Hey folks, it’s your editor, John Teti. We here at Gameological enjoy a good year-end retrospective as much as the next. So this week, we’re presenting Games We Liked—Gameological contributors’ short reflections on some of their favorite games of the year. Today is the final collection of staff picks. If you missed earlier entries, it’s easy enough to catch up.
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.
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.
Today, this year’s Games We Liked concludes with staff picks from Matt Gerardi, Scott Jones, me, and Adam Volk.
I liked Halo 4 because its multiplayer was as close as a shooter can be to slapstick. As previously covered on The Gameological Society, scripted comedy is one of the hardest things to do in video games. By their nature, video games defy one of the golden rules of humor–that timing is everything. It’s tough to account for timing when the audience determines the pace.
But an equally important rule is that comedy is about subverting expectations, and no series does a better job of that than Halo. The philosophy at the heart of the Halo games—creating a violent sandbox where the player can experiment—is conducive to the sort of unpredictable, goofy chaos that makes for some serious laughs in multiplayer. Halo 4, with its giant robots, jetpacks, and holographic decoys, is funnier than any previous entry.
At times, it feels like a longer, more violent Looney Tunes short. One minute you might be Elmer Fudd, creeping into enemy territory hunting that wascally wed team, only to find a dude with a giant hammer waiting to send your body flying into a super-powered air vent that launches it across the battlefield. Next time, you’re The Road Runner, blithely falling on top of a rocket-launching robot and punching it until it explodes. I’ve also been Wile E. Coyote in that situation–jumping for the robot’s apparently weak metal cranium, missing by an inch, and getting unceremoniously squashed by its man-sized feet. Halo 4’s developer, 343 Industries, might as well be the Acme Corporation, providing players with silly instruments of death that backfire half the time.
Rhythm Heaven Fever
I liked Rhythm Heaven Fever because it featured the cutest mini-game of all time. We’re obsessed with cute. Videos of pandas sneezing and babies laughing get millions of views on YouTube. Pictures of kittens populate our Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines. This year, Nintendo had us covered in the cute video game department with Rhythm Heaven Fever. It features one mini-game that is so adorable, and accompanied by a song so dangerously catchy, that I hesitate to share it with the uninitiated, but here it is. You’ve been warned.
Yes, “Monkey Watch” is about a wristwatch that’s powered by tiny monkeys, and their song will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. One monkey rides on the watch’s second hand and high-fives the monkeys that pop out of the watch’s face. Sometimes there are rebel monkeys. They think they’re cool because they’re a different color, wear sunglasses, and demand high-fives on offbeats, but when that high-five is delivered, they do the same delightful dance as their status-quo counterparts.
If you successfully high-five enough monkeys—screw up and you’re forced to deal with a heartbreakingly disappointed monkey face—you get a picture of the watch’s owner staring angrily at his timepiece and saying, “This is without a doubt the cutest watch I’ve ever owned.” At first I wondered why he would be so angry about that. Then I realized that beside being the world’s most adorable watch, it’s also the most inaccurate. Luckily for us, cute is timeless.
I liked Hotline Miami because it trivialized failure. Something always has to go wrong in a heist movie. The meticulous planning and uncanny model of a complex vault are never enough to stave off the unexpected—wild cards like the overly aggressive new guy or the security guard that wasn’t supposed to be at work today. While Hotline Miami isn’t full of heists, exactly–rather, it’s packed with the brutal murder of Russian gangsters in white suits–it certainly feels like you’re constantly battling against those unseen heist-stopping forces.
The psychopathic hitman in Hotline’s starring role is fragile–one strike from just about any weapon is enough to put him down–and a single mistake can send you packing. As you work your way through the game’s seedy ’80s locales, you can plan all you want, but at some point, something will go wrong. Combine this unpredictability with the game’s unwieldy controls, and you could have the video game equivalent of banging your head against a rock. Luckily, your resurrection is just as swift as your death. You’re back in the game with the tap of a button, giving your mass-murder plot another go.
