Sony’s portable Vita device has long been an enigma. No one – least of all Sony – really understands why it exists, or why they should own one. For most, it is an overpriced luxury item trying to make quality console releases portable: it has a large, high-resolution screen; it has two thumbsticks and a bunch of buttons. But there is so much more to the device than that: it has two cameras – one on the front, one the rear. It has two touch pads: the screen itself is a touchscreen, and a pad on the rear device also acts as a touchpad. It has a microphone. It has an accelerometer that knows exactly what angle it is being held on. The Vita can see, hear, and feel us.
Most developers for the device, however, have failed to really take advantage of these features beyond simple touchscreen menus. MediaMolecule is the exception, understanding the potential of Sony’s device seemingly more than Sony themselves. Their game Tearaway is the game the Vita needed at its launch two years ago: a game that is as much about the exploration of the material device in your hand as it is a captivating virtual world. Tearaway asks the player and their surroundings to become part of the game. While augmented reality games use cameras to project virtual objects into the actual world, Tearaway brings the actual world into the virtual. Photos of the player are plastered around the world; touch the rear touchpad and your fingers burst through the fabric of the game’s reality to move blocks and fling monsters in the air; in the background, the player’s face stares down on the world through the Sun.
Tearaway is a celebration of videogames. It’s a beautiful, constant aesthetic of papercraft combined with an intelligent artistic statement of just what it means to engage with a virtual world. It’s an easy game, providing only minimal challenges, but one that is simply a pleasure to just move through. It is a game that feels complete, that doesn’t make the form/content divide that most games attempt with their ‘immersive’ virtual worlds, but which completely embraces the fact it is being played on a small, peculiar device wrapped in the player’s hands, making that part of the story.
2013 was not the greatest year for high budget, ‘Triple-A’ games. Many of the year’s biggest releases felt tied down by their own ‘gameiness’. That is, there were plenty of big games aiming to do something intelligent, but which also felt the pressure to include arbitrary challenges simply for the sake of including them. It is the burden of large budget videogames: deviate too far from what is already known, and you are risking tens of millions of dollars; stick too close to what is safe, and you are lampooned as unoriginal.
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is no exception. There is no shortage of frustrating ‘gamey’ segments that contribute nothing to what the game is trying to achieve, which seem to be there only to satisfy some core gamer pleasure of shooting stuff. Yet, what makes The Last of Us commendable is a clear determination to strip as much of that gameiness away as possible while still being a Triple-A release. It tries – and, for the most part, succeeds – to be a game about something.
That ‘something’ is ‘Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but with Zombies’. It is, as Cameron Kunzelman notes, ‘the culmination of storytelling for this [gaming] generation’ (which, actually, says a lot about the state of storytelling in Triple-A games). Naughty Dog takes the mechanical skeleton of its successful Uncharted series and imbues it with a drastically different tone and atmosphere. Whereas Uncharted is about the lighthearted galavanting adventures of Indiana Jones-esque Nathan Drake, there is a heaviness to The Last of Us’s more personal adventure of Joel and Ellie across the desolate wasteland of dead America. There is a muted brutality that pervades the game, present before you even reach the main menu in the way ‘Sony Computer Europe Entertainment presents’ and ‘Naughty Dog’ just appear and then disappear again, not fading in and out like every other game. Despite its length, The Last of Us never dwells when it can cleanly slice off the beginning and end of a scene. Last of Us is special because it is a Triple-A game with a clear aesthetic direction.
It’s a clear aesthetic direction that is in a perpetual tension with what a Triple-A game has to be. In the way you spend five hours scavenging the ruins of houses for three bullets and then find yourself in a cinematic fight in a warehouse that, thankfully, has twenty boxes of bullets for you. It’s the way you walk through a majestically crafted town, admiring the sheer majesty of the level design – and then see three thigh-high crates and know you are going to start shooting people soon because there is cover. Last of Us is constantly fighting with itself to be something Triple-A games are not, at least at present, allowed to be.
You see it in interviews with the developers, that anxiety they felt about wanting to do something particular while their focus testers (‘core gamers’, no doubt) wanted what they already knew. Ultimately, The Last of Us is special because it dares to be something it isn’t meant to be, something it can’t possibly be: a serious Triple-A game, and it’s fascinating in the ways it inevitably fails as much as in the ways that it impossibly succeeds.
Twine games rose in popularity in the latter part of last year. ‘The Twine Revolution’ saw communities of developers began taking advantage of the simple hypertext editor to create powerful interactive stories and poems. Twine’s lower barrier of entry – free software, simple interface, played in a web browser – has opened up game development to all kinds of previously excluded people and, consequentially, has allowed a whole range of ideas and identities to be expressed that were previously alien to games. Without putting too fine a point on it, Twine has given videogames one of its first avant-garde movements.
