Monday, December 31, 2012

25 Games of 2012: Part Two (20-16)

Contents: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

20. Lim (Merritt Kopas)

Merritt Kopas is one of the most exciting voices in videogames that I’ve discovered this year. Not only does she write amazing and insightful essays, but she created one of the most effortlessly meaningful games I’ve played this year. (Edit: The Nightmare Mode piece I originally linked here was actually by Porpentine, not Kopas. Apologies to both for the misattribution.)
Lim is a simple game that beautifully conveys its message through how it feels to play. By sliding this cube through a series of rooms, you sharply (and violently) feel the compromises Kopas and countless others have to make in their daily lives and the social exclusion they feel when they dare to be themselves.
A simple mechanic: other squares will ram you violently and refuse to let you pass unless you fit in. To fit in you hold down a button to change colours. When you do this,  the camera zooms in on you, bringing fake-you under ever-increasing scrutiny as you try to fit in. Hold it down for two long and the screen starts to shudder, like the real you is trapped inside fake-you, banging on the walls and trying to get out. Eventually you let go—you have to let go—and the squares start attacking you again in a violent barrage. The juttering of the screen and the thudding sound are nauseating. 
Then there is the beauty of being pushed out of the world itself, playing into an aesthetic of the glitch to send home such a powerful, powerful message.
When I say that Lim conveys its message effortlessly, I don’t mean that I think Kopas put no effort into the game. On the contrary, I think she has poured her everything into this. Rather, as a player, there was no barrier between me and what the game wanted to say to me. A marvellous, intimate game; a work of art; a must-play. Kopas is certainly a developer and a writer to keep an eye on in the future.
At The Border House, Zoya has a far more detailed breakdown of why Lim is such an incredible achievement. RockPaperShotgun also featured it and wrote a few paragraphs about it. Cameron Kunzelman also wrote a post about both Lim and Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia. On that note, Anthropy’s Dys4ia is an absolutely incredible game that will only take five minutes of your time. The only reason it doesn’t have its own place on this list is because I am a terrible person and only played it yesterday. But it is phenomenal and you really must play it. Dan Golding does it more justice at Crikey where he named it Game of the Year

19. Pocket Planes (Nimblebit)

I was one of those people that really liked Tiny Tower. Sure, I understand why you wouldn’t, but the slow-burn gameplay, the way I gradually built up this tower in real-time was something I found incredibly rewarding—without ever spending a cent on the game’s microtransactions. 
Pocket Planes follows a very similar formula as Tiny Tower, but with the added attraction of actually having things to do and some kind of creative input into the network you develop. Every Tiny Tower player has a narrow skyscraper full of random shops. In Pocket Planes, however, each player is going to start in a different corner of the world, will purchase different airports, will set up different trade routes. The same slow-burn, impossible-to-fail gameplay remains, but has been rendered much more compelling and customisable.
I loved watching my network slowly spread from Australia’s east coast back west across Asia and Europe to London. Sadly, I stopped playing before I crossed the Atlantic to New York, but zooming out and looking at the network I had constructed felt like a real achievement. 
Pocket Plane’s most frustrating aspect was its flat, non-circular world. You couldn’t travel from Australia to LA! The Pacific Ocean just hits a wall. Though, this just made the other side of the world so much more exotic, so much more attractive.
J.P. Grant, who wrote a great analysis of Tiny Tower last year, wrote an excellent breakdown of Pocket Planes at Gamers With Jobs.  Ryan Kuo wrote at Kill Screen about how the game demonstrates the importance of being bored in videogames. Gus Mastrapa makes a valid critique of the game at Unwinnable taking issue with the inability to set up automated routes in the game and wanting a button that presses itself. And also at Unwinnable, I wrote a “Pocket Treasures" article about how I enjoyed Pocket Planes as a kind of world exploration but felt unattached to its citizens.  

