SCAN Reviews 2012: Games of the Year

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So how was 2012 for you? Mine was perfectly alright, thank you very much, but you get the feeling that the games industry would probably say ‘it’s had a bit of a shit one’. Most notably, after a 2011 that was pumped full of hype, it turned out to be a dreadful year for new hardware. The Wii U was launched to the deafening fanfare of hundreds and thousands of people not giving even the slightest shit. And even that momentous sound was drowned out by the response to the PS Vita, which was so muted that you sometimes have to check Wikipedia to, you know, make sure that it is actually a thing that Sony chose to release, and not just a figment of Sony’s accountant’s worst nightmares made flesh, or something. Probably as a result of these commercial failures, Sony and Microsoft held back on giving out any new information about their next generation systems, seemingly content to keep churning out new peripherals for the time being (to be fair, the Harry Potter Magic Book is really good…).

Nevertheless, the industry isn’t as important as it used to be any more. This may have been a bit of an Annus Horribilis for the gaming industry, but it’s certainly been a stellar year for gamers, because, freed from the shackles of ‘what might sell’, smaller teams of developers  have expanded gaming in so many new and exciting directions. Games like Dear Esther have been pushing at boundaries of what it even means to play a ‘game’. Games like Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia (an autobiographical account of Anthropy’s struggle with gender identity disorder and hormone replacement therapy) have pushed games to explore entirely new subjects, and developed them as methods of highly personal story telling at the same time. The cultural phenomenon that is Minecraft launched for Xbox, and went on to break all sorts of records that it had no right to break. And what’s so amazing about so many of the year’s highlights? It’s that most of them are games made by independent studios with little outside investment. The independent games scene has been flourishing for a while, but this year it has expanded like never before, and it’s pulling up the rest of the industry with it.

And so as part of the end of year review, we at SCAN have put together a little montage [and definitely not a list – see the album’s of the year page for more info on that…] of the year’s best moments for you. Some indie, some mainstream, all good. No scores, no ranking, but a lot of judgement! These are the games you should be playing.

To The Moon – Kan Gao/Freebird Games

You only have to play Braid, and maybe a bit of Prince of Persia, to know how well suited video games seem to explorations of time and memory. It’s probably because their relatively non-linear nature lets you actually experience things in real time, and lets you pause and reflect, rather than pushing you forward relentlessly with the plot, as in a movie. Ken Gao’s To The Moon is the latest addition to this canon of games that deal beautifully with time and memory, but it also throws a lot of other thematic complexity and maturity into the picture too.

The game puts you in the place of two doctors who work for a company that has developed the technology to ‘reconfigure’ patients memories, allowing them to use certain techniques to implant false memories in individuals (it’s all very Inception). However, certain vague downsides to said technology mean that it’s only ever use on patients that are on their death bed, so their new, fake memories don’t clash with their waking ones. It’s here that we meet Johnny, our comatose protagonist, who has asked these  doctors to implant a memory of a trip to the moon, something which Johnny has an inexplicable desire to do. In the attempt to implant these false memories, the player experiences an intimate and thought-provoking journey through a dying man’s life. it’s a love story in reverse, a meditation on the overwhelming power that the past has on shaping the future, and, uniquely, a look into the effect autism spectrum disorders have on the people who live with them.

To The Moon was developed using an off the shelf piece of software (RPG Maker XP), and as such it riffs on many classic JRPG tropes, but it’s the incredible way it uses these tropes for a completely different purpose that makes it so special. The only ‘random battle’ in the game comes right at the start, effectively parodying the most ridiculous cliché of the genre. Those massive black spaces you always see a around rooms actually mean something here, creating the sort of claustrophobic atmosphere you’d expect to experience if you were walking around inside someone’s most repressed memories. Sprites fade in and out, or become faceless, the further back in the time line you go. The soundtrack, apart from a heartbreaking little leitmotif, is extremely minimal, combining the amniotic throb of the medical equipment with the distorted and broken sounds of places not quite remembered.

Every aspect of the game combines to make To The Moon a truly unforgettable experience. A game that everyone should play!

[OK, fine, technically, technically, if SCAN had run a Games of the Year feature like this last year, To The Moon probably would have been on it. However, since it was released just as 2012 was wrapping its fingers around the neck of an old and frail 2011, in that strange end-of-year nether zone where most publications have already compiled their year end lists, it only seems fair to include it now.]

