Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Oh. Yeah. It's 2014...

Guess I should make a list of my top 5 games of 2013, then. Sure, it's July, but what the heck.

I picked the games on this list not just because I enjoyed them. The reason they're here is because of the way they each handled their story; from the quality of its presentation to the way it melds with the gameplay. I'll give a short rundown of why I picked each game, but I won't go into specific plot details. So no need to worry about spoilers.

Let's get right to it, shall we? And the top five are:

5. Outlast

I think you could say that the most important thing in a horror game is its atmosphere. Sure, you need spooky monsters and the occasional jump scare, but these don't provide any lasting sense of dread. A good horror game saturates the world with fear; it's in the sounds around you, the architecture, the color... often what you don't see is scarier than what you do.

Outlast gets this. Oh boy, does it get it.
I'm not even touching the actual story here yet. The way you experience it is what makes it unforgettable. From the environment to the body you inhabit as the player - the game is filled to the brim with terror.

One of the two things that stand out in how well the game immerses you in its world is your character's body. It's clear that efforts were made in making every head-bob feel authentic, as well as every step, crawl and scurry. You are not a floating, bodiless eye. Your hands and limbs are visible in almost every action you take. Try to peek around a corner and your hand will reach out to grasp it, slowly inching your head past the threshold. Crawling on the floor feels like you'd imagine it; clutching at a hiding spot so the baddies won't see you. This constant physical contact with the environment is a powerful anchor; it makes you very aware of the fact that you are a person, a frail and jittery person.

The other element is your camcorder. Its brilliance lies in it being your most useful tool, but also a constant source of the fear you experience. Sure, it lets you see in the dark, but do you really want to see what's out there? The game encourages you to use your camera often, and looking through it gives the game the eerie sensation similar to that of found footage films, making everything around you seem way too real.

And let's not forget about the location, of course - a fantastically detailed insane asylum whose every room and door could hide a potential horrifying threat. But it also does a swell job of telling the story within the story. It feels both wonderful and terrible to explore; wanting to dig around and find more about the world and its characters, but fearing the psychological damage it might cause you to try.

For scaring me senseless and doing it brilliantly, Outlast makes my list.

4. Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider did a fair job with its cinematic storytelling. It conveyed action and drama throughout the game both in captivating cutscenes and intense gameplay. But that's not the reason I picked it. The reason is, quite simply, Lara Croft herself.

When the first Tomb Raider was released millions of years ago, it was a huge hit. Lara became a cultural phenomenon. She was touted as a strong female video game character, and the fact that she became so popular made her all the more remarkable, solidifying her place in video game history.

But y'know what? I never liked her. She always seemed to me to be more male-oriented than anything else, as the most prominent element of her character was her sexuality. So you could argue that with her generic snappy dialogue and action-woman stunts she was indeed a strong female character, but to me she just wasn't a particularly good character to begin with. There have been many more Tomb Raider games since then. Some better and some worse, but Lara's always been the same, and I never connected with the series because of it.

Earlier this year, that finally changed. Lara Croft of the new Tomb Raider is a whole new woman, and one much more interesting than her last incarnation. Yes, this game is a prequel, or an origin story if you like. As such it's good but doesn't particularly stand out. But the transition Lara undergoes as you're playing her is astounding to experience. She transforms, slowly, through hardship, from a capable but frightened girl who weeps and whimpers as she is forced to slay vicious people who want to kill her, to a strong woman who stands up to a challenge and comes out on top against the odds. By the end of the game you yawp with her as she strides to battle, ready to fight.

Tomb Raider is on this list because Lara is now an actual character, rather than a mere sex symbol combined with boring action hero tropes. And I am so happy that, as far as I'm concerned, Lara has finally earned the place in history she received so long ago.

3. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers posed a bit of a problem for me at first. I knew I wanted it on my list but placing it turned out harder than I thought. The top two spots were easy to sort, but the bottom three proved to be more challenging. I felt that Brothers should be at number three, but I had trouble justifying that choice to myself. Both Tomb Raider and Outlast are excellent in their own right, and they each have a much more intricate story than that of Brothers, with more varied characters, locations and plot twists. In the end, Brothers won out because it has an incredibly powerful story that quite simply outdoes the other two games in every substantial way.

Firstly, the game's writers made a very smart decision in setting the game in an unnamed fantastical land, inhabited by characters that don't speak English or any other recognizable language for that matter. It gives the game a distinct mythical feel and a sense of timelessness, like a fable or a folktale.

Then we have what the game is probably most famous for; the fact that you control the two titular brothers at the same time. Its main function in-game is to solve puzzles, of course, moving the brothers appropriately to get past obstacles. More importantly for us, however, it has a great influence on the narrative. This mechanic emphasizes beautifully the way these two brothers work as one, and the bond they share. It's a refreshing mechanic that adds a lot to their characters. Without any words or scripted scenes, you simply see these two boys work together perfectly. You almost forget that it's you who are moving them. It's one of the most mesmerizing examples of interactive storytelling I've seen. But the game isn't content to leave it at that. That mechanic is the center of the relationship and interaction between the brothers and their world, and as the game progresses the mechanic does as well.

As promised I won't get into the story details, but I will say that even though the story relies heavily on this 'gimmick', it does so perfectly. It doesn't hold back, and takes the core idea of controlling two characters to the extent of its narrative potential.