18. Borderlands 2 (Gearbox)

All I wanted from Borderlands 2 was more of the same, and that’s what I got. People like to complain about Borderlands’s carrot-on-a-stick grinding and disposable, capitalist weapons; they lament the lack of a ‘point’ to the motions you go through when everything you are rewarded with will be thrown out for the next marginally shinier thing in five minutes. But what such critiques miss is that the process of grinding can be fun in and of itself. The goals and their rewards are meaningless in Borderlands 2, but they’re also not the point. The motions themselves, the process, is what is enjoyable about Borderlands 2.
The pleasure of Borderlands is that its infinite weapons are more than a gimmick. Each feels slightly different, and each requires a slightly different approach to how you play. The rest of the game is practically meaningless. What kind of enemies you are facing, what environment you are facing them in, the reason you are facing them. It is all irrelevant. It’s all just an excuse to see how this weapon feels in relation to that weapon. It isn’t enough to just read the stats and see which has the highest number. It depends on the scope, the speed of the bullets, the look and sound, the recoil. 
This was the pleasure of the first game, and perfectly carries over to the sequel. Borderlands 2 adds a far more diverse range of possible attributes to weapon, keeping that persistent feel of experimentation all the fresher. All the guns simply just feel a bit weightier, too. Characters are more customisable; there are more kinds of enemies that must be approached in different ways; there are more locales and secrets. Borderlands 2 is a textbook sequel: more of what was good of the predecessor, refined. 
And then there is Borderlands 2’s story, which isn’t really refined so much as rubbed in the mud. The game shows an absolute disregard for its story as though, like most games, it has to go out of its way to tell you how much it doesn’t care about its story. But then this becomes a weird kind of playing chicken with the player, where both game and player try to care less about the story than the other until the player loses simply from the sheer amount of time they’ve invested about it. I wrote about this weird phenomena. So did Lana Polansky. It never really succeeds as a parody, nor does it succeed as a good story. It just works as a story that breaks you, and that is something.
Though, there is still the pervasive casual sexism throughout the game. Sometimes it seems self-aware (like when you fire an artillery cannon at some misogynist’s house) but mostly this just comes across as the game trying to find an excuse for its behaviour. Then, of course, there was the “Girlfriend Mode” fiasco before the game even released (that really should not have been a fiasco at all, if Gearbox had just apologised for poorly chosen words). I was one of the hot-headed people during that drama. I regret foolishly saying I was going to boycott the game, but I don’t regret being angry over an AAA developer stubbornly refusing to apologise over some casual sexism. 
Surprisingly, perhaps, there has been plenty of good writing about Borderlands 2. Apart from the (at times) fruitful discussion during the Girlfriend Mode thing (see above link for those articles), and the articles about the weird storytelling, I wrote about the unique way guns are used in FPSes to convey our character to us. Patricia Hernandez looks at the game’s blatant consumerism. And at The Wall Street Journal, Yannick Lejacq looks at how irony functions in Borderlands 2—or perhaps how it doesn’t.

17. Trials: Evolution (RedLynx)

I never played Trials HD when it came out. I was never a fan of motorbikes, or of racing games, so it didn’t really look like my kind of thing. It wasn’t until various friends started getting hyped the Trials: Evolution that I realised this wasn’t a racing game, it was Super Meat Boy on wheels, and that is exactly a game for me.
Trials: Evolution is a precision platformer. It’s about being in exactly the right position in exactly the right place at exactly the right speed so as to be in the next position 0.0001 seconds sooner. What’s so refreshing about the Trials games, I think, is that the language of a dirt bike (accelerate, break, lean forward, lean back) is an entirely new vocabulary for platforming (opposed to the usual walk, run, jump, jump higher). The need to focus on exactly where your rider’s body weight is in relation to their bike creates this really intimate bodily connection between player and character and controller. 
When you screw up, you know exactly what you did wrong. When you make a jump that should be impossible, maybe bunny hoping onto a protruding pipe just large enough for your rear wheel, then flipping forward to land with both wheels perfectly on a downhill ramp, it feels like the greatest achievement of your life. 
I’ll always have a soft spot for twitchy games that require that real intimate understanding of the controller in my hands. Games like Geometry Wars, Super Meat Boy, Ziggurat. When I am able to get good at these games (or even just ‘capable’) I feel like my flesh has merged with the technology, like I understand it just that little bit better. Tilting my weight just that little bit forward or back with the left stick, tapping the right trigger to throttle the engine just enough, has brought me closer to my 360 controller than any other game.
For an idea of the kind of precision that Trials: Evolution demands, here is a video of Jason Killingsworth (twitch gaming extraodinare) completing one of the game’s Extreme difficulty levels. Note the images in the bottom right corner that show the replay viewer exactly how much he was pressing each button on the controller. Watch. Learn. Simon Parkin wrote about the phenomenally unique “Gigatrack” course. And Mark Serrels compares Trials: Evolution to rock climbing.

