A Bunch Of Thoughts On Games I Played In 2015
This is a list of good games I played in 2015. Some of these games came out well before 2015, but these are the ones that I played in 2015. These aren’t really reviews, or even a comprehensive analysis of the games in question. These are, instead, more or less a representation of what I thought about before, during and after playing. I’m making this list for my own records more than anything. I’ve made similar lists in the past couple of years, and I like having my thoughts jotted down on this batch of games before I start playing the next truckload of games.
These are in no order of excellence; they are just some good games I played.
Metal Gear Solid 5-
I am a lapsed member of the Church of Kojima. Its bizarre and complex orthodoxy had unfortunately passed me by. Not since the shining beacon of PS2 shown true in my bedroom, gilded nobly in the robes of Snake Eater have I engaged in HIS text.
Lo! The master arrives in the banished lands of snakes and Steam to bestow upon us his final gift. To us who toil with mouse and keyboard, with PC and Linux. From consoles on high, a sorrowful hand reaches out with a strained message, a parting message. Himself cast down by his handlers and patrons, a martyr of his own design. And upon his arrival, thy holy trumpets sound on the mountain of Gaben. Our faces and hands are as glass upon his gift’s radiance, and the online servers are stable. Glory be to the Hideo, The Boss and Snake, Amen.
And the story still sucks, just like it always has.
Metal Gear Solid 5 coming to PC left me with little excuse not to play it. I hadn’t played an MGS game in years, and this was my final chance to play a new one (at least one directed by Kojima). I watched a let’s play of the gratuitous fan service mess that was Metal Gear Solid 4, and that was my last engagement with the series. I was never going to buy a console for just this franchise, especially not one priced at $600.
I would like to talk about the story and over-arching narrative of MGS. There are many more interesting and important things about the game, but this is what came to my mind first.
To be transparent, I have a long history and a very forgiving soft-spot for the Metal Gear lore. In my youth, I often thought that confusing or convoluted storytelling was a sign of good storytelling. The less I understood about the plot, they better it must be. This is one reason why I thought Attack of the Clones was good for about 2 years.
“Obviously”, I thought, “Hideo Kojima must be so smart and keen that I simply can’t understand his stories. I’m just not smart enough.”
But age has worn away at that notion. I’m not a master story-teller or a graduate of Literature, but I’ve seen enough unnecessary bullshit to know when bullshit is unnecessary. I’ve partaken in enough cruft-heavy narratives to know when the writer is masturbating on the page. The MGS narrative is full of bullshit and masturbation. It’s got a mile thick layer of cruft. It sucks.
But that isn’t to say it’s without charm. And charm goes a long, long way in my book.
The way I look at the MGS narrative and its characters now that I’m an adult are as such: It’s as if a very intelligent and rich 16 year old is playing with toys he’s had for 25 years (pardon the time-paradox).
Kojima is a very smart man. He’s a guy that gets very interested in very specific topics and can’t help himself but tell you every excruciating detail about the topic he’s interested in. Hearing one of his stories is like being trapped in a butterfly collector’s house for 60 hours while he regales you with his unending amounts of entomological knowledge. But instead of just explaining what each butterfly is, he has elaborate backstories for each bug. Those stories intersect and weave among all the butterflies over the course of decades, all with intricate and absurd motives. Yet he’s telling these ridiculous stories very charmingly, with overt pop-culture references and tongue-in-cheek humor.
By the time you get released from his house, your mind is trying to unloop the complex knot of butterfly allegiances, hard science, personal motives, murder, betrayal and love of these bugs. And even if you can’t really understand the inner workings of this etymological tale, you were charmed nonetheless.
Let me put it plainly. Kojima sucks at writing a basic narrative, but has so many unique interests, and injects his games with so much obscure pop-culture that you can’t look away if you tried. I hesitate to say that he’s similar to Quentin Tarantino, because I think Tarantino is a better writer, but the obsessive detail and appropriation of obscure cultural obsessions is present in both these guys. And the charm that they both exude goes a long way in excusing sloppy writing.
Luckily, MGS5 puts narrative at a very low level of importance. Whether this was a studio mandated change, or a goal of Kojima Productions from the start, it was a smart one. This time it’s all about gameplay.
While I do have a soft spot for the charm of the MGS games’ story, I have always enjoyed the gameplay equally, if not more. I always felt that the tight and responsive stealth gameplay was a better showcase for the series’ penchant for quirkiness. I feel that having guards getting distracted by pinups of girls on the box your hiding in, or having the smoke from your cigarette reveal laser trip-wires, or having to perform stealth while naked provided a more relatable place to show off the weird tendencies of MGS.
The classic phrase “show, don’t tell” comes to mind. When doing something quirky or weird works as a logical solution to a gameplay scenario, the strangeness inherent to your actions becomes more palatable. If you tackle a gameplay situation using the tools available to you and the game rewards you for doing so, the strange universe the game inhabits becomes more reasonable. In this respect, Metal Gear Solid 5 is a masterclass in responsive and rewarding gameplay.