For creating an amazing way for story and game to work together and then making that story flourish, I'm proud to put Brothers at number 3 on my list.

2.Bioshock Infinite

The Bioshock series has always been about big ideas; towering manifestations of human ambition tested against the reality of human nature. Bioshock Infinite undeniably lives up to that pedigree. Indeed, the floating city of Columbia is nothing if not a plethora of ideals made real. However, where the previous games centered on conflicting philosophies and the results of their clashing, Infinite places the heart of the story in its main characters, namely Booker and Elizabeth.

Booker is the first playable character in the Bioshock games to have a prominent speaking role. The game is experienced in Half-Life-esque manner, so we never get to see much of Booker; we experience everything that happens through his eyes. Just as in Half Life, this helps create a believable flow to the events of the story and keeps us immersed in the tale. Unlike Gordon Freeman, however, Booker speaks. Often. That in and of itself wouldn't be notable except that it is so wonderfully executed here. Since we never see Booker, there isn't a chance for him to give a visual performance; the entire strength of his character is conveyed through his dialogue. The fact that it is done so vividly and authentically is a testament to the outstanding writing and vocal performance. Since the game takes control fairly sparingly, much of the dialogue happens during gameplay, organically flowing from the actions the player performs. It's a wonderful approach that gives more context and narrative value Booker's actions. Of course, he's only half the heart of the story. The other half belongs to Elizabeth.

Far more than a run-of-the-mill AI escort, the character of Elizabeth is remarkable to behold. From the moment you meet her she'll be examining the environment, making comments and questioning your actions. She's a constant source of narrative development; her interaction with Booker and the way their relationship evolves throughout the game is possibly the most important aspect of the story. The way that relationship is handled during the game is absolutely brilliant. For starters, it's pretty evident that Elizabeth was designed with the intent of being less aggravating than AI partners tend to become. She can't die, for one thing. That already eliminates the majority of causes to hate your AI companion (there's probably nothing more annoying than having to reload a game because an AI sidekick died doing something stupid). If that wasn't enough, Elizabeth was also made to be useful; she will occasionally toss you supplies and ammo during a firefight, as well as locate strategic tools you can use to your advantage. These mechanics don't serve only a gameplay-related function, but they narratively help assert the notion that these two characters become a strong team. But even more engaging are the character-driven moments that happen incidentally, while simply exploring parts of the city. This type of character-building doesn't happen much in games. It's a technique that breathes life to the game's characters and gives them a strong feeling of authenticity. Bioshock Infinite executes it flawlessly.

You'll notice I haven't spoken much of the actual storyline. That's intentional. I can't really go into it much without spoiling it. However, I can say that, true to Bioshock form, it's full of twists and turns, and will have you scratching your head long after you've played through it. Yet even disregarding the complex plot and symbolism, the core of Booker and Elizabeth's journey would be enough for me. What we have here overall, as well as in the previous games of the series, is a story that respects its audience and their capacity to comprehend big ideas. For all of these, Bioshock Infinite has become my favorite game of the series and it has earned the second place on my list.

And now we finally reach my favorite story of 2013:

1. The Last of Us

I suppose this doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who has played this game. If there is one game on this list that deserves a full story-post it's this one. There's simply so much to say about it. For now I'll try to be brief, since this post is already ridiculously late.

I don't like it when I give in to hyperbole, but in this case it's difficult to avoid since The Last of Us might actually be the best story I've ever experienced in a video game. Oh, I'm sure it has its flaws; things that could be fixed, writing that could be improved upon. Honestly, though, you could say that about anything. Regardless, The Last of Us has come the closest to delivering what I think is the optimal narrative experience.

The thing is that The Last of Us just gets everything right. Everything that has to do with the game; the level design, the player choices, the challenges - they are fantastic. The AI is actually one of the best I've played against. It proves to be challenging but completely beatable, if you play right. But a superb gaming experience is just the tip of the iceberg.

And now we come to the meat of it; the actual story. It's hard to talk about without revealing anything, because so much of what makes it amazing is in its characters, its setting and its wonderful plot. but I guess it should be enough to say just how impressed I am by the quality of all of these. This is a real plot, people. This isn't a series of missions strung together with a boss at the end. This plot is character-driven, multilayered, and designed to perfection. Naughty Dog really do have a knack for bringing life to their characters not only through the intricately woven cutscenes but during actual gameplay as well. The atmosphere seeps through to every facet of the game itself, and into everything you do.

It's not that it just works well on the technical level, either. We've seen games like this; games that have engaging gameplay, good writing, compelling characters and a great atmosphere. They aren't easy to create, of course, but we have seen the likes of them before. Games have mastered presentation. But in The Last of Us, all these are brought together to create a deep, rich and honest-to-god narrative. These characters don't just have good written dialogue; they are themselves written well. They have motivations, goals, faults. The story revolves around them. This. This altogether, is not something we see very often, and surely not something we see done so well.

I really could write a whole lot more but I have to end somewhere. For making an amazing game, merged beautifully with an even more amazing story, The Last of Us This is my top choice for narrative-led games in 2013. And with the PS4 version coming out this year, it might just well take my top spot for 2014, as well.