It’s a transformative feature. By cutting out the time between death and rebirth, Hotline Miami removes much of the punishment for failure and encourages improvisation and risk-taking. When the shit does hit the fan and you end up splattered across a neon sign, you don’t feel so bad. The moments when you scramble to adapt–when an attack dog charges through an open door and you somehow manage to grab that splintered pool cue in time to put it down–are the game’s most thrilling. And even if that dog does tear your throat out, your second chance is just a button press away.
I liked Super Hexagon because it measured success in seconds. Whether it’s Michael Bay’s indulgent runtimes or the throwaway songs that pad out an album, lousy filler is enough to sour just about any work. It’s not that all long films or video games are inherently deficient, but when they cross the line from “long” to “bloated,” the whole work suffers.
Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon is the antithesis of bloat. It is pure, uncut video game. There’s no poorly written dialogue to sit through, no “experience points” that need to be accrued through hours of mindless clicking. There’s just your little triangle nervously navigating a trippy techno-labyrinth.
You can finish any of Super Hexagon’s six difficulty levels by surviving for 60 seconds in each one. That doesn’t sound like much, but Hexagon is so distilled a challenge that it changes the definition of a second. Every second is thrilling. Every second becomes something to cherish and celebrate—and a source of anxiety and pride as the 60-second mark nears. One wrong move and all your hard work is erased. Hold out for a few more seconds, though, and triumph is yours. Just a few more seconds.
Far Cry 3
I liked Far Cry 3 because it wasn’t afraid to include some quieter, smaller moments amid all the explosions. Stop moving in Far Cry 3. No, seriously—just stop. Birds flit through the trees. A herd of buffalo barrels through the underbrush. Clouds gather in the sky. Everything continues to live and breathe. When you as the player in Far Cry 3 cease to move, the game’s tropical realm continues to revolve around you. That’s a beautiful thing.
Far Cry 3 equips the player with a camera that can be used to snap idle photos of your surroundings—I once took a photo of three birds on a beach, for some reason—but is better suited for spying on enemy camps. Watching guards dawdle and scratch their haunches via the camera’s telephoto lens is entertaining stuff. I’d easily spend five, sometimes 10 minutes observing movement patterns, sussing out where the Exploding Things (barrels, gas tanks, and the like) are located, and trying to see if the camp has a captive tiger or bear in its midst. (The captive animal always breaks free during a firefight and usually kills me faster than the soldiers can.) It’s in that moment while I’m squatting in a patch of sea grass that a plan first begins to percolate in my head. It’s a primal and playful moment, somehow both grim and silly at once. Half the time my plans turn out to be garbage. No matter. I’ll happily return to my patch of sea grass and draw up a new one.
I liked Fieldrunners 2 because it asked a lot of me. The levels in this tower-defense game can take upwards of half an hour to complete. Being overrun by tin-helmeted troops after 30 minutes of building my best mousetrap was often a heartbreaking moment. When defeat comes, it always starts with a trickle. One plucky clone slips by your carefully placed turrets and laser cannons. Then 10 clones somehow breeze through unscathed—and, suddenly, it’s a rout. The word “Defeat!” stretches across the screen (as if that really needs to be pointed out).
Several years ago, a hippie girlfriend gave me a Buddha Board for Christmas. Buddha Boards, in case you’ve never had a hippie girlfriend, consist of a section of canvas on which you paint or write something with water. Then, seconds later, your creation vanishes, teaching you A Very Important Lesson On The Fleeting Nature Of Things. Sometimes, what I built on the battlefields of Fieldrunners 2 was, I am confident, utterly brilliant; my greatest creations would have left Rube Goldberg’s jaw slack with awe. But those are just words. I have no tangible proof of this. As soon as any level ended, poof, the game field was wiped clean, my creation dispatched into the ether. I put everything I had into arranging those damn towers. I spent entire red-eye flights perfecting one single stage. Because I’d invested so much into my creations, learning to let my work go taught me more about the ephemeral nature of things than that dumb Buddha Board ever did.