Out of the three AAA open world games I played in 2015, two of them delivered groundbreaking achievements in the genre. Witcher 3 did it with narrative, and Metal Gear Solid 5 does it with gameplay. I have never played an open world game that so completely nails the fun of doing physical actions. I’m talking about the simple things that make up the larger gameplay loop. Sneaking, crawling, and observing landscapes and people from a distance or up close, choking people out, hopping on a horse, or a car, or a building. This core playability is crucial to the games success as a stealth game.
The mechanics and physicality of the world around you also play into this success. At no point while playing MGS5 did I feel like I was hamstrung by unnecessary game-logic. After scouting-out a location or group of enemies, I was left to my equipment and wits to solve the problem. And any given combinations of those are a plausible and rewarded solution. If I could think up a way to get the job done, it most likely would work in the game. Whether it be guns-blazing, absolute stealth, or any permutation in-between, the game says “yes” and lets you proceed. This creates some of the best improvised gameplay I have ever witnessed. When your initial plan fails, and you have to think on the fly, you end up using odd tactics and gear to get through the mission. And the game never slaps your hand for trying something strange. The game also gives you an asinine amount of tools and toys to complete your missions, furthering the possibilities of your creativity through its gameplay.
This open ended gameplay feeds back into the main gameplay-loop. Find personnel and resources, build your base, and make yourself better. Simply by playing the game, you are making more options to play with. It achieves the rare ouroboros of gameplay loops: making you want to play the game, so that you can play more of the game.
There is also the real life drama surrounding this game that makes it interesting. Konami has made some very interesting and divisive choices this year. They are shutting down all AAA game development. They fired (or laid off) Kojima and his whole studio after the game was done. They have been incredibly closed and guarded regarding these changes, and have not had the best public face about it. In fact they make themselves look like dicks more often than not.
First, they went about scrubbing Kojima’s name from all of his productions. This is odd seeing as Kojima likes to adorn his works with his title (John Carpenter style). Then they responded to pictures of Kojima Productions’ closing party by saying that they were just going on “an extended vacation”. Then they barred Kojima from attending the Game Awards, in which Metal Gear Solid 5 won best action game. This was all amidst the cancellation the the Kojima and Guillermo del Toro entry into the Silent Hill franchise, and rumors from previous employees that Konami was run with an iron fist, and that they weren’t too kind to their workers.
I think the story behind what happened at Konami, and why they made this radical change, will be far more interesting than the games they produced. I really hope someone gets that scoop in the near future.
But regardless of what becomes of Konami and their storied franchises, we are left with Metal Gear Solid 5 as perhaps their last foray into the AAA space. And it’s the last official Metal Gear game made by it’s creator. Metal Gear has had an over 20 year run, and I’ve been a part of it for about 15. Although I was lapsed, I’m glad I came back for the last high-note. It might not have been the note that most people wanted it to end on, but it was a note so high it can’t be unheard.
I’ve never seen such a poignant or well timed “fuck you” from one developer to another.
This game was made for one reason and made for one audience. The reason was to right all the wrongs that EA and Maxis Emeryville had committed with the “reboot” of Sim City. The audience was everyone that got fucked over by that “reboot”.
Let’s not mince words, the Sim City reboot sucked ass. Even after the notoriously horrible online play got sorted out, we were still left with a game that was serviceable, but pretty meek compared to what we expected. I mean we’re talking about “Sim City” here, not some fly-by-night franchise. This was the once-and-future king of city building games. All patrons bowed before this franchise, all other games to be measured. Upon his head, Will Wright wore the crown of simulation games.
But it floundered all that reputation. It got up its own ass with unnecessary online connectivity. It prioritized small and measured gameplay in a series that was known for large and expansive play-spaces. It killed true simulation in the womb, and made off with some weird fascination with sewer lines.
I don’t blame the developers at Maxis Emeryville for their intentions. In fact, if you look at Sim City 2013 from a very basic level, it seems as though they had all the right intentions. I just feel as though it is a classic, and perhaps a perfect, example of a publisher mucking up a game they had no business mucking in. Every system and scale in Sim City 2013 that showed promise seemed whittled down and truncated for the use of online connectivity and DLC sales. I have very rarely played a game where I could feel the omnipresent hand of the publisher squashing down the robustness inherent.
And all of this is directly applicable to Cites Skylines. Colossal Order — Cities Skylines developer — didn’t receive the go-ahead from publisher Paradox Interactive until Sim City got lambasted by outlets and the public. Colossal Order (which was a thirteen person team) had the idea for a new city building game before Sim City 2013 came out, but Paradox quite wisely thought that Sim City would dominate the city building space. When Sim City proved to be an astounding dud, Paradox gave the funding to Colossal Order. And with 13 people they managed to deliver a game more true to the spirt of Sim City than all of EA could.
