My Top 10 Games of 2013

10. Year Walk

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Year Walk is creepy, cold, and quiet. All descriptors I avoid when I pick games to play, but somehow I ended up playing it. Everything’s weird and unintelligible, and I think that’s fitting for a game that’s more a thematic piece than a game. Its puzzles are simple and often clever. They’re really a means to uncover the next piece of disturbing imagery. That I actually finished it is shocking, considering I usually avoid horror games. Nevertheless, I was lost in its bleak little forest and I have no regrets.

9. Ridiculous Fishing

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Ridiculous Fishing caught me for a six hour marathon. I almost never play a game for that long unless I’ve got a deadline to hit. The art style is simple, the goals are simple, and the narrative is simple, but the design builds to an amazing crescendo, mirroring its titular, three-step process. It has a satisfying combination of depth and frenzied, reflex-based design. It’s also just damn fun.

8. The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1: Faith

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I loved almost all of Telltale’s The Walking Dead season 1. The writing in particular. But I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely ways to make something as rote as zombies interesting, but it’s something I’ve been exposed to a lot in my life. I don’t read a lot of comics, so I had no idea what the Fables comics were about going into The Wolf Among Us. Now, I’m working my way through them to get my fix while I wait for episode 2.

The first episode blends Telltale’s penchant for writing and a group of surprising characters in an almost noire, detective story. That made the dialogue/interrogations do what L.A. Noire could never do for me. They made me theorize and analyze like all good detectives do. It’s perfect for Telltale’s structure and it’s clear they can pull off a good, plodding mystery. I’m eager to see what’s next.

7. Gunpoint

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I admire how clean, smart, and simple Gunpoint is, and I’m jealous it’s only Tom Francis’ first game. Of course the writing is witty and punchy, but what I wasn’t expecting how kinetic the pacing feels. It reminds me of Mark of the Ninja, a game I herald as having incredibly fluid design. Like Mark of the Ninja, Gunpoint rewards you having a plan before attacking, and that’s just how I like to play games.

6. The Stanley Parable

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It’s difficult to describe why I think The Stanley Parable is so brilliant. For me, it was the subversive way it approached free will. As I played I started to connect the dots, I started to question a lot of things about the game, and all of it felt intentional, carefully crafted to dig into my head. And at some point, it froze me in deep, almost philosophical thought. I’ve never had that happen to me in a game. If that was the goal, then it worked.

5. Antichamber

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The way Antichamber undoes everything I thought I knew about video games seduced me. It didn’t just feel fresh, it tickled my brain, and made me adjust my thinking to its own logic. Some games let us explore beautiful worlds that suck us in. Its puzzles had the same effect. Nothing this year replicated the euphoria of finally understanding it. Nothing taught me so well.

4. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

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It’s like Dark Souls, need I say more? The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the first Zelda game I’ve ever finished. I finished it because the open structure, the emphasis on exploration, and the superb level design. There’s something so clean and intricate about it. It’s that elegance that quickly made it one of my favorite games this year.

3. BioShock Infinite

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I’ve had a weird relationship with BioShock Infinite. When it came out, I basically left reality for 2 days. I was completely wrapped up in Booker and Elizabeth’s story. I kept thinking I heard the music of Columbia in my head. It was a week I’ll remember for a long time. A few months later, the spell wore off and I realize many of the problems I had with the game. None of them were huge, most of them were with the combat. But I think great games can have problems too, and I can’t take back my first, incredible experience with it. I wouldn’t even do it if I could. Irrational Games’ fictional world, characters, and themes stuck with me, and I think that it’s worthy enough for this list.

2. The Last of Us

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The Last of Us sticks to a specific mood and nails it. Every part works in tandem to achieve a goal. It has something to say, and it’s not afraid of getting there on its own time. I admire Naughty Dog’s ability to combine a story with design that’s both interesting and touching. Sometimes I forget big-budget games can do that. Most importantly for me, it’s a game that understands its own limitations and the easy mistakes other games often make. It trusts itself and the player in ways that I’m still baffled by. It’s a stunning work.

