Gamasutra's Best Of 2007By Simon Carless,Brandon Boyer,Christian Nutt,Leigh Alexander
Here it is: Gamasutra wraps up 2007 in a compilation of all of the lists we've been doing over the course of the past two weeks. Visiting such important topics as the Top Developer, Most Poignant Moment, and Top Trends, this offers the editorial staff's (hopefully) educated and personal take on the year as it draws to a close.
In addition, after publishing #10 to #2 of our Top 10 Game list recently, we finish things off by revealing our pick for top video game of the year. We also take a look at what you thought on our various countdowns, by including comments made upon the first publishing of many of these stories.
Top 5 Downloadable Games
First up, we take a look at the top 5 downloadable console games released this year, from Everyday Shooter through Pac-Man CE. The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2007's calendar year to date.
5. PixelJunk Racers (Q-Games, PlayStation 3)
The folks at the Kyoto-based
Q-Games (Star Fox Command), led by former Argonaut coder Dylan
Cuthbert, have been trying to take things back to the '80s with simple,
iterative self-funded downloadable titles for the PlayStation 3.
Racers is the first
of these, and it's intentionally incredibly simple - just acceleration
and lane changing needed, slot car style. Perhaps because of this, it's
relaxing and addictive all at once, and bodes well for further titles
in the PixelJunk series for PSN coming soon.
4. Jetpac Refueled (Rare, Xbox 360)
For those who grew up in Europe in the 1980s and remember the original Jetpac, this enhanced remake is even more enticing - but even for those who don't, the gameplay is beguiling.
It's particularly notable that the gravitational physics behind the Joust-style thrusting, transplanted wholesale from the Stampers' 1983 Ultimate Play The Game original -- the first ever title from the now-departed Rare founders -- work just as well almost 25 years later.
3. Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, PlayStation 3)
A gloriously abstract shooter that originally won multiple prizes at the Independent Games Festival this year (Disclaimer: original writer Simon Carless is IGF Chairman), Jon Mak's title is particularly enjoyable because of its careful blend of strategy, stylish visuals, and action-generated music.
In addition, the concept of radically changing gameplay and look on a level by level basis -- something that Mak has compared to a music album -- is particularly progressive as a concept. It's also nice to see high scores as a success arbiter returning in such a prominent manner.
2. flOw (ThatGameCompany, PlayStation 3)
One of the games released this year that is least like a... game, the depth-based eating/growing experience that is flOw had already been well-tested in Flash by creator Jenova Chen and his associates.
The reason that flOw works so well is because of its serene experience, carefully basic motion controls, and simply understandable game mechanics. Even the state of navigating the game is relaxing. The fact that such an organic-feeling experience had an explicit end is sad, though -- algorithmically generated levels next time?
1. Pac-Man Championship Edition (Namco Bandai, Xbox 360)
The original Pac-Man is simply one of the best games ever created. And, in this world of enhanced remakes, the Japanese developers at Namco Bandai worked with Pac-Man's father Toru Iwatani and created something incredibly special - a remake that improves on the original.
With all the flavor and excitement of the original, the multiple new modes - many of them with explicit time limits and related high scores - layered even smarter strategic gameplay upon the peerless original. And with smart art direction, the title looks amazing in HD. Tremendous.
Jim McGinley: "What
an odd list. I'll agree with Everyday Shooter, but the rest?"
Anonymous: "I think Space Giraffe (XBLA) is at least worth a mention. It is an absolutely gorgeous new IP with such a rich/deep gameplay for anyone who is willing to learn by playing."
Oliver Snyders: "Space Giraffe is exactly the kind of game indies shouldn't make -- it's caught in the 'complexity VS simplicity' conundrum of the days of yore with the visual confusion that is enough to alarm even hardcore players, let alone casuals."
Top 5 Most Affecting Characters
The end of the year tends to be a time of reflection, and it's been said that this is one of gaming's most prolific -- if not its best -- years yet. 2007 has seen all kinds of evolutions on the experience of gaming, and while we perhaps haven't hit yet on that elusive formula for true emotional engagement, this year's offering feels a lot like nudging up against the boundary of everything we've previously believed games are capable of being, in terms of the ways they can affect, immerse and even permanently change us.
As the industry struggled to find that magic balance between story and gameplay, compelling characters took front and center. The reasons we play span from getting the opportunity to be a hero -- or a villain -- to experiencing a new perspective, a different ability, a new angle on the world, a new sense of a self that is not us.
It can be argued that the key
to a game experience is a lucky cocktail of features that make us love
-- or loathe -- our characters, that our final impression will hinge
on what that character was, or was not able to do. With that in mind,
we take a look this week at five of the year's most aberrant, interesting,
compelling and effective characters in games. Minor spoilers.
5. Frédéric Chopin (Tri-Crescendo's Eternal Sonata, Xbox 360)
Aside from some pretty colors and lovely music, as an RPG, Eternal Sonata was ordinary in most ways -- and that's the remarkable thing. That one of the most derivative genres in console gaming could so seamlessly integrate the life, history and musical work of a real-life composer in such a facile, cavalier way stands out as one of those examples of the kind of engagement that games can make possible.
