Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Standout Games of 2016

The Witness




Finding a screenshot for The Witness was hard.  Well, I should say choosing one was hard, because the game is unendingly beautiful to look at; as you explore it every new horizon you walk over yields some new work of art.  You could take pretty much any screenshot that wasn't a close-up of a puzzle panel and it would look good on this page.

That's not why The Witness is on this list though (though it certainly helps); The Witness perfectly accomplishes what every good puzzle game tries to do: make the player feel like a genius.  Over and over you'll be stuck, and confused, and uncertain, and then your brain will click, will make the magical click noise in your head as the bulb flashes on and you get it.  There is lots and lots to get, extending even beyond the game you think you're playing.

I love Metroidvania games; a genre named after its two main antecedents, Metroid and Castlevania. In these games you explore a generally open environment, and as you progress you gain power-ups that affect your ability to traverse the terrain.  For example, a ledge you walked past on the first screen was too high to jump to, but once you get the double-jump power up you can go back and see what's up there.  This type of gameplay just pushes my brain's buttons, and so too does The Witness, because it's a Metroidvania game in disguise.  There are no power-ups to collect, not in the game: the power-ups are inside your head.  As your neurons evolve to overcome the puzzles in front of you they unlock locations you had previously deemed inaccessible.  Puzzles you had to ignore because they just didn't make any sense snap into focus, and you spend your time wandering over the island again and again, round and round, and it never gets dull because (a) it's beautiful and (b) you're a genius.


Audioshield


It was hard to find a screenshot for Audioshield too, but that's because there are barely any online. Worse, while its visuals are great when you're playing it, they hardly look great in 2D on a monitor. Audioshield is a VR game; VR for Virutal Reality.  Wearing a headset, like those giant face-lawnmowers you saw in the 90's, except these days they look more like something from The Matrix and are awesome instead of naff.

Audioshield is the game that pushed me over the edge into buying a Vive.  Space Pirate Trainer was the first VR game I played, and for Shock & Awe it's hard to beat; the visuals are amazing, the soundtrack makes you feel instantly badass, and then you pick up the pistols and double-down.  But Space Pirate Trainer isn't on this list and Audioshield is, because the former makes you feel like a badass for 10 minutes, while the latter fills you with joy for hours and hours.  Audioshield is the VR game I have the most time played in by a factor of ten (discounting Binary Trigger for obvious reasons).

Superficially Audioshield appears to be a rhythm game, like Guitar Hero or Osu.  Blue and orange orbs fly at you, and you punch them in time to the music.  However, this isn't quite accurate.  You can play it this way; in fact the developer patched in a more extreme difficulty just for the players who want this, but this is not what I like about it.  Audioshield is not a rhythm game; Audioshield is a dancing game.

Playing Audioshield is like the best bits of being a slightly drunk in a nightclub; dancing without inhibition to thumping tunes, working out your body, (your aggression if you want), like you're in the start of Blade, forever, but without all the crap bits of being in a nightclub: no smoke, no drunks, no shitty DJs, no trying to look cool so someone will have sex with you, no worrying about finding someone to have sex with you, no vampires ripping your throat open...  None of that shit.  It's just dancing and punching and the best music you can think of because you're the DJ and what you want to dance to is what gets played.


Slither.io



Slither.io is the spiritual successor to Agar.io.  You start off as a little tiny snake, which moves towards your mouse pointer.  You'll eat the little coloured blobs of light that are lying around (perhaps not realising they are being shat out by all the other snakes), and like in the ancient Nokia game, they'll make you grow longer.  Slowly, ever so slowly, but you'll grow longer and fatter.  Of course, the arena is full of other snakes all doing the same as you, all controlled by another player, all wanting to get bigger, to be the biggest.

The shining lance of game design that makes this game amazing is the very simple, very brutal rule at the core of its gameplay: no matter how big you are, no matter how many other snakes you've killed, if your snake runs face-first into any other snake, you die.  No hitpoints.  No extra lives. You die, and will be reborn the smallest little snake you can imagine.  Again.
You can loop around over your own body as much as you like, but touch any other snake with your nose and you're dead, and when you die you leave behind all the blobs of light you've eaten so far.  If you want to get big in Slither.io, and get big quick, killing big snakes and eating their remains is the way to do it.

