subtext

Friday, January 29, 2016

Game of the Year #6: GOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAL

6. Rocket League
Psyonix, 2015 (PC version reviewed)
It’s that time of year again: the time when everyone who writes about games feels compelled to catalogue their experiences into top ten lists and award some lucky contestant the meaningless title of Game of the Year. It’s a fun way to collect our thoughts, reflect on how the medium advanced (or didn’t advance) since the last time around, and, most importantly, argue endlessly about why everyone else’s list is wrong. So without further ado, here’s the #6 title on my personal countdown: Psyonix’s Rocket League.
“Rocket-powered car soccer” doesn’t begin to do it justice, because the combination of those two elements render it something utterly novel and endlessly engaging. Even in a time of local multiplayer resurgence, Rocket League stands out as a damn near perfect example of how to build a 4-player experience anyone can pick up and enjoy in minutes yet that still offers genuine depth for those willing to put in a longer investment. It’s a joy not only to play but to watch, inspiring the kind of cheers and hoots and crowd investment beyond what you’d ordinarily get for a “real” sports match as cars and balls fly through the air and explode in technicolor glory.

Rocket League excels at every level of presentation and performance. Online matchmaking is refreshingly quick, reliable, and generally low-latency. Psyonix has gone above and beyond in offering regular updates not only in the form of cosmetics but in entirely new gameplay modes and “mutators” to shake up the core formula in ludicrous ways (giant cubic balls anyone?). There’s frankly not much else I can say that will encapsulate exactly what makes such a simple (albeit polished) game such a singular delight, but at the launch price of $19.99 (free for PSN players at the time of its release) it doesn’t require much of an investment to find out for yourself. In a year of blockbuster multiplayer releases like Battlefront that left me cold after just a few hours of, I find myself, my friends, and my family coming back to Rocket League on a near-constant basis.

But perhaps a few GIFs can explain it better than I ever could:





Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Game of the Year #7: Time May Change Me, But I Can't Trace Time

7. Life Is Strange
Dontnod Entertainment, 2015 (PC version reviewed)
It’s that time of year again: the time when everyone who writes about games feels compelled to catalogue their experiences into top ten lists and award some lucky contestant the meaningless title of Game of the Year. It’s a fun way to collect our thoughts, reflect on how the medium advanced (or didn’t advance) since the last time around, and, most importantly, argue endlessly about why everyone else’s list is wrong. So without further ado, here’s the #8 title on my personal countdown: Dontnod’s Life Is Strange.
Reloading is a mechanic so old and so ubiquitous in PC gaming that we rarely think of it as a mechanic except when we are reminded of its absence, as many of us were with our first Souls games or the roguelike resurgence. In a medium traditionally defined by fantasy fulfillment and superhuman protagonists, reloading - and, by extension, the “savescumming” it incentivizes - is perhaps the greatest gaming superpower of all. Who hasn’t ever wanted to take back a phrase, undo a mistake, or use present knowledge to improve our past? I would guess a majority of us have daydreamed about it at least once in the past 24 hours.

Life Is Strange obsesses over reflection, expressed in part by its own self-awareness of its indebtedness to stories like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko, and Blade Runner.

Life Is Strange takes that daydream and transforms it into not only its central mechanic but the MacGuffin on which its entire plot rides. Max Caulfield,* a shy 18-year-old who’s returned to her small Oregon hometown on a photography scholarship to a prestigious art school, wakes up from a daydream of a (super?)natural disaster in class to find she’s developed the ability to control time and space, at least in a limited sphere around her. Max quickly does what any of us would do and uses her power to replay embarrassing moments, upstage her personal Regina Georgean nemesis, and impress her teacher crush. Max’s interventions quickly take a turn for the critical, however, when a drug-addled trust fund brat shoots her childhood best friend Chloe before her eyes. Max instinctively rewinds time to prevent the gunshot and thereby sets off a chain of events that rekindle her relationship with Chloe and plunge them both into a bizarre and possibly otherworldly conspiracy behind the peaceful facade of Arcadia Bay, Oregon.

