Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Year in Review: #1 Gone Home

The Year in Review: #1 Gone Home

Gone Home is a beautiful game for many amazing, complex reasons. For all the things it does right, it needs to be praised for the things it doesn’t do. Its blend of an unrelenting drive, pushing you through walls and barriers like a bulldozer, and measured, deliberate restraint stands head and shoulders above its forest of giant sequoias, each towering figure already a testament to Gone Home‘s excellence.

First and foremost, it tells a story. If the original design doc started out with nothing more than “craft a story and give the player no choice to become invested in it,” then Steve Gaynor and the rest of his Portland-based fellows at The Fullbright Company succeeded. More than that, they succeeded where so many others have failed. Even games that weave great tales of betrayal, thievery, and deception often can be foiled by the simple act of not playing.

Gone Home doesn’t give you that choice. Or at least it didn’t give me that choice. I must have had bacon in my pocket because this tender, raw, violent, sweet dog wouldn’t let go once it sank its teeth in me. As soon as you step into that broken flickering porch light, it begins. A cup, a Christmas duck, a bag, and a note. Such a simple chemical equation for a bright, vivid reaction.

Gone Home

It’s a tempered catalyst. So much of what makes Gone Home is what doesn’t stick in your face and what it doesn’t allow you to do. Many games can be lumped into a zeitgeist; this one tells ancillary stories through audio logs, this one puts you behind cover with a gun, and this one throws XP at you like it’s confetti. But Gone Home doesn’t do that. It is wholly comfortable in being what it is and nothing else.

This is a game that doesn’t let you run. You can’t jump. At no point is there anything leading you into or throwing you at combat. All you do is walk and look at things. And yet it inspires moments of genuine horror. It gives you chills from the little sparks of “what if” it shoots into your mind. It gins up action through emotion, through will and desire, through an impossibly heartfelt love for someone that doesn’t even exist.

The game’s restraint enables you to more readily accept its spell, its charm. Rather than spread you thin like too little jam on too much toast, you seep slowly and steadily deeper and deeper into what it does give you. Like a gaseous form, humans will take the volume it’s given. Gone Home gives a taut little house of two hopeful heroines for you to fill with your heart, choosing to make your emotional journey a potent one instead of a broad one.

Gone Home

It focuses on feeling real rather than expansive like a Greek epic. What 90s family didn’t have a bunch of store-bought VHS tapes haphazardly labeled for their pirated content? What child didn’t have glow in the dark stars stuck to her ceiling? And who wouldn’t turn on the lights and turn them off again just to see them light up?

And who wouldn’t fall deeply, madly for Lonnie. Who wouldn’t be pleading—praying—no no no no no as they ran up to the attic. Few games make me emotional just at the mention of their name, but Gone Home does it. It goes deep and rattles the rusted cage of feelings, hardened after years of heartbreak and forlorn passing, and softens it with a rebel. It brushes off the cobwebs with a sister, a father treading water, a mother hearing a siren song, and a house hiding more than you’d ever know. It’s what makes Gone Home my absolutely unrivaled game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #2 Tomb Raider

The Year in Review: #2 Tomb Raider

I don’t know what to tell you. I liked Tomb Raider. A lot. But that’s the majesty of having a personal top ten list for game of the year; this isn’t a defense or accusation or anything of the sort. This is me sharing my experience with you, and that’s it.

Tomb Raider is an objectively good game, but it also contains its fair share of problems. For example, it builds up a vulnerable yet powerful hero in Lara, but also one that has yet to tap into the character we’re used to seeing fighting tigers and cartwheeling over crumbling structures. When she kills a person for the first time, it’s tense and meaningful in a way we didn’t think we would ever get from a Tomb Raider game.

And then she goes on to immediately kill a dozen more before racking up nearly a thousand corpses by the end of the game. It’s immensely squandered potential. We could have had an action-adventure game that held all of its action and adventure within our hearts and heads instead of shooting the shit out of dudes and animals.

Tomb Raider

However, judging a game for what it’s not is never a good idea, though ignoring it as part of the final product is similarly foolhardy when it jukes you like this. But the Tomb Raider we’ve gotten is still something special.

