Monday, January 16, 2017

Top 10 Games of 2016

Before we get to the list, I've got some notable exceptions to list here. Namely, this list is only based on the games I've spent a lot of time with, and does not include certain games that I think I will like when I finally get around to playing them, such as: Final Fantasy XV, Abzu, DOOM, and Hyper Light Drifter. Still, what's here I think makes a pretty solid top 10, and paints a promising portrait of the games to come in 2017.

10. Hitman
I haven't even played Hitman, but I have watched a lot of hours of Hitman being played and it endeared me to the embedded humor in that series that the image and public presentation of the Hitman games has never let on. It's one thing for players to purposefully go against what a game expects and find something absurdly entertaining, but Hitman teases you with those possibilities at every turn and slowly, subtly lets you know that it's OK to laugh at what's going on. I always saw Agent 47 as the personification of everything that is boring about macho bald white male protagonists in games, right down to his Bansky-knockoff neck tattoo. However, in this game, the developers, or at least the people I watched play the game, played up this straight-man routine for laughs, noting the irony that Agent 47 is supposed to be a master of disguise when very few of his costumes are terribly convincing and most of the time the dude looks like the textbook definition of "assassin." When the world of Hitman is approached as an absurdist sandbox, the game not only allows for humor, but is also relieved of the constraints of realism that is so often burden creative design.

9. Furi
There's something kind of shallow and weightless to Furi, but the slickness with which it combines fighting games, dual-joystick shooters, and character action games into a fluid, interchangeable combat system is revelatory. As I noted in my review, Furi isn't a rhythm game, but the action does click with the music at times in ways that makes you feel like you've stumbled into a hidden flow state that perhaps even the game's designers didn't fully intend. This is propelled by the soundtrack featuring some electro heavy hitters (Danger, Carpenter Brut, Toxic Avenger, Lorn) composing original synth grinds that elevate the entire experience beyond what you might expect out of a "free" Playstation Plus game.

8. Inside
I have to confess that I haven't played Inside yet either (but I will! I own a copy now), but given the linear nature of the game, I have watched most of it on YouTube. I know the story beats, and I know how it ends. It's a small story in some ways, but it builds on the foundation that Playdead began with their previous game, Limbo. More than anything, Inside is oozing with production design that seems downright tactile. I confess that my interview with composer/sound designer Martin Stig Andersen may be skewing my perspective a little bit as knowing that certain heartbeats are internally recorded actual heart thumps really enriches my engagement with what the game has to offer. Granted, maybe it's not necessary to know these behind-the-scenes details for the production design to have the same effect, and if that's the case (and judging by the high praise for the game, it is), then all the more reason to pile on the accolades.

7. Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV
Kentucky Route Zero's fourth chapter was perhaps its most anticipated. There was the longest gap between acts so far, and Act III set an incredibly high bar for emotional resonance, thanks to the character Junebug's devastating musical performance. Act IV doesn't play into the hype, instead keeping matters low-key and opting to send the hapless crew drifting downriver with less of a stated objective than a curious aloofness. All of the aesthetic trademarks are here: caves, obsolete technology, magical quirk, whiskey. The result makes less of an impact than Act III, preferring instead to literalize the importance of the journey over the destination that the series' performative play has been hinting at this whole time. As an aside, don't wait until the final act is out to start playing Kentucky Route Zero, lest you remember everything a bit too clearly.

6. Pokemon GO
A lot of folks seem to be acknowledging Pokemon GO begrudgingly, as if its mere status as a phenomenon should be enough to laud it critically. I happen to think the game deserves the praise. It's certainly not perfect and I agree with most of the criticisms that have been leveled against it, but they aren't enough to fully dampen the entertainment I've been able to wring out of this thing. I love booting the game up from my house and seeing if my yellow team still holds the gym housed in an abandoned caboose down on the train tracks, and taking it over if that's not the case. It's made me territorial of the area around my house, which is a place where, as was made starkly clear this election season, I don't see eye-to-eye with a lot of my neighbors on a lot of things. I'm only renting my apartment, but my team owns that gym, and I intend to keep it that way. Also, here's a pro tip: rename your Pokemon; the game is at least 3x more enjoyable when Bosco, Doug, and Drippy are defending your turf instead of the hundredth iterations of Arcanine, Snorlax, and Vaporeon.