In a year dominated by memorable characters and human moments, rebellious punk rocker Chloe might be the most memorable and human of all.

In many games this protracted introduction would all have taken place in cutscenes, but like the Telltale adventure games Life Is Strange places these moments in the player’s hands and allows them to shape Max’s interactions with her classmates and town. Unlike a Telltale game, however, time presents no pressure; Max has the ability to reflect on the consequences of her actions and freely invites the player to undo their decisions and explore alternative possibilities. Often you may wind up electing the same path all over again, but there is something hugely satisfying and validating about being able to test immediate outcomes and choose the best, or at least “least worst,” of all possible worlds. Playfully aware of its dependence on and twist of the Telltale branching consequence formula, an early Life Is Strange sequence allows Max to intervene with a dispute in such a way that prompts an angry character to lash out, “You’re part of the problem, missy - I will REMEMBER this conversation.” Which, of course, he won’t, unless the player decides otherwise.

It may look like a “Press X to comfort” formula, but developing Max’s relationships in Life Is Strange takes a lot more time and effort than you might expect from this genre.

Occasionally Life Is Strange gets too cute with this formula and goes overboard attempting to present two options as equally desirable or undesirable, nagging the player with Max’s self-persecutory introspection and abuse from her friends even when she has every reason to be confident she made the right decision. Sometimes it jumps the gun completely and chastises the player for decisions they were never even presented with if they missed a particular moment or character while exploring. But more often than not the game allows Max to learn and grow in wholly believable ways from her time-turning experiences, forcing her into early maturity as she wrestles with questions presented by her immense power and responsibility that expand well beyond playful schoolground pranks to choices of life, death, and existence itself.


Photography is a central motif of the game, as is personal reflection. In some ways Life Is Strange is a game about selfies, and the ways in which they do or don’t reflect and project our identities.

These moments let Life Is Strange shine, not through the mechanical weight of Max’s decisions but in their effect on her as a person and on the people around her. With a few jarring exceptions, the cast and writing do an admirable job imbuing Arcadia Bay with a level of humanity and psychological realism that was until recently almost unheard of in video games - especially not ones involving superpowers. Life Is Strange is far from perfect - at times the core mechanic itself collapses under some weak design decisions, particularly in the last and unfortunately weakest of its five chapters - but at its best it reflects emotional truth so rich it arguably elevates the genre.

Like its much less reverent contemporary Tales from the Borderlands, Life Is Strange could go toe-to-toe with award-winning television serials and more than hold its own from a directorial perspective, even as it centers the player in a narrative that could only be communicated through gaming. And what could be more a more appropriate way to signal the medium’s coming of age than a game whose narrative is the most literal coming of age story of all?

 * Can we as a species covenant never again to name a teenage protagonist after any kind of reference to Catcher in the Rye - oblique, half-assed, or otherwise?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Game of the Year #8: BROS GONNA BRO, BRO

8. Broforce
Free Lives, 2015 (PC/Mac versions reviewed)
It’s that time of year again: the time when everyone who writes about games feels compelled to catalogue their experiences into top ten lists and award some lucky contestant the meaningless title of Game of the Year. It’s a fun way to collect our thoughts, reflect on how the medium advanced (or didn’t advance) since the last time around, and, most importantly, argue endlessly about why everyone else’s list is wrong. So without further ado, here’s the #8 title on my personal countdown: Free Live’s Broforce.
It doesn’t take long to know if you’ll enjoy Broforce. In fact you won’t even have to get past the title screen. You might as well just take a look at it now and not bother reading this rest of this, because it will tell you absolutely everything you need to know. Hell, even the launch trailer will do. And I say as someone who otherwise has zero use for video game trailers, especially ones without gameplay. Here’s the exception:

Feel the freedom.


What did I tell you? You know right now whether you’re going to love this game, don’t you? You don’t have to read another word. 

