So, I play a lot of games. I wanted to make a list of the best games I played this year, mainly because this year was one of the best gaming years I remember. One note before I start is that I work in the industry, namely at DICE in Stockholm, which is a part of EA and that I was credited on games this year (Medal of Honor: Warfighter and Battlefield Premium). I’ll leave EA games out of this mix because of that. However this was not the year of the big name publisher. This was the year of indie games and smaller studios doing excellent stuff. We’ll take this wave back next year for sure! Also of note is that I haven’t played some games or played enough of them to evaluate….namely Mark of the Ninja, Far Cry 3, Endless Swan, Halo 4 and Black Ops II.
10. Super Hexagon
Terry Cavanagh made the perfect mobile game. Extremely difficult but you can still get 50 or so satisfying games in on a short bus ride. Awesome music.
I loved Machinarium but I loved Botanicula more! I don’t know why it works, it’s so childish in its humour but it’s so well crafted that it comes together in a feelgood explosion. Great art style and great music.
8. Dear Esther
An interactive poem? I was ready to put Dear Esther in its place when I started playing. I thought before hand I had figured out exactly what it was, but I was wrong. What I got was 2 hours of some of the smartest narrative I’ve ever seen in gaming. Dear Esther really evolved gaming to another place by introducing something new.
7. Endless Space
I like 4X games but there hasn’t been a space one that really rivals Civilization. Sure GalCiv does it well, but Endless Space does it in a way that makes the genre very accessible. It’s basically the Master of Orion III we all wanted.
A perfect example of designing a small scope for a game and sticking to that vision. FTL works because the scope is small in a way that makes it take 1 minute to learn but hours to master. I’ve always wanted a game where I can manage my own spaceship on a great trek through the universe. FTL didn’t do the long term persistence but rather did 10-30 minute short games where you ended up with some epic stories of survival after each playthrough. Awesome music and art style!
5. Xcom: Enemy Unknown
Finally the best PC game of all time got its proper sequel. Xcom got everything right and was accessible while doing it. Best part was how attached you would get to your squad. I still can’t imagine playing through that game without “Nightmare”, my pretty blonde alien killing sniper heroine.
Thief 2 was until this year my high watermark for stealth games. Dishonored was basically the evolution of Thief 2…with magic! I loved the dark steampunk setting and I loved that you could go through the whole game without any killing. The special abilities were so fun to play with. I hope the Thief 4 team is taking notes….and really the Assassins Creed team should to.
The most perfect 2-3 hours of gaming you will ever find. Everything about it was gorgeous and everyone with even just a passing interest in gaming should play it. It’s kinda amazing that there were games this year I felt were better..
Fez is a gorgeous 2D game. The most interesting thing about it are its exploration (there are no enemies) and the fact that its optional puzzles are really quite different, breaking the 4th wall between the game world and the actual world on occasions. This game was an obsession for cryptography fans and the internet had to attack it with all its brainpower in the end to complete the last puzzles, but it still took time. Also it was just a soothing and fun experience. I still haven’t gone beyond the 32 cubes into total craziness but I absolutely plan to. The soundtrack sounded like 8-Bit Boards of Canada and was just as good as that description implies.
1. Hotline Miami
Nothing about Hotline Miami seen from the outside seemed like it was for me. It looked a hyper violent and vile mess of a game. Yet there was no game this year I obsessed over as much as this one and the adrenalin rush it gave was something that is very rare in gaming. Almost a puzzle game by nature and a very difficult game…but never unfair because it all felt like it was by design. The gameplay was great but it wouldn’t work as well without the amazing music and great story. It was more than a little inspired by the movie Drive in theme and tone and it had a dark and disturbed vision it carried out flawlessly. No game this year made me get so lost in it as Hotline Miami and for the 10 hours it took me to finish it I was absolutely obsessed with it. Also in a year of amazing gaming soundtracks (Fez, FTL, Super Hexagon, Dear Esther) the Hotline Miami soundtrack was the best one. Play it!
