4/16/2014

Comedic games

Hello everyone! I was recently  translating the newest episode of Extra Credits for Polish audiences. Guys did a very good job at analyzing the pitfalls of creating an interactive comedy, but for some reason (most probably the length of the episode) didn't elaborate on the reason why we have so few comedy games in general. Here's the episode, freshly baked:


Now... As much as I agree that making interactive comedy is not a piece of cake, I also believe that it's not the reason of the diminishing number of comedy elements in games. In my opinion, the main reason is fear of the public opinion. 

Let's face it. Every artist wants to get recognized for what he does. Every artist wants to be admired and benefit from his/her art. Every single garage, Metallica-bashing band wants to get discovered and "sell out". Every Coelho-hater would gladly write books making even less sense and sign them with his name as long as it gives them a decent income and recognized name. Now let's make short lists of "the greatest" rock bands, movie directors, writers, singers, actors... First three that come to your mind. How many of them were involved in comedy? Why did we list Iron Maiden not Tenacious D? Why almost none of us knows the director of any of the comedies released in the last decade, but everyone knows Spielberg? Why Stephen King and why do these names not ring almost any bells? Why Sting, not Stephen Lynch? Why Anthony Hopkins, not Vince Vaughn?


Because comedy is silly. It doesn't matter that John Cleese is a brilliant philosopher. It doesn't matter Jim Carrey is an amazingly versatile actor. It doesn't matter Tim Minchin is an incredible musician. They are all comedians. They are silly. Human society has developed an unnatural harshness to everything that makes us laugh. We all love a good laugh, but within our four walls. When we choose a movie to relax with in the evening, we watch American Pie, but then we discuss the new Scorsese with our colleagues at work. We instinctively degrade our comedic experience to something irrelevant, a filler, a method to let the steam off in our otherwise boring, sad, mature lives. We feel somewhat ashamed and guilty to spend too much time with comedy. Comedy is this funny little brother of the mature, majestic art. Comedy episodes in TV series are 20 minutes and the "serious shows" are 40-60 minutes. And games... 

We have all noticed that the game industry is no different. Comedy is becoming more and more scarce. Smaller games, like Plants vs. Zombies can still afford being humorous while titles with bigger budgets get even easter eggs removed, because it's "silly". We are somehow okay with "small games" being funny, because they are just "small, silly games". With bigger titles we expect depth and maturity.

There's another reason why games with bigger budgets have problems getting away with humor. Investors have hard enough time believing in the silly game industry. Believing in the silly game industry making straightforward silly games is even harder. Seeing what sells, I would rather put a million dollars into another Assasin's Creed rather than The Mighty Quest for an Epic Loot. Developers themselves also have a deep problem with the image of the industry they work with. They want to appear professional, they want to show the stuff they make is not just for kids, it's mature. And how can a comedy be mature, huh?


And if we want to make the comedy mature, we encounter another problem. Mature comedy is not about shallow tit jokes or hitting someone's face with a pie. It often needs to challenge the current status quo we live in. Society, religion, politics - no matter how silly or clever you go about them, majority of people will always feel like you are offending them. And in a way they will be right - many people really believe in their way of living. Games already don't have the best image. Adding bashing of religion to the list of game sins is not exactly what the developers are so eager to do. The heat Portal got for adoption jokes is a clear example of society not being ready to accept an above-PG comedy in games. Cartoonish explosion and stars circling above character's head - good. Jokes about euthanasia - very bad.

Let's sum it up: society looking down at comedy + lack of respect and recognition for comedians in general + developers wanting to show how mature they are + investors unlikely to support comedy games + risk of touching the touchy topics in a humorous way in games = shitload of reasons why as a developer, you would rather make another shooter than a decent comedy game.


So yeah, interactive comedy in games is widely underdeveloped. But it's no wonder not many people even want to try and change that. It would have to be a comedy genius. Also, a game designer with a fair amount of fourth-wall-breaking knack. On top of that, he/she needs to have a relatively high disregard for money and be immune to social heat that he/she is very likely to get. Not so high odds of that getting together, right? I'm sure someone like that will sooner or later come and revolutionize the way we think about game comedy. But while we are waiting for this savior to be born, let's do our part. Let's all have a laugh in public once in a while. Let's all admit we love comedy, and not only the half-too-boring, half-too-clever Woody Allen comedy. That will make it so much easier for everyone. And definitely more fun!

