2012 has been a fantastic year for videogames. Seems like every week a new game came out that overtook my Twitter feed with OMG YOU MUST PLAY THIS, every month a new genre suddenly experiencing a revival (interactive metavisual novel fictions? Tell me more!), every season another paradigm-subverting something or another (if you don’t have time to choke down Spec Ops: The Line, go play Frog Fractions, it’s, like, the same thing).
So how do you put together a list of the Top Ten Videogames of 2012? Well, in my case, you don’t: For one, I have probably played only barely more than ten games this year, most of them weren’t released this year, and anyway, ranking games is kind of boring. Better, I think, to talk about the games I played that were interesting, and what they made me feel, however flawed they might be. That certainly makes more sense than Patrick Miller’s Top 5 Games of 2012, anyway. Here it is: Ten games I played in 2012.
Patrick Miller’s Unifying Theory of Game Development (or: Honorable Mentions: MechWarrior Online, Planetside 2, and Tribes: Ascend)
I’ve gotten into free-to-play games in kind of a big way this year, mostly because I love me some MechWarrior, and Tribes: Ascend and Planetside 2 are pretty cool too. At the moment, I’ve spent about $100 between the three games, and I don’t regret it (even though, strangely enough, I’ve only actually spent about $5 of that real-money in-game currency so far). I think free-to-play is really interesting from both the business and game-design perspective, and if that’s how devs can bring back the above three IPs, I say: Do it! Print yourself some goddamn money.
Despite the fact that I have, by now, logged plenty of hours playing the above three games, the fact is that they are kind of crap. Which is okay, because at this stage in their development, they’re kind of meant to be crap, though that is weird.
Developers are largely breaking out of the traditional Hollywood model of making games. Only so many studios can do triple-A blockbuster games, these days, and as a consequence of lower barriers-to-entry in game development, the natural risk-averse nature of big-money projects like major games, and (hopefully) a more diverse and mature market than that of ten years ago, your mainstay triple-As just don’t pull in the cash they used to.
Instead, devs are aiming for the Silicon Valley/tech startup model: Your founders come up with an idea, put together a small team capable of putting together a minimum viable product with whatever bootstrapped or venture capital funding they have, and if that minimum viable product is enough to sell enough to fund further development (or attract more VC money for the same purpose), the devs go on to build out the rest of the game and eventually retire on a pile of money. Venture capital and early users are basically the ur-Kickstarter.
And why not? People have already made their fortunes in the web/mobile app market. Everything that can be disrupted with a goddamn smartphone app either already has been disrupted or will be in the next year or two, probably. At this point, finding something that will make your iPhone an even more useful tool is a fool’s errand. (If you don’t believe me, go watch some startup pitches from the last year or so and ask yourself, “Um, do I know anyone who would use this for more than 20 seconds?” If the answer is “Yes” then proceed to defriend those people on Facebook — it’ll hit ‘em where it hurts.)
So what do you do when you’ve already sold the people everything they need? Well, you sell people games that will take up all the spare time they’ve saved in their lives by using your smartphone apps. Now that all their real-world decisions are taken care of, go give them a fabricated world in which they can make even more decisions — and charge them, somehow, for the privilege.
The down-side to all of this is that we can now expect games (especially free-to-play, online, microtransaction-based games) to suck when they come out, much like we’d expect any new social network or whatever to suck when it comes out — which is kind of counter to the Hollywood model, where games are at their prime (in terms of quality and cultural relevance) shortly after release. MechWarrior Online, Planetside 2, and Tribes: Ascend are all, objectively speaking, kind of ass; I found myself playing them mostly because I think they’ll be really cool if they make it for a year or so, and by then, it’d be real nice to have some sweet gear.
Meanwhile, the free-to-play game that made the biggest splash in 2012 is League of Legends, which is about three years old at this point, because it has had three years to grow from “Hey, this might be a cool thing, give us money” into a proper game. But each of the three games I mentioned above all kind of offer the promise of something cool, in the future, should they survive. The risk, of course, is that we won’t give a shit about them by the time they’re actually worthwhile (I guess that’d be, like, the Flickr or MySpace of videogames?) — and who wants to put a three-year-old game on a list of 2015’s best games?
