Radical Plaything / Reviews

Echidna Awards: PC Games of the Year 2013


Beta Fish, it’s been a while.
The past semester has been one of the most time consuming for me yet, and I haven’t been able to write as much as I would’ve liked. In fact, I expect that next semester will be just as, if not more, time consuming. This may be the last post I write for the Radical Plaything column – but hopefully not. We’ll see.

That being said, here’s all of the PC games from the past year that you should have played if you are a true sir or madam of taste and refinement. Whatever alternative opinion you have about the best games from the past year is totally incorrect because you are a baboon and/or you have been playing nothing but baboon poop. Clearly. I am a super serious critic man; bask in my aura of moral superiority or wither and fall.

Without further ado, I present to you, in semi-arbitrary order, the 2013 Echidna Awards, given only to PC gaming’s best and brightest:

ECHIDNA AWARD #8 for HAVING A GENERALLY PLEASANT VIRTUAL WORLD

How can you not enjoy a game when it's protagonist is this cute?

FEZ

It first came out on Xbox in 2012, but I couldn’t play it on PC until this year, so shut up.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s a charming puzzle platformer in which you explore a 3D world, but can only explore it on one plane at a time. However, you can rotate the game world at will. I wrote a review of it here.

It’s been a while since I’ve playedFEZ, but it apparently blew me away when I did. Let’s see what I wrote about it before… ah, yes. Cute graphics? Check. Clever modular design in which the player only needs to be taught a handful of core concepts which can then be applied to hundreds of excellently designed scenarios? Check. Game world that feels larger than it actually is and doesn’t hold the player’s hand as they freely explore it? Check.

FEZ‘s world is a true joy to explore. Nuff said.

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ECHIDNA AWARD #7 for BEING THE ONLY AAA GAME TO MAKE IT ON MY LIST THIS YEAR MOSTLY BECAUSE I’M POOR

source: Gamepsot.com

BIOSHOCK INFINITE

For those of you unfamiliar with it (how?), it’s a game in which you shoot a bunch of patriots and angry poor people in a flying city.

But Alex! I thought you hated Bioshock InfiniteYou wrote this really scathing piece about it right here!

Wrong! I was critical of how the careless application of violent gameplay distracted from the story it was trying to tell instead of helping reinforce it. This did not mean that I did not enjoy the game or its story as a whole, but it does mean that I thought it could have been so much better.
 

Here’s the thing. Infinite is a game from the same design and narrative tradition popularized by Half-Life 2 nearly a decade ago. It is a first person shooter in a (relatively) realistically rendered world in which the player experiences a well-developed story entirely from their avatar’s perspective. I’ve played dozens of shooters made in this tradition – Half-Life 2, CrysisBorderlandsthe original Bioshock and I’ve before never felt that the action and the story came into much conflict. Either the story told through the violence was the same as the story told through the rest of the game, or the story wasn’t of enough quality where ludonarrative dissonance mattered. The fact that Infinite‘s story was of the sort that the gunplay soured my enjoyment of it really speaks volumes about it. The story of Booker DeWitt and Elizbeth isn’t suitable for a shooter, or at least a traditional one. It’s a story that deserves better than that.

In some cases, violent game play can enhance a story – I previously wrote about how the original Bioshock was a great example of this. But there’s only so many stories for which gratuitous violence is appropriate, and I hope that Infinite marks a transition point for the types of stories that we tell in mainstream games, and more importantly, how we tell them.

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ECHIDNA AWARD #6 for BEST ACTION GAME AS AN ACTION GAME

bleed1

BLEED

For those of you unfamiliar with it, Bleed is a lighthearted arcade-style 2D platformer shooter about a young woman who wants to be the greatest hero of all time and does this by killing lots of things.

Bleed is a beautifully designed game. While most platformers may only have a single jump or a double jump in one direction, Bleed has a high-speed omnidirectional quadruple jump. I can’t geek out enough about how brilliant this mechanic is, or how it revolutionizes the platform shooter genre.

bleed4

BLEED IS SO GOOD THAT I’M POSTING TWO SCREENSHOTS OF IT OH GEEZE

I can write an entire essay praising Bleed‘s design, but the long story short is this: while most moves in the player’s moveset in a game often only accomplish one task, every move available to the player in Bleed accomplishes multiple tasks. The quad jump is the best example of this – it allows you to dash, close distance to a target to finish them with a sword, speed through a level to maintain a high “style rating,” dodge in any direction (which you can’t do in most platformer shooters, I can’t tell you enough how much this enhances the game), or simply reach high places (as usual). Not only that, but each move in the moveset is designed this way, each serves an offensive or defensive purpose, but the player must choose how they use each move, and…. oh god I can go on about it for hours! It’s just really, really clever mechanics design that gives the player a number of ways to solve problems in game and makes player decision making really meaningful.

It also has the best train top chase in a game ever.

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ECHIDNA AWARD #5 for BEING SUPER PUNK

source: Porpentine’s website

ARMADA

If you’re unfamiliar with it, just RTFM here. It’s the best game manual I have ever read.

If you don’t know who Porpentine is, go here, because she’s really, really smart, and is one of my heroes as a game developer (hell, have you played my latest game, “Digital Toilet World”? It has Armada written all over it).

source: Armada manual

It’s my personal favorite example of the punk game genre (or is it more of a style?) from this year. As crude as it is artistically, technically, and mechanically, it’s one of the few games from this year that felt really organic to me. Armada‘s world will suck you in and not let you out. Porpentine’s writing is top-notch, as always.