O, how the mighty have fallen. Like I said, I have never seen such a direct and blatant “fuck you” in all of gaming. The promotional videos for Cites Skylines were pointed directly at Sim City’s shortcomings. Every city building game fan (myself included) rallied behind this indie movement hoping for a better future for the genre. And we got it, for the most part.
Cities Skylines plays like a fan made sequel to Sim City 4, minus the extreme mathematical complexities and frustrating difficulty. And while that might be a turnoff to some old fans, I am happy with what we got.
Let me speak to the city-building fans in the room for a moment… Is everyone else out? Everyone else gone?….Ok… Here we go. This is literally the best you’re going to get. No one else has any interest in this genre. Sim City 2013 was the last big push to make the genre viable for new generations, and it flopped horribly. EA, or any big publisher won’t touch this genre for another 5 years at least. The folks at Colossal Order and Paradox hold the last candle. They are our last bastion. They are doing a fine-ass job and deserve our money. They were successful in their initial release of the game, and if we want to see more content we need to support them. Help me Colossal Order, you are my only hope.
The Beginner’s Guide-
The language of gaming is starting to fully solidify. I’m not talking about the human languages used in the games mind you, not English or Spanish or something like that, but the language the medium speaks. The subtle language of interactivity that the developer is speaking to the player.
It’s like cinematic language. Certain ways that films are shot or cut can imply things beyond the image on the screen and can tell us the feelings of the characters without needing dialogue. Over 100 years of film have taught us how to interpret things that the director intends, even when they are not implicitly stated. Cutting from a person crying to a person looking concerned conveys concern without a narrator saying “this person is concerned about the crying person.” A long shot of a clock slowly ticking while a character is thinking implies boredom or impatient frustration. A fast moving clock or quick cuts of a character looking at a clock while nervously pacing around can imply anxiety.
A very similar thing is happening with games. After 40 or so years, we now have rote knowledge of how games should work and how they speak their intentions to us. When presented with a 2d screen and a character on it, your first reaction is to move the character to the right. When you see a glowing item on the ground, you think you should try to pick it up. When you see a switch, you want to press it and see what happens. These are simple examples of the assumed intentions of the developer speaking to the player. These are the ABCs of game language, and we know them well enough now to assume the actions we should take. And as is true of any medium that has established a basic language, creators can start breaking that language. Now we can have some real fun. Now we can start messing with your expectations.
This post-modern-ish trend of messing with the basic knowledge of gamers is relatively new. Sure, we’ve had games subvert our expectations regarding the amount of control we think the game has (Chrono Trigger’s courtroom scene comes to mind), but to wrest away a players sense of basic agency or narrative place is something very different. It’s something that could only be done now, when we are so well versed in how a game works.
A game like The Beginner’s Guide or The Stanlely Parable or even Undertale could not exist 20 years ago. Not because of technical or narrative limitations, but because they would have lacked perspective. These are post-gameplay games. They only work on the assumption that you know the language of the games they are modeled after. You might still enjoy Undertale or The Stanley Parable if you had never played a JRPG or a narrative driven FPS before, but the commentary on those genres, and the way they break their game language would be lost on you. Much like Spinal Tap might be lost on you if you had never known of overblown rock bands, or the documentaries made about them.
The Beginner’s Guide goes a little deeper than a parody or a trope assassination though. It begins to peel back a players mind and ask what they know about the creative process of making a game. Of making any creative thing, really.
How much does a creative work represent its creator? Is any interpretation to a work valid beyond the creator’s intention? Should an anonymous creator be responsible for the criticisms of their work? Should works not made for public consumption be judged by the same standards we judge works that are? Should private art be judged at all? How much of yourself and your intentions should be placed on a creative work without the creator knowing? Is it ok for other people to change an artist works for their own art?
These are not new questions by any means. “The Death of the Author” is a theory that has been thrown around for decades, but it hasn’t been seen in games very much. We now have the distance and perspective with games that we can start asking these kinds of philosophical questions about games. And The Beginner’s Guide asks plenty.
Now, games being games, and Davey Wreden being Davey Wreden, a portion of this is done with sly witticisms and snark. After all, there is something funny about coming to a grey-blocked wall with stand-in textures after walking through an elaborately detailed house full of emotional character interaction. This subversion of interactivity and game design is especially funny because Davey Wreden’s narration is always a few steps ahead of your thought process. I start to think “well, that’s kind of weird that the hallway stops in a dead-end”, and before I can finish the thought Davey chimes in, “Yeah, he might not have finished this part of the level. I’m not really sure. Let me just load in the next level.”
But this comedy, and much of the entire emotional experience of playing the Beginner’s Guide, is placed there for a reason. Controlling a character in a 3d space is inherently a little funny. Controlling an interactive experience is inherently a little weird. There are no cuts or implied direction. This is how you play with the language of games, and more importantly, this is how you play with the language of interactivity. This is how you bend the established language of interactivity enough so you can start posing interesting questions about creators and their intentions.