1. Gone Home

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I thought real hard about it and I can’t think of one single thing that damaged my experience of Gone Home. All I can think of is how much I adore The Fullbright Company’s first game, and how important I think it is for games as a medium. It’s a game about exploring a house. It’s mundane and personal and moving, all at the same time. I love everything about it. The characters, the soundtrack, the art style, and the design. A lot of that is because I grew up very close to where the game is set, so it easy for me to connect to, but combined with the writing and the score, the rest of it found a way to my heart too. It made me appreciate games in a new way. It’s rare and it’s special. It’s my favorite game of the year.

As the holidays approach, the list of airlines that allow handheld gaming grows

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If you’re flying out for the holidays this season, chances are you’ll be able to play games the whole way.

The list of American airlines that support the use of some electronic devices–like a Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita, tablet, and smartphone–from takeoff to landing is increasing after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) relaxed its rules in October. Before, they were only available for use after takeoff and before landing. The supported devices must have their cellular service turned off or be in airplane mode. Larger devices like laptops are still prohibited.

The rules don’t apply everywhere, though. Each airline must go through an extensive process to get approval, including subsidiaries. For example: SkyWest operates some of Alaska Airlines planes, but they haven’t been approved yet, so you won’t be able to boot up your 3DS as quick as you might think. The crew will instruct you if this is the case on your flight.

The major list of airlines–excluding subsidiaries–that allow gate-to-gate use of electronics includes: Delta Airlines, JetBlue, Virgin America, American Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Southwest Airlines. Some of the company’s were part of the 28-member board that created the new rules, effectively getting a head start.

The radio waves emitted by electronic devices were said to have interfered with airplane communication and navigation systems, causing them to make incorrect adjustments. But in Sept. 2013, an investigatory panel within the FAA publicly recommended the loosening of the rules.

The FAA said it spoke with several representatives from airlines, aviation manufacturers, passengers, pilots, flight attendants, and the mobile technology industry to determine that the devices no longer harmed planes.

So, when you’re deep into The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds this month, thank the FAA for letting you continue Link’s adventure.

Notes on: BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea Part 1

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I wrote down some scattered thoughts about the Burial At Sea Part 1 DLC for BioShock Infinite while I played through it. I’ve cleaned them up and put them below in the same style as freelance writer Brendan Keogh does on his blog.

1. The idea of seeing what Rapture was like before it collapsed is compelling, even if most of it was easy to guess from the many little stories packed into the original BioShock. The playful divide between the people who support Andrew Ryan’s growing objectivism and those who do not is fun to listen to, only because you know what is coming. I feel like it’s too binary, though, maybe even a bit artificial since, at times, it feels like an excuse to develop Fontaine, which leads to the game’s excuse for combat.

2. BioShock Infinite’s ending makes it easy for them to bring back a lot of the systems you use in Columbia to Rapture. Everything from the guns, plasmids, tears, and equipment are at your disposal. Anything goes, really. It’s hard to tell if it’s lazy or acceptable.

3. The combat is poor. There are like five large arenas that have fights that don’t make use of them at all. Almost every fight gives you the upper hand on how you’d like to approach it. On normal difficulty I could kill all of the enemies before they had time to spread out. And because of the easiness, there was little reason for me to use plasmids. I imagine they wanted the one-on-one fight with the Big Daddy to be dramatic. You fight him in a huge room that’s only made for him! But it wasn’t. When he doesn’t stand still, he has the saddest looking move that shoots a drill at you and pulls you in. The Big Daddy fight is robbed of all the ruthlessness they had in the first game. It was incredibly anti-climactic.

4. There’s a new weapon. You hold down the trigger at close range and it explodes enemies. Since I didn’t realize I had the code to unlock the door to it early enough, I barely got to use it. My combat style is to shoot enemies from far away and then whack them like mad when they get close, so I don’t know if I would have used it much anyway.

5. Speaking of codes for doors, the majority of the scenarios have to do with you having to get what is essentially a key to open a door, whether it’s a plasmid or a code. Because of that, the pacing was slow and the combat had no stakes.

