Tag Archives: video games

The 5 best video games of 2013

The following is a list of video games; indeed, one could make the argument that they are the Five Best Games of 2013.

In fact, I will be making this argument. This is my year-end games list! Now, a note beforehand… my game budget is not large, which means that the games I buy I choose carefully, and most brand-new AAA titles are outside of my grasp. That is to say that the set of games I’ve played that actually came out in 2013 is small, and doesn’t include, say, GTA V or certain other industry notables. Whether that means they would make it onto my top 5 is something we can never know.

Shall we begin?

5: Antichamber


3: Gunpoint

2: The Stanley Parable

1: Gone Home.

Very good. The decision has been made, and there can be no debate, these are the games of the year.

What’s that? You want more elaboration? Ugh. FINE. Continue reading


Aperture Science Sokoban Testing Initiative

Last week I mentioned a game that I was working on in PuzzleScript. There was a link to the game in progress.

To-day, there is a link to the game which is done: Aperture Science Sokoban Testing Initiative.

It’s Portal, told as best as I can through the game engine. Which, honestly, came out pretty great, given that my last experience attempting to code a game happened on a TI-83+ graphing calculator. 

I’m quite proud of myself. For designing levels which people have found challenging but possible, for punching out bugs wherever I discovered them, and for writing which, in my mind, serves as a pastiche of what made the Portal series so entertaining, without simply hitting identical beats; in the same way that Portal 2 featured some callbacks to the initial game (companion cube, cake, etc.) without simply repeating the bits which had become memetically entertaining.

I gave myself a challenge to do something relatively new with “cake,” and I honestly think I achieved it. But that’s a spoiler, technically, and this isn’t a post-mortem analysis. This is an announcement that a thing has been completed!

Go, play Aperture Science Sokoban Testing Initiative! Push some crates, fling some portals, eat some cake, and enjoy!

GMotW: Gone Home. Look Closer.

Game Mechanic of the… week?

Man, did I really do this every week, back in the day? I really did. What happened?

Oh right, I missed a day, and then collapsed under the pressure of having to create a GMotW that was epic enough in scope to justify having missed a day. This is the same reason my brother’s birthday gift is about two months late at this point (but coming, Bert, I swear!).

But if I actually start posting on the regular again, some of the pressure will come off. And THAT, I can get behind. So speaking of taking the pressure off, let’s talk not about Synanthropes and those pressures, but about the best game I’ve played this year. It’s a video game, an it’s called Gone Home.

And if you haven’t played Gone Home, well… do? I guess, I mean, I could sit here recommending it all day but I’m not going to do that, I’ll just politely point out that it’s the only video game I’ve purchased on launch week in the last… five years, I think, and I have absolutely no regrets about it. Maybe you’ll disagree! I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to wait for the price to drop to $10 or so. But it’s not one to miss altogether.

ANYWAY. For those unaware, Gone Home puts you in the shoes of a young woman who has returned from a year abroad to the house her family moved into while she was away, finding it mysteriously vacated. No parents, no sister, just the detritus they have left behind and the stories you piece together from it.

(Fans of Synanthropes may surmise that “piecing together stories from trash” has a particular resonance for me).

In terms of mechanics, it plays things pretty simple: you can walk, you can crouch, you have an “interact” button which opens doors and picks things up, and that about covers everything except the metaludic stuff… maps and journals and inventory and game menu.

And you can look closer. Indeed, at the beginning of the game, a tooltip pops up to inform you:

“Hold right mouse or left shift to look closer.”

I love this. I love this for a lot of reasons.

Gone Home is, at its core, a game about looking. Obviously, the list of video games that aren’t, to some degree, about looking at things is small indeed, but most of the games that feature looking are really games about A) moving to the goal or B) killing the dudes in your way, where the ability to visually conceive of the world around you is simply a way to ensure that you are moving in the right direction and killing the right sorts of dudes. But Gone Home doesn’t have dudes to kill, and while it does have motion, that is the secondary concern; there is, yes, an end point, beyond which the house is deemed to be “Explored” and the game ends, but the player is not meant to jump straight to that point. The player is meant to LOOK.

This is a fact missed by many, like the folks on this page, who are proving that the game can be beaten in less than a minute. Spoilers, obviously, if you wander over there, but the bigger concern is folks missing the point. Yeah, you can get to the end point in a minute if you feel like it, but you know what that doesn’t afford time for? Looking closer.