I liked ZombiU because its post-zombie-apocalypse London expanded around me like ripples on a pond. You begin the game in a tiny safe room—it has bathroom, bed, a little kitchen. Not the coziest bit of real estate, but still, it’s called a “safe room,” so it instills a certain reluctance to leave the place. My first steps outside the safe room revealed that I was in an abandoned Tube station in London.
With every step forward, the urge to return to the safe room deepens. No matter how far I roamed in ZombiU—and I eventually would make it to the farthest reaches of London—that compulsion, like an umbilical cord pulled taut, never went away. One of the game’s cruelest tricks is to throw some zombies behind you, cutting off the route back to safety. In those awful moments, when I realized I could no longer retreat, I’d barrel forward like a crazy person, trying to sidestep zombies, hoping I might somehow discover a new safe room or a weapon that might save me.
That never works. ZombiU demands a careful and conservative approach. You have to study your surroundings with intensity. I pored over banal things like on-sale signs in supermarkets and paintings on the walls of Buckingham Palace, as if these small details held clues to the trouble that lay in wait. Who knew, for example, that Buckingham Palace had an elevator? Simply making it to the next room—and the room after that—felt like following those outward-bound pond ripples. In the end, the pond of ZombiU turned out to be more vast than I could have imagined.
I liked Datura because it turned you into a hand without holding your hand. Datura is named after a plant with psychoactive properties when ingested as a drug. The jist of the Wikipedia entry for datura is that you should not take datura, and that there is no upside to doing so, seriously, no matter how desperate you are to get high. “The overwhelming majority of those who describe their use of Datura find their experiences extremely unpleasant, both mentally and physically, and often physically dangerous,” Wikipedia says—and that’s just the feedback from people who are able to describe it. The game Datura isn’t as brutal as all that, but it does have its psychologically unsettling properties—you’re represented as a disembodied hand as you travel through a forest of dream sequences—and it doesn’t do much to explain itself.
It’s not that Datura is especially difficult to control. At the appropriate moments, the game will tell you which button you must push to, say, run your hand under a fountain of green slime, or scare a pig by throwing a potato at it. The part that’s left unsaid is why exactly you’re doing these things. Datura offers a freedom from sense. It liberates the player from the constant need to make progress and meet goals and build toward success. Datura eventually reveals a certain logical underpinning, which actually dampens the fun of the free-association a little, but fortunately its dadaist streak never goes away. Because while holding hands is nice, sometimes it’s nice to let go and drift away, and throw a potato at a pig.
I liked Fez because it said, sure, go ahead and stare. We experience so much of the world through glimpses. We politely avert our gaze from fellow travelers on the train or at the coffee shop. The camerawork in the films and TV that we watch is shakier than ever, and the cuts are fast. You probably have a bunch of browser tabs open right now, and I bet you’ve been flitting between them for hours. We look for a bit, and then we look somewhere else, and repeat.
Fez sets itself apart by inviting you to stare. At first, the quest of a little man in a funny hat comes off as eye candy. You rotate your 2D world around a 3D axis, which is a neat trick, and the fragmentary land looks real pretty, from the serene seaside lighthouse to the graveyard with the mysterious owls. But Fez is more than just pretty. Look closer—that faint graffiti on the wall isn’t just there for appearance’s sake. There’s a whole system of language and arithmetic in this game that emerges if you just look at it long enough. My favorite puzzle takes place at a giant telescope where, if you observe the twinkling firmament, you might notice that something tiny is amiss. To decode this glitch, you must sit and watch the stars. You can travel through Fez by glancing; you can only solve it by staring.
In some ways, Fez is reminiscent Arrested Development, a show where staring is encouraged because the craft is so meticulous, and a closer look reveals multitudes beneath the top layer. (A top layer that’s already pretty damn good on its own.) In a society where staring is often abnormal or even improper, it’s enchanting to experience a work that rewards a good long look by opening itself up even more deeply.
