Ahh, 2011. The year in which we were supposed to have the Rapture (twice), the year of the Arab Spring, of Occupy, of the Whipping Judge and Pepper Spray Cop. The year of Steerpike’s Neglecting To Get His Carpets Shampooed, Even Though They Need It. The year of the release of Titus Awakes, which I haven’t finished but which probably doesn’t include my namesake since he died in Titus Groan. The year Brandon, Amanda, Bearwhale, and Ravious joined us as contributors. The year I gained weight, and the year I played games.
As it happens, all the games I rank below came out in 2011, though that’s not a rule. Our objective is to tell you about the games that we’ll remember most from 2011, whether they shipped that year or a decade before. And we’re each taking it in our stride – ranking, rambling, sorting. There are no rules. These are the ones that stick out in my mind. Some made me irresponsibly happy. Others made me inconceivably sad. I leave the rest to you, because I love you all, and I wish you a glorious 2012. If the world doesn’t end in December, be sure we’ll return with that year’s batch.
Let’s begin the countdown!
I was especially intrigued by Brandon’s comments about Uncharted 3, since I haven’t finished it yet and include it on my list largely because though I’ve only had the game since Christmas, it’s slurped up a disproportionate amount of my time. Paraphrased, he said that Uncharted 3 took the near-perfect formula of its predecessor, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and… didn’t follow it.
…especially in the case of Naughty Dog’s pulp adventure, I stare and stare and cannot figure out what made them think that certain design decisions were good ones.
At Chapter 14-ish, I’ve found mostly delight in Naughty Dog’s latest. The humor is still there; the decision to have actual, fit actors deliver their lines while doing the mocap remains one of the most effective and cinematic ways to bring a subtletly of mise en scene not expressed in other games. The Uncharted games are classic romps, like eighties action romcoms. Writer/director Amy Hennig has, to my mind, done it again with this installment, deftly weaving in the crucial but largely unspoken surrogate father/son bond between Victor Sullivan and Nathan Drake himself. They and the others are characters you believe in. Being, as I said, unfinished, my chief worry – maybes unfair to Hennig since she hasn’t stumbled yet in three games – is that something’s going to happen in this relationship that’s out of character for one or the other.
Uncharted is like a tentpole for the concept of holiday blockbuster releases. Since the beginning of the series it’s been a PS3 killer app, each new arrival marked by a level of froth only a few steps down from what you see during a Gears launch. With affordable double packs of the first two games available, PS3 owners who haven’t jumped on this (sometimes speeding through Siberia) train owe it to themselves to do so. Naughty Dog continues to hone its narrative skills, its puzzle design, even the combat sequences – an uproar about changes to gun physics in the early stages of Uncharted 3’s release is totally lost on me; the guns work like they always have. And Naughty Dog knows what it means to craft an over the top, globetrotting action comedy – sun-drenched Arab streets, creaking freighter graveyards, spider-infested catacombs, and of course devious clockwork puzzles that inexplicably still work 500 years after their construction.
I sure hope I don’t get sucker-punched by some awful design move late in the game, because so far, Uncharted 3 gives me a lot to love and almost nothing to hate.
Inscrutable French designer Eric Chahi came out of a pretty lengthy hiatus (his last game was 1998’s Heart of Darkness) to deliver a hypnotic god-puzzler that’s drawn comparisons to many other games but really stands on its own. First released as an XBLA indie, From Dust suffered a rather rocky PC launch and is now also available on PSN.
The Tribe came into being. They wore masks. They made music with shells and horns. But they did not know who they were. Communal and helpless before a raging environment, the Tribe seeks its own memory, on a journey of settlement and exploration that grants you the divine powers necessary to see them through a hostile world.
And it’s the world itself that’s hostile – no lions or tigers or bears; it’s lava floes and tsunami, raging storms, unquiet earth. The Tribe needs you for the big-picture management of getting them where they want to go, while they themselves handle the day-to-day activities. And as a deity, you’re not really interested in them on a granular level. Yours is the power to lower oceans or raise volcanoes, part seas and paint deserts. The Tribe needs you but you need them only tangentially.
It’s mesmerizing just to watch the settlements grow, to watch jungle flora inexorably creep outward from fertile land as individual Tribespeople dance their tribal dances and use brightly painted kites to send primitive information from settlement to settlement. From Dust is mostly a puzzle game, which turned off a large-ish faction of players who’d thought it would be more like Populous or even Black & White. While it surely bears resemblance to those titles, it is its own experience in so many ways. The maybe five hours you’ll spend with From Dust are rhythmic and rewarding. It’s a soothing game to play. Even disasters seem to happen in slow motion.