5. Slither.io
I can't stop playing Slither.io. There's not that much too it, but I think that's part of what I like about it. It's deceptively simple in the way you play the game, but there are enough analog components that keep it from being something you could win with a spreadsheet. For the unfamiliar, Slither.io is like a large-scale multiplayer version of Snake (you know, that game you could play on a graphing calculator), except instead of not running into your tail, you can't run into anyone else's, and everyone else is trying to make you do just that. Some may consider it a secondary sibling to Agar.io, but I find the strategy in Slither.io more dynamic and the customization options less troll-prone. There are more options at your disposal, even as a tiny snake, than in Agar.io. In Slither.io, even the big snakes need to be on guard as one false move is an opportunity for even the smallest snake to turbo in front of you and end your run. You have to adapt strategies as you go, judging your environment and the risk/reward of heading into crowds. In fact, playing it safe as a big snake gets really boring, playing off your natural temptations to break form and take a dare.

4. AM2R
It turns out Metroid II is actually a pretty cool game, especially when you don't have to play it on a Game Boy. Joking aside, I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed AM2R's take on Metroid II. The fan remake is the same basic game structure as the Game Boy original, but with graphical enhancements and a few tweaks and additions here and there. Samus is on an extermination mission to kill every last metroid, which is a horribly dark premise for those of us who are metroid sympathizers out there. However, the mutant metroids in AM2R don't go down without a fight, and the little stinger sound that plays every time one soars into frame had me jolting in fright more times than I'm willing to admit. Structurally, the game isn't all that different from other exploration-heavy Metroid titles. You still need to acquire certain items to open specific doors and traverse one obstacle or another. It's ironic to think about AM2R (literally Another Metroid 2 Remake) as just another Metroid game, but hey, those games are really good and this is a very good one of those. It just happens to have been put together by a fan with a copy of Game Maker, not Nintendo.

3. The Last Guardian
I'm still making my through The Last Guardian as of this writing, but it's left a serious impression on me. It's the sort of impression that I hoped for a long time that the game would have, but feared for just as long that I'd be let down. The way Trico, the adorable chimera, plays off of the way that I understand what my cat is trying to tell me, is pretty remarkable. Sure, I occasionally look to Trico for "videogame clues," as to what to do, but just as often I respond to the digital creature in the moment. What does it need or want? What is it trying to say? Does it actually like me or is it just using me to help it get where it wants to go? And like my cat, those answers don't seem entirely black and white. My cat might be independent and standoffish most of the time, but catch her in a particularly sleepy mood and she'll cuddle next to you on a blanket. Trico's communications are similarly non-binary, and in an environment that basically asks if the puzzle is solved or not, having those organic moments of observation and connection provide a very uncommon oasis.

2. Thumper
Ever since I played a demo of Thumper in a suffocating Airstream trailer, I've been sold on it. Actually, scratch that. Ever since Brian Gibson and Marc Flury coined the term "rhythm violence," I've been sold on Thumper. The game makes simple button presses have visceral impact. I honestly don't have too much to add that I didn't say in my review, but Thumper is a game I find myself coming back to with relative frequency. It's a game that had the guts to ask you to memorize an original score (and it is not your typical score) instead of reciting a pop/rock chart-topper. The result is a game that is about reflexes and finding patterns and discovering and internalizing where those patterns break formation. There can be a flow to Thumper, but more often than not, the game pushes against the limits of flow. It becomes a rhythm highway as survival game. With practice, you might find the music, but until then you'll be lucky just to stay alive.

1. The Witness
No game so thoroughly absorbed my attention and charged my desire to unpack its dense array of symbols, quotes, and puzzles as The Witness. I solved every puzzle in the game (thanks to some hints online) and only wish there was a Zelda-like second quest with a rearranged and remixed version of the fantasy island. There's just so much richness on display; the design is as lush as the banyan forest with all of those bridge puzzles. I mentioned in my review that I wasn't sold on the implementation of the audio-logs, and I still maintain that stance, but I can at least see, on paper, where they seem like a good idea. After all, my argument wasn't that the audio logs were bad so much as redundant and ham-fisted. The truth is that all of those highfalutin concepts are present in the design of the island and its puzzles, and they communicate those ideas with more grace than a pedantic lecture. So, I don't bring them up to complain about the game, but to show how sophisticated The Witness' construction is that it is able to translate these complex theoretical notions into the rhetoric of its systemic framework. Art, scientific fact, the human condition; these are subjects better left as subjective considerations and contextualized platforms for individual thought. The Witness' island does this, and I'm hard pressed to think of any game that's done it better.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Terra Battle Basics - Part 1