16. Spaceteam (Henry Smith)

In September this year, I went on my first international press trip. I flew to Montreal, at the publisher’s expense, and spent two days playing two much anticipated AAA titles. Since I was in town (and since it took me about 30 hours of airplanes and airports each way to get there) I spent a few more days of my own time just checking the place out. Neither of the games I was paid to see are on this list. But while in town, I went to the Mount Royal Game Society monthly meet-up. There I was introduced to former Bioware programmer Henry Smith and his local multiplayer iOS game Spaceteam. The loud bar was the perfect place for a game that requires two people to co-operatively yell over the top of each other.
Spaceteam is a simple idea magnificently realised. Two to four players, each with their own iOS device, have to obey the computer’s written commands: pulling levers, turning dials, flicking switches. The trick is that the commands you receive probably apply to a control panel on another player’s screen. So each player is frantically telling the others what to do while, simultaneously, trying to listen to those other player’s yelled commands. 
It’s a strong central idea, but what makes the game are the little touches. The tongue-twisting dial names (“Flushflux” almost actually made me cry with frustration after having to say it ten times); the need to wipe away dripping slime or grab on to panels that have popped out of their holdings. The game demands you look after so many things at one time, leaving you exhausted by the time you inevitably get consumed by an exploding star. 
We’re currently going through a re-birth of local multiplayer games, it seems—visible both through the re-introduction of split screen multiplayer in various shooters this year, as well as the Sportsfriend kickstarter. But unlike Johann Sebastian Joust or its ilk, finding people to play Spaceteam with is a breeze. Every other person has an iOS device, and the game itself is free (but seriously, buy a 99c upgrade and give Henry some money). 
I wrote a more thorough review of Spaceteam for Unwinnable, which includes this cliffhanger video of Helen and I playing a typically intense game.

Contents: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

Sunday, December 30, 2012

25 Games of 2012: Part One (25-21)

Contents: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

GOTY lists! As therapeutic as they are meaningless. On one hand, ranking individual artworks against each other to decide which is better and which is worse is exactly not what criticism is meant to do. On the other hand, looking back over a year of games and trying to summarise why the games that stood out for me did stand out for me is a really interesting and enjoyable writing exercise. It’s a chance to be reflective, to get away from the pressure of having to rush on to talk about the next new release.
The last couple of years now I have written Top 20 lists (this year it has ballooned to a Top 25) of my favourite games of the previous year. But more than just a list of titles next to numbers, I like to spend some time writing about each game, why I care about it and why it has stuck with me. So over the course of this week I will be posting my top 25 games of the year five games at a time so I can spend some time talking about each of them.
The numbers, meanwhile, shouldn’t be read as saying one game is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the others. All the games on the following list are exceptional, and many other exceptional games came out this year that are not on this list. Instead, all the ranking represents is the amount that game has resonated with me and stuck with me.
As with previous years, I’ve tried to link to a few memorable articles written about each game, as well as anything I wrote myself. These are far from exhaustive lists, though, and I would love it if you could comment with any other relevant articles that I may have missed.
It’s a bit of cliché to say that this year has been a huge year for videogames, but it’s also entirely true. For the first six months, though, I don’t think I played a single AAA release that really stood out. It was the downloadable titles (especially on Playstation Network and iOS) that stuck with me this year. It wasn’t that there were no good AAA releases; it’s more that the big franchises that did have releases this year were franchises I have no investment in, like Mass Effect. This did give me a chance to catch up on all the 2011 games I never got around to last year, however: Saints Row 3, Rayman Origins, Driver: San Francisco, Dead Island (unfortunately). 
Things changed slightly in the second half of the year, when a few more interesting games were released, and I discovered a few games that had slipped under my radar from earlier in the year. Still, in the 25 games that I’ve chosen to highlight as standout moments of my past year, only four of those are tradition AAA games, and this is something I’m really excited about. Not because AAA is stagnating or dying or anything like that, but because of the strengthening ecology of alternative strands of game development that are maturing around AAA. Sure, ‘indie’ (in its various strands) has been around for quite some time now, but it’s no longer a case of a rare indie/handheld game being able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the big AAA games. Now it’s a few AAA games that are able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the far more worthwhile indie and handheld games.
But enough rambling. On with Part One of the list!