I’m being purposefully vague about what actually takes place in the game because, well, I want you to go play it yourself. This is another “go into it blind” game. If you’ve played The Stanley Parable, then you are already familiar with the tone and timbre that Davey Wreden likes to set, and the gear he works in. He’s a post-modern game designer as best I can tell. He may be pretentious or full-of-himself, but he definitely knows games. He knows the meta-verse around games and how modern gamers think about games. He knows the modern language, and more importantly, knows how to break it in just the right places.
Life is Strange –
I’ve never been an 18 year old girl. I’ve never been to art school. I’ve never been to the Pacific north-west, and most importantly, I’ve never had the power to rewind time and potentially break the cosmic balance of fate. But after playing Life Is Strange, I kindof feel that I have.
Life is Strange accomplishes that very rare feat of making you nostalgic for something that you never even experienced. It was easy to put myself in Sam’s shoes. Her 18 year old troubles of maintaining and managing friends throughout the pressure of school and the omnipresent reality of adulthood were universally relatable. The core of the story, which revolves around Sam reconnecting with a friend from her childhood, and trying to judge what their relationship means now that they’ve changed so much, was presented perfectly.
Before playing this game, I didn’t often think about my life at the age of 18 in any great depth. It was mostly a blur of weed smoke and playing music. But while I was adventuring through the game’s fictional Pacific northwestern town of Arcadia Bay, I started to remember the emotional fragility and vulnerability of that age. It was a boiling pot of stress, responsibilities, doubt, and a prevailing sense of unearned maturity. There was always a feeling that you should be doing more, being more, now that you were a certified adult. It was a time of great and lofty goals that seemed like they should be attainable now that you were an adult.
Now I don’t consider anyone a real person until they are like 25, so all this nostalgia is a little funny in retrospect. But the emotional response from this game is still warranted, because as far as I can tell, nostalgia is a main theme that this game is going for.
And they nail that theme in some of the smallest, yet most important ways. The way Sam’s best friend’s house is laid out is just strange and familiar enough to make you remember your friends’ houses. The way her bedroom is set up is perfectly accurate for a punky 18 year old. The fact that the game plays around with this house in Sam’s memory through time-travel really layers on the nostalgia. The dorms and classrooms that Sam spends time in are pitch perfect in terms of design and art direction. And above all, the characters are — for the most part — believable representations of young adults. It all comes together to bring up a warm and fuzzy image in your mind of a time when you were old enough to feel like you were important, but young enough to still make stupid decisions.
The time-rewinding power, which is the main mechanic in the game, also plays into this nostalgia. Everyone wishes they could re-make decisions from that time in their life. Everyone has been shitty to another person, or made a poor life decision and wished they could just rewind a minute or two to see what the outcome would be if they said something different. Life is Strange plays with this concept in big and small ways. What would have happened if I had just been nicer to this person? What would have happened if didn’t do this small action that lead to a big situation? These are explored in Life is Strange, but always with an adherence to the butterfly effect. What seems like a good decision in the moment might irreparably change the present and the future for the worse.
This idea of wanting to change your decisions in the moment, coupled with the important and vulnerable age of the characters, makes for an engaging gameplay and narrative loop. The effects of choice and change play heavily in the narrative.
Ultimately, the games message is that you have to live with your choices and that you can’t back out of the things you’ve set in motion. No matter the amount of control we have in our decisions, we will always be beset by the unseen consequences of those choices. Even if we could rewind time, even if we could be 18 again, the storm is still coming. And our friendships are made through trials of impulsion, not perfection.
According to Steam I have played 150 hours of Fallout 4. I feel as though this is a lie. I must have left it on for a few days or something. I will admit to 100 hours, sure, but I don’t know where those extra 50 came from.
Regardless of the algorithmic lies of Steam, 100 hours makes Fallout 4 my most played game in 2015. And yet, I can’t think of much to say about it. It’s a Bethesda game. It’s the essentially the same game you’ve been playing for 9 years.
I thought that one of my favorite franchises, set in my home state, coupled with the inherent fun of exploration present in all Bethesda games would make this an instant win for me, but my mind is mostly blank on this one. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t torturing myself for 100 hours while slogging around the Commonwealth, only to see how deep I could dig my pit of self-misery. It’s just that I’ve played this game; we’ve all played this game 4 times now.
From Oblivion to now, Bethesda has been satisfied with a certain template and a certain gear they like to work in. This is a principle I generally like in creativity, the idea of a single creative entity getting better and better at a very specific and esoteric type of artwork. I like the idea of a painter doing the same painting a thousand times with minor variations to achieve perfection. It’s a romantic idea I think. But when you’re a massive AAA studio making games that are meant to be played for hundreds of hours, that romanticism starts to look more and more like creative bankruptcy as the years roll on. While I do applaud the singular vision and almost monastic way in which Bethesda develops its games, I think it’s time for them to shake up the formula a bit. Much like their protagonists, it’s time for them to step out of the vault and look around at what’s happening in the real world. And maybe it’s time for them to look into building a new engine too.