The beauty of this mechanic is in the interaction between your size and everyone else's.  Once you are a tidal behemoth, leviathan, roaming the edges of the arena like some vast oil tanker, you have the same problem the oil tanker does: you are no longer maneuverable. You take an age to turn.  You can speed boost for years (you speed boost by holding down the mouse button, but it uses up your girth so smaller snakes can't do it very long, while monsters can do it practically forever), but always you are afraid, because one little knock, one dunt on your nose and you're toast, and some little shit is going to eat your corpse.  Meanwhile the tiny little snakes can only speed boost in short spurts, but they are so very agile, turning on a dime.  They're also without fear: what does the newborn care of death?  If it tries to kill you and dies, it gets reborn the same size; no loss.  Baby snakes will happily kamikaze face-first into a giant, because it's 50/50 who dies, and they have everything to gain and nothing to lose, while the giant can win the equivalent of a grain of rice, but stands to lose everything.

The other striking thing about Slither.io is the emergent behavior you start to notice once you've been playing for a while.  The threat behavior of two similarly sized snakes, using speed-boost like a cat making itself larger.  Players meet like animals in the wild; each trying to maneuver against the other for an advantage, but unwilling to engage an even or unfavorable fight.  Then there's the subtleties of snake combat, of coiling, the Qix-like mini game of trapping a smaller snake within your coil then shaving territory off in infinitesimal slices, while they try to out-bluff you with their speed boost and peg you as you turn in.  The risk/reward of killing your captured prey while other snakes draw near, hoping to catch you in your weakened state; if you are a long snake and are spread out you are hard to kill, but while coiled up you take up no space and can easily be enveloped by another.  Few things are as satisfying as killing a snake which is about to kill another smaller snake (and then killing the smaller snake too). Crucially, none of this is designed, or encoded; it comes about purely from the game's one simple rule.

I'm going to stop writing about Slither.io now (I could go on), but I realize I've written more about this free web game (go play it yourself now!) than the commercial giants listed above it.


Overwatch


If there's a game on this list that you're going to have heard of, regardless of how little you pay attention to video games, regardless if you just got back from a year-long sabatical in Zaire, it's Overwatch.  Blizzard's class-based FPS emerged and then blew-up this year, in part due to its slick-yet-cool-yet-simple gameplay, and in part due to these amazing. shorts.  I mean blew. up. I saw a guy wearing an Overwatch jacket coming out of the train station this morning.

I think in the last couple of months my interest has waned (perhaps because I've been busy with the Vive), but for a few months in the middle of the year I played a shit-ton of Overwatch.  It's just so, so... FUN!  It's probably the most beginner friendly FPS there has ever been, thanks to a wide array of different-feeling characters, some of which you don't even need to be able to aim with (they might have a weapon that locks on to targets, or build turrets that shoot automatically), but while easy for noobs it also packs a ton of depth for the more ardent fans.

Get ready for a lot more Overwatch in 2017.


Flight


Flight is a simple little flash game I sat and played through when I had nothing better to do.  I think the word to use is: charming. It's just so nice, and sweet, and... charming.  You will be charmed.  I don't want to say much about it since discovering the game pretty much is the game, so just go play it yourself.  But whatever you do, don't throw the plane backwards, and when you do throw the plane backwards don't say I didn't warn you.


INSIDE


INSIDE is horrific.  Horrible.  Horrifying.  It tells a story, but the story is not concerned with narrative or character development. The story is about projecting emotions onto you, the player, and those emotions are oppression, ignorant cruelty, inescapable horror.  It depicts fascism, not as an artform to portray to the player why fascism is bad, or how fascism works, but instead to use fascism as a tool - fascism is the tool here, not the subject - a tool to push the player's face in.  It's a terror-realm, not of jump-scares, but of a reality fashioned from the building blocks of nightmares.  The nightmares of grown-ups, and the nightmares of their childhood.

I got INSIDE as a surprise Christmas present, having never heard of it (though having googled it since have discovered it was something of an Indie darling).  Made by the same team who created Limbo, it feels most like a modern take on Another World.  Modern in that it looks amazing, with its flat textures and faceless protagonist. Modern in that its control interface is seemless, responsive, slick. Modern in that it can be this polished mechanically while still having the ugliest, rawest soul you could dream of.

I don't know.  I've read a bit on what people think the game means, what it could mean, what the developers intended it to mean...  to me it still means what it meant as I was playing it: it puts you in the nightmare.  The nightmare you can't wake up from, where you're being chased, where you know that whatever is chasing you is going to catch you and there's nothing you can do about it.  The nightmare of when you're a kid and a dead animal is the most terrifying thing imaginable.  The nightmare of your body.  The nightmare of the ordered masses.  It's well worth your time, if you're so inclined*

*Not if you have a phobia about water as it has extended sections like that so don't do it you'll die.

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