After all, Frédéric Chopin
is not a fictional character, and the interpretation of his life as
a dream in a fantasy game encouraged more than a few RPG fans to learn
about him, maybe play a piano tune or two. And a character becomes much
more thought-provoking given the concept that everything you are playing
and seeing might just be a dream in the head of a man as he dies.
4. Kratos (Sony Santa Monica's God of War II, PS2)
The first God of War made a compelling anti-hero of the haunted soldier, and God of War II brings us Kratos as a God. With character conventions that could serve as a primer on Greek tragedy, the piquant conflict between Kratos' condition of power and his inner torment and powerlessness gives greater relevance to the almost artful, ravenous violence that characterizes the gameplay, with each brutal stroke conveying the desperation of bitterness and a quest for redemption and absolution that remains ever out of Kratos' reach.
3. Andrew Ryan (2K Boston's BioShock, PC/Xbox 360)
The architect of BioShock's Rapture serves as a cautionary example of the danger of pure philosophy. Though he's introduced as an antagonist, Ryan quickly becomes as sympathetic as he is so bitterly wrong -- despite his hard-line objectivist-influenced ideals that delineate artists from parasites, men from slaves, his greatest crime save for fatal arrogance was perhaps believing in humankind too much.
When the ensuing conflict forced
him to compromise, over time, his ideals, that uncompromising faith
in his beliefs were worth sacrificing his life to attempt to convey
to his son. BioShock's one weakness was that, as that son, the
player couldn't elect to adopt that philosophy to thwart his own abuse.
2. GLaDOS (Valve's Portal, PC/console)
The sleeper hit of the year, Portal, couldn't have brought phrases like "I'm doing science" into common parlance without GLaDOS, the decaying mainframe computer with a personality disorder. The relationship between GLaDOS and the protagonist has been called everything from passive-aggressive to maternal to an out-and-out feminist manifesto.
An antagonist who joyfully lies and then admits it, and then contradicts it again, who praises and then excoriates, threatens and begs, who sings you a song when you defeat her -- Portal is undoubtedly an excellent game, but GLaDOS is what really makes it happen.
1. You (You, Everywhere)
This year's trends showed us clearly that networked gaming is here to stay. Social virtual worlds inspired by game concepts did a tentative introductory dance around gaming itself, and social networking, communication and personalization quickly distinguished themselves as lynchpin features that suddenly no game can do without.
Blizzard's unshakable World of Warcraft nation seems invincible, Mass Effect allowed players to customize the protagonist to an unprecedented degree -- from every response he or she has, right down to the width of the eyes. Much was also made this year of choice in games as an absolute necessity -- the player wants to personalize the experience, see themselves reflected in it.
After chafing for years under conventions that forced film-like linear stories on players perhaps too hard, gamers have quickly declared that they're quite happy to make their own stories, to place their preferences and their own character concepts front-and-center in an open world. The audience has set a new bar for the year to come, as gamers begin demanding game experiences where their own will is the star.
Top 5 Overlooked Games
This time around, we take a
look at the top 5 most overlooked games released this year, from Nintendo's
green-minded Chibi-Robo Park Patrol to Harmonix's iPod debut
Phase. The games chosen -- all from titles released in North America
during 2007's calendar year -- enjoyed considerable cult enthusiasm,
but, for various reasons, failed to garner mass attention.
5. Chibi-Robo Park Patrol (Nintendo, DS)
outing was given a limited release that saw it -- in a somewhat tenuously
argued case -- sold near exclusively at Wal-Mart because of the company's
"strong environmental program and social giving campaign."
While exclusivity tactics are usually reserved for obscuring sub-par games, Park Patrol was an exception to the rule, and managed to pack big charm into its diminutive body, with a mostly non-combative and environmentally-minded ethos typical of the lineage of the staff at developer Skip.
Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground (XSEED, PSP)
XSEED generated a tiny amount of radio static with its localization of Dungeon Maker, but the game's bottom-up approach to dungeon delving -- where players themselves architect ever more elaborate surroundings to attract ever more powerful enemies -- made less of a dent than it deserved.
With a DS version already on Japanese shelves, a localized port might bring that handheld's wider and more adventurous audience to discover why the game was one of the most one-more-round addictive games of the year.
Earth Defense Force 2017 (D3, Xbox 360)
Cult and import enthusiasts won't have missed this one, but the first Stateside release of the Earth Defense Force series shows how even a low-budget concept -- carbon-copy insect models that have hardly progressed since the series' 2003 debut and appear to be ripped straight from stock art catalogs -- can have thrills and tension nearly as high-impact as the AAAs, if you play the numbers right.
The very definition of economic design -- choose two weapons from an arsenal of hundreds and face off against wave after tidal wave of enemies in any style you prefer -- the game pulls off a surprising amount of strategic flair for using so few tools out of the industry's box.