What sticks out the most to me is the simple act of actually playing the game. It feels just superb in so many ways. Lara handles in a way that hews closer to her days in short shorts and a crop top than the bumbling steps of Nathan Drake, but in the nuances of her animations, she still comes across as a green adventure, just one with huge potential. She dodges quickly and effectively but inelegantly; she strikes quick and reliably but never hard; she shoots fast and accurately but tentatively.

So while the narrative impetus to see Lara grow into someone more capable is tossed out the window, the character-player interactions mostly see them through to the end. This also includes, however, Lara’s use of the bow. This might be why I liked Tomb Raider so much more than most people (though everyone still does seem to like it a lot). I limited myself to use only the bow.

Tomb Raider

It felt personal that way, and the entire game hinges on connecting to the personal strife of Lara on this island. The bow shoots much like any other firearm: hold the left trigger to aim, press the right trigger to fire. But its actual controls are inherently imbued with agency. You have to hold the right trigger to draw the arrow back and release it to fire. That alone sets it apart from a gun’s “press to kill” modus operadi.

This means that every arrow you let fly is one you send out with conviction. You set the arrow, drew the string, and released. It forces you to consider the implications of your actions. It even enables the sensation of regret in the midst of killing, allowing you to re-quiver your arrow.

But to do that, you have to release your left trigger before your right one, disengaging from the same side you began it with. The reversal itself is worth consideration. Its movements are opposite those of the kill, reflecting the desires to see an arrow penetrate some thug’s head and the desires to remain hidden and let a life go untouched.

Tomb Raider

Unfortunately, you only reach this point of contemplation once you’ve reached the end, still relying on the bow, recovering arrows and cursing its speed when all you need is rapid fire power. This personal choice in effort and challenge colored my time with Tomb Raider.

Many of you will otherwise find competency where I found excellence. Its objective qualities are straightforward: amazing art design, Camilla Luddington’s stellar voice acting, and so on. But for the ruminations of life, death, stoicism, and conviction caused by the drawing of a bow, Tomb Raider is my number two game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #3 Papers, Please

The Year in Review: #3 Papers, Please

Denied. Denied. Approved. Denied. What the fuck is this bootleg identification? Hella denied. Denied. Denied. Approved. Papers, Please.

All day. Every day. Denial and approval, rejection and acceptance. The implications of my actions are massive. I am one of the vigilant gatekeepers to the homeland, told that what I do keeps my fellow countrymen safe. And I must do it quickly and accurately because my family is depending on the money I make. The grand scope and the intimate necessity of my job are impossible to ignore.

Except I do. I’ve seen people die, I’ve shot people, betrayed others, and I’m slowly killing my family. But it’s all fading away from a roar to a hum to eventually pure silence. Everyone—from me to my wife to the happy-go-lucky guy who tries to sneak in—is just a number, a figure to check facts against.

Papers, Please

It didn’t start out this way. I used to care. I was so concerned about making good money, and not just good in a decent amount but good in that I listened to these people. Some had family on the other side of this border check. Some were trying to flee bad situations. Even if I got demerits, I wanted to still be a good person.

Then it begins. I first reduce you to a picture. And then I make you nothing more than a country and a city. Then a single date. And before long, you are an obstacle between me and my stamps. It’s a slow degradation, moving you from column to column, from one labeled Humans to one labeled Animals. It’s despicable.

But I don’t care. And that’s the beauty of Papers, Please. Through the mundanity of repeatedly—ceaselessly—checking passports and visas and pictures and listening to sob stories, you become numb. I know I did. I stopped being the person I was when I started this terrible job and became a machine that only churned out stamped documents and meager money for my family.

Papers, Please

It’s a game that manages to do what so few others do, and that’s tell a story through its mechanics. I don’t mean that it expresses narrative intent through interactions like when you are forced to do that thing at the end of The Last of Us or something, but an entire empathetic framework is constructed with the things you are doing to relate this character to you.

The only other game this year that really did that was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which grafts a relationship onto the two sticks of your controller before putting you under for emotional amputation. Papers, Please does it by transforming you the same way it does this poor immigration inspector. The first time you get docked for pay is hurtful. The next time it stings a little less. And then, well, there isn’t much left to hurt.

Then it shocks you awake. A hooded figure or someone with esoteric intentions shows up. A bomb goes off. You open the gun cage and you take aim. You are reminded of what you were before when you could actually feel and you weren’t just a whirring bit of gears and smoke that pumped out satisfactory accomplishments.