I personally have very little problem with the glitches and “jank” that comes with any Bethesda title. I think it’s a slightly unfortunate side effect of having an endlessly interactive and granular world. Bethesda likes to build their worlds almost like simulations, instead of reactive play spaces, and I’m fine with that. In fact I like it. It makes the worlds feel lose and settled, like you’re stumbling on an actually lived-in world. This is their greatest strength; making engaging exploration seem plausible and rewarding. If I have to have a little jank on the side of my exploration, I can deal with it.
What I can’t deal with is poor performance optimization. I didn’t mention it in the Witcher 3 or Metal Gear Solid 5 write-ups, but those games ran amazingly well on my PC. I was delightfully surprised by this because they came from two backgrounds that would normally raise suspicion. Metal Gear comes from a publisher that has always been very console centric, and has little experience porting massive AAA games to PC. And Witcher, although made by a heavily PC centric developer, was the first huge open world game CD Projeckt RED had made. And it was made on a brand new engine nonetheless. So here comes Fallout 4 from a storied PC developer, made on an engine that has been tested and modified through the release of Skyrim, being worked on by the same 100 or so people that have been working in this template for years now, and it runs like shit.
Embarrassing frame rate drops abound in Fallout 4, usually in places that you’d least expect. Slow loading textures, and surprisingly low-rez textures are all over the place. There is also a noticeable lack of FOV settings, and for some reason there are odd mouse acceleration rules that are not mutually exclusive to the horizontal and vertical axis’s. To be clear, I don’t have a bleeding-edge top-of-line PC, but I was able to run Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid 5 on high settings, and I got an almost constant 60FPS out of both of them. Fallout 4? Not so much.
While the game’s technical limitations are glaring at points, there is still fantastic art direction. From the dense and frightening rubble of downtown Boston, to the quiet rural wastes, the art and design is on point. One of the benefits of Bethesda making their games in a vacuum is their insane attention to detail. Everything seems handmade and hand placed. I can’t think of a single area in the game that lacks the attentive touch of a developer. While exploring any given house or building, I could imagine a level designer hunched over his computer, placing the scattered objects meticulously and with purpose. This is perhaps the game’s greatest strength.
Bethesda are masters of environmental storytelling. I can’t think of another developer that makes me care or wonder so much about the placement of inanimate skeletons and teddy bears. I can’t think of a game that makes me so engaged in petty office politics that took place 200 years ago on an email client, before the world was wiped out. As much as I dislike Bethesda’s writing for overarching plots and consequences, they are fantastic at whipping up engrossing bits of lore and history. This all plays back into the engagement of exploration in their worlds. I didn’t really care about 50% of the main quests I was on. The story and writing for them was usually pretty bland and predictable. But when I venture into a random cottage by the ocean and find a small and quiet story about a guy that hates his wife and kids and wants to get away and write his novel, only to be killed in the initial nuclear blast as soon as he starts writing, I am glued. The fact that there are so many of these micro-stories scattered everywhere in this giant world is an amazing achievement. I wish that Bethesda would break form and make a Gone Home style game. Something small and quiet that focuses entirely on environmental storytelling. I feel that is where they are strongest.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the things that Fallout 4 improved on within its monastic development bubble. The companion system is greatly improved over past titles. Almost all of them are fleshed out to a point where I actually gave a shit about them, something I never cared about in other Bethesda titles. Almost all of them have interesting backstories and elaborate quests tied to how much they like you. If you perform actions that they like, they start to trust you more and will eventually open up about their pasts. This is well trodden RPG territory at this point — i.e. Bioware games — but it’s still a very nice addition that has been sorely missing in Bethesda titles. It also works as a replacement to the karma system which has been removed. No longer are your actions judged by some unseen moral authority, and then counted up in an arbitrary and binary meter. Instead the people (or robots) you’re traveling with will have an ongoing opinion of you depending on your actions. Each companion has a different flavor of morality to suit how you want to play the game. Some like stealing and lock picking, while others are impressed by your skills at the workbench.
I liked this new system quite a lot. It’s a simple abstraction of the karma system that was already in place, but one that humanized the arbitrary moral rulings of the game. Before, I would feel annoyed that I was being judged for stealing, even though the world setting was dire and post-apocalyptic. I always felt that black and white morality was disjointed from the Fallout universe, where truly horrible shit happens all the time. But in Fallout 4, I actually found myself playing differently depending on how my companion viewed my actions. I really liked one companion in the game (Valentine), and when he would disapprove of an action I took I would feel ashamed. I was considering his reactions before I made decisions. I was guiding my moral choices as though I had an actual friend adventuring with me. It made me care about the weight of my actions much more.