Its attempt at squad mechanics and the honestly disappointing lack of Live integration made it a bit of a step backward from the last in the series, but with any luck Sandlot's toiling away at a proper sequel as we speak, or D3 might find it in their hearts to support the still vital PlayStation 2 with a surprise release of the superior second.
2. Raw Danger! (Irem/Agetec, PS2)
Probably truly the most woefully
overlooked game on the list, Irem's follow-up to its original disastrous
adventure (also released by Agetec in the States as Disaster Report)
keys up not just the catastrophe, but the story-telling ambition as
well. Hidden beneath its b-movie cover and budget price is -- stay with
me here -- one of gaming's first great interwoven storyline equivalent
to films like Short Cuts, Magnolia, or Three Colors.
Played out over a tragic Christmas holiday, the game is broken into a series of episodes following the progression of a cast of characters including a wrongly-accused prisoner, a tormented teenage schoolgirl, and an amnesiac that has to literally piece together fragments of his former self (through a cleverly designed minigame), all of whom cross paths at key moments, each under the player's control from every angle.
With pitch-perfect comic relief
and a (albeit more lo-fi) suffering slow-crawl scene that pre-dates
Call of Duty 4's emotional climax by over a year, the game deserves
far more careful industry attention than it was ever given.
1. Phase (MTV/Harmonix, iPod)
At the top of the list, though, sits Harmonix's little-sister to Rock Band's big-daddy that, perhaps simply by nature of its platform and the timing of its release (just a few weeks before Rock Band took the stage), seems to have gone generally yet-unnoticed by the industry at large.
Even driven as it is without the human touch given to the rest of Harmonix's output, its note-chart algorithms show a near Turing-test-passing understanding of what drives music and connects it to a listener.
Anecdotal evidence, like the game somehow knowing to place an iPod wheel sweep in Feist's "My Moon My Man" at precisely the same point as her dramatic music video twirl, is just some of the reason that Harmonix has made it a thrill to plumb the depths of music collections.
Other recent music-based releases have shown just how confidently and skillfully the studio can execute on obvious ideas, with a result that's less about beat matching as it is rhythm-feeling.
Jeffk: "Dungeon Maker is my latest handheld-crack game (following lengthy, thumb-punishing addictions to Puzzle Quest and Planet Puzzle League). It really is Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing for people who would rather not be seen playing either of those games but who enjoy a little light grinding and quasi-meditative repetition -- your dungeon becomes a little Zen garden, but with bosses, loot drops, and tough interior-design choices."
Danielle: "Chibi Robo: Park Patrol is a DELIGHTFULLY CHARMING game. It's a pleasure to play and I've abandoned my AC:WW town to grow flowers. It's quite crazy how great this little game is."
Top 5 Trends
Picking out the five "best"
trends is pretty tough. Almost more than ranking games, judging the
positives and negatives of any of these trends is an exercise in subjectivity.
Some trends are good for business
but could easily be argued to stifle creativity. Some might have no
positive or negative effect, or fade away as fast as they arose. But
these trends all seem significant and compelling in their own way.
Here's the one that might be the most debated on whether it's good or not: consolidation. While it's not an innovation in business, the consolidations of 2007 were extremely significant -- chiefly BioWare and Pandemic being folded into Electronic Arts, and the announcement of Activision and Blizzard's merger. There were others, of course, and of no less significance to the players involved, no doubt.
When Gamasutra spoke with him,
BioWare's Ray Muzyka had nothing but positive things to say about the
merger with EA, his respect for its management team, and the promise
of a stronger future for the developer's creative drive under EA.
Of course, the Activision Blizzard merger, on the other hand, is being viewed chiefly from a financial perspective, which isn't to be ignored. Either way, these are significant moves that point towards an evolving future for the structure of the industry.
4. Catering to the Wii Audience
While there haven't been as many practical examples of this just yet as we might like -- Take 2's Carnival Games hit hard -- the fact is that 2007 seems to be the year developers really got a handle on the Wii and started to play to its strengths.
Developers are focusing on
creating games for the system that take advantage of its controls and
its audience -- which may be less interested in the sort of games that
developers are used to making and publishers are used to selling.
One of the major flaws with the Gamecube wasn't necessarily directly Nintendo's fault: publishers would port their PS2 games to the system, watch them sink in the marketplace, and then abandon ship. The massive success and innovative control of the Wii have forced everyone to rethink this strategy (for the most part.)
Perhaps most notably, Ubisoft
CEO Yves Guillemot's widely-reported statement that the company's Wii
games would have "Nintendo-like quality" acknowledges that
developers understand what they're up against. The metamorphosis of
Majesco into a publisher of casual games with a focus on the Wii and
DS -- to the point of commissioning original games from top minds in
the industry -- is another interesting reflection of this shift.
3. The Rise of the Shooter
If 2007 could be said to belong to any one genre, it's got to be the shooter, and it doesn't seem like this trend is ending anytime soon. Since Gears of War launched late last year and began to define the Xbox 360 experience, through to Halo 3's massive sales this year, we've experienced a boom in the genre.