Papers, Please

But you quickly slot back into it. It tells you how easily it is to give up what you hold most dear without vigilance. It tells you so much about the faults of being a person by forcing you to be just a tool. It does all this so smoothly and impressively that Papers, Please has to be my number three game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #4 Grand Theft Auto V

The Year in Review: #4 Grand Theft Auto V

There’s a lot to be said for Grand Theft Auto V, and it’s nearly all in the superlative. It’d been aging in the Rockstar North smoky oak barrels for over five years, so it’s no surprise it was both highly anticipated and then supremely fulfilling once it came out. I mean, god damn, it had $1 billion in sales in its first three days.

That’s thanks in no small part to its immense and top notch infrastructure. First off, the voice acting and motion capture combine to tell entire life stories of Franklin, Michael, and Trevor in each cutscene. For as long as they may seem relative to industry averages, they actually are rather short for how much we gather of each of their life stories. The way they hold themselves and the way they command or move about a certain space is just as important as the way they deliver their lines.

And of course there’s the fantastic writing (expected at this point from the Houser brothers), amazing sound design (and that killer original score), and the absolutely absurd production value. Rockstar produced more than a city; they produced a world. Every part of Los Angeles found its way into Los Santos. Every little neighborhood, every expansive working community, and every historical landmark. It feels more like Los Angeles than being in Los Angeles does. (It’s also a lot better for your health.)

Grand Theft Auto V

But that’s not the core of Grand Theft Auto V. That’s just blanket of cherries they threw on top of the sundae. No, the thing that makes Grand Theft Auto V is chaos. Abject, unfettered chaos. And I’m not talking about the heists, though they are emblematic of the concept. It’s about the three characters and how they almost always seem out of their depth but just manage to scrape by.

That could sum up the entire story: three dudes keep getting into deeper and deeper shit until they catch a break and dig their way out with explosions, guns, and blood. But that also sums up every amazingly set-up predicament the game puts down in the player’s path. Anytime you have those three controllable in a mission is when the game manages to elevate itself.

If Michael is up on a ridge providing sniper cover, Franklin will be coming up the left flank of a lumber yard while Trevor goes charging down the middle. It’s all good on paper, but then shit hits the fan. You snipe and snipe, trying to open up space for the others to make their move, but there’s a guy running up through stacks of crates towards Trevor, preventing you from getting a shot, and Trevor can’t see.

Grand Theft Auto V

So you switch to Trevor and you move to make the anticipatory shot. But you hear Franklin call in, so you switch to him and he is swarmed. It’s no good from here, so you go back to Michael and holy shit dudes are crawling up the hill to where you’re camped. Can Trevor turn back and pincer these thugs? But Franklin is still in deep shit. Michael can’t take a single shot with so many guns on him.

They are so fucked.

It’s that sort of chaos that I’m talking about. No matter what you do, it always feels like you’re just barely beneath the water, looking up at all the air you could be breathing, lusting over the free range you could be using to shoot all these bastards. In a back alley with a dump truck or in a military depot or in a helicopter buzzing around a skyscraper, you always feel like you’re in too deep.

Grand Theft Auto V

But then you are given free, reminded that there’s always a way out. With the special abilities of each character, you can always construct (or destruct, as it usually goes) a path to salvation. It’s a rapid contrasting of extremes that makes it so fun. One minute you’re thrown into the deep end with a brick around your feet and then you’re the one doing the dunking.

It’s an immediate and well-earned retribution. You suffer and then you succeed. It’s what makes every momentous trio-fueled mission so tense. It’s what makes me want to go back and play every battle again. It’s what makes Grand Theft Auto V my number four game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #5 BioShock Infinite

The Year in Review: #5 BioShock Infinite

There are just some absolutely classic spoilers in the world of entertainment. Even those born fresh, bearing mind availed of watching Star Wars, know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. They know what Rosebud really is and they know you probably shouldn’t eat Soylent Green. Hell, there’s even a shirt for it.

BioShock Infinite, however, is a rarity; it can’t be spoiled. I mean, sure, you can sum up what happens at the end, put into words the rational absurdity that happens, but it doesn’t take anything away from it. Having stumbled across bits and pieces of the immense conclusion to the game, my jaw was still on the floor by the time the credits rolled.