The other big improvement is the combat and gunplay. The guns actually feel like FPS guns. They kick and respond with satisfying reaction. The sound design for the guns is great. Aiming is fun, shooting things is fun, it’s all fun. This is all backed up by one of the most robust crafting systems I’ve ever seen in an open world game.
Although I’m not the biggest fan of the Minecraft-esque town building mechanic, I can admit that adding value to every piece of junk in the world is a stroke of genius. It fits perfectly with the post-apocalyptic setting and gives a literal weight and value to the ruined world around you. If this was the only time during Bethesda’s hermit-like development that they popped up and looked at the modern gaming landscape, I’m happy that they looked at survival-crafting games before they burrowed back into their den.
And I think that’s it. I think that’s all my thoughts of Fallout 4, even though I feel I should have more after (an alleged) 150 hours of playtime. It’s a big and mostly beautiful game that has some very ugly spots, just like all Bethesda games. It has some pretty shoddy writing in regards to the main story but shines through with some truly engaging character development and environmental storytelling, just like all Bethesda games. And while it stumbles over technical problems that seem easily fixable, it improves on some gameplay elements. Just like all Bethesda games.
Please Bethesda, take a step outside the vault.
CounterStike Global Offensive -
I felt like I was 16 again.
Recently my friends and I went on a short-lived campaign to get good at CS. Counter-Strike holds a very dear and contentious place in my heart. I played it through my teenage years with my friend Pete. I still remember talking with Pete on a wireless house phone while we played online matches. Skype didn’t exist yet, so we would coordinate our moves while having phones cradled in our shoulders; our hands on mouses and keyboards. And I was constantly losing.
I started thinking about those days recently. I made a small suggestion to my friends that we should play some CS for old times’ sake, and for some reason it launched my friend group into a 2 month long quest to start getting good Counter-Strike again. We all got on Skype, and got pretty serious about it. For a little while this archaic shooter became our passion.
For me it was equal parts fun (for playing games with my friends) and renewed nostalgia. Seeing horrible hentai sprays and listening to teenagers throw around racist slurs was like a warm blanket for me. It brought me back to the “old” internet and the “old” gaming chat of 12 years ago. Like I said, it made me feel 16 years old again.
CS GO accomplished the impossible: trying to blend modern FPS sensibilities into a deeply rooted old shooter that has its fair share of quirks and eccentricities. But CS GO had an inherent advantage. The original Counter-Strike was brilliantly designed. Counter-Strike has a rough exterior and a large learning curve, but the basic rules of player-conflict are so rock solid that CS GO didn’t have to change much. They didn’t fix anything that wasn’t broken; they only gave it some new paint.
For me it’s a comfort game, weirdly enough. I never feel stressed playing it. It just feels like home. So, who wants to run some dust_2 with me?
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt-
Boy, I really didn’t think that CD Projekt Red had a massively successful AAA game in them. Why did I feel that way you ask?
Firstly, Poland, and much of the Slavic region, hasn’t had a long or storied history of huge AAA games. They have a history of making great games for sure, but it hasn’t been until recently that we’ve started seeing eastern-European studios pump out games with the depth and production value needed to stand on the AAA world stage. 4A Games’ Metro series and Techland’s Dying Light — from Ukraine and Poland respectively — stand out as contemporaries.
Secondly, CD Projekt is known for being incredibly consumer friendly in a world of not-so consumer friendly publishers. They started as a small import and translation house during a time in Poland where the shroud of Soviet communism had just fallen. There was a rush to get all the media that was blacked out by the former ruling party after the wall fell, and CD Projekt wanted to translate and repackage games so that Polish gamers wouldn’t feel quite as alienated.
This was coming right after a time when there was no game piracy laws in Poland because, well, there were no copyright laws at all. Gamers in former Soviet controlled countries were used to copying and trading disks and tapes between each other. The trade laws didn’t allow any outside media in, so they would smuggle it in and trade it during computer exchanges. Radio stations would broadcast Commodore 64 games over the airwaves and you could record them off your stereo.
CD Projekt was facing a strange challenge. They were trying to sell games to people that had never payed for games before. They had to entice gamers that paying full price for a boxed copy of a game was better than paying nothing for it. They did this by being very front-facing and consumer friendly. They were also known for including a lot of “Feelies” in their boxed copies. Feelie is a term used for extra content that was included in the box: cloth maps, in-universe coins, patches, artwork etc.
They keep this mentality alive today, not only with the in-box extras, but with their attitude towards DRM. Good Old Games — which they own — is famous for bucking the trend of digital DRM. You download a game off the site and you own it outright. You get an ISO and can do whatever you want with it, no strings attached.
They have stood out in their attitude towards DLC as well. In a marketplace that is complacent with charging you $40 for a season pass full of costume changes and small side-quests, they decided to make all of Witcher 3’s DLC free. You just receive all this extra content for no more than the purchase price, and it’s yours to keep forever. Yes, they do charge for the 2 expansion packs, but from what I’ve read, they are 10+ hours of new content each.