2/28/2014

Rewarding the player vs. achievements

A few days ago, me and my Art Director, Damian, were discussing rewarding games. As a flag example of game rewards done great he brought up Guild Wars 2. Since we played it together and equally enjoyed it, at first I agreed. In that game, you get a reward every five to 10 minutes. Quests pop up like crazy wherever you go. If you are not finishing a quest, you are leveling up or finding a vista point or unveiling the map or getting a new part of main story, leveling up your crafting skills, digging a herb or earning an achievement. Rewards are on every corner of every brick of every wall. 


It was later that day when I started thinking... What exactly am I getting in Guild Wars 2? Experience and levels are meaningless, as the game scales you up and down more often than you can even notice. Gear? At level 80 I still don't really care what I am wearing. Crafting skills are a nice, expensive piece of crap since I don't care what I wear. Skills are all unlockable in the first 10 minutes of the game, coins are useless as merchants have absolutely nothing I'd like to buy. Even the guilds do nothing together and server wars are just an uncoordinated free for all that do a lousy job at motivating you to get better gear. Yet still, I was playing this game with pleasure, because once in a while, for completing my dailies, I got a treasure chest containing absolutely nothing useful for my gameplay. I was getting achievement after achievement congratulating me on slaying 100, 500 and 1000 mobs of the same type, but apart from this achievement, killing these poor creatures got me close to nothing!

What kept me going here was a brilliantly executed Skinner Box technique. Our friends from Extra Credits have explained it very nicely in one of their videos:


But I wouldn't be myself if a realization "Oh, it's Skinner Box!" was enough for my overly active brain. I was naturally analyzing it further, and here's a probably not too groundbreaking theory that many people came up with before me:

Rewards tied to gameplay are cool, achievements disconnected from gameplay suck.

Let's take a look at an old RPG from way before anyone invented achievements or trophies. Final Fantasy Tactics. You could have up to 16 characters in your formation, each one could have one of mixes of 20 different jobs, using thousands of combinations of skills and equipment. Every battle was rewarding. Every slain enemy could leave skills or items. Actually useful skills and actually useful items. Every action gave you experience and job experience points. Actually useful experience points giving you stat boosts and currency to buy actually useful skills. Every job level could unlock new jobs with new skills and abilities. It got you checking your formation after every battle, tweaking gear, learning skills, assigning jobs... Every piece of reward was a pure gameplay reward. After 15 years, Final Fantasy Tactics still has one of the best battle systems of all times and there are countless games drawing from it.


Squaresoft designed Final Fantasy Tactics this way to make the game rewarding to the player to make it fun to play over and over. The game now has an impressive amount of FAQs on gamefaqs.com with people coming up with new challenges years after the release date. I never needed external motivation like trophies to get back to this game many times over the years.

Nobody can deny that the achievements are a powerful motivator. They are also a powerful tool to conceive how flawed the game actually is. Especially on PC, where achievement lists can be better organized, therefore there can be thousands of them. Thousands of achievements, popping up every 10 minutes to give the player an illusion of progress. Covering the dullness of the core gameplay.

I am far from an expert, but I strongly believe in what I will write here, so I'll act like one. So... How to do the achievements right? Achievements should always be linked to an actual reward that comes from gameplay. Is building a Laboratory in XCOM a great gameplay moment that deserves a trophy? Not really. It gives a gameplay perk, but a feeling of accomplishment? Nah. Reaching Anor Londo in Dark Souls on the other hand... You stand on top of the staircase, say to yourself "praise the sun" and a few seconds after that incredible feeling washes over you, a trophy pops up to confirm you have done something great. That's how you use trophies. To emphasise an actual achievement, not create a fake one. Or, continuing with the Dark Souls example, you can use trophies to create an additional challenge and encourage exploration: "Collect all the unique Weapons" or "Learn all the spells". These are examples from Souls series, but also found in hundreds of games. But "kill 500 monsters of this type" or "use the weapon you don't like a 1000 times" - those are not achievements. Those are artificial progress bars. A boring game's life support system.