Call of Duty 4 is another staggering success for the genre, one so huge it seems to have blotted out the light from the latest Medal of Honor. The Orange Box brought together Valve's best work in one convenient package; Lost Planet was perhaps the first credible (and successful) attempt from a Japanese developer to conquer the genre.
Mass Effect showed that
even RPG stalwarts BioWare felt the need to adopt the trappings of the
genre to appeal to the Xbox 360's hard-bitten core audience. And there
are plenty of other hits, and even more also-rans.
Next year shows no letup: Army of Two and Haze both stand out (as refugees from this year's onslaught) while Killzone 2 will be one of the most significant PS3 games of the year.
2. Indies Going Major
While the PlayStation Network
can't offer the same breadth of popular content as Xbox Live Arcade,
it has two of the most significant games released to the console download
market this year: Everyday Shooter and flOw.
Both originated outside of
the game development mainstream and gained big audiences based on their
quality. And for a game that's indie in a different way, Xbox Live Arcade
ponied (or is that llamaed?) up Space Giraffe, supporting the
fever dreams of iconoclastic English developer Jeff Minter. The evolution
of student indie Narbacular Drop into one of this year's most-praised
titles, Portal, is nothing short of heartwarming, really.
And the talent keeps coming. The Independent Games Festival -- run by CMP, as is Gamasutra -- received a record-breaking number of entries this year. Microsoft used its XNA platform to encourage indie developers, awarding two prizes (and publishing deals) to games that entered its competition.
Indie developers have been around for years, but their produce is inspiring everyone and, most importantly, finding an avenue to engage with mainstream audiences in all new ways.
1. Mainstreaming of Handhelds
Barring an absolute miracle, the Nintendo DS will be the bestselling console of the year in the U.S. Its sales in Japan and Europe are also astounding. Many discount the PSP by comparison, but Sony's handheld is the first credible competitor to Nintendo's unbroken chain of successes, and was Sony's bestselling hardware platform this November.
But more importantly, the mainstreaming of the handheld is catching on. The Brain Age games aren't showing signs of fading; other Touch Generations-style games have begun to make their impression on western audiences; Disney is, according to its general manager Graham Hopper, the number two handheld publisher through September 2007 (and what's more mainstream than Disney?)
One of the most significant
moments, however, was the announcement at the tail end of last year
that Dragon Quest IX, the full-fledged sequel of Japan's most
popular game series, would be debuting on the Nintendo DS. Has a series
of this caliber ever debuted its prime sequel on a handheld before?
Since that time, the stock
in the system has only risen dramatically. Nintendo sold over 1.5 million
DSes in the U.S. in November. Electronic Arts has publicly admitted
it misjudged the market by focusing on the PSP. What is left to be said?
Top 5 Developers
This time, we give careful consideration to the game developers who have done the most to advance the art and science of gaming worldwide in 2007. This chart may have some overlap with the 'best games' chart coming later this week, of course.
But we're picking top developers
for their attention to detail, grit, and willingness to push the envelope,
not necessarily simply on the finished product's overall quality - though
all of this year's Top 5 Developers have worked on spectacular titles.
The developers picked are the
editor's choice, and for every one settled on, there are many others
-- from Infinity Ward through Insomniac to Nintendo EAD Tokyo and Naughty
Dog -- that we also greatly appreciate. Here's our line-up:
5. BioWare (Mass Effect)
While it may verge on the over-complex in some gameplay mechanics, BioWare's masterful Mass Effect feels like a genuine space opera. It has whirling emotions and a genuine story arc - so genuine, in fact, that you start to realize how basic the story in many other games is.
In addition, the character customization using Unreal Engine 3 made players even more acutely aware of their immersion in the action. And with fruits from Dragon Age to the "mysterious" MMO still due under new taskmaster Electronic Arts, one can't help but think that the golden age of BioWare's story-driven epics has only just begun.
4. Bungie (Halo 3)
Some cynics might say that
Bungie not being #1 on this list means that they've failed, given the
stratospheric expectations for Halo 3. Well, hardly -- the single-player
game was still rapturously received. But where the newly independent
developer scored, for me, was in the multiplayer immersiveness.
With social networks ravenously
engulfing the rest of electronic media, the incredibly complex stat
tracking and multimedia upload capabilities of Halo 3's online
modes make for a world in which tracking and replaying your interactions
mean as much as the gameplay itself. Games still have a long way to
go on their path to social media, and Bungie blazed the trail in 2007,
while quietly setting up as independent of Microsoft.
3. 2K Boston/Australia (BioShock)
Of course, the team we'd all love to call Irrational always knew that BioShock was a critical darling, but to break out to commercial success - and with such a relatively odd, highbrow setting -- was a surprise to many.
But Ken Levine's team (and their counterparts in Australia) took their time and presented a carefully structured game world where morals mattered, dynamic and emergent gameplay was rife, and Daddies were Big. It may already be a "franchise", but as an original piece of art, BioShock rocks, and 2K Boston and Australia should be proud of the iteration and perseverance in birthing it.