Here is my debut episode for my video series that will walk new players through strategies for playing the mobile game, Terra Battle. I've been playing Terra Battle for over 2 years, and the game has changed a lot over that period of time. Many of those changes have added complexity and breadth to the kinds of things you can do in the game. As such, I imagine new Terra Battle players might be a little overwhelmed with the onslaught of modes pulling their attention and precious stamina points in all directions. My first episode here just focuses on the basics of the battle system: how to move characters, arrange pincer attacks, and trigger chain combos that fire unique skills. Look for more episodes in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 Year-End Wrap-Up


Even though I've been preoccupied with teaching art to college students, I've still spent plenty of time playing games this year, so I wanted to rundown a quick top 10 list of games that were released in 2014 that I enjoyed quite a bit.

1. Gran Turismo 6 (PS3)
2. Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 (Mac)
3. Nidhogg (PS3)
4. NaissanceE (PC)
5. Terra Battle (iOS)
6. Mountain (Mac)
7. FRACT OSC (Mac)
8. Threes! (iOS)
9. Sportsfriends (PS3)
10. Desert Golfing (iOS)

Obviously I missed some games from this past year that a lot of other people are talking about, but this is the best of what I actually played. Honorable Mention to Crossy Road (iOS) and The Fall (Mac).

However, there were some other amazing games that I played this year that were released prior to 2014, and I'd like to acknowledge those in no particular order.

Gone Home
Antichamber
Mass Effect
Bayonetta
The Last of Us
Dyad
Pac-Man CE DX+ (again)

Finally, I'm not going to do a rundown of all the best things I ran on this blog, but here are a few of my favorite pieces I wrote for Kill Screen this year.

Vib-Ribbon and Obsolete Relevance
Emergents - Lilith
Changes at Games for Change
Light, Shadow, and the Beauty of NaissanceE
Genre Study - The Evolution of Music Games

Here's to more great things to come in 2015! Happy New Year!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Blips: Historically Low-Poly


Source: A Comprehensive History of Low-Poly Art, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3
Author: Tim Schneider
Site: Kill Screen

If you haven't had the time to read through Tim Schneider's extensive treatise on low-poly art, I'd like to humbly suggest that you carve out some time to do so. It's a 3-part essay, but reads like one long piece broken into three sections, so I'd recommend taking in as much as you can in one go as possible. Schneider's main thesis here is the exploration of why so many contemporary game makers are opting for the low-poly art style, and the answer in most all cases comes down to emotional resonance. Low-poly art, like the bear shown above, doesn't try to exactly replicate real world objects, but reveals the material of its making while also leaving gaps for viewers to fill in. Schneider relates these artistic moves to Modernist painters, who when faced with extinction at the hands of the photograph, took a turn toward painterly-ness as expressiveness.

Schneider references so many great examples from the contemporary games space and from Modernist painting, and really captures the thinking behind these methods now while grounding them historically. Still, my mind kept wandering toward the actual construction process of low-poly art which has the most in common with sculpture, a medium that goes unmentioned in the article. When I look at the low-poly bear at the top of this post, I think of the subtractive processes of whittling. The flat surfaces mimicking the cuts made by a handheld blade given quick, gestural strokes. It's interesting that low-poly art aesthetically looks most similar to wood-carving when the act of 3D modeling more directly relates to wireframe armatures and applying skins on-top of them, a notably additive method of sculpting.

There's probably another whole essay that could be written here juxtaposing low-poly art with sculptural movements, and I actually credit Schneider's work with spurring this line of thinking in myself moreso than me pointing out that something was missing from his own. I can't recommend strongly enough giving the entirety of his essay a read.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Blips: Linkpile


So I've been collecting a lot of Blips articles for a long time here, but the time I have to dedicate to posting on Low Cutoff has been greatly reduced now that I'm teaching sculpture or preparing to teach sculpture for much of my week, and what's left is probably spent researching and writing articles for Kill Screen or (gasp) making my own art. That said, I do want to share this treasure trove of articles that I've really enjoyed the past couple months, covering a wide array of issues in and around the sphere of games. Hopefully you'll find them as enriching as I have.