So what is it about Zelda, A Link to the Past? This game is by far my favorite old-school console game and in my opinion the best game Nintendo has ever done. I keep coming back to it. Whenever I become jaded with games or think I’ve outgrown Nintendo then it’s a good reminder to pick this game up again to realize it’s not that…it’s just that Nintendo aren’t making games like this anymore (with the exception of Super Mario Galaxy). Well actually most games aren’t close to this, with the most recent exception being Dark Souls, which for me is basically this game but darker, more complex and tougher.
For me Link to the Past does everything right. It has great mechanics and a great setting, freedom of exploration, great art and music… and surprising twists and turns. It’s not nostalgia for me, since I discovered this game around 2000, when I was in my twenties…the game is just plain great and expertly designed and it really shows all it’s qualities right away…in the first dungeon:
It starts dark. The game is surprisingly dark to begin with, which is something Nintendo seem to have forgotten. You hear a desperate cry for help in your sleep. The weather is terrible and your guardian (father, uncle..who knows?) goes out on an errand. You are left alone. After you wake up you decide to venture outside into the rain…
It’s raining and it’s dark. There’s a thunderstorm. No sign of your guardian. You walk around but there is danger everywhere. Eventually you find a heavily guarded castle and sneak in through a hole in the ground.
You find your guardian. Seems like he has met with the palace guards. He also meets with his death. Seems like he was on a quest to free princess Zelda from something evil. If this was a movie this would be the grimmest beginning…however it’s a pretty 2D video game which tones it down a bit. You take his sword after he passes away and continue his quest.
You run around killing palace guards in your search for Zelda. This is one tough kid! Eventually you find her locked away in the deepest dungeon. After killing her morning star wielding guard you free her. Now you have the task of keeping her safe. She knows the way to freedom…
However this isn’t an easy route. You stumble through grim darkness with only a lantern to help you. There’s snakes and spiders hidden in the darkness. Your only way is to find torches and light them, but they usually go out very quickly. In the end however you reach freedom…
You are a hero! And to really underline that as soon as you go outside this heroic theme starts and follows you around while you explore the world: (until you reach the darkworld that is… which has an equally memorable overworld theme)
And now I think I’m just going to finish this game again. It’s like my warm cup of gaming cocoa 🙂 There’s a huge world to explore yet again, secrets to find, gadgets to use and monsters to kill!
So, Proteus? Described as an ambient exploration experience. Sounds like a weird mixture of things I love so I had to try it.
Turns out that description wasn’t wrong. Basically you open your eyes and discover you are standing in an ocean. In the distance is an island. This is where things become really strange…and just keep on being strange. It’s a dreamlike and sometimes really gorgeous experience. I wouldn’t call it amazing but it does come damn close through fleeting moments…for instance when a big bass sound rumbles over the world and the trees start to shake their leaves as a consequence. In this world the world and the ambient music are one and your travel through it guides the music.
Here’s a trailer:
I was going to blog about my experience with the game in detail but I just ended up taking a lot of photos, because that’s the only thing you can do..walk around and take photos. Here are some from my walks:
You can buy Proteus at http://www.visitproteus.com/. Supporting crazy indie developers gives you a warm feeling in your tummy so go ahead and get it if the description above interests you. Also Notch loves it and we all love Notch right? Available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
This post is intended to highlight great modern day video game music for anyone interested in music. Prior video game knowledge not required!
Originality in big budget commercial video games has steadily lowered in the last decade but that trend has been offset by an explosion of independent games that started around 5 years ago. It is now a huge burst of creative energy with expertly designed independent video games released in numbers every month. This has gone hand in hand with the quality of music in video games being raised exponentially in the same period. Not all games that have great music are independent…the overall quality has been raised throughout the industry, but the roots of the change are quite obviously located in the independent scene. Many recent soundtracks for games I would count along with some of my favorite music albums from the last few years….in any genre. That is why I wanted to highlight a few of my favorites in a series of blog posts with 3 great modern day video game soundtracks from the last 5 years being highlighted in each post.
