Actually, that's not entirely accurate. I don't really get into to overly complex games, but I am glad that they exist. Gaming as a medium has burst wide open, and developers are finding niches that were previously considered risky business. Seriously, in a world of safe, rushed sequels, how does a game entitled Gratuitous Space Battles exist?
I am glad that there are developers willing to cater to all audiences and that brilliant people are pioneering in all directions, but I am even more glad that some of those brilliant minds have chosen to return to gaming's birthplace: simplicity. The earliest hardware only allowed for simple, unassuming games with basic mechanics, but this era formed the basis for some of the best-selling games of all time (Tetris anyone?).
While making a conscious effort to not degrade more complex games, I'd like to celebrate the Simplicity Renaissance and my favorite games that are leading the way.
First, let me say that "simple" does not mean "shallow". The terms are often confused. The games I'm going to talk about have a wealth of content based on simple mechanics. Truly great mechanics have near endless implementation. Just think about how many great games have come out of the simple platforming mechanics of Mario.
An indie darling by virtually everyone's reckoning, Super Meat Boy is built with masterful level design and painstakingly iterated locomotion controls....and not much more. No really, think about it. Meat Boy can't hold anything, shoot anything, use items, nothing. In fact, it's even more of a Mario redux because Meat Boy can't even jump on anything. He traverses hundreds of amazingly designed levels by running and jumping.
From the amazing music to the hilarious cutscenes, Super Meat Boy is a love letter to the past 3 decades of gaming brilliance and manages to pay its greatest respect by simply improving upon the past.
Overall, this game has brutal difficulty, but an amazing learning curve that never feels unfair or stifling. The amount of amazing content that came out of such a timeless, basic mechanic is mindblowing. Add to that the interesting array of unlockable characters who can mix up mechanics in a variety of the ways, and you have a game that is infinitely replayable.
This game was not one-mechanic simple, but each world in Braid demonstrates masterful progression of a given mechanic. At first glance, each mechanic is pretty self-explanatory, but then the game turns the mechanic on its ear by forcing the player to deconstruct it and apply it in totally different ways.
Braid is notoriously difficult, but like Super Meat Boy, it is not an arbitrary difficulty. Unlike Super Meat Boy, though, Braid is not upfront about its difficulty. Braid is not really a game of skill, it is a game of puzzles with a very basic emphasis on execution. Whereas Super Meat Boy took Mario to its skill-based extreme, Braid took the ideas from Mario and pulled them in the thinking man's direction.
While I very obviously have a penchant for independent developers, I think Nintendo really earned a place on this list with this entry. As a company, they have channeled the accessibility into a roiling juggernaut of hundred dollar bills. While most of their games were developed in this spirit (for better or worse in the case of Smash Bros. fanboys), Kirby's Epic Yarn is the pinnacle of this development.
No recent Nintendo game has achieved such blissful simplicity with such optional tension. At the core of the "hardcore gamer" flareup, anyone who has actually played this game knows that simple completion of the levels is not where the real sense of accomplishment comes from. In Kirby, a single hit can be the difference between a the coveted gold medal in abject failure. The fact the abject failure is totally optional and self-imposed makes for a single game that players from any place in the gaming spectrum can enjoy.
It has been almost a year to the day that the original Angry Birds was first released on mobile platforms. Known to many as the premier toilet game of 2010, Angry birds offers a gaggle* of wickedly smart puzzles disguised as a simple physics game.
Levels in the game are numerous and super-short, making it easy to jump in for a few tries during virtually any downtime. Rooted in the touchscreen revolution, Angry Birds has been the top-selling app on both the iOS and Android platforms for what seems like forever, and with the release of a new expansion, that title doesn't seem like it is going to be going away anytime soon.
I wanted to focus on Beat and Runner individually, but for the sake of brevity I will attempt to condense my unbridled love for this series. Gaijin Games is an incredible developer that has an amazing work ethos and a very obvious passion for the great games of the past. Every Bit.Trip game wears its inspiration on its sleeve while also forging bravely into gaming's previous red-headed stepchild: audio.
While many sound engineers have done amazing work to lay the foundation for gaming's current audio landscape, no developer outside of Harmonix has integrated music with gameplay in such an effective way. Add to that a brilliant grasp of mechanics and level design, and you have the a studio that deserves to be around for a long, long time.