It’s a theme that pops up over and over and over; you look closer, zooming in on the screen to see it more clearly. Pick up an object and you can look closer, seeing it from all angles. You are presented with a house that seems empty, but you can look closer, discovering all the secrets it contains. You think you know about your family, but you know what? You have to look closer. At some point we’ve left the realm of what you can do with the right mouse button, but the transition was so smooth you didn’t even notice.

What makes this so mechanically interesting for me isn’t just the zooming, which is useful, but the presentation of the mechanic: we’re not zooming in. You zoom in with your sniper scope or what the flip ever. You look closer when you’re on an exploration.

But most importantly this: the player is informed about how to use WASD and the mouse before the game actually begins. That’s all well and good and essential.

The first tool tip to actually pop up while you’re playing? Before checking your inventory, before crouching, before the map: how to look closer.

It’s almost like “Look Closer” is the fundamental action underlying the protagonist’s journey through the house both on a strictly literal and deeply metaphorical level, or something. Or something!

GMotW: Gunpoint and punching!

Been a while since I’ve talked about a game mechanic, hasn’t it? Ah, well. Game Chef kept me busy. Let’s try to get back on the horse with some gentle over-excitement.

Gunpoint! Gunpoint! Game of the year for every year ever, or, if you are less-inclined to believe hyperbole, a really freaking good 2D action/espionage/cyber-noir/hacking game.

You are a small pixellated freelance spy named Conway, who is investigating a murder through a series of missions, most of which involve charging up your bullfrog hypertrousers and jumping several stories at a go, and using the crosslink device to rewire switches and sensors throughout the buildings you’re moving through. And also, punching guards.

Oh, punching guards. Strictly optional, and to be awarded the badge for being a Gentleman at the end of a level you mustn’t do any guard any harm whatsoever (it’s okay though, because there’s a Psychopath badge as well, if not-harmful isn’t your legerdemain). Leap on a guard to knock him over and…

Click: Punch

…is what the game informs you. You click, you punch, and the guard is unconscious but the phrase hasn’t gone away. You can click again. And again. You can click ten times, at which point a pool of blood appears an the guard will not be getting up again. You can keep going. You can punch a corpse a thousand times or more, because you can click forever.

That needn’t be. There are any number of options… you could bowl someone over and they’re instantly asleep, of you could click to knock out and hold to knock out Lethally (see Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s takedown moves) or you could just stop punching when the dude is dead, or, or, or…

Lots of options. But may of them take away a little bit of player agency, and I don’t want to undersell this but clicking to punch is a very tiny bit of player agency–it’s a very minor thing. But Gunpoint, as a game, lives in tiny decisions and little freedoms it offers its players, even in a genre and medium not known for offering lots of freedom!

Tom Francis, the designer, clever bug that he is, realized that people want to punch, however. The player is given control over his character, not just to be lethal or not, but to be as lethal as they want to be. Me, I tend to punch four or five times, to make sure those guards stay down. After all, trying to sneak around in a game where one shot kills me and I have effectively no weapon is tense, so when I get an opportunity to release that tension in the form of violence, I tend to take it. This is, mechanically, idiotic… one punch does the deed, and all I do is waste time better spent jumping around the rooftops like a lunatic. But punching guards is satisfying… there’s a little animation, a purcussive noise, and a sense that, yes, Conway is acting as an extension of ME, whether I’m hitting once for good measure, in a brief flurry because I’m tense, or nine times exactly so as to not murder the operative who’s been shooting at me but make sure he’s never happy again. Or, a thousand times because this dead guy has pissed me off right hard.

And that’s great. It’s not complex, but it doesn’t need to be… it pulls me into the game and makes a little part of my brain smile based only on a very simple action with a very direct control, which is really all the Gunpoint IS. I could say the same thing about jumping and hacking: both very simple, direct, and controllable by the player. But while those are essential for the action and puzzling aspects of this action-puzzler, punching a dude out is completely unnecessary, from a mechanical level. And yet, there is is, allowing Conway to seem all the more real, and the world to be all the more exciting and worth experiencing.

Gunpoint is out now and is totally great, and even has a developer commentary which is basically worth whatever portion of the price of admission isn’t being paid by punching dudes on the snout and then leaping away to hide in a corner and rewire a motion detector to open a trapdoor to open under a guy when a third guy runs after you. YES. Get it, and punch a guy.

GMotW: Candy Box and… hidden information


There is no instruction manual for Candy Box. There is just Candy Box. If you haven’t been there yet, do go, poke around for a minute, investigate all the options at your disposal, and then consider the Game Mechanic of the Week, which I am pulling from the FAQ:

“The sorceress, since she is a sorceress, can only work on magic swords. This is why you have to enchant your sword before being able to buy this spell!”