6. I feel bad for the people who rushed through it in 2 hours. I dragged it out for twice that (still forgot one damn audio diary) and I thought it was okay. The whole thing would have probably felt a lot more hollow had I just pushed through it. I bought the season pass when it was on sale for like $5. Understand that, so, when I say, purely in terms of the amount of and value of the content, it’s not worth $15.

7. The art design is still stunning. It’s still very grand and awesome. The more I think about what I actually liked about BioShock Infinite, it’s the art. Hearing that Irrational Games built it from scratch makes that $15 price tag make a little more sense, but there’s got to be meat to the all the pretty dressing.

8. There was one really good moment where I was lured by an Infusion, the things that let you upgrade health, shield, or salts—haha, upgrade your salts—, in a room with a bunch of mannequins. You probably see where this is going, but I still jumped when a female mannequin yelled at me and jumped down from the display case with a gun.

9. Believe me, I tried to figure out what happened in the context of BioShock Infinite’s crazy story and I still have no idea. I’m starting to wonder if it really matters. Someone will make a visual guide, right?

10. I can’t tell if the severely limited ammo was not a new thing for BioShock Infinite, a way to make it survival horror-y, or because I am a bad shot. Either way, it was more annoying than tense.

11. There’s still a lot of the weird narrative things where you find ammo and guns in shoe boxes and trash cans. Also, Booker has to have a mask to get into a party and Elizabeth, for some reason, does not. Maybe I missed something.

12. Booker is a bad police investigator. I drank and gambled my way through the whole thing. Meaningful choices in games working as intended.

Image credit: Flickr user Deaf Spacker

Podcast: Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn Beta

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I’ve played several hours of the Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn beta and I’ve got some stuff to say.

Music intro – “Field 3 (Gridania)” – Sounds of Eorza: Final Fantasy 14 Official Soundtrack, courtesy of YouTube user Christian Semmler

Direct download (right-click “save as …”)

Stream:


Review: The Yawhg

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The Yawhg is a storytelling machine.

An independently developed choose-your-own-adventure game, The Yawhg weaves a different story every time you play it. How each story plays out depends on your choices and some amount of luck. Its blend of tragedy and triumph keeps you engaged long enough to see several 15-minute-long stories through. But The Yawhg has a pre-determined life span. Eventually, you reach a point where you’ve discovered everything there is to see, and the mechanics behind the stories are revealed, losing the novelty.

The Yawhg is best played with friends. Its four main characters have no backgrounds or motivations, they are defined by the decisions they make throughout the game. Alone, you can play multiple characters, but it’s tough to maintain up to four separate narratives by yourself. With friends, on the same PC, each of you can create unique stories and feel the effects you have on the way it plays out, for better or for worse.

The Yawhg has a simple and grim setup, ripe for stories of defeat and victory. An impending danger is six weeks away from destroying a town, and its fate depends on your choices. You can try to prepare yourself for the end or disregard everything for pleasure. Not every decision is simple though, sometimes what you thought was doing good, turns against you and dooms the entire town.

TheYawhg1The Yawhg is structured into six rounds, representing the final six weeks before the mysterious Yawhg decimates the town. Each round, you choose locations to visit from an overhead map screen. Once selected, you’re presented with two actions, one selfish and one selfless. For example: If you visit the slums, you can either fight crime or pickpocket. One will earn you wealth, and the other will help clean up the streets and possibly affect a later decision. Where your decisions have the most impact are the randomized events that occur after you choose one of the two actions. These events can affect the entire story, like infesting the towns water supply with deadly leeches or rendering the palace inaccessible after your failure to disarm a bomb. The repercussions of your choices can be as small as a single event, or they can happen throughout the story.

How successful you are at each decision is based on a set of attributes increased and decreased depending on your actions. Stats like strength will help you battle in the arena, mind will let you solve complex problems, and wealth determines how much money you can spend. It’s not always clear which attributes can affect a given choice, sometimes you’ll need to put yourself in your character’s shoes and make the decision purely on your own terms. These types of questions deal in moral grey areas and are rare, but they’re what keeps you coming back to The Yawhg for subsequent playthroughs.