The darling of the Simplicity Renaissance, Splosion Man is a brilliant example of everything that a timeless, classic videogame should be. If Super Meat Boy is the heart of the last 3 decades of gaming, then Splosion Man is its soul. Aside from the technical limitations, Splosion Man is a game born out of a one-button era.
The mechanic is simple: press a button and you "splode". Exploding propels Splosion Man forward and into the air in whichever direction the joystick is currently being pressed. Then, Twisted Pixel takes this simple concept and expands it into one clever scenario after another. The entire length of the game felt fresh and new with "Wow"-inducing setpieces peppering what is a truly supreme game.
It should be noted here that this article was inspired by a recent oversight on my part. I'm not much of a multiplayer kind of guy, so I honestly never even noticed the menu option in Splosion Man. However, if you, like me, did not ever explore Splosion Man's multiplayer, please go rectify that. It gave me some of the most powerfully co-operative experiences that I've had in recent memory. You will feel awesome that you managed to pull off such complicated challenges with two fallible human beings.
Honorable Mentions: NHL Arcade, World of Goo, Katamari Series, Pixeljunk Shooter
*I didn't even notice the pun at first, but it's too good (see:bad) to delete now.
When one thinks of a videogame story, the mind typically wanders to sprawling epics like those set forth in the Final Fantasy series or harrowing tales of one super soldier conquering all odds to find the girl that he loves and save all of humanity. If that's not your bag, maybe you tend to like the whimsical tales about a plumber rescuing a princess or a psychological thriller about dead spouses. In the wide world of games, there is assuredly something for everyone.
I really respect this form of creating narrative. There are some guys doing interesting things with pre-formed stories, and to be fair, writing a compelling interesting story is difficult in any medium. However, one thing that games excel at, far above every other medium is the ability to create individualized, dynamic stories. For me, that is the greatest element of gaming.
For an example of what I'm really getting at, look no farther than your closest 6 year old. If you don't have a 6 year old handy, try to remember what you were like when you were a 6 year old. Children excel at drawing epic tales of adventure out of nothingness. A child can relate to you a tale of epic adventure after a trip to the grocery store.
Gaming is a portal back to this childlike sense of imagination. As an example of what I'm getting at, I will relate a tale from my most recent addiction: Minecraft.
I started my first real Minecraft game to find myself on a beach. In one direction, a giant ocean spanned forever, as far as the draw distance could see. Turning around, I saw nothing but two large hills made into near perfect ziggurats. I set off to find coal, my most pressing need. I wandered around for a bit desperately searching for odd-colored rocks to set up camp near when I finally came upon a coal deposit in a mountainside.
I set to forging rudimentary tools to carve out the precious fuel and dug a small room out of the side of the mountain with a pickaxe made out of wood. I created some torches and spent my first night looking over my shoulder as I dug further and further into the mountain. When daylight came again, I had entirely upgraded my tool collection steel instruments and set out with bare rations and building materials to find a proper homesite. I searched until the sun began to sink in the sky and, having lost all sense of direction decided to settle on the nearest high ground I could find.
Miraculously, I came upon a broad mountaintop with a view in every direction. In one valley there were trees, in another a natural quarry. Here I would build my first true settlement. Even as I laid my first foundation, I could hear the sounds of shambling creatures of the night. I saw their glowing eyes as I finished my third layer of bricks. I was safe in the skeleton of my home for the night. I set up my chests, my bench and my precious forge and I prepared for the morning's toils.
Time passed quickly after this point. By morning I had a competent structure with light decorations. After a few days, I had depleted the area of resources and expanded underground. Not content with the meager surroundings I returned to on trips back to the surface, I decided to expand my glorious empire to the next beautiful mountainside. I remember thinking that building a bridge that crossed a valley was a little excessive. I told myself that I should work on finding precious resources before really digging in to building my empire. However, my quest for glory could not be sidetracked. I begin building the bridge with utmost confidence. In my foolish pride, I began to take unnecessary risks in engineering. I focused on creating a strange, haunting structure with meandering, non-Euclidean geometry. I felt like M.C. Escher on acid.
Then, like any good addict, I royally screwed up. I was backing up over the void when God smote me with a sneeze. The loss of precision for a single second sent me hurtling to my death in the rocky valley below. My heart stopped and panic broke over me in waves. I took off my headphones and let my head drop to the desk.