To The Moon
Underneath my hardened, man-killing, facepunching exterior, I think I’m a pretty sentimental guy. I’ll cop to watching stuff like Love Hina and Karekano during my formative weeaboo years, and I suspect I probably have an unexplored weakness for torrid romance novels usually read by ladies in their mid-40s. To The Moon is kind of like The Notebook, I imagine (having never watched The Notebook, mind you), except it’s meant for people who played Japanese RPGs from the 16-bit era. That is to say, it’s non-stop heartstring-tugging cheese. I started tearing up upon hearing the piano at the menu screen before I had even started playing the damn game.
I don’t think To The Moon is particularly deep or well-written, mind you. You know how there’s always a bit in an old JRPG where you need to sleep in an inn to trigger some story conversation, and you’re always really annoyed because the guy you’re controlling doesn’t have the Sprint Shoes, and you have to just kind of walk around? To The Moon is basically three hours of that, except you’re piecing together, via time travel and memories and stuff, a story of love and loss and Asperger’s (or something — it’s not particularly specific).
As cheeses go, To The Moon is industrial-strength Velveeta; sure, it’ll make you cry, but even while you’re crying, you’ll feel kind of cheap about the whole thing. I discovered that one of my hallmarks of personal adulthood was feeling a bit gross after eating McDonald’s, as though I had made The Worst Possible Decision in order to satisfy my hunger; the ten minutes I spent scarfing down a stomach-filling meal for under $4 was counterbalanced by the evening of regret I had laid out in front of me. To The Moon is the Dollar Menu item for sadness. If that sounds harsh, it shouldn’t — just realistic. After all, it still made me tear up, which is more than I could say for Dear Esther.
Addendum: After writing this, I read the Wikipedia entry for The Notebook, and, yeah, this all sounds about right.
Hotline Miami is another strange one; I recommend it because it is interesting, if flawed. I’m including it on this list because what it made me feel, if anything, is “numb,” but that is kind of the point. Bear with me.
The buzz surrounding this game upon release felt rather shallow. Psychedelic! Trippy! Ultra-violent! Blah, blah, blah. Hotline Miami does something interesting, but describing it in terms of the pounding soundtrack or the visual motif doesn’t really do it justice (imagine selling someone on Quake by saying, “Hey, it’s kind of Gothic! How ’bout them Nine Inch Nails? Oh, and you shoot stuff.”).
Here’s what you do in Hotline Miami: You go to your apartment, check your voice mail, go somewhere and murder a few dozen people, and head back home, making sure to pick up a pizza or rent a movie on your way. In doing so, you are trying to solve a mystery: Who is leaving messages on your answering machine, who are the people sitting in your living room wearing animal masks, and why are you killing these people? You can’t solve the mystery without killing people (and the narrative is set up as a flashback, so really, those people are all already dead, and you’re just replaying the action), so you just shrug your shoulders, grab your baseball bat, and go to work.
I say Hotline Miami made me feel numb. This is why: I did not enjoy the violent parts. Not because I am opposed to violence in games, but because it wasn’t really that much fun. Each floor you play through might as well be a puzzle game you’re trying to brute-force a solution to. Your player is every bit as fragile as his enemies, so combat is swift and visually gory (lots of blood and heads rolling, etc.) but not particularly visceral. Your hits lack any oomph whatsoever. It’s not satisfying, and I don’t think we’re actually meant to enjoy it. Or at least, it wasn’t designed so that I was meant to enjoy it.
In-game, I might have been knocking a guy out with a door, slamming his head against the ground until it exploded, taking his tire iron and beating two other people to death, and so on, but in my head, I was calmly — perhaps even boredly — dissecting a problem set. I might as well have been working on a crossword puzzle. Minesweeper takes an actual tragic situation (re: unexploded Cold War mines left in countries that hosted proxy wars) and abstracts it into a pleasant game of number-crunching; Hotline Miami plays up the garish bloodbath and achieves the same effect.
As I wrote in the introduction to this list, games assign consequence and meaning to mundane actions (pressing keys becomes killing people). Hotline Miami makes the killing feel mundane. It’s a chore I have to get through because I want to see what’s new at my apartment and grab a pizza. Killing a house full of people is my 9-to-5 tedium. To me, it feels like a study in psychopathology — perhaps that of videogames and the people who play them (and, judging from the ending, the people who make them).
Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3
I put Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (hereafter known as Marvel or maybe even MAHVEL BAYBEE) on last year’s list, mostly because I was impressed that Capcom had managed to isolate and refine the essence of everything that made MVC2 great and do it intentionally with MVC3. This year, UMVC3 made me feel like shaking my head and saying “Man, fuck this game.” In a good way.
Over the last few years, I’ve been something of a casual fighting game player. I fell off the Street Fighter IV bandwagon shortly after Super dropped because I just don’t enjoy the game. Aside from a few Capcom vs. SNK 2 relapses, I hadn’t been that devoted to any one particular game. MVC3 came along, and I got into it in the least-committed way possible by basically sticking to a rather solid team and sticking with it for most of the way. I didn’t experiment much, because what I had was enough to hang in there and have a good time with the guys I play fighting games with.
Then I went to Evolution 2012.
After Evolution 2011, I wrote The Anatomy of Hype. Interestingly enough, almost everything about my Evolution 2012 experience was different. I spent most of my time holed up in the hotel room playing Marvel, because dammit, I wanted to play Marvel, not spend time talking to people who weren’t playing Marvel. (Kenan and Andres: Sorry about that.)
I ended up not doing too well in Marvel (I did better in SFIV, and I actually played against a guy who decided to come to Evo after reading The Anatomy of Hype — sorry, guy, and welcome to Evo), but even though I did pretty shitty in Marvel, I did manage to hit one combo — the Zero lightning loop — which I had explained to me only a few days earlier and didn’t really understand all that well, in actual competition.
So much of my post-SFIV fighting game experience had, up until that point, been trying to find the easiest ways to not put on an embarrassing performance that I forgot what it felt like to put myself out there. To try something new, experiment with it, fail, and then eventually get it right when it mattered most. I was a changed man after that match. I shook my opponent’s hand, and then went right back to the hotel room to help my buddies grind out games in order to prepare for their pools.
After Evolution 2012, I became a Marvel Player. I let my Xbox Live Gold sub die out because I just wanted to spend time in training mode. I saw my Marvel-playing friends every week, and my not-Marvel-playing friends less and less. Most people take a break after Evo; I showed up at my buddy Bihn’s house every Wednesday, stick in hand, and parked my ass on his couch for about five hours straight. We still have a recurring playdate.
Marvel players are a breed apart from other fighting game players. On balance, we’re probably more likely to get into fights; we tend to have disavowed our interest in pretty much any other not-Marvel fighting games; we’re constantly seeking the answer to one question, and that’s “When’s Marvel?” Before Evolution 2012, I was a dabbler, someone who could speak Marvel but was not fluent. Now, Marvel is kind of like speaking in tongues.
Competitive game players have an It’s Complicated relationship with the games we play; often, the game we’re best at is one we hate the most. “This game is stupid” is a common excuse whether we lose or win. We are apologizing to the other person for playing a game that is imperfect. It’s kind of like saying, “Sorry, we could have had a better match if we were playing a better game, but this will have to do for now.” (In this light, Mike Z’s devotion to Skullgirls, and David Sirlin’s to Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix are both perfectly understandable.)
UMVC3 is quite possibly the only game I’ve played that takes that sentiment and embraces it. The entire point of the game is to craft a team and hone your execution until everyone you play is convinced that Marvel is the dumbest game ever. Training sessions consist of you doing this to your friends, back and forth, until someone someone comes up with something that makes the game seem dumber still. The fighting game community has a name for the feeling of being frustrated after losing: “Salty”. Marvel is like mainlining saline solution.
Allow me to provide an example: The team I use right now is Zero, Doctor Doom, and Vergil. Zero has some of the most obnoxiously potent normal attacks in the game, and if he hits you one, he can potentially land a combo that will kill that character (and without worrying too much about spending meter, too, as he generates plenty on his own). Once he kills one of your characters, your incoming character must block a mixup that essentially amounts to a 50% chance of not getting caught in the same combo that will kill that character, and then your third character comes out into the same mixup. In MVC2, that kind of lethal power put Magneto in the top tier, often only if backed up with the right assists. In UMVC3, you get all that in one character, and you don’t need to be a crazy-good combo execution specialist to get that, either. I won’t delve into Doom and Vergil’s strengths, but suffice it to say that they’ve got plenty of knockout power as well.