2. Harmonix (Rock Band/Phase)
When a developer thrives after its signature franchise has been taken away from them - that's when you know they're destined for greatness. And Boston's Harmonix did just that with Rock Band, possibly the best multiplayer game of all time -- while sneaking in officially overlooked (see above) iPod breakthrough title Phase along the way.
It's not just the pure technical
execution, either. In the innards of Rock Band, you can feel
the love of rock music screaming out to be heard from the developer,
something that's widely agreed to be somewhat lacking in Neversoft's
still competent Guitar Hero III. It's a game that makes you feel
-- and most often, that feeling is great. Bravo, Harmonix.
1. Valve Software (The Orange Box)
Sure, plenty of other developers
shipped a great game this year. But, let's face it, how many of those
developers shipped three great titles all in one year, while simultaneously
owning and operating a major PC game distribution portal?
Thanks to the puzzle humor genius of Portal, the beautifully art-directed multiplayer smartness of Team Fortress 2, and the pitch-perfect storytelling and humanistic drama of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, all packaged up neatly in The Orange Box, Valve deserves Gamasutra's award for the 2007 Developer Of The Year. (Mind you, expect a Halley's Comet-style gap until they next release this many titles in 12 months!)
Robert Chang: "To say that Valve brought nothing to Portal is like saying Valve brought nothing to the FPS genre with Half-Life. This is what Valve does best -- they work with established game mechanics/genre and then bring their unique storytelling, gameplay philosophy, and beautiful art direction to the table."
Caswal Parker: "Although most of these games lack 'innovation' what they do show is sheer polish. They put in the last 5% to really make their games great. 'Good enough' wasn't good enough for them. They put in that last little bit, which always takes more time than you think."
Top 5 Freeware Games
This time, we look at the top
five freeware games of the year -- games by and large created outside
commercial constraints, labors of love from aspiring and soon-to-be
developers that will have an impact on the industry in the coming years.
Whittling down a list to a small handful is becoming increasingly difficult year over year as the tools available to amateur and hobbyist developers become more accessible -- a trend reflected in the continual record numbers of Independent Game Festival entries each new year brings.
This year has seen a number of noteworthy games that didn't quite make the list but should be mentioned, from the compelling mechanics and wanton violence of Death Worm to the slapstick comedy of Sumotori, and all of the games recently showcased at Kokoromi's Gamma 256, especially Jason Rohrer's somber pixelated memento mori, Passage.But regardless, the full list of the top five freeware games -- all picked by the editor's choice -- are as follows:
5. Gesundheit! (Underwater Base)
on the list may be gaming the system just a bit, as technically its
download is just a taste of a fuller production to come, but keeping
it here is important if only to say that it represents some of what
the industry could use more of -- outsider inspiration.
Primarily a traditional illustrator, creator Matt Hammill has put together one of the most whimsical and fantastically sketched worlds in indie games this year, and Gesundheit! will likely be forever remembered as one of only a small handful of games to make mucus a core mechanic.
4. Clean Asia (Cactus Soft)
Between Clean Asia and
the grainy Super-8 constructivism of his more recent Protoganda:
Strings (think Tetsuya Mizuguchi taking his synaesthetic Kandinsky
inspiration and channeling it instead more blatantly through El Lissitzky),
the pseudonymous Cactus has a serious crack at becoming a new Kenta
Cho-esque hero for the brass-knuckled bullet-hell set.
It's not just you, Clean Asia is a relentlessly brutal trip, but one so audaciously designed from the obscurely configured attacks of its dual ships to its crisply neon-outlined Two-Bad-Dudes pilots that it's worth sitting up (and getting immediately knocked back down) for.
3. Chain Factor (???)
Chain Factor holds two
distinct honors: one of being the only freeware game released in 2007
to receive billboard and subway advertising campaigns across major metropolitan
areas, and the other of being the first game to make perfectly clear
that Steve Reich should be scoring every puzzle game from here on out.
Despite being only one (albeit
major) part of an alternate reality gaming campaign concocted by TV
network CBS, Chain Factor is an almost too-clever game in its
own right, mixing falling-block- and number-puzzling in a deceptively
simple way that's most surprising in that no one's thought of it before.
Now that its involvement in the ARG campaign has been duly exposed, the biggest secret it's still keeping locked is the development team behind it, who -- with references to obscure Neo-Geo puzzlers tucked away in their source code -- are surely One Of Us. Feel free to leave any hints in their direction (or outright unmasking!) in the comments below.
2. Crayon Physics (Kloonigames)
Allowing for Gesundheit! gives fair room to put Crayon Physics -- again, just a sampling of more grand things to come -- near the top of the five best freeware games this year.
Easily the most widely played game on the list, Crayon is also notable for being the freeware game most achingly deserving of a DS translation (outside the forthcoming translation of Line Rider). Like many others here, its beauty is in its economy, and in the the undeniably affecting way it gives players direct access to and impact on its world inside.