But in case you feel compelled to anyway, here’s the lowdown: Broforce is a one-to-four-player, ultraviolent, superficially retro side-scrolling shooter evoking classic Contra and Metal Slugs had either of those series featured fully destructible pixel art environments in the vein of Terraria. That is, if Terraria were in a constant state of explosion orchestrated by an enormous roster of barely-disguised, over-muscled Hollywood action heroes like Rambro, Bronan the Brobarian, and The Broniversal Soldier.


Yes, all the Bros have some variant of “bro” in their names. Even if they are not, traditionally speaking, a bro.
(We’re all bros here.)

These Bros band together to spread the screeching eagle of AMERICAN FREEDOM across the world and LIBERATE the inhabitants of locations like VIETMAN (yes, you read that right) from the FREEDOM-HATING FORCES OF TERROR led by SATAN THE DECEIVER himself. Mostly by blowing everything up, then shooting the devil in the face. It’s cheeseball satire of American politics and hypermasculinity sufficiently over the top to make Paul Verhoeven look downright subtle. Like the best of Verhoeven’s movies it works through sheer gleeful commitment to its absurdity and a genuine (if conflicted) love of the (mostly) mindless action films of which its characters and set pieces are parodies.

Would you like to know more?


At first the game plays like a cartoon chaos simulator, particularly if you jump right in with friends. Bros die after a single point of damage, and so everything from stray bullets to falling debris to suicide bombers can mean instant death for a Bro or (way more frequently than you’d think) set off a chain reaction of explosions and ricochets that leaves your entire team dead in seconds. No big deal, though - you can jump right into the action and try again. Levels are small enough that they can be blasted through in minutes once you’ve gotten the lay of the land and decided how to “solve” their destructible environmental deathtraps in any one of thousands of possible ways. More often than not, the path of least resistance it to take the slow, stealthy approach - much easier as a solo player than with a team of enthusiastic IRL bros - but blowing the crap out of everything and dodging the fallout bullet-hell style is always an option and frequently the most effective way to blow off frustration at an especially difficult area. 


It’s raining men, hallelujah!

The wonderful thing about Broforce is that it enthusiastically supports so many unique playstyles. You can have a blast treating it as a solo environmental physics puzzlebox - and the levels are exquisitely designed to support this choice - or you can turn it into a contra-esque speedrun affair, testing your ability to zip through levels and put a bullet in Satan’s head without taking a hit, or you can just laugh it up with friends and turn the whole comedic affair into a high-octane silly death party. Every Bro controls and combats in completely unique ways, some even breaking entirely from the Attack/Special Attack/Melee control schema to introduce all sorts of whacky shenanigans, like Mr. Anderbro (Neo)’s ability to hurl his body through the air like a human rocket and stop bullets in flight, or Brobocop’s precision targeting system that allows him to plot the path of his bullets, or Indianna Brones’ ability to whip enemies into frightened submission and swing around like Spiderman. Dynamite turkeys are also involved. 

Things are actually going pretty well here. For somebody.

Broforce pays brilliant homage to traditional arcade run-and-guns while taking full advantage of modern innovations. The narrative isn’t anything especially heady (shocker), but it is full of some wonderful surprises of its own. Broforce is a ludicrous, joyful thing and easily my favorite “traditional” co-op experience of the year, which to my mind more than merits its place on this list.


Monday, January 11, 2016

Game of the Year #9: In Defense of Defense (of the Ancients)



9. Dota 2
Valve, 2015
It’s that time of year again: the time when everyone who writes about games feels compelled to catalogue their experiences into top ten lists and award some lucky contestant the meaningless title of Game of the Year. It’s a fun way to collect our thoughts, reflect on how the medium advanced (or didn’t advance) since the last time around, and, most importantly, argue endlessly about why everyone else’s list is wrong. So without further ado, here’s the #9 title on my personal countdown: Valve’s Dota 2 Reborn.
It’s hard to know how to begin to talk about Dota. Though you wouldn’t know it from my current MMR score, I’ve been an alternately avid and casual player since its earliest days as a Warcraft 3 map, when I somehow managed to claw my way up the clan rankings on a 2001 Compaq laptop connecting to Blizzard’s US East servers over a 28.8k modem connection. At least on days when the power wasn’t out for our half of southern Thailand. Best of times, worst of times, etc.