25. Sound Shapes (Queasy Games)

I’ve always had a soft spot for games that visualise music. As someone who loves listening to music but has absolutely no intellectual understanding of what is happening in the music I enjoy, games like Sound Shapes are excellent because they convey music in a language I understand: games. I can see the things making the sounds on the screen. I can see how they are working together to create a beat and a rhythm. Sound Shapes is particularly interesting to me as it is based on one of the few instruments I actually understand: the Tenori-On. 
All platforming games have an unseen grid mapped over them (or perhaps sitting underneath them). We use this grid to mentally comprehend if Mario is going to make the jump or if he can just sprint right over the gap. In Sound Shapes, this grid also determines pitch and timing. Objects closer to the top of the screen make a higher-pitch note than those close to the bottom. Those to the left of the screen make a sound earlier than those on the right. As I move my little ball avatar across each world, I can see the song coming to life around me.
While most of the stages are entirely acceptable ‘music’, it is Beck’s “Cities” level that succeeds best as a song. As you progress through the dead city, the song works its way through an intro, a first verse, a chorus, a bridge, a second verse, another chorus, and an outro. Even the lyrics fit into the world of the level through platforms that take things very literally. It is the first time I’ve ever not been able to get a videogame level out of my head for days.
However, the very feature that should’ve boosted Sound Shapes’s longevity, it’s custom level creator, is its weakest point. The editor is fiddly, requiring you to choose what sound effects you want before you are able to preview what they sound like. A few good songs have been made, but in the weeks after the game’s release, there was little being shared other than Mario and Final Fantasy covers. I have yet to play the game on my Vita, though, so perhaps the touch screen makes things a bit better. Still, once I had played through the pre-packaged stages a few times each (and Beck’s stages a few times more), I found little reason to return to the game.
I wrote about the living dead cities of Beck’s “Cities” level for Unwinnable’s theme week on cities. Kirk Hamilton also wrote a bit about the same level (it really is the game’s highlight) at Kotaku

24. Angry Birds: Star Wars (Rovio)

It’s cool to hate Angry Birds if you’re a slightly older, ‘real’ gamer. It’s everything that’s wrong with our industry. IOS game with micro-transactions, gameplay based largely on luck, endless iterations of the same ideas instead of a complete overhaul, utterly ruthless saturation of merchandise. People see kids wearing Angry Birds t-shirts, holding Angry Birds toys, eating Angry Birds-themed birthday cakes, and they are aghast that Angry Birds to these kids is what Mario was to them twenty years ago.
Of course, this is just like complaining that the music Kids These Days listen to is terrible compared to the stuff you listened to when you were a kid, and it completely misses what is unique and enjoyable and excellent about Angry Birds. It misses that the fact Angry Birds is so easy to play makes it accessible to an incredibly wide range of players who otherwise might never try to play videogames. It misses the fact that not every game has to be based on skill, accessible only to an auteur elite, and that luck-based gameplay can be incredibly satisfying in its own right. It misses the fact that each incremental iteration of the Angry Birds franchise has both refined and advanced the base formula in really interesting ways.
Angry Birds: Star Wars takes the best of the original Angry Birds and the planetoid-slingshotting of Angry Birds: Space and adds a range of entirely new, Star Wars-inspired skills to create a range of new challenges. It is these skills that make Angry Birds: Star Wars is the best realised Angry Birds to date, and well worth the one dollar asking price. Obi-wan's force push, Luke's lightsaber, Han's laser—each is more interesting than any bird's skill in the previous games.
I wrote about Angry Birds: Star Wars for my “Pocket Treasures” column at Unwinnable, musing on how the two franchises don’t really come together so much as Angry Birds completely subsumes Star Wars.