1. Knytt Stories (Nifflas)
Where the aforementioned Cactus stands directly on the cusp of possible indie-stardom, Nifflas has firmly cemented himself as a new critical darling -- a refreshing low-bit blend of Cave Story author Pixel and Ico and Shadow of the Colossus designer Fumito Ueda.
Taking the former's firm grasp on the still-infinite joys of pure platforming and exploration, and the latter's propensity to strip away all of a game's unnecessary layers until its shining core is revealed, Knytt and its subsequent Stories are exercises in elegant simplicity. With very few mechanical contrivances above and beyond run (or scamper, in this case) and jump, Nifflas has left nothing to get in the way of you and the ambient visual and audio aesthetic of his worlds.
Best of all, realizing in true Game 2.0 fashion that his users might have just as many Stories to tell, he's opened up his toolbox to allow everyone to construct their own tales in a set that has and likely will keep giving well beyond this year alone.
Eric Diepeveen: "Thank
you for getting me addicted on Chain Factor. I made a widget
out of it so I can play it anytime I want to."
Top 5 Poignant Game Moments
This time, we look at gaming's top five most poignant moments. If games were just toys, we'd still love them, but we follow them as a medium because they affect us. The question of emotional, personal engagement continues to persist this year, widely discussed in industry circles -- just how essential it is, how to create it in an authentic way.
In a banner year, what will we remember about this year's slate of titles? The answers are largely personal and subjective, but here are ours.
[Spoilers proliferate, so we
suggest a quick eye-scan of the header titles before reading.]
5. The Rivalry Lives (Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games)
Our schoolyard factions from an era past never thought they'd live to see the day. While the Genesis and Super Nintendo once ran neck-in-neck, years later, one of the ongoing console wars' most significant casualties eventually made its final departure from the battle, cemented with the defeat of the widely beloved Dreamcast.
Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games resurrects one of the oldest and most significant rivalries in gaming, as the plumber and the Hedgehog go head to head for the very first time in history on Nintendo's revolutionary, wildly successful console.
The Sega-loving eight-year-old
in you stirs, quietly affronted, and those children of the Nintendo
camp, now adults, extend the hand of magnanimity with this indisputable
proof of their victory. And those for whom the rivalry still lives can
battle for the banner of their youth, the Olympic competition presented
in the game invested with just a little bit more for that old, old grudge.
4. To Kill A Mockingbird (The Darkness)
The Darkness is perhaps a lesson
in the perils of over-ambitiousness, but the fateful, grim allegory
of Jackie Estacado gets one thing right -- early on in the game, you
have the opportunity to merely exist with girlfriend Jenny.
No button sequences, dialogue pickers or elaborate cutscenes -- it's simple human bonding on the player's terms. When has gameplay ever incorporated watching an entire film with a girl's head in your lap?
The poignancy of the mundane stands out here in sharp contrast to a largely overwrought and comic-bookish theme, and this undecorated scene alone provides a lens of sincerity through which to interpret the rest of the game, a context for real human motivation -- and later, devastation.
3. Let's Get It On (Mass Effect)
Mass Effect contains
enough player-driven story elements to occupy invested players for as
long as they like -- the lore alone could equate to hours of gleeful
reading for sci-fi buffs. And the character creation screen alone is
a delightfully liberating exercise, one which it's easy to conceive
of repeating over and over, just because you can.
We've never quite been able
to shape a character in our mind's eye in a console title the way
Mass Effect permitted us to, imbuing Shepard with a sense of personalized
humanity before the game even begins -- but it doesn't stop there.
Shepard can make like humans do with one of his or her comrades -- as we know, because we've watched it on YouTube a million times. Though there's much more to the game than an alien lesbian sex scene, you can customize a female character down to the most minute of details, and then have her get it on with a female alien -- and it's not a hentai game.
Of course, gamers love visual thrills, but hopefully it's not too generous to say that the real feat is that Mass Effect is the first to understand our need for intimacy with our characters and their worlds, and to grant it to us to such an extent -- to give us a choice of partner, and to give us the option of declining those relations altogether (are you crazy?)
2. A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys (BioShock)
Scenes that take control away from the player are nothing new. But in this pivotal situation, control is the crux of the issue -- having just realized that you are little more than the puppet of forces who want you to kill your own father, being able to take control might have saved you.
Morally -- and probably physically -- unable to fight his unfortunate son, Andrew Ryan makes the bequeathing of his principles his final act. It isn't the Little Sister choice or your inability to achieve redemption should you wish it that makes BioShock a linear game -- it's this moment, where both those wicked ones high on their plasmid-enhanced power and those careful agents of salvation must face their complete helplessness.
BioShock's real thought-provoking question isn't "harvest or rescue" -- would you have let Ryan live, if you could have?
1. Please Take Care Of It (Portal)
A simple instruction from a schizophrenic computer, and a few pink hearts. It survives for one single level, and yet the Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube has attained memetic, unforgettable status. While game designers and gamers alike struggle to pin down the formula for creating true emotional connection, an utterly inanimate object achieves it with all the ease of an accident. No one wanted to drop the beloved little block into a fire, and a good majority of us struggled to find some way, any way to carry it with us.
