Brian P. (aka Cyanotic)
Video games are the world’s most popular, most profitable artform, but they still lack the cultural cachet of books, film, and reality television. Despite a number of legitimately great titles, 2011 will probably not be remembered as the best in the medium’s history. But it will, I think, be remembered as the year when they went irrevocably mainstream: Angry Birds were featured on 30 Rock and worn by America’s Trick & Treaters, formerly nerdcore games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim were advertised during ESPN’s College Football Gameday, and even the editors of Forbes and The Wall Street Journal (even if begrudgingly) picked games of the year.
Commentary on the medium has become better and easier to find. Tom Bissell’s criticism on Grantland is quite good, Slate’s Year-end Gaming Club celebrated its fifth anniversary, and super-snarky Gawker Media’s own gaming site, Kotaku, published some compelling and frankly overdue pieces on gender, games, and the community; including one recently on the default male voice and female self-censoring and another on gaming/fan communities and male privilege.
I don’t pretend to offer the same level of insight, but I do play a lot of games (currently Civilization V), watch my partner play them (right now L.A. Noire and Elder Scrolls), and think about them a lot. Here are the best ones I played in 2011, although some of these came out in 2010.
10. Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (360, PS3, Windows Phone)
I’m reminded of the poster to MST3K the movie, whose tagline I’m going to mangle here: “Since 1980, there have been over 25 Pac-Man games released. This is one of them.” Here, our favorite anthropomorphic shape must complete dozens of all new and retro-themed stages, in full color and spiffy HD visuals. It is, I am happy to say, even better than it sounds. But those who can’t stand super-thumpy electronic and/or fear they may have photosensitive epilepsy may wish to stay away.
9: Alice: Madness Returns (360, PS3, Windows)
A sequel to the 2000 (!) PC title, American McGhee’s Alice, Madness Returns revisits the original’s dark wonderland with lush, painterly backgrounds, sometimes repetitive, last generation platforming, and a deeper, more disturbing story. The game shuttles Alice back and forth between the dingy streets of Victorian London and the macabre dreamland she saved in the original. The story is told largely in flashback, through cut scenes reminiscent of 19th century drawings and Dickens-novel, woodcut-like illustrations; the plot itself is structured as a mystery, in which Alice must determine who started the fire that killed her family and which led to her commitment in an asylum in the previous game. Ultimately (yes, that’s your spoiler warning), she discovers that the head of the asylum has been drugging/hypnotizing/unclear(?) the children in his ward, and renting them out as sex slaves. In a medium in which the sexualization of bodies (especially youngish female ones) runs rampant, this is a troubling thematic, even posited here as a critique. Commodification, after all, is not easily problematized in a form in which addictive consumerism is one of the foundational mechanics (common gameplay types necessitate always the acquisition of more: health potions, ammo, gold, levels, crafting materials, fairies to stuff into bottles, etc).
This Alice is a worthy heroine: victimized and wounded, but with the intelligence to discover what has happened to her, the wherewithal to make sense of it, and the courage to confront her abuser, saving herself and her fellow inmates. And she does it all with a keen wit, some clever (oft bizarre, Carrollian) dialogue, and more than a little of the old ultraviolence. In a way the story plays out in much the same way that, for example, Lisbeth Salander’s might: here too the fetishization has been shifted away from the exploitation and abuse of women and towards the vengeance of it. And yet, the atmosphere of sordidness surrounding the proceedings makes me somewhat wary of the wherefores and where-towards the fascination/titillation lies: sex crimes presuppose, are obviously necessary for, the payback that we are so quick to cheer for.
Aesthetically, the Wonderland levels echo the locations and characters in the real world, so that, for example, one level is created to evoke the Victorian craze for Japanned décor. The level and character design is beautiful. Unfortunately, the game mechanics themselves are much less so. Combat is improved over the original, and the weapons are just as strangely satisfying as possible (they include the Vorpal Blade, of course, but also the club-like Hobby Horse, the Teapot Cannon, the gatling-gun like Pepper Grinder and a snazzy Umbrella). Less fun are some of the platforming mechanics, which involve lots of jumping inadvertently to one’s death, and an annoyingly common series of invisible surfaces one must find and land upon successfully.
[Alice traversing Wonderland]
8: Lego Harry Potter Years 5-7 (multiplatform)
My favorite co-op game at the moment, and a sequel to the unsurprisingly titled Years 1-4. English developer Traveller’s Tales has somehow managed to keep their Lego titles compelling, if not altogether fresh. You’ll still experience the storyline from the popular movies and books, told without dialogue (instead the characters make alternatingly cute/annoying/inadvertently suggestive grunts) in cut scenes which recreate the important scenes from the books and films in such a way that they pay faithfully fannish service to the originals, all while gently, lovingly, mocking them. You can unlock and play all of your favorite characters and villains, locations, and items, cast spells, brew potions, and eventually blow He Who Must Not Be Named into a pile of cheap Danish plastic.