23. Spelunky HD (Mossmouth)

We got off on the wrong foot, Spelunky and I. Now that it was out on Xbox Live Arcade, I was so excited to play and master this game that I had heard so much about it. As someone who typically loves simple yet difficult games like Super Meat Boy or Geometry Wars, I thought Spelunky would be exactly my kind of game. But when I finally played it, it just seemed unfair. How could I master a game that kept changing the playing field on me?
It’s a bit of a taboo to tell someone they played a game wrong (not that that stopped me). But, truly, there is a wrong way to play nearly every videogame. Sure, play any game however you want, but don’t blame the game when you don’t find it enjoyable. Certainly, when I first started playing Spelunky, I was playing it wrong. When I finally learned how to play it correctly, my experience improved considerably. Initially, when I was wanting to approach it like Super Meat Boy, I was hoping to master Spelunky in a way that would mean I could play it with my eyes closed. But this is impossible in Spelunky. The game is capable of screwing you over in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with your motor skills.
Then I read this piece by Jason Killingsworth and it all made sense. Spelunky isn’t Super Meat Boy; it’s poker. What you have to learn to master in Spelunky is the ability to improvise and cope with the hand you are dealt. Spelunky isn’t about winning or losing. It is about doing the best you can possibly do with this hand, and then dying.
Spelunky was an important reminder to me that how I want to play a game is not necessarily the ‘right’ way. Once I was willing to give a little, once I was willing to meet the game on its terms, I found the bombastic, slapstick comedy I had heard others praise. My deaths no longer felt like a bastard game laughing at me, but a game laughing with me at the unfortunate tribulations of my character. This is permadeath at its funniest. 
Apart from Jason’s great essay, my two favourite articles about Spelunky were both at Unwinnable this year. Gus Mastrapa talks about Spelunky as an acquired taste akin to olives (my own experience seems to say this is an apt metaphor). Meanwhile, Chris Dahlen’s kid keeps sacrificing the babysitter.

22. Cool Pizza (Secret Library)

Cool Pizza is a simple and suave iOS game that drips with style. The slick visuals are full of life, as much in the animations that are bulging with life between their two frames as in the colour palette of black, white, and fluro yellow and pink. For perhaps the first time ever, the tilt controls feel perfectly right, used as they are to tilt a skateboard left and right as your skater chic protagonist just kind of dangles with a “whatever man” apathy. And then you jump and suddenly the skateboard is in her hands and she is unleashing a salvo of hits on monsters that look like rub-on tattoos. 
The gameplay is heavily inspired by Sega’s classic Space Harrier, but is far from a simple clone. The most obvious difference is that your skater is effected by gravity. Keeping her airborne requires you to keep taking out enemies, and a multiplier is added for every monster taken out without touching the ground. 
It’s a simple game that is simply a pleasure to play. The only disappointment is that the game ends rather abruptly, cancelling any desire I have to try to top the leaderboards. With a finite number of enemies in a game, I know from my first missed multiplier that I won’t get a high score, so I give up. If Secret Library were to make an update for an endless play mode, I would probably still be playing Cool Pizza regularly. As it stands, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent together for a while.
I reviewed Cool Pizza for Unwinnable, and mused over how the game really struck some kind of 90s nostalgic chord for me (and probably an 80s nostalgic chord for those a bit older than me.) 