Now. Is the game mechanic I’m interested in the fact that there’s a certain linkage between magic elements, and that enchanted swords may only be worked on by enchantresses, and vice versa? Or is it the fact that there is a sword, a sorceress, and a spell, NONE of which you know about if, like I suggested, you only poked about for a few minutes?

I mean, did you meet the Candy Merchant yet? Did you get the special deal on lollipops? Listen. Candy Box gets weird, and quick. Point is, however, it’s also a game which doesn’t let on what it actually is, AT ALL.

And that’s really, really interesting. Lots of games are mechanically forced (for a given value of forced) to give away secrets early… TVTropes has a word for this: Interface Spoiler. If you have a sword slot, and it has an “Enchantment” value, then you can, as a player, reasonably assume that wherever you start off in the game world, you will ultimately end up in a position of owning an enchanted sword.

Games can hide the plot easily enough, but it’s a lot harder to hide what you can do… if you’re playing on a console, you will note early on if the X button has no use whatsoever, and be, perhaps, less-than-surprised when it turns out that that’s the one that activates the Magic you encounter in act II.

Obviously there are ways to maintain that level of surprise, but nothing quite as obvious (and effective) as simply not letting the player be aware that there is a surprise coming at all, by having the mechanical interaction completely secret until it comes to pass. Now, this needs a controller figure, be it the computer or, in the case of a tabletop, a GM figure who is there to let you know that, no, there’s magic now.

What I like about Candy Box for this, and this is a bit of a spoiler if you haven’t played for a while now, is that the ability to go on quests and use the sword is suddenly present where before, it wasn’t even noticeable by its absence. The game didn’t feel as if something was missing before (though it was, to be sure, extremely simplistic, sort of a “My First Game” introduction to coding assignment). It’s not re-using old rules in a new way, it’s just suddenly deciding to be DIFFERENT. It goes beyond merely not allowing the game to be spoiled by its interface, and into actively altering what the player thought the game WAS.

Imagine an RPG that begins with players sitting around a table, rolling dice and telling stories, and suddenly there’s a wrinkle in the plot, magic exists and also hand in your character sheets, we’re doing a diceless LARP now. It’s an utter change in what was expected, demands a complete new understanding of what’s going on. There’s no going back. Whether that’s welcome or not, who can say?

Candy Box is weird. That’s true enough, but it’s also brilliant, and it keeps throwing out surprises, just when you think you know what’s going on it turns into something entirely new. Neat. Friggin’ neat.

GMotW: Antichamber and…

I’ve been playing Antichamber.

Oh yes.

I have not finished Antichamber, not just yet. I’ve hit more than a few walls, to be sure, and broken through some of them, sometimes literally, but I’m not finished, but I still want to talk about a mechanic that is appealing to me at the moment.

It’s also a bit of a spoiler, and because Antichamber is one of those games which is best experienced, I’m inclined to put a spoiler warning here. I have issues with spoilerphobia, enough that I should write an essay about it one of these days, but in the short term, I’ll suggest that if you haven’t played Antichamber for more than an hour and a half, you might want to not read on.

Alright. Not having a specific rulebook, I’m going to cite the game itself for this one:

“Go by your own clock, and not someone else’s.”

… which is to say, that you start the game with a huge ticking clock: an hour and a half countdown, with a vague exit in sight and no real clue how to get there, in an environment which really, really penalizes you (albeit not harshly) for rushing and not paying attention to your surroundings. It’s POSSIBLE to finish the game with a ten-minute speedrun, but an average human will get, I don’t know, a quarter of the way there, maybe, by the time the clock runs out. At which point…

Nothing happens. It hits zero, and the above message appears. You’re not actually being timed. That’s the mechanic.

And it is, in its way, a corker. Obviously, its power comes from acknowledging that you COULD be timed, that, in a way, it makes SENSE to be timed. This is a game, it has rules, and there’s no reason one of them couldn’t be to do with speed. You are taunted by this potential from the very first second of the game, haunted by it every time you’re forced to return to the antechamber. It’s not presented as an optional challenge, it’s just there. A time limit. It takes advantage of one of the metarules, the notions burned so far into our collective subconcious that we don’t need to be told they are true, because it is assumed that they are: when time runs out, the game is over. It works for basketball. It works in Minesweeper. It works in chess, if you play that sort of chess.

