Prominent stand up comic and gamer Dara Ó Briain often jokes that unlike games, books don’t prevent you from progressing to the next chapter if you’re not good enough. Only games require a degree of skill in order to be experienced, or else bar your progress. Some games take this to an extreme. In recent years, perhaps as a backlash to the industry’s attempts to court a wider audience by becoming more accessible, games have started returning to their roots by being bloody hard, and they are being embraced, with games like Demon’s Souls becoming cult classics. But games can also challenge in other ways: they can challenge your expectations (Spec Ops), challenge distribution models (Braid), challenge your morals (The Walking Dead), or challenge your grasp on reality (Deadly Premonition). They can even challenge society at large, like Rockstar’s satirical, tabloid baiting, prostitute murdering behemoth Grand Theft Auto.
Indie games have exploded into the mainstream during this past generation, and Braid was a key part of that. It certainly legitimised, to me at least, the idea of paying less money for a shorter but more powerful and unique experience. It also taught me that I’m quite a lot stupider than I thought. The hardest puzzles in Braid were simply fiendish. Two in particular I had to look up in guides to solve, and I can pretty safely say that the only way that I would ever have figured them out is if I were sealed in a room with the game for 15 years like some sort of nerdish, marginally less violent Oldboy. The two I’m thinking of involve a shadow’s inertia and working out how to reverse time more quickly, in case you’d like to know if you too would have needed to be locked in a Korean hotel room for a decade.
It wasn’t just the time and platforming-based conundrums that were hard though – the game’s story and themes were so cloaked in deliberately nebulous imagery that it’s natural to assume that it’s all nonsense, treading water until a smart twist ending. However, if you go looking online for answers, and perhaps embark on the game’s ridiculously challenging post-finale hidden challenges, you’ll find them. Also, the damn thing still looks and sounds terrific, in the same timeless and beautiful way that the old Mario games that it subverts do. I guess I could say that Braid was Super Mario Bros for a market that was 20 years older, maturer and smarter if I was pretentious and presumptuous enough. Which I undoubtedly am.
Spec Ops: The Line
If you follow me on Twitter, unlikely as that is, you’ve probably told me to shut up about this game already.
Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person shooter with numerous strings to its bow. It mocks military shooters while it weaves a narrative about culpability and PTSD. At the same time it masterfully employs the illusion of choice with varying levels of transparency. It explores the relationship between player and player-character, essentially turning the gamer into an NPC that’s being dragged from war crime to war crime by the mentally shattered protagonist. On top of this, Spec Ops is a parody piece with red barrels littering the battlefields, enemies coming at you from 2006 style spawn points and heads literally bursting when you shoot them.
The fly in the ointment for many is that Spec Ops isn’t fun, but then it’s not supposed to be. It doesn’t bother with the usual drive to make the player feel heroic, instead opting to openly mock and deride them. Walker, the protagonist, goes from stereotypical squad leader/grunt to mentally damaged hurricane of hatred, making players feel conflicted about playing the part of him.
You’ll be hooked from the start screen, an elevated view of Dubai with Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner emanating from some unseen stereo, to the horrifying, beautifully written ending.
Will you enjoy it?
Grand Theft Auto IV
In the same way that GTA III took the leap from 2D to 3D, GTA IV’s game environment leapt from being a small 3D world that looked a bit like a city, to being an actual, living, breathing copy of New York. Even after hundreds of hours of game time, I was still finding small details, small sections of the map I had never seen, or spotting fantastic tiny things like the fact that the internal light on the cars actually came on when you opened the door.
The story, while somewhat bleak, outshone the much later GTA V’s action packed narrative, and over the thirty hour campaign I really got to know Niko Bellic and his associates. The few and far between checkpoints, while deeply irritating in many ways, piled on the tension during longer missions as you desperately fought to survive.
The multiplayer, although somewhat lacking, offered enough fun to genuinely keep me and my friends coming back for well over two years. Even just messing about in Free Mode kept us more occupied and amused than many AAA titles managed with massively well organised and slick team-based game modes.
Down the line, GTA V will be remembered for being bigger, better looking and far more capable in multiplayer, but to me GTA IV sticks in my mind as the game I think of when thinking about this fine generation of consoles.
It’s been said time and time again that all Japanese games conform to the same tropes and characters. Well, this one breaks the mould on that front. Francis “York” Morgan is easily my favourite character of the generation.
Yes, Deadly Premonition looks and plays like a janky PS2 survival horror game. Yes, the setting and other elements are heavily influenced by Twin Peaks. But the combination of storytelling, voice acting, humour and general idiosyncrasies make this game far more than the sum of its parts. On top of this you can expect some very dark, dark moments as time goes on.
The inhabitants of Greenvale are what makes the otherwise bare town feel alive. Each person has their own daily routine, varying from chapter to chapter. You can follow characters home and snoop on them to trigger some rather odd sidequests, or stay up all night and fight giant demonic dogs.
It’s not for everyone. However, if you’re the type of person who can see the merit in B-movies and other flawed gems, stick with it for a few hours, watch the story unfold, and prepare for a journey unlike any other you’ve had in gaming. Now that it’s on Steam, and likely to turn up in the Holiday Sale, you have no excuse.
The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is a game of the generation mainly due to its story. Driven by the mysteries and complexities surrounding Lee as a character, it is a story about humans first and monsters second, something that isn’t seen often in games. The constant threat of ‘walkers’ is always there but humans and monsters are sometimes one and the same. It can be surprising to find out who is really on your side when survival is at stake.
The game has a cell-shaded look with thick black lines tracing the characters and objects. It makes for striking scenery and gives the game a unique look and feel. I loved the style of the game within the first minute of seeing it and it ties in with the series of comic books. The choices made in each episode affect the next and how characters perceive you as a character. Throw in a few moral dilemmas on top of those difficult choices and it’s a game you find yourself drawn into and emotionally invested in, even when dark and uncomfortable.
Telltale has their work cut out for them to make Season two as good as the first!