Chahi seems like a friendly fellow, not one of those grouchy reclusive Salinger-esque artists. I don’t know how From Dust did compared to its budget, but I do hope he stays in the industry. His ideas have never been so wild that they’d actively turn people off, and he makes games that can move us and make us think. There’s more we could see from him. If you don’t own From Dust, and you like unique puzzlers, shell out. You won’t regret it.
Canada’s indie game developer-cum-fantastic-writer Christine Love sprang this one on us midyear: a visual-novel style game designed to make you feel uncomfortable. It could just have easily been called V for Voyeur, but instead Love’s title reminds us that we’re outsiders looking into the world of don’t take it personally. At the time I was mesmerized by how awkward, embarrassed, empowered, and dirty-in-a-clean-way it made me feel. Thinking about it over these past months I’ve come to appreciate it more and more as a really intelligent essay on the fact that our worlds are changing, maybe faster than we’re ready for, but changing all the same.
don’t take it personally has maybe 20 decision points throughout, when you – nominally playing as John Rook, a late-thirties crisis addict who takes a job teaching literature at a swanky Toronto private school in the near future – are actually invited to make decisions. The rest of the time you’re reading, or, more creepily, watching. All the students at the school use a social network similar to Facebook, and you’ve got access to everything, even their most private communications.
That Rook is a deeply flawed man, and that he is a man, are both key components of the metanarrative. Christine Love’s work is fearlessly driven. She writes masterfully about gay relationships, straight relationships, the confusion of love, and the societal moirés we’ve applied to all kinds. don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story is about secrets, about romance, about sex, about shame, about pride, and about communication. While I don’t think Love would ever waste her time on such an obvious message, while playing don’t take it personally I also came to realize what’s wrong with our education system today: namely, that kids capable of processing information much faster than their forebears are still being bored by the same lecture-style approach. Rather than changing how we teach, we’re medicating the kids to slow them down to our primitive level.
don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story is a free download, and I’m eager (I will even pay, if she charges) for Love’s next work. Imagine a Which-Way book that makes you feel skeezy in an incredibly well-written way, and you’ve got the beginnings of what this game feels like to play.
Let me show you a good time: it’s called Bulletstorm. It’s everything that a beautiful monster should be. It’s the number scrawled in Sharpie on the lid of a toilet tank in a shithole pub in a strip mall. It’s crazy and funny and stupid and mean and lovable and it will make you laugh, unless of course your heart is stone or your head is mush. It’s offensive. It’s sexist. It’s disgusting. It’s classic. I love it. I loved every little minute of it. Like the Uncharted games it masters the art of action comedy while bringing a ton of mechanical innovation to the shooter genre. The Skillshot system which lies at the core of Bulletstorm’s theatre-of-the-absurd combat adds a mile of depth to a game that sells itself on shallowness – and thus like an Escher painting you find Z-space inside something that should be flat. The script’s cologne offers subtle saffron overtones of Psychonauts peppered liberally by a nose of 1930s-slapstick-meets-Harold-and-Kumar. People Can Fly gave us the ruminative and relentlessly bleak Painkiller, then turned around, Ice-Pick Lodge style and effortlessly tossed off a gut-busting splatter comedy the likes of which many will hate. And to those many I say, get over yourself.
Plus of course the character of Trishka Novak, who got her share of attention during the game’s cycle for a variety of reasons. Most reported upon was the fact that Bulletstorm’s producer Tanya Jessen – who’s about as talented and well-placed as anyone in this business – insisted that for once a female character be well proportioned and properly presented, going so far as to overrule the game’s lead designer. The result? A character who’s as sexy and ambiguous as she is awesome; smarter than the protagonists, tougher than the enemies, and very very human. Trishka reminds me of Eda from (geek alert) Rei Hiroe’s Black Lagoon series. Eda is more dangerous than Revy, more cosmopolitan than Rock, more connected than Miss Balalaika, but everyone thinks of her as nothing more than (her words) “the God-damned nun from the Ripoff Church.” Their mistake. Similarly those who underestimate or disregard Trishka find themselves at her mercy.
It breaks my heart that Bulletstorm wasn’t a moneymaker. It deserved to be, far more than the Modern Warfare crowd. There’s really nothing wrong with the game. Sure, it may not be your cup of tea, but if it’s not you shouldn’t be judging it. Me? It’s been a long time since I played a game that made me so purely happy. Every instant of it, from the outrageously cartoonish gunplay to the hilariously asinine humor, was perfect. I doubt there’ll be a sequel, but if there is, I can only offer one piece of advice: don’t change a damned thing. You got it right the first time.