A great example of achievements done right is Rayman Legends. This game could do just fine with no trophies whatsoever. You get lucky tickets, you unlock new paintings, you rescue Teensies, you get new creatures, you collect lums, you earn bronze, silver and gold cups, you unlock new heroes. All these things please the player, give him/her obvious gameplay perks. The fact that collecting all the creatures unlocks an achievement is just a nice additional bonus. The player wants to have them all regardless of the achievement, because they are fun to beat up and give you lums - a currency that is actually useful. Me and my girl have spent long hours with the game to collect all 700 Teensies, not to get a trophy for collecting them. We wanted to beat the crap out of every single map, because it was just fun, rewarding and unlocked more maps for us to play.


Unfortunately, since achievements have been invented, more and more games are getting away with boring gameplay. So what could just as well be about as entertaining as hitting a rock with a stick a million times? You will get an achievement after 10 hits. Then after 20. Then you will get one if you hit it 3 times in a second. Oh, and then you will get one if you keep your rhytm for half a minute. And for level two, you can use your left hand. Oh, and just so you don't notice that you are just hitting a rock with a stick all the time, here's a cutscene. Now, since you got an achievement for watching the cutscene, get back to hitting the rock.

Is that how we want the games to evolve? Even the best developers use the achievements to make up for the boring parts. Take Diablo III - it's a really good game, but think how much better it could be. If only the developers focused on introducing some new, interesting stuff to higher difficulty levels instead of scaling up mobs and giving achievements for slaying hundreds of them. Yes, exactly - rewarding the player for hitting a rock with a stick a few more times. And it's Blizzard who did such a shameful thing! The studio that did great job on achievements in StarCraft 2, where they encouraged the players to hone their skills, learn new tricks and beat new challenges instead of a mindless grind.

I am far from being against achievements. There's a fair part of me as a gamer that's an achiever. And even this part of me doesn't like being tricked to believe I am actually earning something when all I did is hitting the stone one enough times.

2/04/2014

Quickie #2: PlayStation Plus

I often hear players, especially the young ones, complaining how expensive games are. And ten years ago, it would have been completely true, but nowadays, with Steam sales, humble bundles, Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus, games have become incredibly accessible for any kid with an allowance of $5 to $10 a month. What I will present below is not aimed at advertising the PS+ service. I am sure Xbox Live Gold is offering similar benefits, but since I don't have it, I won't be writing about it. PC gamers have lots of obvious ways to save cash on games too. Just treat it like... A nerdy noob playing with a spreadsheet :)

Yesterday I turned my PS3 on and remembered that a new month has started, so most probably I will get some new games. For some reason, this month I wasn't searching the web for this info and I got surprised. After last month's Borderlands 2 + DMC, this month I received Metro: Last Light and Bioshock Infinite.

I started doing the math (I like math - shoot me), I even prepared a whole spreadsheet (bring a shotgun) and what came out, pleased me greatly. I have bought the 1-year membership somewhere around August or September. It hasn't even been half a year. It costs $50 in the US, in Poland it is actually a bit more expensive, somewhere around $62.


During that time I have received over 30 games. I even checked the prices (as of 2. February 2014) and here's the exact list with total values:

for PSP:
GTA Liberty City Stories
total value: 59 PLN (~19 USD), average metascore: 88

for Vita:
ModNation Racers: Road Trip, Dynasty Warriors Next, Soul Sacrifice, BLAZBLUE Continuum Shift Extend, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD, MotorStorm RC, Gravity Rush, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Touch My Katamari, Street Fighter X Tekken, 
total value: 1083 PLN (~344 USD), average metascore: 76,9

for PS3:
BioShock Infinite, Metro: Last Light, DMC Devil May Cry, Borderlands 2, Grid 2, Remember Me, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Jak II: Renegade, Jak 3, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Mafia II, Spec Ops: The Line, Far Cry 3, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, LittleBigPlanet Karting, Guacamelee!, Stealth Inc: A Clone in the Dark
total value: 2262 PLN (~718 USD), average metascore: 81

for PS4:
Don't Starve: Console Edition, Contrast, Resogun.
total value: 167 PLN (~53 USD), average metascore: 73,3

Now this means that for the 195 PLN (62 USD) I have spent on the 1-year membership, in less than half a year I got a total of 3571 PLN (1133 USD) in games with average metascore of 79,6. And I'm counting in current values. A number of these games had to be more expensive a few months ago when I got them. 


Now let's analyze it further. My PS3 with 2 gamepads, PS Eye and two Move wands cost me 1300 PLN (412 USD), I bought a PSP for 300 PLN (95 USD) and the 1-year membership for 195 PLN (62 USD). Total cost of 1795 PLN (569 USD) The games I got for these platforms only are worth more than I spent on the hardware. The PlayStation Plus paid me back for the whole investment in the hardware. 