Spec Ops: The Line – Yager Development

Also known as The One Modern War Game That No One Bought, The One That’s A Bit Like Apocalypse Now, and That Game That Was So Good That Someone Wrote a Book About It, Spec Ops: The Line has proved to be the years most divisive game. An anti-war war-game as well as an an anti-war-game war-game [is that the most ridiculous looking string of words I’ve ever written? Quite possibly.], Spec Ops has had gamers up in arms over its uncompromising critique of the way violence and war are represented in video games. It sparked a miniature deluge of debate on key questions in game design. It’s a rare AAA game that’s actually about something significant, and for that reason alone it has to go down as one of the games of the year.

Spec Ops opens up like an incredibly standard military shooter. Exciting, helicopter-based In Media Res opening? Check! ‘Hilarious’ ‘banter’ between your trio of paint-by-numbers soldiers (standard grizzled WASP Captain, street-wise black dude and technology geek with a ridiculous nickname)? Check! Mysterious communication from a Middle Eastern country? Ding ding ding! Yet each one of these ‘typical’ design tropes always seems a bit odd in Spec Ops, and that’s because every step of the way the conventions of the genre are being subverted and turned in on themselves. It’s a tricky move to pull, but a thousand tiny design choices on Yager’s part have made this work. Things like the way moral decision making is encoded in game play, rather than presented as a series of binary dialogue options. The way the game world starts to warp and crumble as you progress, resulting in terrifying hallucinations and moments of déja vu. The brilliant use of imagery (the developers go pretty heavy here on the old mirror symbolism) that builds to the game’s astonishing climax [spoilerific video alert!].

Of course, not everyone really ‘got it’, and one of the other issues the game has raised is that  most mainstream reviewers are still looking at games the wrong way. Yeah, the graphics aren’t amazing, the ‘gameplay’ is pretty dull by any traditional metric, and it’s only 10 or so hours long. But to complain there’s nothing particularly new in terms of the gunplay here is like complaining about the lack of electric guitar in Beethoven’s Fifth. To moan that it’s not long enough is like saying ‘The Great Gatsby’s OK, but it really needs an extra 100 pages or so’.  THAT’S NOT THE FUCKING POINT! Making a game that shared many superficial similarities with the thousands of Modern Warfare clones on the market is what makes Spec Ops so effective as a critique, but it has, unfortunately, also been its downfall in the eyes of Metacritic.

This is a game that asks so many big questions, and then forces you to look in the mirror to find the answer. Is there ever such a thing as ‘choice’ in games – or in life for that matter? Is it the intent behind an action that makes it (un)ethical, or the outcome? And most importantly, why do we think that ‘Killing For Entertainment is Harmless’?

Catherine – Atlus Persona Team

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mne_GS9ceI

It’s not often that you’ll come across a game that deals with truly mature themes. Violence is easy, and, if Spec Ops’ critique is anything to go by, harmless… But sex? Love? Marriage? Infidelity? There’s next to no sustained dialogue on them in any game at all. Fortunately, Catherine is the first sign of this changing. Everything from the erotic to the divine goes under the microscope in the Persona Team’s latest game, which, in true Persona style, is simultaneously a cracking puzzle game, a 16-bit platformer, an anime-style graphical novel and terrifying psychological horror, as well as a pretty decent going-for-some-drinks-after-work-with-your-buddies simulator.

Catherine focusses on a week in the life of Vincent, a possibly-alcoholic commitment-phobe who is struggling to settle down with his girlfriend Katherine. Two events then intervene that drastically change the course of his life. Firstly, Vincent starts to have a series of terrifying recurring dreams, where every night he is forced to climb a series of towers that slowly crumble under his feet. And secondly, he wakes up one morning with an entirely different Catherine in his bed. Things are confused further after a little bar-talk suggests that Vincent isn’t the only one having these dreams…

These mini-detective sections in the bar are fun, but it’s the brilliant tower climbing scenes make up the bulk of the game. It’s from the same school of late noughties puzzle/platforming mechanics as metaphor that gave rise to games like Limbo and Braid, and it works really well here as well (particularly later on in the game, when you have to help Katherine up the tower with you), without ever feeling like its been done before. The central message of the piece is an important one – ‘there’s no right way to climb the tower’ – and by climbing it again and again in Vincent’s dreams we are forced to think about where our priorities lie, in life and in love. Commitment? Chaos? Or something in between?