Angela R. Cox on teaching games as text (part 4/4)
Frank Lantz on the relationship between game theory and game design
Lana Polansky on metahistorical constructions in games
Simon Parkin on indie gaming's obsession with moneymaking
Heidi Kemps on the search for the origin of lost Sonic the Hedgehog levels
Robert Yang on walking simulators and the "post-mod" era
William Highes on repetition in games
Robert Rath on why games have such a difficult time with water
David Chandler on the aesthetic of ruins in games
Jane Douglas on why many Japanese games reveal characters' blood types
Kris Ligman on the screening of "let's play" videos at the LA Film Festival
Cara Ellison on the history of sex in games
Leigh Alexander on playing Street Wars, the watergun assassination game
Zolani Stewart on the inner depths of Sonic the Hedgehog
Chris Priestman on the role on video games in response to the tragedy in Ferguson, MO
Liz Ryerson on right-wing video game extremism
Lucy Chinen on artist Femke Herregraven
Matthew Burns on video game consumer kings
Maddy Myers on journalistic integrity, the gaming community, and the audacity of being a woman in tech

:image credit momijixbunny:

Monday, August 25, 2014

Blips: Previously On...


Sources: Charting the edges of avant-garde videogames, Keeping the Cold War quiet in CounterSpy, Twitch gears up to conquer the final frontier: mobile
Author: Dan Solberg
Site: Kill Screen

Just wanted to pop in and quickly plug three (!) articles of mine that popped up on Kill Screen the past couple days. First is a feature on DePaul professor Brian Schrank's new book Avant-garde Videogames, which frames experimental games in an art historical context. The chart above is an image from the book, detailing the categorical field that serves as the basis for many of the book's chapters. As you'll find out from my article, I think it's a tremendously useful book, especially for someone looking for that art context. I have so many avant-garde games to seek out now that I had never even heard of before.

Next up is a review of the Cold War-inspired side-scrolling stealth game CounterSpy. It's a game I quite enjoyed, but found the design to be pretty unforgiving if you don't play it very well going into the final run-up. It's stylish as all get out though, and now that I've got a handle on what to watch out for, I'm actually pretty eager to dive back in and play through again. I do wish that you could hide incapacitated guards and avoid firefights more frequently that the game allows. It is supposed to be a stealth game after all.

Lastly is an article about Twitch's mobile broadcasting aspirations. This article was written a while ago, but other bigger Twitch news kept popping up. Glad it finally got out the door because mere hours later, the Amazon buyout news hit. I think the challenges of bringing broadcasting tech to mobile platforms is pretty interesting, but I wholly expect the story to get buried amongst all the other news surrounding that company. Ah well, maybe someone will click it by accident.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Blips: Needs More Metroid


Source: 'Troid Rage: Why Game Devs Should Watch Alien—and Play Metroid—Again
Author: Maddy Myers
Site: Paste

It's rare that I can side so wholeheartedly with opinions about video games, but Maddy Myers' recent piece for Paste about the state of the metroidvania had me repeatedly exclaiming "yes, exactly this!" multiple times while reading it. Myers (an undisputed Metroid aficionado) lays out the reasons why so many so-called metroidvania games fall short of the titles that originally inspired the hideously titled sub-genre. Real quick note here, but I'm in the camp that thinks this genre should drop the "vania" addendum, as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was really just a Metroid-like that did some interesting, original things with the formula. OK, but still, there are game like Shadow Complex that rekindled interest in Metroid-like game design, yet miss the core of what made Metroid play the way that it does.

Myers argues this point as well as the way Metroid itself draws inspiration from the Alien films to frame its environments and protagonist in an extremely powerful way. In contrast, Shadow Complex feels positively soulless, full of bland characters, bland levels, bland weapons, and a bland plot. All that's left is the basic mechanical device of an open ended map that requires specific abilities be gained before passing through certain doorways to new areas. And that's a great game design framework to emulate, but it's not enough on its own. Everyone likes to taut Metroid's atmosphere as a defining feature, but for some reason atmosphere (a combination of many factors including character design, animation, difficulty, level design, music, sound, and more) isn't seen as a necessary component of a metroidvania. And that's a shame, because it seems like the knowledge of what made Metroid special is actually being deteriorated by modern metroidvanias. Still waiting for a proper Metroid Prime 2: EchoesVania over here.