Knowing that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time and that Tyler Durden isn’t real robs you of half of the entire experience of watching both of those movies. Instead of witnessing the events unfold with virgin eyes, you skip right to the second stage of watching for the little touches that show you the truth: the flickering appearances, the people that talk to him, etc. You miss the “OH WHOA” moment because you already know.

BioShock Infinite

But the ending of BioShock Infinite has to be seen, has to be played. The culmination of your physical efforts land you square in a heated battle on the side of a giant mechanical monstrosity you thought you were going to have to fight. And then you almost do. And then something breaks.

And I don’t mean the little harmonica. I mean the world. I mean your brain. Even if someone told you that you ended up back in Rapture, the snap to the pane of a watery window is incredible. It’s a shock to the system, and as you step away, you realize you’ve been here. This room, in particular, was ingrained in your mind the moment you set foot in it in BioShock.

The lighthouses, though. Here’s the spoiler for that: “you see an infinite sea of infinite lighthouses under a sky of infinite stars.” Not quite the same, right? You need to see and walk through the piers of your own volition. You need to be able to gawk dumbfounded at your own pace. You need to make those choices because you need to slowly realize that they represent the fact that you aren’t making any choices at all.

BioShock Infinite

When you see more Bookers and Elizabeths walking around, doing the exact same thing, you understand that your actions, even under the epiphany of endless possibilities and universes, are always accounted for. The concepts of fate and free will are casually words in your head, but BioShock Infinite visualizes it for you in such a way that it makes the crushing sense of helplessness wholly inescapable.

That’s what makes BioShock Infinite so incredible. It envelops the past six years of ruminations on Rapture and stolen paradise. It folds in the stunning art direction and sound design. It stands upon the shoulders of unmatched voice acting and characterization. It is BioShock Infinite, my number five game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #6 The Last of Us

The Year in Review: #6 The Last of Us

The Last of Us is an amazing product. It came in the middle of June, just after E3, and in the midst of many other wonderful games like Max Payne 3, Gunpoint, and Rogue Legacy and it managed to stand out just fine. There are moments where I find myself staring at a broken door or an unkempt lawn and don’t just think about playing the game but feel myself reliving those afternoons and nights.

More games, however, came out, and slowly pushed The Last of Us down the list. It became more and more apparent to me that it is a game that needs to be taken as a whole to be held in regard. Disassembled into its discrete elements, The Last of Us is kind of nothing special.

The enemy encounters become confusing. Some of them can be avoided and others must end with either your or everyone else’s death, so you don’t know if you’re playing poorly or if the game is just poorly communicating its expectations. And the story, from start to finish, is full of tropes and is stocked with factory parts.

The Last of Us

The exceptions are, without a doubt, the sound design, the art direction, and the voice acting. Take on their own, all of those can be the best the industry has to offer. Noises that sound even kinda-sorta close to Clickers still make me jump, and I don’t know if any two people could have fit Joel and Ellie more than Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson.

But you have to take into account that Naughty Dog made The Last of Us, and it shows. To say they put a bow on mediocre gameplay and a rote story would be a disservice to them and the game resulted. The narrative touches they imbue into the 25+ hours are incredible. When just by happenstance you hear the fear Joel inspires and when Ellie huddles under you as enemies bear down.

When winter hits. When the fire burns. When a trigger is pulled. It seems painfully obvious, but Naughty Dog knows they were making a video game, and the actions and choices they put in front of you take that into consideration. It’s these moments where they decide to exercise that power of interactivity in a narrative that The Last of Us shines.

The Last of Us

It’s almost as if the entirety of the game built up to winter. Dire straits, tests of faith, and steely, wildly irresponsible, and absolutely admirable determination might as well be falling all around you along with the snow. From that moment on, you know nothing will end well. And after winter, you know it won’t end well in the least pleasant way possible.

But the genius is that the game continues. It lets you stew in your paranoia as you panic and you wonder. Inside, you are pushing down the fear. Not fear for their lives or anyone else’s but the fear that a decision the worst possible decision you can think of is going to be made and it’s totally out of your hands.

And it is. The choice isn’t yours. It was made from the very beginning. For all the middling experience in the first two-thirds of the game, it was necessary. It set up every domino necessary because in that last moment, the game takes your hand, thrusts it forward, and says, “Watch.”