And perhaps if we'd been able to bring it along until level design simply forced us to discard it, or until we accidentally dropped it into that greenish-brown swampy water, we'd feel a pang of regret and then move on, as we have with many portable support objects, from Yoshi to hypnotized Big Daddies to simple protective items.
But GLaDOS, who we named character of the year for exactly this brand of manipulation, enforces our engagement by mocking our sentimentality, highlighting as irrational our attachment to the only decidedly non-hostile object we had on the bizarre testing course.
Losing the cube in this particular
way makes us as responsible for it as we were when it was given us.
GLaDOS is still alive, but you incinerated your faithful companion cube
more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations.
Pinwiz: "And yet
there was no male/male option. That's a big omission right there. We
can talk about the theoretical benefits of Mass Effect's love
scenes and its effect on the gaming culture, but choosing to ignore
a portion of the gaming population should count against it."
Gamasutra's Top 10 Games Of The Year
Continuing Gamasutra's year-end retrospective, we're proud to present the editors' picks for the Top 10 games of this year. We've collectively put our heads together to pick the titles that we believe shone the brightest during 2007. All picks are the editors' alone -- we're not trying to tell you what you should like, only our collective opinion. Any title released for console, PC, or handheld during the year was eligible.
10. Puzzle Quest (Infinite Interactive - Wii, PS2, XBLA, PC, DS, PSP)
One of the quietest hits of
the year, Puzzle Quest's industry importance was felt in a number
of ways, from truly establishing the Western presence of its publisher,
D3, to receiving one of the most successful word of mouth campaigns
in 2007, and managing a staggering number of multiplatform releases
for such a small developer, through smart external partnerships.
As a game, too, its acumen showed through both in its deceptively deep mechanics and, most blatantly, in its audience-widening marriage of casual and hardcore play. Rarely does a game come along that can ease casuals into the deeper potential of strategic play, while also managing to convince the hardcore to spend hours with something that, outside its fantasy garb, they've convinced themselves isn't "real" gaming.
Truly one of the landmark achievements of the year, and one that gives us great hope for Infinite's next puzzle outing.
9. Pac-Man CE (Namco Bandai - XBLA)
We've already selected Pac-Man
CE as the Top Downloadable Game of 2007, and as we commented before,
"The original Pac-Man is simply one of the best games ever created. And, in this world of enhanced remakes, the Japanese developers at Namco Bandai worked with Pac-Man's father Toru Iwatani and created something incredibly special - a remake that improves on the original.
With all the flavor and excitement of the original, the multiple new modes - many of them with explicit time limits and related high scores - layered even smarter strategic gameplay upon the peerless original. And with smart art direction, the title looks amazing in HD. Tremendous."
8. Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools Of Destruction (Insomniac - PS3)
Insomniac's second PlayStation 3 title is a spectacularly polished, playable platform adventure title - which is notable precisely because it iterates so well on an already-winning formula.
R&C Future has some
of the most dynamic, high-quality art we've seen on the PS3 so far,
and some clever variety built into the newest version of the franchise
which has always prided itself on smooth, accessible gameplay.
The game is practically worth picking up alone for the wonderful weapon gadgets, which pack more creativity into just the weapons than many games have in their entire gameplay system. Bravo, Insomniac.
7. Persona 3 (Atlus - PS2)
Breaking ranks with a long dynasty of traditional Japanese fantasy RPGs, Persona 3 stands out in that its largest setting -- the one wherein you build your character, strengthen your ranks and move the story along -- is nothing more supernatural than an ordinary high school.
There, with a fascinating duality
between a mysterious "dark hour" and the light of day, most
of the key RPG elements take place through building relationships with
your schoolmates and taking care of school responsibilities.
This normalcy is tidily contrasted
with the more sinister, fantastic elements of the game, and set against
stylish character designs and a peppy, electronica-infused J-Pop soundtrack.
Crackdown (Realtime Worlds - Xbox 360)
Crackdown's major successes as a game come in the way that it blends elements together to make a fresh, compelling whole. Even its main failure -- narrative -- is a sort of success-in-disguise (all of the dialogue is 100% irrelevant to succesfully playing the game; the ending is so bad it's good.) But what's great about Crackdown is that it takes the dirty anarchy of Grand Theft Auto and injects it with (unintentional?) lightheartedness thanks to its super-powered characters.
It's an injection of vitality into a genre that otherwise consists of one 800 pound gorilla and a pile of also-rans in a dump bin at GameStop. Exploring Pacific City (and hunting for power-ups) is actually more engrossing than actually battling crime -- bolstered by the endless uniqueness of the environments and how your character's leveling up allows greater access to rooftop vistas.
The seamless co-op play, which allows you to team up, kill, or just ignore each other and chat while wreaking havoc across town from one another, adds another layer of fine-tuned, technically-complex pleasure. It's sandbox in the true sense, in that it allows and encourages you to find your own fun -- as the YouTube videos can attest.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo - DS)
While the so called "wink waker" cel-shaded look might have been more controversial than video game art should ever be, the expansive blue skies, green islands and paper doll characters were right at home on the DS, where the latest installment in the Zelda franchise is possibly the cleverest and most engaging use yet of the touch screen.