A little-known passage from Sun Tzu’s Art of Controlled Chaos.

A lot’s changed since then. A little-known subset of mods once called Aeon of Strife clones (after an old Starcraft map) have risen to become the billion dollar e-sport industry known as “MOBAs,” an acronym for the stupefyingly vague label “Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas.” Dota was not the first of these, nor is it the most widely played. The younger, pay-to-play League of Legends - founded by a former Dota co-developer - rose up to swallow the largest market share while Dota was still struggling with matchmaking as a Warcraft mod and while its clone Heroes of Newerth failed to pull the playerbase to a commercial standalone client. But despite a delayed entry, the Valve-backed Dota 2 client has rapidly shot to prominence as the world’s most “serious” e-sport this side of Starcraft. Or, at the very least, the one with the most serious level of competitive play and earnings prospects for professional gamers. Seasons of Dota now involve dozens of annual tournaments on a global scale, culminating in a once-a-year blowout tournament known as The International that has now surpassed the Masters golf tour in prize pool totals, the winning team of which received twice as large a prize as the Wimbledon men and women singles champions.

One of the few surviving screenshots of Aeon of Strife.

Yet for all the pomp and ludicrous piles of cash now involved in professional Dota, the game itself has retained the same core characteristics across its decade-long lifespan and has codified these basic elements for the genre. While this year saw a massive update to the underlying engine and the user interface components of the out-of-game menu in Dota 2 Reborn (which also reintroduced a version of the Warcraft World Editor that made mods like Dota possible in the first place), those basic elements have barely been touched even as new playable heroes are introduced and balance is altered.

Pick your poison. Don’t worry, there are 112 flavors of death to sample.

For anyone who’s missed this boat entirely, it’s helpful to know that “Dota,” lack of caps notwithstanding, is an acronym for Defense of the Ancients. Because that’s what the game basically boils down to: defending your Ancient, either the Radiant World Tree or the Dire Throne, with a team of five player-controlled heroes attempting to destroy the other’s. The player (usually) only has control of their personal hero (selected from a pool of over a hundred), while a rudimentary AI controls the waves of “creep” troops laying siege to the enemy tower defenses across a central dividing river. On either side of the river is “the jungle,” a series of locations populated by neutral creeps and secret shops, the control and “farming” of which can turn the tide in the overall battle. In a cave at the end of the river waits Roshan, an enormous draconic boss who typically requires an entire team to defeat but who drops tide-turning gold, experience, and items.

With years of careful study and experience,
you too can understand what the hell’s going on here!

And that’s basically it. Matches play out along this basic formula for anywhere from 20-60 minutes, but the actual course of each battle is utterly unique to the heroes and players involved. For the most part, players will fall into a series of loosely defined roles like “carries” (who require huge amounts of gold and experience to become useful but who ultimately carry the team to victory), “supports” (who typically possess the most spell power early on and can dedicate their gold to buying helpful items for the rest of the team), “cores” (a dependable hero something like a carry who requires less babysitting but doesn’t scale as well in the late game), and “tanks” (especially in the early years of Dota, a hefty damage sponge in the vein of a World of Warcraft tank, but typically with a strong disabling spell or two). Victory requires not only strong performance in each of these roles but constant, constructive communication among team members. There are no lone wolves in Dota, other than dead ones. The team that trusts and cooperates with one another more cohesively is almost always the team who will win.

Trust me, something really cool just happened in this one.

It’s difficult to describe in writing - hell, in anything less than many hours of firsthand experience - exactly what makes this formula so compelling, or why Dota does it so well. For one thing, it can be almost incomparably frustrating. A game that requires you to invest as much as an hour of uninterrupted time, the fun of which is wholly contingent on you and four other (often anonymous) teammates getting along in the midst of a struggle, leads either to tremendous thrill and satisfaction or to outrage rage and irritation. Small wonder that the lower ranks of Dota’s public matchmaking have a (partly deserved) reputation for housing some of the most toxic human interactions on the internet.