If I wanted to buy a Vita to play all these games I've accumulated, I would need to pay 600 PLN (180 USD), which would still be less than the value of the games I already have for this platform. And it's just been half of the subscription time. By the end of this subscription period, it will save me enough money to buy a PS4... at least twice, and I will already have more or less 10 games for it.

Now I know not all these games are titles I dream of, some of them I won't even touch and yes, I did not get them in day one. Still, thanks to PS+ I have at least halved my new game purchases and I have doubled the length of my "to play" list. Also, if you are a developer, you need to play lots of various games, even those you wouldn't normally buy. And if you are a gamer complaining that games are expensive, I think this is still a quite solid advice how you can make your gaming experience more affordable. 

1/27/2014

How to search for a job in gamedev

One could think writing an article telling people how to search for stuff in the age of Google is ridiculous. Sure, if you are an advanced researcher, you probably will be able to search for gamedev vacancies using the most popular search engines, but I would argue it still won't be the most effective way to do it. 

First, a bit of a disclaimer. In this article I won't be covering skills required for any position in gamedev. Also, the article will only be informative for people who haven't worked in gamedev yet. Once you get your foot in the door, what follows is either obvious or intuitive, but most importantly - not necessary, because once you are in, you gain way more powerful tools than the "outsiders" have.

Well then... How do people search for jobs? They visit the most popular sites, like Monster or Careerbuilder. Yes, click on those links. Spend some time there, search for game designer or a producer or a concept artist or whoever you wanna be and get these few results actually matching your query. You have just looked for a job in gamedev in the worst possible way.

When looking for a job in gamedev, you have to understand something. People are still a rare resource in this industry. When a bank or a consulting agency posts a job offer for pretty much any position, they get hundreds of resumes within first 24 hours. They probably throw half of them away randomly before actually looking at them, because they can. These industries have been here for decades. They have an opinion of respectable and stable working environments and every year, universities spit out thousands of wannabe bankers and consultants. Society has managed to produce thousands of HR directors, brand managers, community managers and chief financial officers. At the same time, it failed to produce enough ZBrush artists. Therefore, unlike in any standard industry, an opening in gamedev is not so easily filled. This means a few things.


One: the vacancies in gamedev stay open way longer than in other industries. If you apply for a marketing manager anywhere, you pretty much have to do it within 24 hours from the moment the opening is posted or you don't stand a chance. In gamedev, you might apply a month after the job offer saw the cyberlight and still get invited to an interview. Obviously, it has disadvantages too. Offers that are over a week old get buried under hundreds of other offers. This is one of the reasons why gamedev companies often don't bother with searching for employees through most popular channels.

Two: some of the vacancies are not getting filled for so long that companies might be willing to shift responsibilities between existing members of the team and create a new job with a different profile. Therefore, if you meet most of the key requirements but lack in a field or two, for which you can make up in other useful areas, you still might have a shot. In traditional industries, not meeting one minor requirement almost certainly means a failure. There's just too many people out there that have all the skills (at least in their resume).


Three: almost every company in the world has an e-mail address where you can send your resume "in case they need someone with your skills". These resumes often don't get a second of HR's attention and the whole "we might want you even if there's no opening" is more a part of employer branding, not an actual recruitment effort. In gamedev it's quite different. Most companies are in need of specialists. Ubisoft alone now has over 400 openings across the globe. Don't get me wrong. These companies won't take just anyone to fill these spots, but reading randomly sent resumes is one of the ways they try to actually recruit. In many cases, gamedev companies are really getting these out-of-the-blue CV's and might actually call such applicants.

Having all this information in mind, how do you actually search for a job in gamedev?

First, find a good source of gamedev job offers. We have established, that the biggest jobsearch engines are rarely the way to go. Many gamedev companies advertise on smaller, but more targetted sites. Many bigger game-related sites have a "jobs" section. You can try gamedev.net or gamasutra, there might not be many offers there, but if you add sites like that up, you might get some results in staying up to date with job offers. There also exist small local sites, like polish skillshot, their only purpose being listing the gamedev job openings.