But Antichamber isn’t about that. The conceit of the game is that you are in a world where the rules as you understand them don’t really apply; physical space doesn’t necessarily constrain you. You can go through a door, turn around, and find that the door you came through isn’t there at all, but instead a stairwell which takes you down for miles before leaving you back in the very room you just left. The interaction of things in physical space, that’s a metarule as well. Nobody flips through a rulebook saying “Waitaminute, if I’m facing north, and then walk through a door and turn to the right, am I going to be facing East, or am I going to be two floors down facing South and upside-down?” No, we just assume things fit together according to physics as we know them, even though they don’t HAVE to. Even in a game like Portal, where the physics get twisted, they get twisted in a consistent sort of way.

When the timer hits zero and nothing happens, that’s the game telling you, “Hey, man, this isn’t like those other games. Did I not mention?”

It’s an invitation to slow down, a reminder that it pays to explore, an apology for misleading you and a subtle admonishment for your making assumptions, all wrapped up in one. But really, it’s a joke, one ever-so-slightly at your expense. “You believed that I was really timing you? Don’t be so silly.”

Some folks get mad at things like that, but me? I laughed.

GMotW: Dishonored and key bindings.


Dishonored Cover - CopyI’ve been playing a lot of Dishonored lately. It’s a pretty boss game, if you don’t mind incredibly outdated slang terms, but it has got me thinking, perhaps unsurprisingly, of game mechanics. Perhaps even a mechanic… OF THE WEEK?

Yes. Yes perhaps. On page 8 of the manual:

“Your sword is always held in your right hand… In your left hand, you can equip any of your available gadgets or powers…”

On the PC, my console of choice, that binds stabbing to the left mouse button, and the use of gadgets and powers to the right. That’s important. That’s interesting. Let’s take a moment to talk about interaction with video games, shall we?

Games require a medium of information exchange with the “real world” and that means controllers. Ignore, for a moment, the Kinect (it’s not hard to do) and focus on chunks of plastic, whether they be paddles for the consoles or the mouse-and-keyboard I prefer. These tools are constructed to fit the human hand, and put the important buttons within easy reach. The more important a button is, the easier it is to press, whether that be because of its convenient location, it’s sheer size, or–most interestingly–its cultural status as “important.” What do I mean by that?

I mean, basically, that it was Playstation convention that the X button be linked to the most-used skill in the game. I mean that there’s no essential benefit to “WASD” as the keys bound to movement, over, say, “ESDF,” except inasmuch as it has become standard. And I mean that when using a mouse, you left click to activate a function, and right click to create a contextual menu. Clicking the left button means “Perform your primary objective” and clicking the right means “Let us consider some alternatives.”

And THAT brings me back to Dishonored. Your sword is bound to the left mouse button, the “Intended action” button. Yes, it can be re-mapped, but that’s beside the point: the creators of the game have privileged the use of the sword (and even if you do re-map the button, fact is the thing will always be drawn). If there is a person in front of you, the default action is to stab them, doing anything else is, by the nature of interaction, an alternative, a non-traditional option which is only ever contectually appropriate.

This exists in many, many games, and is somewhat endemic in first-person shooters, where the left click is generally tied to “shoot”. Of course, that’s the way one interacts with the world. What makes Dishonored an interesting case, to me at least, is the fact that it’s not a game with only one meaningful standard of interaction; it is perfectly feasible to not be murderous. There are other methods of dealing with dudes in front of you, even those who you wish to have a nice lie-down until you’re well and truly done with the level. And yet… that’s not what’s being privileged.

Which struck me at first as a flaw in an otherwise excellent game, until I took some time to really think about what that did on a narrative level. Corvo, the protagonist is, minimal spoilers here, not a straight up assassin, but a fellow who has been pushed into assassination by necessity. He’s broken out of prison, gotten caught up in politics most foul, and visited by an ancient god who granted him magic, before being thrust into the world and told “Here’s a target, go get him, you’re on your own.”

He is understandably nervous, isn’t he?

Why is stabbing tied to the left mouse button? Because it’s easy. It’s not necessarily wise, it’s never necessary, and it invited trouble, but it is the easy way to deal with any problem which comes in front of you. Its placement on the controlling medium reflects not the necessity of the action, but the siren call of it: “Choking this guy is dangerous, blinking away is dangerous, grabbing sleep darts is dangerous, just kill this shmoe and move the frig on!”

That’s what’s going through Corvo’s mind, and that’s what’s going, if not through the player’s mind, through the muscle memory in his fingers. A guard appears and the gut says “LEFT CLICK!” because that is how you meaningfully interact with the world. Fighting that instinct (or giving into it entirely, if you prefer) is something Corvo and the player have to contend with together. And that’s not a flaw at all, that’s using mechanical limitations to powerful effect.