Thursday, 9 April 2009

My random thoughts; life-changing video games you probably won't play.

First off, there's a review coming later - later today, hopefully. But right now I'd like to talk about the state of gaming at the moment, in that it is slowly but surely dying on its arse. The home consoles are dominated by either pre-school-shooting gun-nut teens or the kind of retard who honestly thinks of a MIDI synthesizer powered by waving your arms around as revolutionary gaming. The handhelds have occasionally realised potential, but the home console spazz brigade are steadily enroaching on that with their casual gaming shit. The PC stands tall, proud and aloof as it always has, despite constant bawwwing from the consoles that they're in some way superior, but the pirating community has - shock-horror! - proved to not actually be a good thing for gaming, and the developers are refusing to work on PC titles.

There are steps which could be taken to get away from the end of great gaming. Largely they are unworkable; such steps include Microsoft abandoning all home console activities and using its connections to power forward the PC. The PS3 would have to pick up the slack; it's not like Sony has a lack of experience dominating the video game market. And, of course there would need to be more games like Bioshock.

Bioshock came out in 2007, having been developed over the course of over four years by Irrational Games (or 2K Boston as they are now known). Written by Ken Levine, writer of sister title System Shock 2, it was a first person shooter with elements of puzzle games and RPGs (though the RPG influence was minimal in practice). It revolved around the shooting of enemies with pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, rocket launchers etc. and a pretty standard array of magic attacks or "plasmids" (fire, ice, lightning and - peculiarly - bees). There was also a boss at the end, and a recurring mini-boss throughout.

And here we have why gameplay alone is not all that can make a game great.

The game is set in the broken ruins of a objectivist dystopia overrun by the great and the good's desires and abilities when the boundaries were removed. The enemies were "splicers", citizens driven to madness in their desparate search for plasmids, a cure-all to all life's problems, and ADAM, the powering factor to make it happen. The environments were beautiful and terrifying; stately art-deco and almost-tacky prosperity cracked with age and overrun with constant-flowing water, reflecting the themes of perfection and corruption. The Little Sister system provides the only instance in a game I've played where "moral choice" moments actually inspired an emotional response. And there is one twist - the crux of the story - which deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest moments in gaming; a stunning evaluation of our place as gamers within games, all summed up in three perfect words.

This was an art game with a budget behind it. And it sold; it was after all a very pretty first person shooter. I've never heard comparatively casual gamers discuss the themes and ideas of a game in a way that Bioshock inspired. It was a breakthrough; the equivalent of Shadow of the Collosus succeeding. But it revealed a problem with the current generation. Namely, that it is going to be next to impossible to make a commercially competitive art game in this day and age.

If you can remember it, think of the excruciatingly PS2 gem Okami. Unique, gorgeous, charming and immensely fun to play, it nonetheless sold about as well as if it was sold dripping with cold urine. The same goes for Ico and the brilliant Psychonauts. Risky games don't sell. They are by their nature indulgences, and the demand for high-end graphics and other such costly ventures leaves such indulgences out of the question. Ergo, there will be no games released which will be interesting QED.

Well, actually no.

I'd like to talk about some art games which are being made, or have been made, which you should play.

Whenever I see the trailer tot his game I want to stark bouncing up and down in my seat, clapping and giggling hysterically. WHen I say that this game has a charming aesthetic, I don't mean in the CUTE-written-in-80-foot-high-letters way that LittleBigPlanet has a charming aesthetic. I mean that it's the visual equivalent of the phrase "omnomnom". The animation, the character design, the stage composition is endearing as anything I've ever seen; all day glo and big pixels and sheer cuteness. The gameplay is...well to call it a 2D platformer is misleading; the game is set in a 3D world which you can only interact with in a 2D way, with puzzles requiring you to turn the game world in order to solve some of the most ingenious levels and puzzles in videogames. I want this game more than words can describe.

This game is free. This game is out. This game takes five minutes to play. This game, in five minutes, can reduce you to tears. Made by Jason Rohrer, a man whose family of four live on less than $10,000 a year so that he can make the gaming equivalent of poetry, this is a game of life. You have no excuse not to play it.

The Path
Little Red Riding Hood as imagined by Tim Burton if he was a european arthouse film director. The most graphically impressive game on this list, it's, like Passage, not a game concerned with fun. It's about telling a story, a dark, grim story. My writing hero, Kieron Gillen, called it "probably art", but "...profoundly disturb[ing in] its portrayal of teenage years as doomed fatalists" in his typically superb review, which you should read right now to save me writing more.
It's £7.25 on Steam and will fuck you up.

A student product, a rhythm-based shooter which reminds me of the superb Rez. No-one played that, so instead, I'll call it Guitar Hero meets any isometric shooter you've ever played. It's brilliant.

And finally, you should probably look at anything on here.

Jason Rohrer's Homepage (where you can download Passage and all his other games)

Fez Trailer

Tale of Tales' Homepage