Now get this: Zero players have won approximately one major MVC3/UMVC3 tournament in the history of the game (Flocker at Season’s Beatings 2011). When compared to teams that simply don’t let you move for chip damage (Chris G’s Morrigan/Doom and Filipino Champ’s Dormammu/Doom) or characters that basically get a Win button if you set them up properly (most notably Phoenix, though Strider Hiryu, Frank West, and Phoenix Wright all fall into this category), the ability to destroy a whole team with one initial touch is fairly tame.
In Japan, this more-broken-than-the-last design earned Marvel the title of kusoge (literally “shit-game”). For Marvel players, this is what we’re here for; that feeling of helplessness and frustration and FUCK THIS GAME that we instill in others and are instilled upon in turn. Once your palate gets used to all that salt, everything else just tastes bland.
Sound Shapes (and, reluctantly, Dear Esther)
I played Dear Esther for the first time earlier this month, in order to steel myself for the upcoming Gamasutra Top 10 Games of 2012 hashing-out meeting. It was not brief, and I did not enjoy it, though I can appreciate what it did. (Dear Esteban, from the Fuck This Game jam, was a nice palate-cleanser.) If Dear Esther made me feel anything, it was “bored.” (I am not one of those people who insist it be permanently stricken The List of Videogames, mind you; I just didn’t like it.)
I have a feeling Sound Shapes is my Dear Esther; I adore it, but not for what I do in it. I like playing it, but it’s not a satisfying platformer. The first Beck level (“Cities”) just felt so good. Capital-A Art has never done much for me; I’ve never seen a painting and felt warmth and beauty pour into my soul, even if someone tells me It’s Really Good. But something melted inside of me when I saw the “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” clouds in Sound Shapes. That isn’t an experience I think everyone will have playing Sound Shapes, but I had it, and so it needs to go on this list.
Perhaps the thing that Dear Esther and Sound Shapes have in common (and we might as well add Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery to the list) is a willingness to de-emphasize Game Mechanics in favor of The Experience. Some art games tell stories through the Game (stuff like Passage as probably the most basic example), by leading you through a decision-making process that makes you Feel Things. But Dear Esther and Sound Shapes seem content to simply be, to offer you a cocktail of experiences of which the actual player-game physical interaction is only one element, and a rather minimal element of that.
Remember when CD-ROMs first became a viable delivery medium for games? There was this awesome explosion of weird crap that came out once devs realized they had a stupid amount of storage space: lots of CD-quality music, FMV cutscenes everywhere, and…um, not really that much in the way of good games except Myst. “Play” is one element of a videogame, not the only element, and it makes sense to me that some games are best made with a minimal design in mind. If I were playing a more complicated game — say, Lemmings — through a Sound Shapes level, it’d probably suck.
As it turns out, “minimal game design” segues nicely into my last entry on this list.
ZiGGURAT and Super Hexagon
If I learned anything from ZiGGURAT and Super Hexagon, it’s that we, collectively, don’t really know how to make videogames.
As I understand it, Game Designers exist primarily to build Systems meant for players to navigate. The success or failure of the system depends on its ability to make the players feel what the designer wants them to feel: “competitive” for something like Starcraft 2 multiplayer; “cooperative” and “serendipity” for, say, Journey; and so on. But much of this system-designing is taking certain fundamental game design interactions and mashing them up: Starcraft 2 is a mix of Risk (overall increase in power over time), Poker (the fog of war), and rock-paper-scissors (asymmetric player options in the three different races). The actual core “game” in Starcraft 2 is clicking and box-selecting things, and then pressing a button on your keyboard to tell those things to do something, and then selecting something else. Wrap Risk/Poker/RPS around it, and we call it Starcraft 2; wrap your hard drive’s filesystem around it, and we call it Windows 7. Sometimes, we subtract instead of adding; Canabalt is Super Mario Bros. without the coins, or the levels, or the different directions, or the enemies, or the powerups.
I have written a decent amount about the nuts and bolts of ZiGGURAT and Super Hexagon in How to Not Suck at ZiGGURAT and everything you need to know about the future of videogames, respectively, so I won’t rehash all that. Instead, I’ll focus on the one thing both games do ridiculously well, albeit in different ways: They both focus on videogames as a matter of milliseconds and seconds, not minutes or hours or days or “lives” (in either the game-sense or the real-life sense). They are both exercises of Game Design at the most atomic level: micro-interactions between player and game. No extrinsic motivators, no bars going up, no meta-game layer, just pressing buttons to do a thing. Sit back and think about all the games you’ve played in the last year. How many of them can say the same?