21. Knytt Underground (Nifflas)

Most people have their Game of the Year lists up in time for Christmas. Personally, I’ve always preferred putting my list up in the first week of January. Really, this is mostly because I am lazy and really don’t want to be writing out a Game of the Year list before Christmas, but it also allows me to catch any games released in December that I might have missed. Nifflas’s Knytt Underground is one such game. This wasn’t immediately obvious, though. I had probably played for a good few hours before I realised just how hooked I was.
Just like Knytt and Knytt Stories before it, Knytt Underground is all about exploration. It is a metroidvania game in the way the world is a series of screens (or rooms) that slowly fill in a grid like map as you explore the world. Though, instead of allowing the world to open up organically in the traditional metroidvania way of finding power-ups and using them to access previously inaccessible pathways (something Knytt Stories did), Knytt Underground makes the curious choice to split the game into chapters, each one resetting the world with a character with different skills.
The first chapter has you play Mi, a sprite capable of climbing vertical walls. In the second chapter you play as a bouncy ball—incapable of climbing, but able to bounce far higher than Mi can jump. These two chapters are really just tutorials to get you accustomed to each character’s skill set before the game really opens up in the third chapter, where you play as Mi, who can now transform into the bouncy ball with a tap of a button. 
And it is about this point, at the start of the third chapter, that you realise you are hooked on this game. It’s at this point that the entire world is suddenly open to you and you don’t know where to go so you go everywhere and before you know it you have discovered over 1000 separate rooms with plenty more to go.
Knytt Underground is all about exploration, but it is not just about exploring a geographical world. You are also exploring for a reason to be here. There is no great info dump telling you how this world functions or what your purpose is. Just like the labyrinthian map, Mi’s purpose becomes clear gradually as you explore the world. So too does the tensions between the worlds various fractions, living in impossible towns spread throughout the world. Underlining the entire game is an exploration of the tension between rational skepticism and ideological faith. The game seems to play as Nifflas’s own back-and-forward musings on the subject as characters explore the strengths and dangers of each. 
The simple exploration is, at times, marred by overly fiddly platforming. This is often needed when trying to reach a hidden item or room. Some challenges take up several rooms, having you climb up a ledge and then transform into a ball in mid-air then land on a blue-plant to shoot horizontally across two screens to land on a yellow plant that will shoot you straight up another three screens. It is well-designed and challenging platforming, but it often seems completely out of place in a game that is otherwise an incredibly slow-burn of just wandering around a world and getting to know it.
One element that must be mentioned about Knytt Underground (but which almost doesn’t need to be mentioned at all) is the lavish, photographic backgrounds. Instead of flat, pixellated backgrounds, Knytt Underground’s world is a silhouette against realistic photographic images of flowers, fruits, mushrooms, trees, clocks. It’s a distinct, surreal, and fascinating stylistic choice and really gives the game a distinct character. An excellent little touch, on the Vita at least, is the ability to make the plants in this background shake by swiping the rear-touchscreen. Sometimes you will do this on purpose, but often it is an accident as your rear-fingers are just trying to find a place to rest, causing a kind of organic rustling of the bushes. It adds little to the game, perhaps, but it is great little flourish and an excellent use of the rear-touchscreen.
You never quite feel like you know what you are doing in Knytt Underground. At least, I don’t yet. I feel like I am perpetually lost and just fortuitously stumbling across the right person or the right item or the right quest. But it is a beautiful and intoxicating world—one I am entirely happy to be lost in.

Contents: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

November Writing


And so ends the last of my insanely-over-the-top-frantic-and-busy-months-of-writing. The last few months have seen me take on a truly unsustainable amount of work, and I have at last decided to take a break. I have pressed pause on all my regular columns for the month of December and am not actively searching out more freelancing gigs from any outlet until the new year. I've also handed in the edits for my PhD's confirmation paper, which means no more desperate writing for my PhD until the new year, either. Which, in all, means no more writing for me for this year! Which means a whole heap of reading! This is very exciting!

But that is the month ahead. The month just passed still saw a ridiculous amount of writing, so here be the writing that I did done in November.

First and foremost is, of course, Killing is Harmless, which launched two weeks ago on 21 November. If you are reading this then you probably already know about it so I won't bore you on details again. The book has already sold more copies in a fortnight than I expected it to sell in a year, and is slowly edging towards 1000 sales (about two days ago it was over 850). It has also sparked a whole heap of interesting reviews and discussions about videogame criticism, which is always excellent. In the next month we are working on both updating the text to remove many of the pesky titles that snuck into the first edition, and we will also be releasing a version native to Kindle for all of those asking for it. After that, we will hopefully start looking at how to get a print version up. Also, as part of Killing is Harmless, I compiled a "Critical Compilation" of articles about Spec Ops: The Line, which is both in the book and up for free at Critical Distance.