It’s hard to choose a single Twine game among the many significant releases of the past year. There’s merritt kopas’s Conversations With My Mother, Zoë Quinn’s Depression Quest, Meghann O’Neill’s Unbreakable. But ultimately I must choose the romp of Crystal Warrior Ke$ha by prolific Twine game creator Porpentine. Crystal Warrior Ke$ha is the game I show people when I want to highlight the potential of Twine. It’s short, direct, and to the point. It’s a simple tale, almost fan-fiction, as the player enacts Ke$ha as crystal aliens invade her concert. It has few branching paths; the player’s sparse choices all ultimately lead to a similar place. What Crystal Warrior Ke$ha ultimately shows is that ‘just clicking on links’ (what Twine games are often derided as by those segments of games culture who have never had to worry about being excluded from a hegemonic culture) can be a fascinating, intoxicating, and embodied experience. As Ke$ha’s song pounds in the other tab of your web browser and the pink glitter pulses around the hyperlinks, you get pulled into the hypnotic and nightmarish world of Porpentine’s evocative prose.
Crystal Warrior Ke$ha, along with many of Porpentine’s other games from this past year, makes me excited about the future of videogames in a way no new Sony or Microsoft console ever could.
Michael Brough is one of the most exciting individuals creating videogames today. His oeuvre is exciting not least of all because he is a game developer who can be said to have an oeuvre. Games from his extensive catalogue were taken up in certain niche albeit taste-setting indie communities, and his popularity has spread from there to an admittedly still niche but somewhat broader community. Games like Glitch Tank, Zaga-33, 0, Corrypt, and Vesper-5 have all seen attention for both their fascinating mechanical systems and their bizarre but sincere art style.
Critic and developer Liz Ryerson still, I think, describes Brough’s games better than anyone in this passage from her essay ‘The Talk of Magicians’:
Walking into the world of a Michael Brough game feels like stepping inside of a machine that has existed for a very long time before you ever entered into it. His obsession with hyper-intricate backgrounds with interlocking networks of symbols, like these circuit board-style designs for his game Helix feel like occupying the nervous system of a living being – which makes no concessions to you, nor does it make any effort to translate its logic into human language. There’s a constant tension between this alienness and your in-game character, of just being in the environment and then having to manipulate it to serve your own ends and progress in the game.
868-Hack makes more concessions for the player than any of Brough’s other games, explaining the functions of different moves, and even offering a brief tutorial. This allows it to be just that bit more accessible and not standoff-ish for the new player. But that is not to say Brough has compromised on his own style, and 868-Hack still offers an experience deep enough to drown in. In 868-Hack, a cyberpunk hacker rogue-like game, the player does step inside of a machine. The player takes moves around a grid board, hacking into subsystems to steal points and skills. Enemy software tries to stop the players’ progress. It’s a game not so much of luck as of probability and tactics, of being able to read a situation and respond to it with the options available to you. The first few games will be over in ten seconds as this alien machine overwhelms you and defies understanding, but you slowly figure it out. You learn to hide in cul-de-sacs; you learn which nodes to siphon and which ones to leave. You become a master of Brough’s world of gorgeous math.
Much like Porpentine, it’s hard to overestimate the excitement Brough gives me for the future of videogames. When we have creators creating such highly personalised and characterful games like this, I feel like videogames are going to be okay.
As online multiplayer rose in popularity through the 2000s, more traditional ‘local’ multiplayer games faded into obscurity. Split-screen gaming all but disappeared as multiplayer went online to give each player their own screen. More recently, however, developers have started to realise there was something special about local multiplayer, something that made squinting at just one-quarter of a screen worthwhile: the social interactions of being side-by-side with your fellow players, and the embodied interactions of the real world that multiplayer games facilitated. Developers such as Douglas Wilson with Johann Sebastian Joust and Bennett Foddy with Poleriders and Get On Top, and Ramiro Corbetta with Hokra have started to rediscover this space of local multiplayer gaming, and various events around the world such as Wild Rumpus or, in Melbourne, Hovergarden, have begun drawing more attention to the wonders of playing videogames with other people in the same room.
Towerfall, by Matt Thorson and Alec Holowka is arguably the definitive title of this wave of indie local multiplayer games (though, some will insist that title belongs to Samurai Gunn). Four archers face each other in a vertical 2D arena. Rounds are lightning-quick, as a single arrow or jump on the head will kill a fellow player. The game, at its core, is incredibly simple (shoot the other players, don’t be shot), but a vast range of small details colour the game with spectacular moments for the delight of players and onlookers. Shoot an arrow at someone as they shoot an arrow at you and the arrows will hit each other with a satisfying ‘clunk’ and fall to the ground. Duck under an arrow shot and it will skim your head, knocking off your crown or helmet (every character, deliberately, has a piece of headwear). Dash at the right time, catch an arrow in midair, and shoot it back at your attacker. Through its simple, pixel-art representation, Towerfall is a pressure cooker of cool moments. Play with a group, and it is impossible not to shout at the screen and at each other at the general incredulity of your own performance – afforded by, but in no way determined by, the game’s intelligent design.