Super Hexagon – Terry Cavanagh

There’s not too much you can say about ‘minimal action game’ Super Hexagon, Terry Cavanagh’s attempt to distil the idea of difficulty down to its purest components. Is it a game about death? Is it a game about life? Is it a game about progress, about challenging ourselves to be better people, about our compulsion to do difficult and dangerous things for no apparent game? Is it just about a lost little triangle, spinning in a maze, trying to survive for as long as it possibly can?

Or is it just about you throwing your keyboard across the room for the umpteenth time, after hitting that little shit of a hexagon with only one second of the level left to go?

Play it and decide for yourself.

The Unfinished Swan – Ian Dallas/Giant Sparrow

You have to admire a game that has the nerve to start a player’s game in a completely white room, with no real instruction of how to proceed, other than ‘throw some paint around’. The first chapter of The Unfinished Swan plays out like this; everything is there… but you just can’t see it yet. It’s a game that delights in the presence of absence.

The story of the Unfinished Swan is a pretty simple one, but told in such a way that evokes the magical simplicity of classic children’s literature. The player is given control of Monroe, an orphan who feels ‘pretty unfinished himself’ when his mother ( a prolific painter of unfinished things) suddenly dies. When the Unfinished Swan of Monroe’s favourite painting disappears shortly after he finds himself in a world that is there, but unseen – the white room. And with a little help from the magic of Monroes’s paintbrush, you must set out to paint yourself a world, and find your way around the Unfinished Kingdom of an Unfinished King. Perhaps the most beautiful element of the game is the way it revels in dualities. Black and white. Seen and unseen. Nature and technology. Most powerful of all is the way in which creation also heralds destruction. Beautiful vines both bring to life and destroy the King’s white city. Monroe’s hasty additions both complete and ruins the King’s architectural plans. Ultimately(without giving away too much), it is Monroe who both creates and destroys the king himself. The game asks fundamental questions through these mechanics. Why do we want to leave legacies? And when are legacies not a mark, but a scar? The King leaves a thousand unfinished projects behind him in an attempt to be remembered  – an unfinished Empire, an unfinished city, an unfinished home, and an unfinished family. But he comes to realise that this exercise in legacy building is futile – in a couple of years they will have probably fallen apart, or someone else will have painted over them, only to realise he ‘would have done those things anyway… I had fun building that stuff’.

The year’s most beautiful looking game, and probably the most beautiful game to actually play as well. It’s also, as a really interesting exploration into the nature of art itself, a massive, lovely, resounding slap in the face of people who are still stuck in 2006’s ‘r gamez art???’ debate, particularly those on the wrong side of it. Look, they are, right?  This is not an argument worth having any more. That’s sorted. The Unfinished Swan is incredible, and so are games in general. Now leave Roger Ebert to himself and come and join the future.

FIFA 13 – EA Canada

It’s hard to say exactly what it was that did it, but it feels like FIFA reached a strange sort of critical tipping point this year – FIFA now seems more like football than football does. It’s probably the result of incremental improvements in small, somewhat boring technical  areas like physics and animation that have been building up for the last twenty years rather than any obvious new feature, and a testament to the long running commitment of the developers. EA’s team in Canada have honed their game to a truly incredible level, to the point where it can be held up as an example of a top-tier e-sport along WITH the likes of Street Fighter and Starcraft. Most games on this list are brilliant examples of games as an emerging art form, but it’s important to realise that we have a totally new way of engaging with traditional sports here as well.

It also feels like an important step for sports in general. There was an article in football magazine The Blizzard a while back which suggested that professional level football, especially in England, is now more akin to a ‘scripted reality’ program like Made in Chelsea (or some ‘sports entertainment’ like the WWE) than an actual sport. An industry has built itself up around football that has fundamentally transformed the way we perceive the game. Football isn’t just about 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon anymore. It’s about the endless drama being pumped out by Sky Sports News: the pointless transfer gossip that only ever leads to dead ends, the rumours of manager-player relationships gone sour, the big money backers from a mysterious eastern country. Basically, the modern game is about anything but the game. It seems to me that, at the moment, it’s FIFA that captures the real essence of football, the purity of play, and the beauty of the game, not the Premier League.

Football should be about the anything-can-happen drama of 22 men and a ball. And at the moment, FIFA 13 is the best way of capturing that spirit.

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