The Last of Us

And you do. You watch. But in the back of your mind, you know it took you only 99% of the way there. The last 1%. That was you. This messy pile of raw emotions, exposed like a shredded cable, was you. This is The Last of Us, my number six Game of the Year.

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The Year in Review: GOTY 7 Through 10

The Year in Review: GOTY 7 Through 10

Okay, yeah, this is starting off with the bottom four games, number seven through ten. Why? Because I said so. Also because I didn’t plan ahead and now there are ten games to get through and only seven posting days left. Hashtag oops.

But I also think this aligns with a natural division of the list. These four games speak to me in mostly one impeccable, sizable way, but they do so in a way that trumps the breadth achieved by most others from this year. There’s something to be said for setting a goal and achieving it, and that is “hey look, you’re on this one guy’s end-of-the-year list.”

Super Mario 3D World

10. Super Mario 3D World

The Year of Luigi “ends” with a Mario game coming out on top. Yeah, Luigi is in there, but come on. This is a Mario game, and what a Mario game it is. It’s common knowledge/a commonly held conspiracy theory that there are several teams within Nintendo design games. Some act as farm leagues, building up chops on smaller titles with fundamentals while the A-team blows minds.

This is the product of the A-team, the same project group that ginned up the absolutely stellar (ha!) Super Mario Galaxy. In between, we were treated to several games that retread old ground and only marginally stepped off the path, though excellent as they were. Super Mario 3D World looks like more of the same, but it’s all about the details.

Mario has been around for so long, you distinguish new games in the franchise solely on nuance because the basics are always there; he slides when he stops, his jumps have a peculiar Bézier-shaped acceleration curve, and so on. In Super Mario 3D World, there is a host of nigh imperceptible touches that make it just a happy, scary, amazing game. Being a cat shouldn’t be so fun, and neither should be screwing over your friends, but this game does it.


9. Resogun

Resogun doesn’t try to do a whole lot. It’s kind of like when you buy the collector’s set of The Lord of the Rings or The Matrix; you know what you’re getting (a bundle of things you like, love, and tolerate in varying amounts and intensities), but the packaging is what sells you.

And Resogun is nothing more than an amalgam of old school video game design put together with modern sensibilities on the outside. It’s Defender with a bullet hell slant and kind of makes your head spin in a very Tempest way. And it’s just fantastic.

Resogun works because it throws everything at you and you have to figure out how to deal with it. You figure out how to rescue humans, what order to pick them up, whether to throw them or fly them into the goal, boost now or boost later, save or expend your Fuck Everything laser, and so much more, all of which is roughly calculated and thrown in the wind within the span of a single millisecond. And it makes the best argument for a speaker on your controller ever.


8. Guacamelee!

Guacamelee! just gets me. Its humor could sometimes miss more than it hits and the co-op was kind of a drag, but its combat and platforming is exactly what I needed when it came out. The fighting is intricate in a way that demands to be conquered. It’s just asking for it. It is Spain, and I am Napoleon.

The move list starts out simple enough, but soon you unlock additional attacks that broaden your range of abilities and literal range of your damage potential. And then enemies start to color-coordinate themselves against certain moves, forcing you to think on your feet about who needs to be taken out first (some of those fuckers will really ruin your day if you let them), who just needs to be thrown into a corner, and who is just impossible to attack at the moment.

And then you throw in the fact that you have to deal with two realities of enemies and platforms with the world-switching mechanic. You have to keep tabs on what exists in what realm and what doesn’t, what can hurt you where. Guacamelee! is such an impressively cerebral game that it did and continues to take me by surprise.

The Stanley Parable

7. The Stanley Parable

I don’t think I’ll ever play The Stanley Parable again. I won’t have to. It gave me everything it had to give the first time because I played through it over two dozen times in one sitting. Or at least I think I did. Did I? Wait, who’s talking? WHO’S THERE?!

Honestly, I would only count it all as one playthrough. But I was thorough as hell because that’s what happens when you stumble across a diamond in the rough. You pick it up, dust it off, and hold it. You press it up to your eye and spin it around, looking through it and at all angles. It’s a curiosity, lingering in the desert, uncaring if you find it or not or whether you even give a damn once you do.