Jakiro is a two-headed fire-and-ice-breathing dragon. Yes, he cracks lots of silly temperature-related puns.
Everyone cracks puns.

But when everything goes right - when you find yourself matched with friends or friendly strangers, when you’re each giving your all and playing your part, and when you find yourself learning and improving not only in victory but from defeat - when all those stars align, you discover in Dota the most transcendent moments in multiplayer gaming. The learning curve is brutal, and even with Reborn’s much-improved tutorials Dota often requires an investment of dozens of hours before the fun sets in and hundreds before a player reaches basic competency with a handful of heroes. As with Dark Souls, the fact that so many of us endured through that and have remained loyal players for years is a testament to just how worthwhile the journey can be.

“Undying” is more or less always a misnomer in Dota.

Dota’s community at their best moments are what elevate the meta experience of the game to those heights. The game’s history as a community mod with sequential authorship and just goes to show how tightly jolly cooperation is wound in its DNA. That legacy received new life in this year’s Reborn update, which in addition to numerous client improvements reintroduced a version of the Warcraft World Editor that made mods like Dota possible in the first place. In just the few short months since its arrival, the modding community has used the Reborn editor to recreate hundreds of classic Dota 1 mods and game modes as well as dozens of entertaining new ones. Now after ending a particularly draining match players can jump into a far more casual round of co-op Spin Tower Defense, a chaotic 3-team king of the hill game of Overthrow, a zany 10 vs. 10 variant of Dota itself, or any endless number of mini (and not so mini) games created by the community using the Reborn toolset. If this is what the community could accomplish in just half a year with Valve’s new toy of, and if the old Warcraft mod scene that spawned Dota itself is any guide, then we can probably expect even greater things to grow out of Reborn in the coming years.

And to think in a few moments they’ll be screaming racial epithets at each other.

So, there you have it. It’s a touch odd to be discussing Dota 2 as a 2015 game of the year, given its decade of life. But between the Reborn reboot, the unparalleled spectacle of the International 5, and the big return of the Dota mod scene, this is Dota’s year in a lot of ways, and as appropriate a time as ever to give it its due. It may not be for everyone, but for those who know Dota and love it, there’s nothing else quite like it.

Oh, and did I mention it’s free?

Don’t worry, there are plenty of ludicrous hats to buy.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Game of the Year #10: A Garbage Land of Sand and Sadness



10. Tales from the Borderlands
Telltale Games, 2015 (PC version reviewed)
It’s that time of year again: the time when everyone who writes about games feels compelled to catalogue their experiences into top ten lists and award some lucky contestant the meaningless title of Game of the Year. It’s a fun way to collect our thoughts, reflect on how the medium advanced (or didn’t advance) since the last time around, and, most importantly, argue endlessly about why everyone else’s list is wrong. So without further ado, here’s the #10 title on my personal countdown: Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands. 
It can seem impossible to talk about a Telltale title without landing yourself in a preliminary debate about What It Means to Be a Video Game. On PC and consoles, anyway, Telltales’ particular brand of Adventure Lite has, rightly or wrongly, come to symbolize the extreme edge of what constitutes a “casual” game or - somewhat absurdly - something not a game at all. Phrases like “interactive television” get thrown around as if they were pejoratives, and self-styled “hardcore” gamers feel seemingly compelled to let you know that, however much they might enjoy the occasional Telltale, they ordinarily only ever play “real” games.





If this all sounds a little ridiculous, that’s possibly because it is, and I promise won’t spend much more time on it. In a medium as fluid and expansive as games, the notion of policing titles for purity feels as absurd as it is restrictive. At the end of day, all I know is that my experience with Tales from the Borderlands was wholly different from any I’ve had in other media - tv, books, or otherwise - or any I can imagine having elsewhere. It’s a game about choice above all else - genuinely moreso than any previous Telltales - and the player’s ability to mould the characters and narrative into a version of the story they’d like to tell. And if that doesn’t get at the heart of what makes games unique, I don’t know what does.