For one week, Candy Box was the only game that existed. It was the only game that mattered. In that grey no-person’s land between satirical performance and sincere enjoyment was a white webpage with a sing number slowly ticking upwards in the corner:
‘You have 0 candies.’
‘You have 1 Candies!’
‘You have 2 Candies!’
Then buttons appear. You can ‘Eat all the candies’. You can ‘Throw 10 candies on the ground’. For anyone invested in the discussions around videogame culture, the satire is immediately clear: much like Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker, it is clearly a tongue-in-cheek distillation of the arbitrary mundaneness of Facebook free-to-play games, those carrot-on-a-stick grinding play mechanics that ask you to repeat a task for no apparent reason.
But then, once you have 60 candies, a man appears on the screen. He is the Candy Merchant, and he offers to sell you a lollipop. Accumulate 150 candies, and he will offer you a wooden sword. Why on earth do you need a wooden sword? And so Candy Box swings towards sincere enjoyment as you being to wonder just what else is hidden out there on this still predominately blank screen? While most free-to-play games function by dangling a carrot in front of the player, Candy Box has no carrot. The player pushes forward because of a pure curiosity to see what else is out there.
For one week, Candy Box dominated the twitter-sphere of games journalists and indie developers. Like kids playing Pokemon in the pre-broadband age – when anything seemed possible and mythbusting was not a mere webpage away – there were whispered rumours of dragons in castles and waves of demons pouring out of hell, of a witch by a swamp selling special candy spells. Those elite of videogame culture suddenly found themselves drawn into and fixated with a game that, at its core, was precisely the kind of mindless grinding they typically write off as terrible game design. It was a spark and, a week later, it was out.
People moved on, but Candy Box’s legacy remained. People considered what it meant that they had enjoyed it so wholeheartedly, perhaps best explored by John Brindle’s investigative criticism. It sparked a genre of similarly short-lived games, like the less-interesting but still fascinating Cookie Clicker, or the eerily beautiful and literary A Dark Room. The best art isn’t always the art that is remembered forever, especially in a temporal, performative, and technologically-driven medium like videogames. Few people will remember Candy Box, but they’ll feel its mark.
Videogames, for the most part, rely heavily on generic fantastical backdrops for their stories: fantasy worlds, sci-fi universes, crime cities, military battlefields. Even ostensibly ‘real’ places, such as L.A. Noire’s painstakingly crafted 1940s Los Angeles, are founded on an atmosphere and pastiche of film noir. It’s rare to encounter a game with a mundane setting; it’s even rarer to encounter a game dealing with mundane themes.
Gone Home, developed by the small independent team The Fullbright Company and designed by Irrational Games alumni Steve Gaynor, straddles the two. On the one hand, it is clearly steeped in the conventions of horror: a girl arrives at a dark, empty, and strange house in the middle of a stormy night and must try to figure out where her family has gone. On the other hand, it uses these genre tropes alongside environmental storytelling techniques often used in Triple-A first-person games to expertly and intelligently tell (or, perhaps, ‘present’) the most beautifully mundane story about a teenage girl coming to terms with her sexuality in the middle of the 90s. So much more could be said about the way it directs the players expectations through conventions, but to do so would ruin the game, and make no mistake: this is a game you want to play. If you are interested in videogames but not at all in shooting a whole bunch of men or aliens, this is the perfect place to start. This is one of those few games, alongside Portal and Minecraft and perhaps no others, that is worth learning how to navigate a 3D space for.
Gone Home was also fascinating for defining a moment for a nascent generation of game critics in their late 20s and early 30s. With its sincere 90s nostalgia, Gone Home allowed an outpouring of personal anecdotes from game critics just reaching that age where their ‘youth’ seems like a separate time from their current existence. Some connected with this girl’s struggles with her sexuality and Riot Grrl culture; some felt a sadness in not feeling connected; some, like myself, felt a melancholy for a decade they were too young to really call their own (born in 1986, I remember the 90s but I can’t justly say they were mine). Playing and discussing Gone Home felt like a collective remembering and boxing up of the past, like an acceptance that the 90s were then and that then isn’t now. It felt – in some strange way I don’t think I can quite explain – like growing up. It is an absolute privilege to play, and one of the most important videogames of recent years.