The Stanley Parable had such a specific vision in mind and it achieved it. From soup to nuts, it grabbed me by the back of my head and shoved my face into its weird, hairy, immaculately sculpted chest of non sequiturs, simultaneously hilarious and painful meta commentary, and ability to make me fall in love with a break room. (Also, this is a bit of a cheat since this is largely unchanged from its original release, but whatever.)

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The Year in Review: GOTY Honorable Mentions

The Year in Review: GOTY Honorable Mentions

Picking the Game of the Year never seemed to make a lot of sense to me. Making lists for yourself is one thing, but throwing around a label like it’s a medal seems wildly irresponsible for something so volatile and intimate. If the interminable deliberation podcasts and livestreams weren’t proof enough, just go asking your friend what they think of your pick for the year. Getting a hundred people to agree on a single pizza topping would be easier.

Besides, the likelihood of you playing every game out in the course of a year is unlikely. Other journalists whose sole job is to review games (and not just talk about whatever floats their boat) don’t even manage that. For all the amazing things I’ve heard about Save the Date and Icarus Proudbottom Teaches Typing, I won’t get around to playing either of those by the end of the year, and they could just be waiting to be my favorite games of ever, let alone the year.

But here we are. Over the course the next two weeks, I’ll be delving into the year’s most significant trends, the biggest news stories, and my personal top ten games of the year. However, we’ll start with the honorable mentions because I like them a whole lot, god dammit, and you’re going to hear about them. It’ll also tickle your pickle as to what I have in store for the real list. Let’s go!

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero

There are a few things standing in the way of Kentucky Route Zero being on the real list: 1) only two acts of the planned five have been released, 2) I haven’t gone back to play since its January release and I’m not sure if I remember it being better than it actually was, and 3) I never played Act II. But considering all that and knowing that I still wanted it to be on the list should tell you something: it’s unbelievable.

If there was ever a game to pin the words “stylish”, “slick”, and “cool” to, it would be Kentucky Route Zero. It’s a strange little adventure game from Cardboard Computer that looks spectacular and is altogether alluring, disturbing, funny, sad, and twisted. And the way you naturally shape the story through conversation is brilliant. It made talking less of a data-mining process and more of a reward.

Year Walk

Year Walk

I jumped. Sitting on a bench as the sunset, headphones on and staring at my iPad, I flinched and damn near yelped aloud, scaring the couple walking by to the pier. And I continued to sit there and play. Filling time until my friend got off work to meet me turned into looking over my shoulder, not sure if the noises were coming from behind the trees or from Year Walk. Or maybe from me.

Year Walk is another adventure game, though much more in the vein of The Room-style puzzles than anything you’d find in a Monkey Island game. It sets itself in the fascinating and terrifying Swedish tradition of Årsgång (translated literally into “year walk“). You isolate yourself in a room with no drink or water for a whole day, and at midnight, you set out into the forest and walk.

And if you’re unfamiliar with Swedish folklore, it’s scary. It’s hella scary. There are goat-men and tree spirits and blood dolls and, well, everything you didn’t know would soon come to make up the majority of your nightmares. It makes Year Walk intense and oh so atmospheric, but its puzzles, sound design, and amazing art also set it apart. Come for the game, stay for the Swedish horror.



The worst part about Gunpoint is its name. And then the next worst thing is…well, that actually falls on the good side of the line. Gunpoint is a thoroughly great game from journalist-turned-game-designer Tom Francis. It’s a 2D action puzzle game that features a man, some jokes, and a fantastic pair of pants.

You infiltrate buildings and accomplish covert ops by rewiring doors, alarms, lights, and whatever else with a device called a Crosslink. It turns any skyscraper or room or anything into your personal playground. You can experiment with connecting lights to doors and alarms to elevators, pushing and pulling the wills of each guard as easily as if you were controlling them directly.

But it’s this indirect control that makes Gunpoint compelling. Seeing how literal systems hook together to affect implicit systems is amazingly fun, and timing that to you darting between narrow openings and jumping into windows to make larger openings, it’s a game you could poke around with for years to come.

Saints Row IV

Saints Row IV

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “But Alex, you gave Saints Row IV a 9 out of 10! How can it not be on your GOTY list?!” Well first off, that’s not my name. And second, it’s, uh, it’s hard to explain. There is objective quality and there is subjective quality, right? I can objectively say that one ballet dancer is better than another but that doesn’t mean I like watching ballet.