Over the last week, I’ve been playing a lot of Super Hexagon, and I asked myself a question: Why do I have to hold down the left and right buttons to move? After all, there are no parts in the maze where I can get through a hole that is smaller than one of the sides of the polygon I’m orbiting. If I’m on the correct side, I’m on the correct side. So why can’t I move a fixed distance at a fixed rate by tapping the button and remove the inaccuracy of holding it down? That way, I wouldn’t have to deal with death by overshooting the gap I was aiming for, which seemed to me to be an inconvenience of the game, not The Point Of The Game.
I suspect that I was, in fact, missing The Point Of The Game; I wanted a control system that would validate the decisions I was making (“navigate over there”) and prevent me from dying in situations where my inputs did not match up to my decisions (“I tried to navigate there, but ended up over there instead and died”). But Super Hexagon isn’t about making decisions, it’s about playing the damn game with the tools you’re given. It is unfair and brutal (and the only thing you have going for you is that it’s real easy to start over and really you can complete the whole game in six minutes and change), but that’s kind of the point. If it were just about the decisions you make, it’d be Super Hexagon: The Text Adventure. Super Hexagon just issues you, the player, a challenge: “Betcha can’t navigate through this maze real fast.” And you are compelled to answer: “Oh yeah? Betcha I can.” That’s all it is — a new challenge for its own sake.
Tim describes his work with Action Button Entertainment as making “minimalist e-sports”. I get where he’s coming from: “e-sport” in the “game that is designed to stress excellence in play, rather than narrative progression or other stuff” sense of “sport”, just on a machine instead of with an actual ball”, and “minimalist” because he’s not making another Street Fighter or Starcraft or whatever. I prefer to describe it as “making new videogames”, which is something that very few game developers seem to be doing.
To illustrate this distinction a little bit further: Starcraft 2 is an “e-sport”, but we can kind of zoom in and isolate one particular game dynamic which could be a “minimalist e-sport” of its own. For Terran players, Marines, Siege Tanks, and Medevacs tend to be the backbone of your army. Marines are cheap, but fragile; Siege Tanks are expensive and have a long-range attack with splash damage, but they have to be stationary to perform that attack and are rather fragile; Medevacs can heal Marines, which comes in handy (especially after they use Stim to sacrifice some health for faster walk/attack speeds), spot for Siege Tanks (since Tanks can shoot farther than they can see on their own), and drop both Marines and Tanks into areas that give them a tactical advantage. Marines are good at killing isolated Tanks, but bunches of Tanks will kill innumerable Marines.
Well, when one Marine/Tank/Medevac army goes up against another Marine/Tank/Medevac army, you get a really interesting game, because each player needs to find ways to bait the enemy army into running into their tank line, upon which the enemy army will almost certainly be vaporized. So you feint manuevers to make your opponent think you’re leaving when you’re not, you find ways to take the high ground, and so on. That interaction right there, between those three units: That could be a minimalist e-sport. That’s what I want to play. So why do we bother with stuff like an economy, or three races, or other units? And why stick with an input system that dates back to the creation of the original GUI?
To dissect another one of my sacred cows: Ryu vs. Ryu in Super Street Fighter II Turbo is the Perfect Matchup. You got your fireballs, your dragon punches, your air hurricane kicks. It’s the fighting game skeleton around which the other 15 characters were designed — why bother with the other 15? Play ST Ryu, and you’ll know everything you need to know about fighting games. (I intend to write another article that will prove this.) And so on. Try this with your favorite games and see what you come up with.
2012 was a remarkable year for videogames. A lot of great stuff came out, and some of it actually made it on this list. Call the games industry butter, ’cause it’s on a roll.
But for all the great games that people made, well, there weren’t that many great games. Do yourself a favor and New Game Plus this article (go read it again), paying attention to how many games I actually liked for being good games — games that made me want to play them for their own sake, not because playing them was something I had to do for another reason. But both ZiGGURAT and Super Hexagon establish as their fundamental premise that if I am not enjoying playing the game at the millisecond-to-millisecond level, everything else in the game can go get fucked, which makes me feel, well, cared-for.
patrick miller really likes videogames, you guys, honest