I’ll start with 3 of the more famous indie games: Braid, Fez and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. Each one of these has won multiple awards and had scores in the 9’s and 10’s almost universally. I can personally say that each of these games are absolutely amazing, with Fez being the personal favorite…but all of them are worth buying and each one provides a very unique and original experience not found anywhere else. You can get Braid on Steam or Xbox live arcade, Fez on Xbox live arcade and S&S on iTunes or Steam. You can also purchase the soundtracks for each from various outlets, although I recommend going straight to the source websites since it’s usually the cheapest option for you and best option for the musician. Each one of these games has really good music and none of them sound even remotely alike.
Braid is a gorgeous 2d game about regret using innovative time manipulation mechanics. Its presentation is really first class and the music is no exception. Unlike many other games there are very little electronic sounds in this soundtrack, if any. Here the music wasn’t made for the game but rather picked from music libraries. That doesn’t hurt the overall quality one bit because there’s a uniquely distinct and sophisticated feeling surrounding it.
Fez is another gorgeous 2D game. It’s a very original game with a great world spinning mechanic. The most interesting thing about it are its exploration (there are no enemies) and the fact that its optional puzzles are really quite different, breaking the 4th wall between the game world and the actual world on occasions. This game was an obsession for cryptography fans and the internet had to attack it with all its brainpower in the end to complete the last puzzles, but it still took time.
The best thing about the soundtrack is that it follows its old-school pixel graphics with a similarly old school soundtrack…however with a very modern twist, similar to the game itself. The game designer had one outline for the musician…make it sound like 8-bit Vangelis. In some ways that was a success but I personally think it sounds most like Boards of Canada, one of my all time favorite bands.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
S:S&S EP is a very different game. It doesn’t follow any game design tropes and its story and world are dreamlike. It’s hard to describe and it really just has to be played . On the iPad it absolutely shines. Its soundtrack is in my opinion one if its best features. Even though it uses predominantly samples and electronic sound it doesn’t feel mechanical, but rather very organic. It’s also a huge part of the narrative of the game.
So, let’s just start this blog off. For the last year I have pretty much told anyone that is willingly (or unwillingly) ready to listen that Dark Souls is in fact my new “favorite game of all times”™
What is Dark Souls?
Dark Souls is a Japanese game by cult developer From Software and it’s a spiritual successor to their game Demon’s Souls. It takes place in a dream-like and dark fantasy universe. From Wikipedia: “Dark Souls has a minimalistic plot. Events and their significance are often implicit and left to player interpretation rather than fully shown or explained. Much of the story and lore of the world is given to the player through dialogue from characters within the world, item descriptions, or the scarce cutscenes. It is up to the player to put the pieces together.” You start out as undead who hasn’t become fully undead and you have no idea why you are in an undead asylum nor who you are….
Why do I love it? There are a few reasons.
The world and you
The game doesn’t give you much of a direction where you are going nor what you are supposed to do. You are thrown into a very hostile environment and everything about your situation and the world you inhabit is a complete mystery. You soon discover that this world is also extremely tough and brutal. Just around the corner are enemies who can kill you in two hits so you better learn quickly how to defend yourself. The world is so hostile that you never even have to attack first…everything int it is out to kill you as efficiently and quickly as possible. You’d better find a weapon and shield quickly. It’s this sense of danger and urgency that follows you throughout the game. You want to survive and you sure as hell want to beat your enemies. You feel afraid going into new areas and you never run around a corner. There are moments in the game where I have watched an enemy from a far for a while with a sigh because I know that I will soon have to kill him to advance and I know that it’s going to be a challenge. Still you feel the need to charge on…because you need to survive. Arguably many other games have fights and many games are tough…however this is the first time for me that this sense of danger has jumped out of the screen like this and set itself firmly in my left brain hemisphere. It’s like the game has a link straight into your brain setting of some primal instincts of being hunted.