Saints Row IV is a bit like that, but minus the dancing. Or, actually, plus the dancing and multiplied by dubstep. There is so much to like about Saints Row IV from the writing to the voice acting to the unparalleled winks and nods to movies, music, other games, and pop culture in general. It’s amazing how much high quality frivolity is stuffed into the one game, and it’s equally astounding how they made it all fun to play.

You can jump super high and run super fast and kill super hard. You end up playing a text adventure and going through a side-scrolling brawler and…and…and everything else. It’s so systematic in its approach that the personality that I loved from Saints Row: The Third had diminished so greatly. Saints Row IV is still a hell of a game and funny and charming as hell, but it’s missing that magic that made me fall in love with 2011’s Stilwater shenanigans.

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About Perspective

About Perspective

Everyone’s a hero. Or rather, everyone wants to be hero. There’s a part of you, some slice of the core that everything else builds upon, that can’t help but want to make the sacrifice play. It’s why seeing the Captain America throw himself on a grenade and pilot a plane into the ocean makes our backs straighten and our eyes open; we so easily see ourselves in those shoes.

Think on the games you’ve played in the past year or so. How many include a Heroic Sacrifice? Actually, let’s skip this past year since that the grace period for spoilers hasn’t quite passed, but beyond that, we have Mass Effect 3 and Assassin’s Creed III, finales to epic sagas that both end with lives being laid on the line. Halo 4, Darksiders II, The Darkness II, and, most importantly, The Walking Dead.

That is why the first season of Telltale Games’ adventure game adaptation was so stupendous. Playing as Lee Everett, you saw yourself as the hero for little Clementine. Heading to prison, Lee wasn’t exactly prepared for a zombie outbreak, but he definitely wasn’t ready for finding an abandoned kid waiting for parents that would never come back.

The Walking Dead: Season One

And neither were you, but the desire to be the shield for the good from the bad in the world is innate. What happens to Lee, what he does, and what he says were all choices, but they were all in service of Clementine, and it all builds implicitly through the narrative and reminders of consequences (“She will remember that”).

The master stroke, however, is the perversion of the stock structure. Lee, as much as it seems to be otherwise, is not the hero. His growth, the defining characteristic of a protagonist, is nothing compared to his ward’s. We are the sidekick, but we are making the choices that dictate the direction of the hero’s journey. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t dead so much as they are driving the car now.

Playing All That Remains, the first episode of Season Two of The Walking Dead, brings that into stark relief. Whether you’ve finished the first season or not, the trailers tell you all you need to know: Clementine is alone now. She is the playable character, and your choices reflect her.

The Walking Dead Season Two Episode One - All That Remains

Lee was a magnificent character—written and acted to a superlative degree—but his most significant trait was his ability to represent the idea of wanting to be a hero and having no idea how to do it, how decisions you make in the moment are instinct instead of rationalization and it’s that instinct that makes you someone worth telling stories about.

But now, playing as Clementine and making choices as the person you want to protect instead of for the person you care about, the idealism, no matter how warped in a world of walkers and morally gray decisions, is gone. Being a hero for yourself isn’t being a hero; it’s being a survivor.

There’s compelling stories to tell in being someone who has seen and overcome all. Castaway, Trapped!, 127 Hours, and many more do just that, but we’ve already spent five episodes with Clementine. We are hardwired to think only of her safety. There is a moment early on in All That Remains when I ran. As soon as I was able, I ran away. There wasn’t immediate danger, but tension was building and I couldn’t risk it. Not for Clementine.

The Walking Dead Season Two Episode One - All That Remains

But that’s Lee making that decision, not Clementine. Even on the admittedly unstable assumption that she can’t die, the Lee inside of me told me to grab her and run, so I did. Now whether Lee would have actually done just that is a different matter, but rest assured, he was thinking it. Because I was thinking it.

This ingrained perspective has not necessarily diminished what I’ve played of the episode so far, but it certainly does color expectations. Telltale, as smart as they are in weaving narratives with nary a single black or white thread, can’t forget what we went through last year. There’s no forgetting that. They must know that we remember, and they must be taking that into account.