I was also part of an uncannily similar project this past month called Five Out Of Ten, founded by Alan Williamson. Five Out Of Ten is an independent magazine where five authors contribute two articles each to a compilation. Readers then pay for the compilation and the writers split the profits evenly. It's another great movement to get game critics actually paid for their work and it's really exciting to be a part of it with some really great writers. For my part, I contributed an article about how I consume videogame worlds as I walk across them for the "New Horizons" theme, and my deeply personal "Character Building" article that was first published in the Intimacy issue of Kill Screen. "Character Building" is perhaps the most personal thing I've ever written, and it is equal parts exciting and terrifying for it to now be available in a more accessible digital compilation. Still, I'm happy for it to be part of such a fine compilation.

My "Sum of Parts" column at Gameranx this month was about the surprisingly great Binary Domain. I certainly didn't expect the intellectual hammering this game offered me when I started playing it. Now, it has to be one of my top games of the year. My four articles about it kind of split into two two-part sub-series. My first article looked at the theme of discrimination in the game, and how the robots are othered and treated much like many minorities in the real world. I followed this up with a look at how the later parts of the game introduce the idea of posthumanism as a way to problematise and counter such othering. Then I turned to some of the game's "gimmick" mechanics and look at what they actually contribute to the experience. Thirdly, then, I look at the game's trust system, and how the game uses it to make the player feel excluded from the group in the later parts of the game. And, related to this, the last part looks at the voice-recognition and command mechanics and how these evolve in really interesting ways throughout the game.

At Unwinnable, I wrote an article about Borderlands 2 and how its irreverent storytelling broke me. This was my second article about Borderlands 2 at Unwinnable (after last month's look at guns and characters). I was as surprised as anyone that I got two articles out of that game. I also wrote three "Pocket Treasures" articles throughout the month. I looked at word/strategy game Letterpress, bizarre franchise conglomerate Angry Birds: Star Wars, and super phenomenal shout-at-your-friends Spaceteam. Seriously, go get Spaceteam.

At Games On Net I have two "You Know What I Love" columns in November. The first was about violent videogames being reflective about videogame violence—something I think can be done without being hypocritical. The second looked at game endings that actually end, which was more an opportunity to rant about how franchises ruin stories.

This month I managed to procure a Playstation Vita, much to my surprise. It is a pretty special console with some truly mesmerising games. I haven't had much time to write about Gravity Rush yet, but I used the Vita's ability to take screenshots to post some photos and musings on this blog earlier this month. Now I am playing Persona 4: Golden (my first Persona game!) and it is something special that I will undoubtedly have opinions about in the new year.

I only have the one article in print to talk about this month. In issue E248 of Edge, I conduct a studio profile of Melbourne developers Firemonkeys, a hybrid studio of Firemint (responsible for FlightControl and Real Racing) and IronMonkey (responsible for many EA Mobile games). This is one of those weird moments where I do 'actual journalism' and I am pretty pleased with the result.

I also presented an academic paper at CODE - A Media, Games & Art Conference this month. It was a really great conference with some fascinating papers. I spoke about "Dinosaur Comics as Ergodic Literature", riffing off Espen Aarseth's (super vague) idea of "non-trivial effort" and N Katherine Hayles's focus on the materiality of a text to look at how webcomics generally and Dinosaur Comics specifically foster a particularly 'playful' engagement from their readers that can't be understood as 'simply' reading a comic on a screen. For instance, this XKCD comic. I don't know what will come of this paper but if it ends up published anywhere, I'll be sure to let you all know.

And finally for both this month and the year, I have an article up at The Newstatesman about where to find good writing about videogames. It's a response to a piece that ruffled a few feathers a week or so ago that asked why we are still so bad at talking about videogames. Some people were angry that the initial piece hadn't come looking for us, but I saw it more as us being too hard to find. So it seemed like a great opportunity to expose some of the great stuff that is out there. The vast majority of the links in this article are things written this year. Truly, it's been a really great year to be writing about videogames, and just the small sample that is this article goes to show that.

In that vein, while I won't be writing much over the next month, I will probably still maintain my tumblr Brendan Shared A Link where I keep track of articles (mostly games related) that I read and think are awesome. With the amount of reading I have to catch up on this month, I expect I will be posting there quite a lot.

And that is that. After Christmas I will do my yearly five-part top twenty games posts that I've done the last two years, but apart from that, this is all the writing you can expect from me this year. It's been a pretty intense three or four months. Thanks for coming along and reading my rambles!