A much more powerful searching tool would be LinkedIN. This is where most of gamedev people are and where you should be too. You will also find, that "game developer" or "game designer" query spits out hundreds of results, as opposed to Monster's 0 to 10. I would still advise checking out the smaller sites too. LinkedIN may list the most job openings, but also most of them are in bigger gamedev companies, where you often need quite a lot of experience. Smaller companies tend to be easier to get to for beginners and these smaller companies rarely spend money on LinkedIN job ads. Also, these smaller job sites are visited by less people. Less people = less competition for the job = higher chance you can get it.

Second, reach out. Companies don't always advertise their vacancies on external sites. They only post them on their own website. Search for companies in your area. You will be surprised, how many there are. You don't have to start in AAA industry right away. Mobile teams are also lots of fun. Gamedev map is a really nice tool to start with. It might not be most up to date in all areas and it definitely doesn't list all the smaller studios, but it can still provide a nice database of your friendly neighborhood studios. If you don't fit the profile of any job offer they list on their website, still send your resume. You never know...


Third, network. If there is a company you would like to work for, get in touch with them. This will sound like I am advising you to stalk people, but really try to get in touch with employees of that company. Find someone active in the community and writes a blog (lol), comments on LinkedIN, tweets or whatever and follow him/her. Start being active in similar groups, show your knowledge / skill / friendliness / enthusiasm through your posts on forums and other means of indirect communication. Sooner or later you might get into some more direct contact. Also, check if someone you already know can't get you in touch with someone in the company you wish to work for. Ask them if they could forward your resume. There's a huge difference between "Hello, my name is Brian, I would like to work for you guys, here's my CV" and "Hey bro, my good friend Brian is very enthusiastic about working in gamedev and he really seems like he'd be fit for it. Here's his CV - please pass it on if you have a second."


When I was looking for a job in gamedev, I have successfully managed to get in touch with a man in one of the companies I applied for. We have exchanged dozens of e-mails and during this electronic conversation he hinted two jobs in his company that weren't even advertised and I got an interview this way. Ultimately, I didn't end up in that company, but the interview alone kept my enthusiasm up and taught me a lot.

Lastly, be up to date with the industry. It will give you hints, which studios might be more eager to hire. A company is opening a new studio? They will likely be prepared to include some juniors in their structure there. Capcom boasts about hiring 500 people in the next 5 years? You know where to send your resume first. I highly recommend Develop Online for getting info like this and also, a lot of general, but useful tips on getting a job in the industry.

I promise to cover some more "getting a job in gamedev" topics in the future too, so stay tuned.

1/21/2014

What internet did to gamers

Hey everyone! I know some of you guys might be a bit too young to really remember how it used to be before every home had internet access. I often get jealous of people who were born in the 70's, because they got to experience all the great early games of the 80's as they were fresh. However, at least I was born in the 80's and that enabled me to observe the history of internet getting as common as PC's.

I remember the only DSL in our town was in our high school. The whopping 256 kbits per second were split between 30 or 40 computers. Downloading 1 MB of data was taking up to half an hour. Who would have thought that just a few years later I will have a phone with connectivity possibilities putting that snail of a DSL to shame.

And as soon as everyone started getting their private internet connection, mailing lists evolved into forums and then into social networks. Webpages evolved into vertical portals just to enable everyone to forget what a vertical portal is. Games evolved too.


The year was 1998. Remember it. I bet there hasn't been a year in game history when so many brilliant games were released: Xenogears, Metal Gear Solid, Ocarina of Time, Unreal, Fallout 2, Half-Life and Grim Fandango are merely opening the list. They are not relevant for us now though. The game that is relevant... is StarCraft. The very first video game in the world (unless I'm mistaken) that became a TV-broadcasted sport, giving birth to the whole online E-sports craze we have going on till now.

A year and a half later (respectively: November and December 1999), Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena have been released to add to madness of online gaming. Everyone around me was either fragging or getting fragged. Half of the people I knew back then were in some sort of Q3 Clan, competing against each other on local or semi-local levels. It was when it ceased to be enough to sit on the sofa with friends and play Tekken. Bringing PC's over to your friends, internet cafes and LAN parties were the gamer's way of living.


In the meantime, internet kept getting cheaper and faster. Less and less people had to go to internet cafes to play an online StarCraft match. Less and less people had to drag their PCs to their friends. Instead, they could just play together online, from their own homes. Newer generations of consoles also finally got internet connectivity. Anyone who tried playing shooters on split screen knows how much more comfortable it is on separate machines.