I liked Journey because it separated identity from humanity. Why is so much online discussion so hateful and petty? The conventional wisdom is that the anonymity of the internet corrodes our social graces. Without a permanent identity that could be tarnished by our words, there’s no penalty for being nasty. So we’re awful to each other.
Makes sense, I guess. But Journey pokes a hole in that theory. It opts for more anonymity, not less. There are no customized avatars here. There’s no lingo to learn—in fact, your communication is limited to sonorous chirps and pings. When you meet a fellow traveler in the desert of this game, all you can know about them is that the robed figure before you is an actual human being, and you’re both headed in the same direction: toward that mountain on the horizon. The natural conclusion is that maybe you can help each other. And often, people do. Shrouded in the ultimate anonymity, it turns out that people are not more cruel. Rather, they’re kinder. Journey may take away identity, but humanity flourishes.
What’s striking about the transient relationships you form in the game is how much personality comes through. It takes so little communication—maybe it’s the particular way your companion flits across the dunes—for someone to register as a thinking human being. That happens not in spite of Journey’s limited vocabulary of sound and movement, but because of it. The game is quiet, so we listen. Maybe the reason everybody screams on the internet is that they feel like nobody’s listening. In one way or another, we all want to be heard, even when we don’t have much to say.
I liked Sleeping Dogs because it was real-ish. In Sleeping Dogs, there’s only one character of any significance who speaks exclusively in Cantonese—a cantankerous old woman—despite the fact that the game takes place in the midst of a Hong Kong mob war. That hardly feels true to life. The open world of Sleeping Dogs is just like Hong Kong in the same way that the lacquered noodles gracing the window of a Chinese take-out place are just like a bowl of pork lo mein. The goal is not to recreate the experience of the real thing but rather to delight the audience with the detail of the facsimile.
The island city of Sleeping Dogs is designed to give you a fun place to drive around like a maniac—geographical authenticity isn’t really the focus. But the place still fools the eye with its ramshackle street markets, with neon signs that reflect off rainy avenues, and with shady back alleys where flirty masseurs ply their trade. Plus, you can drive around like a maniac.
The game’s hero, undercover cop Wei Shen, struggles between his obligations to the law and to the lawless. Sleeping Dogs must also balance its commitment to the land that inspired it and its flair for the fantastic. Wei Shen’s quest is often a tortured one, but the game strikes the right balance and makes it look easy. Can Sleeping Dogs be called “realistic”? If the word means a devotion to recreating reality, probably not. But it is at least real-ish, and that proves to be more than enough.
I liked Trials Evolution because it made me embrace my inner perfectionist. When I was in the eighth grade I was forced to participate in a school-wide track and field meet. Short and pudgy, I hated running. So when I found myself conscripted into the 500-meter dash, I half-assed it to the finish line without even breaking a sweat. Red-faced and fuming, the gym teacher pounced. “What the hell was that?” he said. “Don’t you want to do your best? Do it again and this time do it perfect.”
Perfect? Was he not aware I was 14-year old nerd with man-boobs? Perfection implies more than just giving it your all. It’s an anomaly. A once-in-a-lifetime fluke. Which is why I was surprised this year by Trials Evolution, a seemingly innocuous dirt-bike racing game that had me not only trying to make it to the finish line, but to do it perfectly.
At first glance, Trials Evolution is simple. You don’t even have to steer. You just hit the gas on your souped-up dirt bike and then balance your rider forward and backwards. It’s fun on the whole, but there are times when the game is punishing without pity.
Still, it’s the quest for perfection that can suck you in. It’s the kind of game where you might find yourself spending 10 hours straight repeating the same course to get the perfect score, sweaty palms and trembling hands be damned. In these moments, I imagine I looked a lot the dead-eyed slot players you’ll find in any Vegas casino.
Trials Evolution made me think that perfection—that sweet, beautiful impossibility—was actually right there in front of me, waiting just out of reach, across the finish line.