Imagine being fisted by joy, and you’ve got Bulletstorm.
If Bulletstorm brings joy, Dark Souls brings only pain.
“What’s your game of the year so far?” asked Pete. “Don’t say Dark Souls.”
It was only, like, October 8 when he asked this, and Dark Souls had only been out for a few days. I wasn’t yet prepared to call it game of the year. So I told him the truth: “So far? Bulletstorm.”
“Rapist,” he said. (FOX News warned us that Bulletstorm would make you rape people, though I’m on my third playthrough and haven’t raped anyone yet).
Anyway, it’s now been months, and while Bulletstorm holds a place in my heart, the winner is Dark Souls. I’ve spent more time playing this game, more time thinking about this game, and more time cursing this game than I have any other game this year… possibly more than all other games I’ve played this year combined. And I’m not even halfway through. As I type this I’ve been distracted by the delightful Uncharted 3, but I’m inching my way through Sen’s Fortress and I’ll be back sooner rather than later.
The aforementioned Pete believes that people only claim to like the Souls games so they can appear “hardcore.” You know, like, if you admit that you don’t like them, other people will accuse you of not being a true gamer. Pete doesn’t like the Souls games.
Let’s talk about Pete for a minute.
Pete hasn’t played Portal or Portal 2.
Pete is unnecessarily tall. Like 6’4”. That’s like wearing high heels on a trampoline.
Pete didn’t own a console until I GAVE HIM ONE, bequeathing my spare 360 on him after my original came back from its fifth visit to the Red Ring Store.
Pete’s dog is batshit crazy. Pete also refuses to eat anything smarter than his dog, which limits him not just to fruits and vegetables, but to specific, mind-bogglingly dumb fruits and vegetables, like persimmons.
Tell me, does Pete sound like someone to whom you should listen? I didn’t think so.
I’ve known Pete for 20 years, and I can say with authority that he’s a great big stupid stupid-head. Everyone else thinks the Souls games are awesome.
Still, Dark Souls is hard and beautiful, and cruel, and cold, and I can understand why people wouldn’t like it. But no one (not even Pete, he admitted it) can object to its beauty, its flow, its hypnotic whorls of challenge. Dark Souls makes you know yourself. Even moreso than its predecessor Demon’s Souls, a game I revere, this masterpiece by Japan’s From Software is a culmination of sorts, a game with complete self-confidence, one that almost never missteps, but keeps you in its thrall until it chooses to let you go.
The innovative multiplayer capabilities from Demon’s Souls are retained and improved, and while the game is often more spiteful it’s not truly more difficult. So many words have been written about these games that I find myself at a loss to come up with new ones (itself a shock); I risk actually plagiarizing because I feel others more qualified than I have written so much and so well, and in the same baffled tone. Why do we like these games? Everything about them should be a turn-off, except maybe their horrific beauty. And yet I find myself inexpressibly drawn to Dark Souls, wanting to stop writing and start playing.
It has something to do with the game’s intentional or unintentional philosophical foundations. Joseph Campbell’s ignorant cockdrivel is proven to be that in Dark Souls, all those millions of tripe words he wrote about what it is to be a hero dashed against solid proof that his entire theory is nothing but bigoted charlatanism. There’s no meeting the parents’ ghosts or visiting the underworld in Dark Souls; everyone’s a ghost and the universe is the underworld. You’re doomed. You have no chance. In fact, you’re already dead. Each inch is as hard-won as it is worthless. Progress means nothing as failure looms dominant like an approaching storm cloud promising a deluge. For all this, you’d think gamers would have to make themselves like Dark Souls, but the like comes on as naturally as night follows day. It’s existentially brutal, never missing an opportunity to remind you that you are small and weak and unable and unsuitable and unworthy and unwelcome and hopeless, and you lap it up.
Other games entertain; Dark Souls tells you who you are.
Nothing wrong with those games, not by a damn sight. Indeed, they’re more “perfect,” in some ways, than those I mention above. But 2011 was also a transformative year for me. I realized I’m not the kind of gamer I once was. Am I thrilled with that? Fuck no. I miss the kind of gamer I was. I miss being a pajama-wearing, 16-hours-playing ludophile. And while I am still in some ways all of those things, I’m found myself drifting from Skyrim, and I still have my Eleventh Colossus problem with Portal 2. There was nothing wrong with them… just something wrong with me.
But perhaps most relevantly I came to understand that rosy-colored hindsight will always adjust us. Ask me in three years what games I remember most from 2011 and I’d probably give you different answers. Gaming-wise, the epiphany I reached in 2011 is that everything changes, even games of the year. And it’s okay to be okay with that.
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