A true age of MMO's and online multiplayer arrived. At last, playing with anyone in the world felt just as good as playing with your real life friends. At last, you didn't have to depend on the lame guys who were doing their homeworks when you wanted to play. You were, and up to this day are, a few clicks away from playing any game you like with anyone in the world. A true freedom in your own, closed room.

What internet gave us as gamers is truly remarkable. Battle.net eventually concentrated so many people that it was possible to make a gaming convention just for users of this one service (Blizzcon, if you were still wondering). Online multiplayer is now an essential feature of most of new games, giving us an opportunity to squeeze out so much more of them than just a single-player walkthrough.


But at the same time, somewhere on the way we have lost something. We have lost a good, old-fashioned couch gaming and everything it stood for. Games stopped being a medium to enjoy together with your friends, drinking juice or beer. Beating each other up in Virtua Fighter, squeezing 4 hands on one computer keyboard. Playing hot seat in Heroes III with up to 7 other people. Defeating waves of enemies together in Contra while sitting on the carpet, dangerously close to the TV screen.

Three console generations ago it was great if you had a N64 instead of a PlayStation or Saturn. Friends came over to your place to play Wave Race and Golden Eye together and then you went to your friends to play Twisted Metal or Virtua Cop. Nowadays, most games are all the same on three leading platforms (PC, PS, XBox), but you can only play within one system. It forces you to buy exactly what your friends have or you will end up playing with random guys over the internet.


And you can't really have your friends over to play games, because there is just so little titles you could play together! There's only a handful of couch-friendly titles worth mentioning that have been released in the past few years. No wonder I still have Heroes III installed on my laptop - it's one of very few games I am able to play with my friends when we get bored with killing each other in Mortal Kombat. I have even played Heroes III with random people on a train. Ten years after the game's release, I still had no problems finding guys who could play it!

Internet changed the whole dynamics of social interactions. Gamers used to gather in comic book stores and gaming arcades. They used to meet in person. Now online gaming communities give them not only a sense of belonging to some group, but also let them create themselves however they want. With all the great opportunities online gaming has given us, it has also produced hordes of teenage teabaggers talking shit to people they would never dare to disrespect in real life. Not to mention letting the naturally introverted and sunlight-deprived social group yet another reason to stay at home.

Lastly, the online multiplayer has changed the whole dynamics of skill-based gaming. The reason why single player in modern games is easy is because the difficulty level raises in the multiplayer. Single player is for telling a story and making the player used to the controls. When he wants a challenge, he goes online. The result? Nowadays, if a single player game delivers a skill-based gameplay, it's suddenly considered hardcore. Beating Dark Souls is way easier than beating Pac-Man, but nobody ever referred to the yellow round guy as "hardcore".


Luckily, there are still ways to have some fun with friends while being in the same room. Board games have done a great job keeping the casual co-op and multiplayer alive. Nintendo never really gave up on offline human interactions and kept designing new things in the field: casual gaming, asymmetric co-op or close-range minigames between DS users. Rhytm games have also had their share in bringing people back together to play on one console. 

Lately, we also see that the developers have woken up and came back to design more and more games with local co-op in mind. After retro games like Scott Pilgrim or Castle Crashers, also big studios have invested in the concept. Rayman Legends or console version of Diablo 3 are glorious examples of how the couch co-op function alone can greatly increase the number of sold copies. Honestly, when I got Rayman Legends, I stopped regretting buying two gamepads. 

The endless possibilities that internet connection gives us shouldn't make us forget about stuff that worked well for decades. It's a great thing that the industry seems to be coming round.

1/09/2014

Game of the year: Journey

After long talks within the one-man-jury, the verdict is in! It was a close call between some of the titles, but then I though there should be some deciding factor that can let me choose this one and only. I decided that this factor should be the story and how it's delivered. The factor of narrative, what combines writing, gameplay, level design, music and all other elements of the game and how well they go together.

I believe really strongly that storytelling in games should be treated differently than in movies (as I already hinted in my narrative-related post). Therefore The last of us, even though it delivered an incredibly well-written, mature story, still would have been just as good as a long movie. Gameplay elements there are mostly to let the player shoot or punch something once in a while.


