. Once you get past the wizardry of camera tricks, it’s like being strapped into a mild ride at Wizarding World.
In contrast, the opening moments of The Unfinished Swan toss you headlong into a children’s book alone with your own imagination to guide you. After a brief cinematic that sets up the story of young orphan Monroe’s quest, you emerge onto a blank white space with no hint as to what you should do or where you should go. It’s a disorienting experience—I wondered at first if my PlayStation 3 had accidentally frozen—but eventually, I pressed a button that launched a small glob of paint into the vast nothingness. It splattered with a “plop” on something solid. It then seemed logical for me to spin in circles and launch a series of black paint balls at my invisible canvas, like a manic version of Jackson Pollock. I moved Monroe through this surreal world, but each step down the blotchy corridor took blind bravery—I expected to hit a dead end or fall into endless oblivion at any moment. As I continued my crude paint-tossing, the world began to take on a semblance of shape until it struck me that I was in a leafy park.
The best children’s literature—like the works of Maurice Sendak and Dr. Suess—don’t simply tell a story; they spark imagination and let your mind run wild with the possibilities. Somehow, The Unfinished Swan accomplishes just that, by starting you off with a canvas of pure white.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I liked XCOM: Enemy Unknown because it gave death back its sting. Enemy Unknown is essentially an exercise in resource and risk management. Success on this futuristic battlefield—where you play a master tactician—depends largely on knowing which technology or weapon upgrade to invest in and how best to choreograph a small army of specialists in battle. What sets XCOM: Enemy Unknown apart from other strategy games is the way you inevitably end up caring about your fragile human resources. I don’t think twice about sending out units of Terran Marines to face almost certain death against Zerglings in StarCraft, but in XCOM, I suddenly get this desperate Saving Private Ryan “no man left behind” mentality with my gun-wielding gang of alien fighters.
Part of the source of those feelings are utilitarian—you end up devoting lots of money and time on each individual soldier—and death means wasting both of those scarce commodities. (That’s even more true in the game’s “Ironman” mode, which prevents you from reloading saved games.) But the developer, Firaxis, also encourages a personal connection with your avatars by including limited customization options with which you can change your soldiers’ appearance, voice, and country of origin so that they more resemble you or your friends (or in my case, favorite political figures and TV characters).
Sure, you can recruit new squadmates to replace dead ones—there’s a promising rookie named Stringer “String” Bell on my squad who’s handy with heavy weapons, for example—but reading the names of slain men and women etched on the memorial wall in my XCOM base reopens old emotional wounds for me.
—Maj. Michelle “Eat Veggies” Obama, K.I.A., June 4, 2015. Struck by a beam of alien energy during Operation Demon King.
—Capt. Jesse “Yo Bitch” Pinkman, K.I.A., July 28, 2015. Hit by shrapnel from an exploding car during the aptly named Operation Bleeding Sentinel.
Rest in peace, soldiers.