TheYawhg2Emily Carroll’s Scandinavian-styled art gives The Yawhg life. Each drawing compliments the emotion in a given scene. They’re detailed enough to portray an action, and vague enough for you to fill in the blanks. Combined with the folk soundtrack that ramps up as the story progresses, The Yawhg soaks you in its themes until you exit the game.

The Yawhg is built to be played multiple times. But there’s a hard limit. Eventually, you start to see the systems underneath it all. The Yawhg is at its worst when you play it like a game, focusing too hard on the attributes and not going with your gut. After enough playthroughs, in my case five, you start skipping through it just to get to something new, and the game loses almost all of its novelty.

That’s the most disappointing thing about The Yawhg. I wanted more, pushed too hard to find it, and soured myself on the game. But that’s doesn’t render the wonderful stories I created with it moot. Some left me stunned, and others had me laughing and theorizing what might happen next with friends. The power of The Yawhg is its ability to tell an exciting story filled with both highs and lows based on your input, and to leaves you wanting to go right back in and do it again.

Podcast: The Last of Us

TheLastofUsI recorded this podcast where I talk about Naughty Dog’s latest game The Last of Us. It’s pretty rad. Spoilers!

Maybe I’ll do some more of these …

Music intro – “The Last of Us” – Gustavo Santaolalla (Spotify, SoundCloudAmazon)

Direct download (Right-click “save link as …”)

Stream:


A Fair Colp: BioShock Infinite’s Violence Has Something to Say

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This column was originally posted on SideQuesting.com.

Credit goes to Steven Strom (who also has his own column here on SideQuesting every week) for coming up with the title for my new column. I don’t have a mission statement for A Fair Colp, it’s simply a way for me to publish what I’ve been thinking about every week, whether it’s like today’s critique of BioShock Infinite’s violence, a rant, or something else. The goal isn’t to be definitive, but to add to the general discourse about games.

BioShock Infinite is one of those games that makes you feel like you should write something about it. I feel that way about a lot of games. I’m always sifting through my experience, looking for ideas to pluck out and form into a topic. Usually, I wait too long and my opinion becomes expressed across several different reviews and critiques. I often take the easy way out and point to them instead of writing my own. But games like BioShock Infinite feel like they could be discussed for a long time, just as the first BioShock has been. BioShock Infinite is a game I’m still thinking about, still distracting me while I’m playing other games. This is rare. The last game to have this effect on me was Spec Ops: The Line.

Leigh Alexander wrote the first piece that nails what I think many people are criticizing BioShock Infinite for. She says it all with this: “It has something to say, certainly. It just says more about its own self than about the ideas it wanted to explore.” She’s talking about the game’s use of violence as a core mechanic, and how despite all the strong themes it seems to want to discuss, all of them are muted under the sound of gunfire and growling.

She’s right. BioShock Infinite has so much nuance in its narrative that when you find yourself shooting rockets at ghosts and twisting heads off in the middle of combat, you wonder what the game could have been without all the action. My typical routine was to kill all the enemies in a level as fast as possible, as mindlessly as possible, and then to walk around the environment, piecing together its story. My favorite parts of the game were not the shooting bits, but moments where Columbia stood still and I got to run around and gawk at all the detail.

At the same time, I don’t support the argument that BioShock Infinite should have been a four- to six-hour-long narrative trip like Dear Esther. Yes, the first 45 minutes or so are wonderful. It’s a brave introduction for a triple-A action game, but I can’t see where the game’s drama would come from in what would essentially be a theme park. Now, set this fictional game after Columbia has fallen and I might be interested. In doing that, though, you would be creating something very similar to the first BioShock, which is where the no combat argument makes a lot more sense to me.