And the complete opposite of that would be Journey. Only one relevant word used during the entire game (not counting the completely unnecessary control hints) - the title. Whole story told with gameplay. And what a deep gameplay it is, using only the left stick and two buttons while giving a complete experience that lacks absolutely nothing. Everything that happens is beautifully intuitive. Whether you are walking, running, crawling, gliding, jumping or flying, you immediately feel like you were just born with the knowledge how to do that. Journey truly is a piece of art that you would not be able to channel through any other currently available medium.


It is impressive, how much has been packed into this short game. The whole experience lasts at most two hours and tells a deep tale of destiny, solitude, companionship, achieving goals, joy, friendship, cooperation, sorrow, mystery and reward. However, depending on you as a player and the variety of possible interpretations and experiences that can be linked to the story, the game can be singing a tale of many other things, like reaching for the stars, love, redemption, purification, sharing knowledge, communication and many, many more. It is simple, yet universal. Ascetic, yet broad. Truly incredible. If you are not afraid of spoilers, check out the http://journeystories.tumblr.com to see what a vast range of experiences people have while going through this linear game.


The whole game wouldn't be complete without the revolutionary art direction. The year was 2012. Eye-candies like Final Fantasy XIII-2, Mass Effect 3, The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition or Max Payne 3 were released with their thousands of polygons and megapixels of textures, yet... None of them had visuals that would be worthy of cleaning the desert dust off the Journey's main character's pointy legs. Rarely can you encounter in the gaming world art direction so perfectly consistent. Seemingly empty, one-colored spaces all perfectly serve their purpose. The main character has no face and no name. A perfect vessel to carry any player's soul in this beautiful adventure. 


Another incredible element of the game is its online co-op feature. In the course of the game you are able to encounter other players, all on their own journey. This is the crucial part. No matter who you encounter. Whether it will be a White Cape that will lead you or a guy you drag along or some independent dude that just goes wherever he pleases and disappears as suddenly as he appeared... You never have any doubt it is indeed your journey. And what's best, everyone you encounter, has the exact same feeling about their journey. Not to mention the fact that the only way you can communicate is by running, jumping and chirping a single sound. Again, not a single word is involved. You would be amazed how unnecessary the words in Journey are, even in communication with others. And after you meet a White Cape that shows you all the secrets of the game, you get this urge to get that cape too and help others get it. 


To put a cherry on top of this, I made an experiment. I have played the entire game in front of my father. He's in his 50's, has never played a game in his whole life. Never watched any game for more than 10 minutes. I even doubt he's ever watched a full football match. He sat through the whole thing. He understood the mechanics, the story and after more or less 20 years of telling me games are a waste of time, he agreed, that games can be a work of art. 

If you haven't been on your own Journey yet, go. If your excuse is that you don't have a PS3, buy one. I'll be waiting in the deserts in my sexy White Cloak :)

12/15/2013

Game of the year

Hello everyone! The year's slowly ending. Everyone around me is slowly summing up their successes and failures. Half a month from now we will all have new year resolutions that will mostly last less than a week. Ahhh, the end of the year atmosphere was alrady surrounding me so snugly, when I got a spam e-mail from Gamespot.

Gamespot was announcing their game of the year nominees. Click on the link, don't be shy. I personally loved it. Why? It just represented so much good in the gaming community. Professional studio and a reveal formula that brought to mind sport studios in the half-time breaks during football games (to the american readers: deal with it - in football, you use feet, not hands to move the ball around - foot + ball - can't get any clearer than that ^^). Five guys sitting at a table. Each of them knowing at least a bit about the games they were discussing. Each of them cleverly stimulating the conversation to be as interesting as possible. Each of them showing a lot of wit, creativity and self-aware hypocrisy. Each of them talking about games. Not sports. And none of them coming across ass awkward nerds with social skills of a retarded stone. And on top of that, a very cute girl that was in charge of tweet management that was bringing more wit and humor to the table instead of boobs.


This video showed a level of maturity mixed with joy I would love to see more in the community. Sadly, as soon as Mary started reading the tweets from watchers, the level of maturity dropped on its face into a sea of emotional preferences. Shows how much work there's still ahead of us before we can really show games are not just for kids, but hey - at least we're slowly getting there. Good job, Gamespot guys!