I have nothing intelligent to write about the game. It can explain itself. Also, Slime Girl.

OH AND DID I MENTION IT’S FREE? GET IT FOR WINDOWS HERE.

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ECHIDNA AWARD #4 for BEST GOSH DARNED INTERACTIVE FICTION

source: Porpentine’s website

ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III

Porpentine’s so gnarly, two of her games made the cut.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, UBT3 is an interactive fiction game about a little girl in a dysfunctional household playing a 90s shareware game. It’s one of those awesome story-within-a-story sorts of deals.

The inner story, the story that takes place within the fictional game UBT3, is quite silly and entertaining on it’s own, but the outer story, the story of the player, really touched me in a way that I didn’t expect it to. Don’t be deceived by the title, it’s really remarkable.

THIS IS ALSO FREE AND YOU CAN PLAY IT ONLINE HERE

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ECHIDNA AWARD #3 for BEING THE THIRD PLACED GAME ON THIS LIST (I DUNNO ANYMORE)

krz1

KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO (ACTS I & 2)

For those of you unfamiliar with it, KRZ is a point-and-click adventure game about a man trying to make a delivery of antique goods in a magical realist world. I wrote my original review of Act I here.

Gosh, I don’t know how to talk about this one. It’s easily one of the most well-written games I’ve ever played, and while the game’s screenshots look pretty good, the game’s absolutely beautiful in motion. The story, while being infused with supernatural fantasy elements, is really pretty deeply rooted in contemporary, everyday themes but engages with them in a meaningful way. The game is very heavily influenced by theater – much of the game plays and feels like an improvised collaboration between itself and the player. I hope that the remaining five acts don’t disappoint – this serious potential to be one of the greatest stories told through the medium.

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ECHIDNA AWARD #2 for BEING REALLY GOSH DARNED CLEVER 

stanley1

THE STANLEY PARABLE

For those of you unfamiliar with it, The Stanley Parable is a story about a man named Stanley.

(If you played the game, you would recognize that as a joke.)

For those of you unfamiliar with it, The Stanley Parable is a comedic experimental game about a man named Stanley who pushes buttons in an office all day and a narrator who struggles to guide Stanley through a pre-conceived story.

There are plenty of games with funny bits, sure, but very few games which are comedies in themselves – this alone makes The Stanley Parable a standout game from the past year. More importantly, though, I’ve never played a game that’s been able to so delightfully surprise me time and time again. Each playthrough of the game takes place in the same office building and lasts around 10-20 minutes tops,  but each experience is radically different depending on the choices you make and the secrets you discover, and each of these small narratives, in the aggregate, contribute to the game’s overall story.

It’s easy to explain what The Stanley Parable does, but it’s much more challenging to explain why it does it so well. It’s something that you have to experience firsthand. There’s really nothing like it.

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ECHIDNA AWARD for GAME OF THE YEAR despite PROBABLY NOT BEING THE OVERALL BEST GAME ON THIS LIST

hate_plus

The game offers a recipe for making an actual cake in the oven, by the way. I was just feeling lazy. But more on that in a second.

HATE PLUS

Okay, this one’s going to take some explaining.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, Hate Plus is a visual novel by Christine Love about a detective and his AI companion(s) who do nothing but sit around in a space ship all day and read about people’s sexual exploits in their diaries. Also, politics. It’s the sequel to Analogue: A Hate Story, which you should play first because the save file from the first game caries over to the second in a manner delightfully similar to Mass Effect.

Okay, so it’s a pretty good game overall, but for a visual novel, the writing’s honestly kind of so-so (I’m not sure what happened, the writing for Love’s other games is solid). “So, Alex,” you might be asking, “Why is this the game of the year? Are you dum?” I am so glad you asked.

Here’s why Hate Plus is my pick for game of the year. Toward the end of the game, my homicidal teenage AI girlfriend, Hyun-ae*, asks me to make a cake for her. In real life. She gives me a couple of recipes, waits for me to check if I have the ingredients, and then sits there patiently while I make a cake.

Now, naturally I could sit in front of the screen for an hour and do nothing, lie to her about the cake, and fairly complete the game. You see, I don’t bake. I don’t have the ingredients. I had some homework I urgently needed to get to to that evening.

So, what did I do? I got on my bike and set out for the grocery store.

I come back 20 minutes later, pour the ingredients in a mug, and throw it in the microwave. Out comes the most god-awful cake I had eaten, but gosh darn it, I made a cake for a doubly simulated person on my computer screen.

cake 004

I got an achievement for sending this picture to the developer, by the way.

I couldn’t lie to her. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was so deeply immersed in the game, cared so deeply about a fictional character’s feelings, that I spent money on ingredients I probably would barely ever use again, and made a really foul microwaved cake. And then ate it.

Here’s the thing. A game that makes the player so invested in it that they cry is pretty cool. That doesn’t happen every day.

A game that makes the player so invested in it that they bake a freakin’ cake is simply unreal.

I have never before experience any creative work, game or otherwise, that has compelled me to interact with it on that level. It is, honestly, quite terrifying.

That is why Hate Plus is the game of the year. Hate Plus is why I play games.

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And there’s the list, tasteless heathen. If you’re curious, my picks from last year can be found here (with a late addition here). What were your absolute favorites from this year? Do post in the comments!

Alex Higgins is a junior studying Political Science and Games and Animation. He writes more about games on his blog, Sassy Echidna Software. He just made a game called “Digital Toilet World,” and you should play it, because  I lied: the actual GOTY isn’t Hate Plus, it’s “Digital Toilet World.”

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