In some ways, Tales from the Borderlands is the most Telltale game out there. We’ve clearly reached some critical point where they’ve ceased to be adventure titles in the oldschool sense, for starters. There are exactly two moments in all of Tales where you’re required to rub an item on something to advance, and if you blink you might miss them. Inventory, consequently, feels almost vestigial, with the exception of a couple key items that will automatically be available to you in relevant story moments. Exploratory free movement sections are few and far between, to the point that it feels almost strange whenever the cinematic camera cuts to the flat, classic adventure perspective. The only major element that still clearly hearkens to the genre of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle is the EchoEye™, a cybernetic eye implant that allows Rhys (protagonist #1 of 2) to scan objects and characters for no reason except to read some of the most hilarious faux-corporate-wiki captions ever written into a game. It’s a cute excuse to get some Hitchhiker’s Guide color commentary layered into the whole thing, and it never fails to amuse.


The vast majority of the game, however, is spent in a cinematic mode that feels closer to the story beats of modern BioWare than anything in the adventure genre, peppered with thousands of dialogue options and quicktime event-like action controls. So, the usual Telltale stuff, but more of it than ever before. Unlike most previous Telltales, however - and unlike BioWare’s recent titles - the choices present a lot more variety than the “Good Guy, Bad Guy, Sarcastic Asshole” selection we’ve all come to roll our eyes at. Perhaps partly because *everyone* in the Borderlands universe is a sarcastic asshole, the choices in Tales typically reflect four or so distinct varieties in approaches to a conversation or decision that could *reasonably be outgrowths of that character’s personality*, allowing the player to decide who Rhys and Fiona will gradually become in the course of their adventure. I don’t know how better to describe the improvements here than to say that this is the first Telltale game I have a strong desire to replay, and that nearly every available option was so interesting, funny, and dynamic that I almost immediately wanted to rewind each chapter to try different routes.


Did I mention this game is funny? Well it’s not. It’s the funniest. No, really, it is. Even in a year boasting Undertale, this may be the most consistently drop-dead hilarious writing in a game since the point-and-click Lucasarts heyday. The vocal performances are spectacular, with voice-over veterans from Troy Baker to Patrick Wharburton to Laura Bailey giving 110% over the most cartoonishly expressive comic book facial animations this side of Venture Bros. The script itself feels like the kind of story that Borderlands was always meant to tell but never had a chance to within the confines of a first-person loot-em-up. The series’ signature ultraviolence serves here not only as a source of clever commentary but as a legitimate key ingredient of the narrative and its broader themes.


And that, more than anywhere else, is where we begin to get at what makes Tales special. Telltale has told rich, mature stories before; A Wolf Among Us took all the most interesting character elements of the Fables comics and actually brought them a layer deeper. But in Tales they’ve managed something even more impressive. Every character is a source not only of their own unique punchlines but of genuine human feeling and conflict, even at their most caricatured. Your average Great Game is lucky if it can give us even one, maybe two lasting, memorable characters who stand out in our thoughts of the game long after we’ve finished it. Not so with Tales from the Borderlands. Like Undertale, there’s not a single damn one of the cast I don’t already want to spend more time with or have the opportunity to see another side of on replay. Even the many antagonists - only one of whom is a genuine villain and murderous psychopath - are either downright likable or at least empathetic personalities in the mad, mad world that is Pandora. I spent most of my time with Tales (literally) laughing out loud, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I shed more than a couple tears at the more somber moments.



So call it a “casual” game, call it interactive tv - I don’t give a damn. Tales is among the best examples of what big budget storytelling has to offer this medium, and I for one love that that medium affords us narrative experiences as diverse in one year as The Witcher 3, Dark Souls II, Her Story, and Tales from the Borderlands. It’s a big tent, and there’s room for everyone who brings something to the show.