Games Making Noob's GOTY
All of this made me want to make one of my own, too! And since it is my own, I can also apply any rules I want. So here it comes. Games eligible for the GMN GOTY award are games that I have played in 2013 for the first time. So even though I spent dozens of hours replaying old Final Fantasy titles on my PSP, these games don't count, I have played them earlier. I don't care if the games were released in 2013 or 1983. If I just discovered them, they are new to me and my experience with them came from last year. You, as a reader, can of course vote for any of the nominees in the rarely used comment box below. Obviously, your voice won't count in the verdict, because it's my GOTY not yours, but it will sure be fun to see what you guys think of the games I'll pick. Maybe I'll make a "GMN readers pick" award?

What's the award? Eternal glory on the virtual pages of my blog. Oh, and I'll send a congratulations card to the studio that released the game. And I'll probably write a lot more about the game in the post that reveals the winner. And... That's it. What more recognition could the winners want? Lol.

Games eligible for the title are 

on PC:
Dear Esther, Evoland, Portal 1 and 2, Recettear, The Walking Dead, Thomas was Alone.

on Android:
Plants vs. Zombies 2, Tower Defense, World of Goo.

on PS3:
Alien Rage, Catherine, Demon's Souls, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dragon's Dogma, Far Cry 3, flOw, Flower, Guacamelee!, ICO, Journey, Little Big Planet Karting, Lollipop Chainsaw, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Remember Me, The Last of US, Tomb Raider, Uncharted 3, XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Games that just missed the time window by a month or two include Shadow of the Colossus, Bioshock 1 and 2 and Dark Souls, which is paradoxically fortunate - those would make the choice of the one best game so much harder!

And here come the ten nominees!

Catherine

Even though I didn't completely love the story and the immature, bipolar approach to a complicated adult topic, I still can't deny that Catherine's gameplay is extremely fun and well-designed. Not to mention an impressive difficulty level that's design-based, not just achieved with modifiers to parameters. 


Demon's Souls
Another demanding game I have spent well over 100 hours with before I finally got the platinum trophy (mostly because I have erased my save data halfway through the second playthrough). Why did I platinum it? Out of respect for the team who made it. It's a game that my girl hated so much she bought me awesome headphones just not to hear the game anymore :)


ICO
Another game I have already written about. Beautiful story told with minimum words. Intelligent, rewarding puzzles, the feeling of responsibility as you hold Yorda's hand to get her to safety. One of these experiences that simply enriches our lives. 


Journey
Another beautiful story. This time told with no words whatsoever. One of the pearls of video game writing combined with a bold, consistent art direction. By far the best online co-op experience I've ever had. Just an hour and a half long, linear game that touches your heart every single time you play it.


Little Big Planet Karting
One of extremely few games that I could actually play together with my girl on PS3. Delightfully fun and random. After a few races you even stop caring whether you are winning or loosing. All that really counts is getting new clothes, new carts and whacking the opponents with whatever you find on the track.


Lollipop Chainsaw
Another game that exists purely for fun. Sets your expectations really low just to prove how much more it is. The game is fun from start to the end, with great pacing and variety of gameplay mechanics that don't overwhelm, but are just enough to keep you experiencing a new thing every half an hour. A game you buy for boobs and you end up with a whole lovely package. 


Portal
I know Portal 2 is probably better in every possible aspect, having more assets, more variety, more characters, more clever dialogues, better pacing and in general much higher production values... But there's just something cute about a game that has been built from Half-Life leftovers, crude and simplistic, but not really lacking anything. And the ending - definitely the best ending credits I have ever seen. 


The Last of Us
Speaking of production values, they do not get any higher than in this game. Right at the end of PS3's life cycle, Naughty Dog shows everyone, how much could developers actually squeeze out of a 6-years old console, but never actually did. Interesting and coherent world, believable characters, well-crafted story. Even though I didn't like the gameplay one bit, I still can't deny this production a very high score.


Thomas was alone
I was having hard time deciding which of the PC games to nominate and I decided to just go with the ones with best storytelling and... Yeah, Thomas was alone (in my opinion) wins with The Walking Dead and Dear Esther in this category. The world of this game just couldn't get any more simple, yet still Mike Bithell managed to deliver a very deep gameplay and narrative through it. 


XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Nostalgic journey back to the days of my youth that not even the crappy localization could keep me from playing. I would call it a very good port to the modern gaming standards that still manages to keep the game challenging (or even crazy hard if you choose ironman mode). So what the assets mostly look like crap. Games are meant to be played, not looked at :)



Make sure to vote on the games of your choice. The official winner of GMN GOTY award will be announced in a few days. Or in a week. Or whenever the hell I decide which game deserves it most.