Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Some Thoughts on 2010: Part Three

The past two days I have posted Part One and Two of my 2010 retrospective where I have just written a few paragraphs on the games that shaped my past year. In Part Three I finally move on to some Playstation 3 games and, shock horror, some 2D indie platformers.

ModNation Racers

The most frustrating release of 2010. At its core is a devilishly fun kart game with interesting weapons and balanced design that can easily give Mario Kart a run for its money. Yet, around this core are layers upon layers of horrible user-interface design and slow loading times, as though the designers just didn't want anyone to play it.

A patch was released, but it fixed very little. I will probably never play this game again, which would be sad enough if the kart-racing at the game's heart was no so fun. I don't recall reading much about the game, but I did write a rather lengthy rant myself.


Yet another indie platformer, yet another much-talked-about, opinion-splitting game. I would like to say Limbo transfixed me enough for me to finish it on one sitting, as it did for many others, but one puzzle towards the end had me beat for several days. In fact, I ended up having to ask my brother how to beat it. Many had issues with the game's unforgiving, exploitative design, but I solely blame myself for not being able to defeat this certain level.

Limbo nailed so much perfectly. The mood, the atmosphere, the minimal soundtrack, the puzzles. Underneath, the game could be any physics-based platformer, but the presentation made it so much more. It will be sometime before I forget the sequence with the spider and the lost boys. The transition from the game's ending back to the main menu was also superb and tied in beautifully with the game's overall themes of death and loss.

If anything, its only fault was that it played its cards too early. The woods were far more immersive and memorable than any of the later industrial stages. I understand why the stages progressed in this fashion, but they just weren't as enjoyable. Several puzzles also relied too much on twitch reflexes, that meant some players were stuck long after they knew how to progress.

People wrote many things about Limbo. Nels Anderson looked at Limbo specifically and 2D indie platformers generally and asked if they should be applauded for their unqiue thematic presentation, or criticised for their by-the-book platforming design. The debate continues for some time in the comments. Kirk Hamilton probably wrote the most interesting review of Limbo over at Paste and also tackled that one horrible-designed puzzle that nearly wrecked the game for so many players (self-included). Countless other great pieces were written both for and against Limbo all over the internet, too.

Limbo also allowed me to first dare put into words ideas I have about a concept I have been calling player privilege. They were very rough ideas, and they have changed much since those two posts (thanks largely to the many comments both posts received), but it was Limbo that first helped me to squeeze the words out.

Super Meat Boy

Yet another indie platformer! One of the things I found most fascinating about Super Meat Boy was the amount of hype surrounding it before it was even released. Hype... for an indie title! So much so that on several occasions, several months apart, I assumed it must have already been released. Team Meat did an excellent job of forming a community and getting them excited about the game in a way few indies have managed.

When it was finally released (I was resetting my 360 constantly to update the Games Marketplace) I was rewarded with the purest, most enjoyable platforming I've experience since Donkey Kong Countr II (possibly an odd comparison, but I was never much of a Mario player). This was not platforming in the same way as Limbo, which used platforming as a vessel for a puzzle game and an atmospheric experience, and not in the same way as VVVVVV which just changed around a few mechanics. Rather, Super Meat Boy took the existing mechanics of run, dash, jump, and wall-jump and polished them to a mirror's sheen until it all just felt so, so, so right.

The game is just a joy to play in every respect; it really is that simple. Some may find the difficulty too high in places, but I never felt like I was 'stuck', even when I was repeating the same level dozens of times. In a similar vein to Nels's post above, Michael Abbott wrote a good post applauding Super Meat Boy and other 2D indie platformers and claims that platformers are the gaming equivalent of jazz music. The development blog at Team Meat's website has many good reads from the development process, such as this one about risk and reward.

Heavy Rain

Ah, Heavy Rain. Despite getting so much wrong, it somehow managed to get so much right. I enjoyed the one time I played the game through, but I have no inkling to go back and try a second time to see what difference outcomes are possible. The story was drab, generic, sometimes illogical, and could have been pulled from any weeknight crime show, but the simple (some would say meager) interactivity really added something for me. I'm not certain just how often my actions actually made a difference, but it always felt like they made a difference, and that was important. It's also why I am reluctant to play it again.

This weight on my decisions and actions largely comes down to the fact the Heavy Rain is continually moving forward. If a character dies, the game continues to progress. Much like I mentioned for One Chance and Minecraft, that my actions were final made them more meaningful to me.

What I also found interesting about Heavy Rain was not just how my conscious decisions affected the narrative, but how the narrative was affected by me stuffing up. Missed quick time events were the difference between life and death for a character is some situations. I'm interested to see other games implement ways for the player to incidentally affect the outcome, not just consciously.

The game's problems can't be ignored, however. The early scene in the shopping mall that sets up the entire story is completely non-nonsensical and ridiculous and has been lampooned quite well in both flash and song form. The treatment of Madison Paige as a constant victim of sexual violence (and not much else) was also problematic. Denis Farr had an excellent post at The Border House blog about that.

A couple of other pieces worth reading are Julian Murdoch's 'review' (I would call it a review, at least), and Ian Bogost's opposition to Heavy Rain being billed as an 'interactive film'.

Assassin's Creed II

This technically isn't a 2010 game, but 2010 was the year that I played it. Many people that I follow on Twitter had been discussing how much they were enjoying Brotherhood, so I decided I should play the original sequel in order to check out the sequel's sequel. Sadly, that looks unlikely to happen anytime soon as it does not look like I will be completing Assassin's Creed II any time soon.

Curtly, I am not enjoying it. The game has some very strong systems at its core, and improves on the gameplay of the first game greatly. However, the writing is consistently terrible, the pacing is non-existent, and the story might as well not-exist. This all combines to create a complete lack of intrinsic motivation--I can do so many cool things in this game, but there is just no point to do it.

Perhaps this is largely because I cannot care for the world and its inhabitants in the same way I care for those of The Capital Wasteland, Panau, or Liberty City. The nuances that most open-world games have are missing; the world around you just doesn't react to your actions. In one mission there is a full-on war being waged on the streets of a city. Among the sword fights, an old lady was sweeping her doorstep. Around the corner, two old men sat casually on a bench. These were not standalone occurrences and completely pulled me out of the experience.

There is a lot of potential here, and perhaps a gamer less-inclined to care about story and fiction than myself could really just enjoy jumping around and fighting guards (which really is quite fun). Much like ModNation Racers, the game-breaking flaws frustrated me so much because what Assassin's Creed II gets right, it gets very right. I would have been interested to explore Ezio's growing up into an assassin, but it all happens too slowly and then too quickly. He is a master of parkour before he has any right to be, and then he is committing cold-blooded murder without a second thought moments later. I would have liked to have seen a steadier progression, perhaps some sign of shock or reluctance at his first murder. Perhaps one day the gameplay will return me to the cities of Italy, but for now the nonsensical story and horrible plotting is keeping me well away.

And so ends Part Three of Thoughts on 2010! One more part and five more games to go!

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