I died. What now? Did I lose everything? Do I restart in the beginning. Is my kingdom still there or has every trace of my grandeur been erased?
To be honest, I almost quit playing. Hours had passed and dawn was threatening to break through my window. I had to know though. I set out in search for my first camp. Was it east or west? Over the tall hill or around the quarry? Nothing seemed familiar. I had spent so little time here that I began to question where here was? Maybe I had been thrown to a random spawn point. I was seriously freaking out when I tripped and fell into moving water. I was desperately trying to escape, but the currents carried me around a few bends before I escaped.
When I finally swam away from the rapids and regained my bearings, I saw the entrance to my makeshift shelter. I rejoiced silently and reached the safety of the small room and just stood there for a moment. It was still bright daylight outside, but I wanted to at least start here next time I played.
Actually, I want to start back at the castle. I'll just get back there. I opened my inventory to get out my workbench to prepare for my journey when I realized two impossibly terrifying things. First, all of my everything had been lost in the accident. Gold, steel, red gems, my steel sword and armor. I was naked and defenseless. The second thing I realized is that I had taken off my headphones. I knew before I actually heard it that the zombies had spawned behind me. I was so greedy I had taken all of the torches from this meagerhouse, and in the dark corner of the room hell had opened a trap door.
My character and my spirit died deaths worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. I closed the game, uncertain if I'd ever return. I went to bed that night thinking about the small world that I had lost. I told my friend the next day about my lost kingdom. In return, he told me tales of his fertile, vibrant lands. It is moments like this that validate gaming for me: the ability to share unique, dynamic tales that come from the gameplay. None of what happened to me in Minecraft was scripted, and because every world is randomly generated, it cannot be replicated for me or anyone else. Whether I like it or not, this story is a memory now, but what is great gaming if not memorable?
There is an fascinating phenomenon when thousands of people share the same experience. Every person that has played through Final Fantasy 7 can commiserate on the finer points of Cloud's pointy hair or debate whether Tifa or Aeris was more boneable, but there is something entirely special about sharing a dynamic, personal experience. It is tougher to create an interesting narrative in a user-driven game like Minecraft. The player is given a sprawling set of mechanics and total freedom. Like tabletop RPGs, you only get out of the game what you put into it. However, with a small suspension of disbelief and a bit of imagination, you too can escape the drudgery of your everyday life and feel like a kid again.
There is room for this in all sorts of genres. Not every game has to be Minecraft to produce stories. Think about your favorite play from Madden (triple fumble for a touchdown) or the time that you killed the entire enemy team and recovered the flag. There is room for narrative in every gaming context, and it's important to capture these moments and savor them. I've played thousands upon thousands of hours of gaming, but all I have now are my memories. I could tell you all about the plot from the Metal Gear Solid series, but to be honest, I'd rather tell you about the time that I beat Metal Slug 2 with just one quarter.
When I was 10 years old, I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the first time. I found the humor to be strange and some of the words very foreign. To this day, I struggle to recall the definition of the word "pram" (which, as I understand it is the essential Britishness of a person). However, amidst all the strange and seemingly random jokes, two important things happened.
First, my sense of humor was totally transformed. That movie is singlehandedly responsible for changing me from a dumb kid who laughed at dick and fart jokes to a dumb kid who laughed at British dick and fart jokes. Second, I saw bare breasts for the first time with an adult in the room. I realize now that the boobs in that movie were not particularly scandalous, but I was raised in a very religious family from Southern Georgia.
What I've discovered since is that American and European cultures tend to have very opposing viewpoints on sex and violence. In the United States, sex sells, but it's certainly not allowed on network television. The most scandalous thing we've ever seen was Janet Jackson's not-entirely-exposed breast for 2 seconds and jiggly old man butt [Both links unfortunately SFW].
However, the other side of that coin is that American culture tends to promote violence. Immediately after 9/11, a show called 24 became an overnight sensation as it explored America's fascination with the violence caused by terrorism on American soil. In the show, main character Jack Bauer is tasked with stopping a large, complex terrorist plot in a mere 24 hours. The show's narrative always include Jack shooting lots and lots of bad guys as well as graphic scenes of torture. 24 received critical acclaim and the viewers to match.
From my limited understanding, European culture tends to have the exact opposite view. Violence is always contextualized, whereas sexuality is watered down by ubiquity. This is not to say that violence does not exist, but it is not always instantly justified by the common culture.