They’ve also commented on modern game piracy, and in their view it’s a symptom of distrust in the publisher. In their own research, they’ve found that the majority of people that pirate a game end up buying it if they are encouraged to use the pirated copy as a demo.
Thirdly (and perhaps most importantly), the Witcher series is an esoteric, hardcore, PC-centric, hard-MA rated group of games. CD Projekt Red has never pulled any punches with this property. Racism, sexism, religious oppression, murder, rape, and a retinue of truly macabre shit have all been dealt with in the games, and are frequently the focal point of the narrative. The Witcher games can be brutally difficult and unwelcoming to new players. The games are also distinctively Slavic. The myths and historical subtexts the games use are rooted in a culture and history that is potentially alienating to a wide swath of gamers around the world.
So perhaps you can see why I was surprised when the game sold massively and was awarded multiple game of the year awards. I have been a fan of the series for a while now, but never thought that the hardcore, yet impressive little series I loved could become a global phenomenon.
After that long-winded explanation, you may be wondering what I thought of the game. Well, I’ll put it this way. I played 3 open-world games this year, and two of them pull off “best-in-genre” mechanics. Metal Gear Solid 5 is the other one.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has the best narrative structure and threading of any open-world game I have ever played. I have never traversed a huge gameplay space, doing hundreds of small tasks and quests and had the smallest choices I’ve made through that time play a pivotal role in the main narrative. This is the anti-Fallout 4 in that regard. I was never given a pop-up telling me that my narrative choices would have a rippling effect across the world. I just made the choices, and lived with the consequences.
That group of Elves you saved from persecution 10 hours into the game seemed like a good decision, right? Well, it turns out they have been selling children’s organs on the black market and you just facilitated that. That random werewolf you killed on the side of road turned out to be a baron that was tricked into lycanthropy for his inheritance. There was a religious zealot that you killed early in the game, but it turns out that he is the only hope for a group of villagers and they all burn to death 80 hours in.
That isn’t to imply that all these narrative threads are haphazard, or that they rely on a “gotcha” form of surprise. The stakes are defined enough so that you can see the people that will be affected, but much like in real life, you can never see the unintended consequences of a decision. CD Projekt Red wove these narrative threads so seamlessly as they would seem made by magic.
And this is where The Witcher benefits so much from being based off The Witcher. Geralt is a “side-quester” by occupation. It’s literally the job of a witcher to take care of other people’s small problems, and he is doing so in a world that is very morally grey. People in the world of The Witcher are much like people in the real world; they have secondary motives and hidden intentions. Nothing is clear cut and there is a deeper story to everything.
CD Projekt Red came out of left and east field to deliver one of the best made AAA open-world games of all time. The fact that Cyberpunk 2077 is their next project makes me a very happy nerd.
I now realize that I am a True-Crime junkie. Whether it’s Serial or Making a Murderer or The Jinx, I’m instantly all about it. This is a realization that I am okay with. I’m okay with the fact that I like to listen and watch the real life suffering of other people for my enjoyment. I think it’s a part of human nature to indulge in a little schadenfreude from time to time.
So how do you translate that to games? How do you make the engrossing investigative process inherent to any true-crime story a gameplay mechanic? How do you make the linear nature of an investigation story non-linear?
These are all questions I hadn’t thought of asking before playing Her Story. I had been used to the linear nature of games that involved crime. You get placed into dramatic situation and the facts get doled out through cut scenes, as the game dictates. Never are the “facts” of a case, the testimonials, used as a gameplay mechanic.
And then Sam Barlow decided to try something weird.
I was familiar with his work after watching a play-through of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which may be the best Silent Hill game that not a lot of people played. He was the lead designer and writer for that game. It had some very interesting mechanics on how you define your player character and how they impact the story and world. It also had one hell of a gut-punch ending.
So when I hear that this little out-of-nowhere indie game called Her Story was made by Barlow I was interested. I’m also always interested in “go into it blind” games, which I was hearing a lot about this one. And I’m going to tell you the same thing. Go into it blind.
As such, I can’t really talk about it anymore than that. I can tell you it’s about a murder investigation, and you are searching for video clips to piece the story together. I can also tell you that I think the mechanics in which you unveil the narrative and the freedom you have to build the narrative in your mind is absolutely unique. I’ve never played a game remotely like this. Finally, I can tell you that Barlow answered those questions I had earlier. He translated the experience of being engaged in a true-crime story to an open ended game.
Also, good on them for winning some big awards late last year, they deserve it. I really hope this isn’t a flash in the pan.
Pillars of Eternity-
Nostalgia is a relatively new thing for games. The medium is about 40 years old, depending on where you place the beginning of popular gaming and there are people still making games that were around when this whole “gaming” industry was in its nascency. As such, it’s often hard to take the long view on what worked and didn’t work — as we’re still working through it. There are entire genres of gaming that have been dug up from the past in the name of nostalgia and have been found wanting. There are others that deserve a second chance, and I think that Obsidian found one worth reviving.