7: Fable III (360 & Windows)
Quick note: I have not played Fable I or II. Many of the fans of those games hate the third one. If this is you, I can’t feel your pain, sorry. In any case, this is a franchise that begins with a relatively simple idea: start out as a kid in a fantasy kingdom, do your heroic best or villainous worst, and your actions will affect not only how you are perceived and treated by others, but also how you physically appear (so that the saintliest will even sport heavenly halos, the fiendy-ish hellish horns). Some of the third game’s quests are excellent: my favorite is probably “The Game,” which is a satire of Dungeons & Dragons (and Fable) style roleplaying games. It begins with a wonderful meta-moment, as your character is shrunk down and placed in a poorly designed fantasy world, where his/her actions (don’t really) affect how s/he is perceived and treated, and the incompetent creators/gamemasters of this mini-meta world loom over her, arguing amongst themselves about what challenges and villains are appropriate, what treasures and rewards she is entitled to, and which plot developments are most (or least) compelling. Monsters and other charazters are cardboard standees, a nod to the artificial nature of fictional characters in the larger game (and games generally). There are dozens of others; some humorous, others horrific. But they all share the game’s top notch voice acting, and clever, Pythonesque writing (which reminds: John Cleese actually voices your butler, and he is as warm and witty as you’d hope).
[“The Game:” Let’s get all meta in here]
My advice? Ignore the game’s main plot, about an ancient evil rising up to blah blah blah. Instead, trek around the country, completing side quests, killing bandits and taking their clothes. Kick some chickens, Zelda style. Meet new people, marry them, or don’t. String along lovers of either or both sexes. Buy a house for her/him/them (you’ll need separate houses if you are polyamorously inclined, as the computer created characters-aka-NPCs tend to get jealous). The relationship system here is not exactly deep: NPCs have a small range of attributes: friendly to offputting, are situated along a spectrum of sexuality, are laid back or severe, greedy or beneficent, etc. Dating them involves little more than a quick fetch quest of some kind (roses, or a lost trinket), followed by a quick kiss on the bridge. Having sex with one involves taking your willing sweetie by the hand and leading them to a bed at which time, the screen fades to black and you are treated to gloriously goofy sound effects. Choosing to wear a condom, purchasable at the kingdom’s many shops, will eliminate the chance that matings produce children, and the chance your character will suffer a nasty, hit-point sapping venereal disease. You can give birth as a female character (father them if male, or co-mother or father in a same-sex relationship) and raise them lovingly with your partner(s) or abandon them somewhere. A warning: if you do become pregnant, the Kingdom of Albion does not have any abortion clinics, but it does have a number of factories which will buy your unwanted children and put them to work as slave labor, an option which shortcuts messy adoption paperwork but makes one question what (and whose) kinds of morality can safely be portrayed, even in a game in which you mostly run about stabbing fantasy monsters with names like ‘Balvorines.’ In any case, and even with these formal/technical and philoso-political limitations, Fable is best when it is less Lord of the Rings and more The Sims’ Fantasy Monster-Killing and Peasant-Dating Sextacular with Rad Weapons and also Outfits. This is a compliment.
6: Bastion (360, Windows, Google Chrome)
An inexpensive ($15) downloadable title from the newly formed Supergiant Games, Bastion is a beautifully rendered isometric perspective sci-fi/fantasy game, which I’ve hereby dubbed “The Legend of Zel-Diablo.” You play as “The Kid,” one of the last survivors of a future apocalypse, who has to fight lots and lots of mutant monsters and later samurai for some reason. Luckily, you’ll have a pile of weapons, all of which are very upgradable. While the graphics are evocative of elder generation games (aesthetics are purely 16 Bit, albeit presented in shiny modern HD), the design is refreshing: this is the most beautiful, certainly the most colorful apocalypse you will ever endure, with no dull browns and greys to be found. Gameplay itself is deliberately old school, including the now rarely seen bullet timing and dodging of 1980’s arcade games, but there are also some innovative modern touches: the most interesting of these is a savvy narrator, voiced by Logan Cunningham, who ‘tells’ the story as you play it with context-specific voiceovers reflecting your current actions, weapons, surroundings, and position within the game’s plot. The system has been implemented so effectively that it never becomes annoying, and the narrator rarely if ever repeats himself. Bonus: his voice sounds like a grizzled, cowboy twang, think Sam Elliot’s character in The Big Lebowski after one too many Sioux City Sarsaparillas.
Part 2 coming soon…