I don’t think that’s the story Irrational Games wanted to tell. I believe in some ways, or at least for a short time, the violence in BioShock Infinite communicates how brainwashed Columbia really is. The people of Columbia fight for their beliefs. They’re afraid of Booker, afraid of someone questioning everything their city is built on. In Rapture, you felt isolated by the thick glass and the miles of sea above you, here, it’s the people. The raffle scene with the couple is the first hint that Columbia isn’t all beauty and ambition. It was just as unsettling for me as the opening moments of the first BioShock, only it said everything I needed to know in the span of a few seconds, in broad daylight, surrounded by non-violent characters.

And when the first blood is shed, it’s shocking, then Columbia’s true colors start to show. Before the action begins to feel unnecessary, you’re explicitly shown what ignorance and fear can bring someone to do. It makes you think. It makes you realize how wrong everything is in Columbia.

I’m glad BioShock Infinite isn’t the indie game some wish it could be. When I briefly worked in retail last year, I tried my best to get people to play Spec Ops: The Line. I told the people looking for something like Call of Duty to give it a try, and when I told them the game actually had something to say about killing other people, it’s like I woke them up. A few of them were intrigued enough to take it home that day.

I think the use of violence in games needs to be questioned, both by players and the games themselves. I also think it’s something we have to ease into. People like me, who play a lot of games, often get stuck in the idea that every game needs to be wildly inventive and to say something profound about the medium, and it’s true, those are typically the games I like the most, but we need bigger games that are smart too. BioShock Infinite doesn’t have good excuses for most of its violence. But I’d rather have more games like BioShock Infinite, showing players that games can say something, to make them think about the violence, rather than another voiceless Call of Duty.

The State of The Grass

Woah, Polygonal Grass has changed.

It’s just a different theme, calm down. But with the new theme, I’m trying to decide the purpose of the blog. WordPress allows me to publish good-looking content for free, whereas Tumblr lets me post content quickly without fussing with the layout. More people browse Tumblr than WordPress, though, and that means less people read my stuff.

I’m thinking Polygonal Grass will be a place to post the stuff I’d like to look nice and professional for my portfolio. So, don’t expect consistent updates. Maybe, I’ll publish my new, weekly SideQuesting columns here.

The Cave Creator Ron Gilbert Leaves Double Fine

ImageThe Secret of Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert will leave Double Fine Productions just two months following the release of adventure game The Cave, according to a post on his blog.

Gilbert, a game designer and writer best known for his work on Maniac Mansion and the DeathSpank series says he’s not done creating games. “So many games left to be designed,” he wrote.

With the help of his former Hothead Games colleague and DeathSpank Co-Creator Clayton Kauzlaric, Gilbert has been developing an “iOS side project,” titled, “The Voyage to Discover the Ultimate Sea Shanty: A Musical Match-3 Pirate RPG.”

Gilbert plans to post screenshots of his iOS project on the Grumpy Gamer blog “in the next few days,” and behind-the-scenes pictures from The Cave “over the next few weeks.”

“Good luck, Ron!” Double Fine President Tim Schafer wrote in a Tweet, “Thanks for The Cave!”

Gilbert will give the keynote speech at the Penny Arcade Expo Australia on June 19.

Gilbert joined Double Fine in Sept. 2010.

Source: Grumpy Gamer, Twitter

Duncan Jones to Direct Warcraft Movie, Production Begins Fall 2013

Duncan JonesDirector Duncan Jones has been all the way to the Moon, but he hasn’t been to Azeroth yet.

Legendary Picture’s live-action Warcraft movie is alive again, with Jones in the director’s chair, reports Hollywood Reporter.

The film adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s fantasy universe begins production fall 2013, and is scheduled to release in 2015.

Legendary will keep Charles Leavitt’s script, who has previously written Blood Diamond (2006) and K-PAX (2001).

Legendary’s Thomas Tull and Jon Jashni, along with Blizzard’s Charles Roven and Alex Gartner will produce the film.

British film-maker, and video game player Duncan Jones, previously directed Source Code (2010) and Moon (2009). “So the gauntlet was thrown down ages ago: Can you make a proper MOVIE of a video game. I’ve always said it’s possible. Got to DO it now! ;),” he tweeted following the film’s announcement.

The film’s casting has not been announced.

Source: Hollywood Reporter, Twitter

Image credit: ScreenCrave