I am of course talking about the isometric D&D simulations popularized by games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment. With their lush hand-rendered backgrounds and deep conversation trees — these were essentially the best representations of an actual D&D game you could get on a computer. And they were often better written then the Wizards of the Coast sanctioned modules. Back in the day, Bioware and Black Isle had some of the most impressive stables of RPG writers the world has ever known. A lot of that talent dispersed after the early 2000s, and a large majority of them convened at Obsidian.
I have been a huge supporter of Obsidian for a long time, even though they seem to get shitty contract jobs once and awhile. I mean, this is the studio that has had Fergus Urquhart, Chris Avellone and Josh Sawyer in its employ. Like I said before, some of the best RPG writers in the business.
So I’ve been on a history rant. What about the actual game!? Well, it’s pretty genius. It’s an oversized spoonful of everything you loved about those old Infinity engine games. It’s got gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds, deep role-playing mechanics, and more well written dialogue than you could ever want. And I do mean “more than you could ever want”, because there is an obscene amount of non-spoken text in this game. Get ready to read. It’s unapologetically old-school in most ways, but still has a retinue of smart new-school design choices that make it accessible for those that want to dive in.
It’s the best infinity engine game that wasn’t made for 15 years, and it was made by exactly the right people. I really hope that this is the beginnings of a long running franchise.
I played a lot of Hearthstone in 2015 — maybe more than I would like to admit. I also spent more real money on Hearthstone than I would like to admit.
Hearthstone falls into the “Potato Chip” classification of gaming urges. It’s always there, it’s always easy to play and I can play it while I listen to podcasts. I even dipped into its mobile version during long car rides or family conversations I didn’t want to partake in.
The addictiveness of Blizzard games is very closely related to the accessibility that they present. It’s not simply that they make games with responsive and refined gameplay, it’s that the make it so damn easy to play these games. Every consideration is taken to make sure that your game works and is adaptable to any given situation. Blizzard is the friendliest drug dealer on your street, and they have the most efficient warehouse making their product.
In comparison to their other products, nothing is as streamlined for ease-of-use as Hearthstone. It runs like a reliable toaster; it’s simple, it’s responsive, it always makes the perfect toast, and it takes a minimum amount of effort to deliver a great experience.
The streamlined and reliable use would be nothing without polish though. Luckily, Hearthstone is made by Blizzard, and that means it oozes polish at the seams. The menus, the card placing, even the damn clickable environments are incredibly responsive and polished. I would even say they are unnecessarily polished. It’s a game that has a core system based off of a 23 year old card game. It really doesn’t need to have AAA animation, music, sound effects, and voice acting. But Blizzard is Blizzard, and that heap of extra work is much appreciated, and a large reason this game is as successful as it is.
On a more critical game-design level, I think that they’ve established a decent trajectory for this game. The meta gets blown up every few months with new expansions and solo-adventures, and the power curve is following a similar path to Magic the Gathering and other popular card games. If they can sustain this momentum they will maintain an involving metagame encased in a polished gameplay experience for years to come.
As to be expected, Blizzard has another huge cash cow on their hands. Here’s looking forward to Overwatch.
Organ Trail –
It’s Oregon Trail with zombies. Sold.
I was in the mood for an Oregon Trail style game and didn’t feel like playing FTL again, so I picked this up. I ended up getting a far more charming experience than I thought I would.
Its aesthetics are lovingly created, and echo the school library Mac 1 computers of my past. Even though the art style is chunkily pixelated and simple, the game exudes a constant feeling of dread and morose.
The gameplay is surprisingly deep and challenging. Moving from one side of the country to the other while avoiding areas irradiated from nuclear blasts and managing the health and supplies of my travelers was super fun. The best part is naming your four travelers in the station wagon after good friends of yours, so you can curse their names when they drop ammo or get dysentery.
Fuck you Jeff. You broke a muffler, spilled half our food, and then got bitten. I wasn’t too sad about putting you down.
PS. One of the best parts is that you get the option to skill-shot your friends if they are bitten. The animations are filled with chunky pixel blood goodness.
Resident Evil Remaster –
Everything old is… still pretty old again.
There is something about those pre-rendered backgrounds of the early 2000s that still look gorgeous to me. No game better exemplifies that then REmake.
Holy jesus I loved this game when I was young. I probably beat it at least 10 times. The difficulty, the smart use of back tracking, the anxiety ridden item management, the level design, and those gorgeous pre-renders are all A+ game elements for me.
The re-release on Steam is… the same thing, plus a nice HD uprez and an option to ditch the archaic tank controls.
I initially played this game again out of nostalgia, but I soon found that a lot of the design still holds up, and is pretty unique. I honesty can’t think of many other games like this, at least ones that look this good.
Let’s all pour one out for the short lived glory of the old RE games remade on Gamecube… that we are now getting on Steam. I’m just waiting for someone to Kickstart the spiritual successor.