The world is also seamless and huge. However it’s not disjointed. Every single cliff, town, tree, lake, underground cavern or even underground city is meticulously designed. It feels like a world that was designed with a purpose and it feels like a world that was lived in but has been broken down. There are no fillers here…every turn gives you either a sense of danger or a sense of complete wonder and surprise. You don’t have to go anywhere and no one tells you where to go. You will just have to find your path yourself and somehow you end up finding the best paths. The game design lesson here is that there is no reason to hold your hand nor divide things into arbitrary levels. The player can be trusted for making his own way and it’s this path of discovery which I love the most about this game. I felt complete and exhilirating surprise so many times throughout my journey in the game and I specifically remember noticeably gasping at that first visit to Anor Londo.
The world and the other players
In your adventure you are alone….for the most part. It’s a dark world full of danger, but there are moments of hope. This is where Dark Souls shines. Scattered throughout the world are bonfires. These serve as save points in your journey. If you die you will go to the last bonfire you rested at but if you choose to sit at a bonfire the whole world resets around you and all enemies respawn at their locations. This is both a blessing and a curse in many ways. However what I liked most about the bonfires is that this is one of the few times you see friendly faces. Other players playing the game at the same time as you appear as ghostly apparations…resting like you from this weary journey. You can’t talk to them but it’s always a somber and calming moment seeing another weary traveler resting his bones
There is a way however that you can communicate with the other players. At any point in the world you can leave a message on the ground which randomly (?) selected other players will be able to read. In your own world there are messages scattered throughout. These messages are constructed through a limited set of words at your disposal. You can almost always count on the rare spots that contain calming sunshine will have the ever present “Praise the Sun!” message. You can also count on the darker and difficult spots having the more despairing messages “I can’t take this” or “Despair ahead”. Sometimes these messages are also very helpful, like for instance “Try using fire” before a very tough monster…or the a little less specificic “Try beating to a pulp”. These messages in total give you the sense of all of us as a collective working together to beat this beast of a gameworld. It’s like a collective cry of despair and hope but somehow they help us on our journey. We are not alone in this.
The last possible player interaction is also the scariest. In your journey you can choose to be either undead or human. To become human you use a rare “Soul” resource that drops from certain enemies. Being human has its clear advantages…you get more items from enemies. However this leads to other players being able to invade your world…and their purpose is not to give you complimentary hugs. They are after your soul and usually just make a beeline for your throat. This is a completely optional path to take, but let me tell you…beating a well-equipped player that has invaded your world to kill you is a fist pumping, shout out loud, hands in the air kind of moment! This added danger and reward is really worth it…if you feel up to it.
‘The world and how you beat it
Lastly I love the mechanics of the game. Combat overall feels very easy to control but still has extreme depth. You can really choose your path any way you like and are not locked in from the beginning to some arbitrary class. Maybe you just like to kill with a big sword and that’s just fine. Maybe you like to prance around in your underwear and just backstab foes. Or maybe you like to look cool and throw chaos fireballs in the face (my personal preference). Similar to your path in the world the way you build your character is very much up to you. They way you fight and the way you defend is very much up to you. The great thing about Dark Souls is that whichever path you choose it’s always seamless and simple to control but with a lot of depth. Shielding from an attack becomes an instinct and pressing the button to do it isn’t something you even think about. It’s a very fluid and free experience. This is a very rare thing in games, outside of the best Nintendo games like Super Mario Galaxy for instance. This combat model is the best I’ve seen…and I still wouldn’t count it as the best feature of the game (for me it’s the exploration and wonder). All in all it adds to the whole experience. Here’s an example PVP match that shows off some elements of the combat.
All in all Dark Souls is a game tailor made for me. It’s a huge world to explore and it instills a sense of wonder and exploration. It also instills a sense of dread and is brutally difficult in parts. It’s a highly rewarding experience as a consequence. However it’s not for everyone. Its difficulty can be a hindrance to many and it took me almost a 100 hours to complete due to the size of it’s world. However if you feel up to it and like even just the idea of what I’ve listed here then by all means give it a go! But before you embark..”Prepare to Die”!