That is perhaps the only explanation because this shift in perspective isn’t a shift so much as it is putting a new name tag on it and telling you to call it Clementine instead of Lee. I can’t say I’d rather this be a brand new cast in the same old world, but I can say I’ll stop wanting to be Lee. I’ll never want to stop being the hero, even if I have no idea how to be.

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A Host of Problems

A Host of Problems

Conversations can be quite the surprise. True enough, everyone knows something you don’t know, and mining that is the core of storytelling, journalism, and, well, general life-living. But it’s also true that no matter who it is, you have something in common with them. It’s just a matter of how much that overlap matters to you that makes it meaningful.

It’s those surprises that somehow seem the least unexpected, though. Talking with the woman next to me, a person I’d then known for all of four minutes, I was asked if I had seen the “Spike video game awards thing” on TV. Indeed I had, and we delved into a pool of her tangential interests and my semi-adult life.

Surprising, and yet not surprising. Who doesn’t play games now? Perhaps unlikely that a random person’s interests would reach the desire to watch the VGX (more likely boredom, a sensation that took of me quite thoroughly over the course of the three-hour web stream last week), but the broadening reach of the industry is represented in Geoff Keighley’s cohost Joel McHale.

VGX 2013

McHale is known for basically two things: 1) being a dick on Community and 2) being a dick on The Soup. Oh and I guess being tall, handsome, and ridiculously jacked. But the point is that he’s found his success in portraying a very particular kind of person. It’s the same kind of person you find people flocking towards in high schools, the sort of man or woman with a distinct sense of disaffected aloofness. Tenderly uncaring and too cool to be impressed but that’s all you want to do: impress them.

The unexpected qualities in a person are often the least surprising, right? Well, the opposite is true, too; sometimes, when people fulfill the expectations, it can be a bit startling, a tad disappointing. It’s a truth of human nature that we don’t know what we want, but we can often pinpoint exactly what we don’t want. All we need is to see the potential for completion.

So it’s not unexpected that right out of the gate, McHale would come out swinging jokes against homosexuals, transgenders, and incontinence. McHale is a persona comedian, not a material comedian, though is a genuinely charming and nice fellow offstage. But the fact remains that we should not be surprised when a man known for being a dick acts like a total dick.

VGX 2013

At certain points of the VGX, you could tell he felt bad. The problem was apparent: you had Keighley, a man wholly ingrained in the trials and tribulations of the industry, next to a man who has no qualms with the medium but also no stakes. The implicit message sent to the casual observers of the event was that we—those most enmeshed in games—don’t give a crap about our little multibillion dollar niche, so you shouldn’t either.

And McHale attempted to hedge his bets; he turned from his ass stage persona to a guy who wanted to try while not shattering his carefully constructed hosting reputation for apathy and wit, the latter of which seemed to be in short supply. And then with the unshakable Tim Schafer of Double Fine Productions and some major trailer reveals, things turned almost somewhat barely slightly around.

The other thing about McHale, though, is that he doesn’t bullshit when he hosts. The words coming out of his mouth are more or less unfiltered, though they still do usually fall with purpose. So it should not be unexpected that he would want to say how ridiculous it is that we celebrate the industry with three hours of advertisements, but many were startled when he did it anyways.

VGX 2013

But he’s not wrong, to put it in colloquial terms. We are, in fact, an industry made up almost entirely of ads and marketing, more so than movies or music or television. E3, our biggest event, is a week of our most sprawling content and it’s all marketing that journalists are complicit with. All of these game award shows now come replete with world premieres of trailers and exclusive announcements before, after, during, and in between commercials.

You don’t see that happen at the Grammys or the Academy Awards or the Tonys or anywhere else that claims to be the flagship honoring ceremony of a respective medium. They celebrate their industries with the ones that built them up and remember their past, paying homage to how they got there.

We have a trailer describing how bullet holes are immaculately rendered in Tom Clancy’s The Division. We have a trailer for a next-gen port of Tomb Raider. We have Reggie Fils-Aime doing Reggie things. McHale, whether he knows it or not, has us pegged. We are cogs.

VGX 2013

McHale might not be the biggest problem of the VGX. It might be us. I’m not saying he or Jay Mohr or Mr. Caffeine aren’t the most painful things I’ve ever seen in conjunction with video games, but that doesn’t make the words out of McHale’s mouth any less true. You know what? Maybe that is a bit surprising.

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