Delightfully playful and intuitive, Phantom Hourglass has the feel of a real adventure. Charting a course on the high seas, sketching your own maps or drawing your boomerang's path with the stylus is a brilliant new take on classic Zelda mechanics -- just like the boss fights, which feel positively cinematic as they span both screens.
4. Rock Band (Harmonix/MTV - Xbox 360, PS3, PS2)
Some have and will continue to find fault in Rock Band for being "just" Guitar Hero with drums and a microphone, or 'just' a follow-on to territory that Konami tread many years before, but Harmonix's achievements have always been less about innovating rhythm game techniques, but refining them.
Chained star-power note streaks, interface enhancements that both relocate its elements to more logical peripheral placement and redefine them more elegantly (an apparently new in-house standard it shares with its iPod sister, Phase), and note charts that capture the feeling of the music as much as timing are just part of what puts it ahead of the rest.
What very much separates it from the pack now is its performance presentation -- characters with genuine sex appeal that look and play like stars and smart camera work that make the game as much a joy to watch as to take part in -- and the human element that makes group play, when executed well, as much a thrill as an actual night on stage.
But, more than anything, Rock Band's greatest promise is its potential, as it works to position itself not just as a game, but as a new interactive format of music to join vinyl, CD and MP3, with hints of future simultaneous album releases and tools for aspiring garage bands to bring themselves into our living rooms.
The forthcoming Titan v. Titan battle between MTV's cross-media muscle and Activision's newly available Universal Music Group library via new partner Vivendi will be a thrill to watch in the years ahead.
3. Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo - Wii)
The thing that makes Super Mario Galaxy special was that Nintendo managed to pull it off at all, in a sense. In a series that carries such high expectations that Super Mario Sunshine is talked about by otherwise rational gamers as if the developers personally ran over their puppy, coming out with a game that's (pretty much) universally adored is an achievement in itself.
But how did Nintendo EAD Tokyo
manage that? The obvious answer lies in stripping away the complexities
that lead to the dislike of Sunshine. More careful examination
reveals that it's the consistent look and feel of the game, the perfect
playability, the consistently doable and enjoyable challenges, that
make it special. It is not possible to say enough good things about
the control. It is crucial to point out that, even offered increased
disc capacity, Nintendo dropped voiced cutscenes.
But maybe what makes Galaxy
great is the abandon with which Nintendo has embraced abstraction. Mario
has mostly taken place in the Mushroom Kingdom -- but even that vague
concept is jettisoned for a string of constructs that only vaguely approximate
real environments, at their absolute most concrete.
This game is wholeheartedly
a game, and doesn't shy away from it -- more, it embraces it. In the
first level of Future, Ratchet may traverse an amazing futuristic
city. Mario traverses challenges -- nothing more, nothing less.
BioShock (2K Boston/Australia - Xbox 360, PC)
Not just the darling of the
mainstream media who were thrilled to finally pack Ayn Rand references
into a video game article, Ken Levine's ambitious vision for the haunting,
richly-realized underwater city of Rapture raised the bar for game worlds.
BioShock showed us a city that lived and by its principles, and
each detailed, decaying remnant tells a piece of the tragedy.
Not only does Rapture illustrate
the consequences of pride and overidealism, but its remaining citizens
do, too, the consequences stamped into the mad eyes of each eerily-masked
face. Most of all, BioShock allows the player to decide how like
them -- or not -- the mysterious protagonist becomes.
1. Portal (Valve - Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
This year's biggest surprise could have easily sidestepped the limelight as "bonus content" on Valve's The Orange Box compilation, but the revolutionary Portal became a cult favorite almost immediately -- and for good reason. The brain-bending, portal-shooting, first-person puzzle gameplay was a feat in both creative innovation and technical grace, and it would be worth a mention on these merits alone.
But what rocketed Portal to the top were all of its peripheral details. Some of the cleverest writing ever seen in a game helped thread sharp -- and often touching -- humor through an environment that could be alternately adorable, hilarious and sinister in turns. Admirably, none of it's forced on you -- Portal treats the player with dignity and without over-instruction, proving that, in a year that saw plenty of overwrought epics, sometimes the most effective storyline doesn't need to try so hard.
Most impressive of all,
Portal achieved victory handily in an area where all titles attempt,
but few attain -- creating emotional engagement with the player. Game
companies aim to coin fan favorite characters and creatures year after
year, and yet the inanimate Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube
-- after appearing in a single scene -- achieved iconic status seemingly
overnight, as did Jonathon Coulton's unforgettable "Still Alive"
ending theme, sung by the equally memorable GLaDOS. The cake may or
may not be a lie, but Portal is truly the year's best.
Andrew Dovichi: "I find it interesting that Guitar Hero III isn't present in the list... It would be interesting to hear the rational as to why it was left off the list, especially considering it was Activision's highest grossing title of all time from what I hear."
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