My view became solidified because of two British games: Fable 2 and Enslaved.
Fable 2 explores sexuality in a rather simplistic, but interesting way. Whereas God of War and Grand Theft Auto seem to promote objectification in their casual, masculine-focused sex romps, Fable 2 imposes consequences for your actions. There are pragmatic and economic concerns for having unprotected sex (STD's and Babies respectively). However, the game also goes on to explore the societal implications for being a total whorebag. I wish they had explored these social consequences a bit more (having citizens and specifically questgivers treat you differently), I applaud the game for trying to explore sexuality without really exploiting a simple masculine power fantasy.
Enslaved breaches the other area: violence. While I obviously haven't played the whole game, one observation I made is that the character never fought any of the human slavers during the entire course of the demo. The game really went out of its way to allow the player to experience the joy of beating the hell out of things with a big staff without the moral implications of murdering hundreds and hundreds of people. In fact, throughout the entire demo and following trailer, there was no instance of a human being harmed.
I know that these two games don't represent every European developer (Obviously DICE has no trouble piling up the bodies in Battlefield). I'm also not interesting in condemning any one culture. I do think it's important to know that there are alternative ways of thinking around the world, which means that there can be an alternative form of thinking right where you live. Not everyone in the world is the same, so if you are a pacifist in Texas or a Gearhead in Britain, remember that you're not alone.
So, this year's edition of Fake Game ___day isn't really a game as much as a gametype. If I had any proficiency with modding, I'd be tempted to make the game myself, but for now I must settle for crudely drawn MS Paint diagrams.
The basic premise of this is that there are 4 players a on a small, equilateral map. The map has four quadrants that are the same basic size, but feature slightly altered interiors.
Each player is given 5-10 blocks of C4. For a setup round of 90 seconds, each player is trapped in their section and can set up the C4 as they see fit. As soon as the C4 is placed, a 180-second timer begins. Once the setup round is expired, all the gates are lifted, and any unused C4 taken away.
At this point, 3 of the players have basic unarmed melee. I'm envisioning "slaps" from Goldeneye so that it's not an insta-kill or anything, but fill in whatever you like. The lucky player though, is given a peashooter. The pistol should take around 7-10 shots to kill, and the shooter's power is tempered by half-speed.
The goal then is simple: survival. Killing others is simply a bonus. If an unarmed kills another unarmed opponent, they receive 50 points. If they kill the shooter with their melee, they receive an additional 100 points. The shooter receives 25 points for each kill and 100 total if all other opponents are killed by them.
The strategy lies in 2 areas: the bombs and the fleeing. With 90 seconds of setup and a 180 second timer (which isn't visible to anyone) many patterns could emerge. You could set all the bombs early in the 90 second cycle, causing them to go off early. Same thing with setting them late. Do you set them all on top of each other causing a massive explosion or do you set them up strategically all across your area?
Then, once that is done, do you lure the shooter to your area or do you try your luck in another quadrant? This gets interesting when other players get involved. As the shooter, you could stay where you are as a sniper of sorts, or you could give chase. Likewise, as an unarmed combatant, you could chase down others and they would be forced to retreat or fight. Since there will be a minimum of 3 minutes before explosions start, chances are, no one is staying still. In the heat of the chase, people will lose track of time and in the word of Brad Nicholson: BOOOOOOOOM.
The random element of the gun is my favorite part, since all players are setting up their bombs with the statistical probability that they won't have the gun. It would be hard to perfect strategy that would make you a powerhouse as the shooter.
So what do you think? Anyone interested in working on this or is it total trash? Let us perfect through collaboration!
Please, please go buy Just Cause 2 early on. I fear it's going to hit the same sales mark its predecessor did, despite the fact that it has improved in almost every way. The mind-twizzling stuff you can do is more entertainment than should be legal, and out of 5 sessions of the 30 minute demo, I have not bothered to start a mission.
Furthermore, the demo showcases a relatively small part of the map and only a sliver of the weapons and vehicles. Red Faction: Guerilla was my favorite purchase of last year, and only ceased to be fun when I realized how little there was to do. The over-the-top nature of Just Cause 2 and the Lego box feel of building stunts and action sequences makes this game worth keeping an eye on at least.
And if they released a Crackdown-esque God mode tool where you can mess around and spawn items at will, this should be a Day 1 purchase for everyone.