Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: The Decade in Games, Part Two


Part OnePart Three

Rob Kunzig, Craig Getting and Andrew Cunningham have spent most of the decade with their eyes glued to their monitors and television sets, and over the next three days each will pick his three favorite games from the decade and offer them up for group discussion. The fruits of their labor await after the jump.

Rob – The sound strategy of Civilization IV

646032-civilization_iv_front_large RK: Next is Civilization IV. Stop groaning. Yes, Firaxis Games' latest installment in the ridiculously pedigreed turn-based series is, indeed, the superlative strategy game this decade. There's no gimmick to Civ IV - just fluid, engrossing gameplay, a refinement of what we've enjoyed about the series since its inception. Players build a society from a single city, cultivating the countryside, establishing infrastructure, germinating culture and building a military.

More than any other title, Civ IV allows gamers to pursue victory through peaceful avenues. Building libraries, universities and wonders increases the likelihood of a Great Person being born in your cities, and your culture's combined influence is capable of assimilating other cities. During one session, my libraries were so full of knowledge, my wonders were so wondrous and my Great People were so ineffably great that a rival society's outpost city hoisted my flag (of course, I slaughtered their cattle and razed their capital city 20 turns later. Keeps 'em guessing).

Civ IV is beautiful to behold. Oh, and it devours days. Be warned. 

CG: I've always been simultaneously intrigued and befuddled by turn-based games in the Civilization mold.  I'm incapable of denying Civ IV's perfection of the genre, but the vast expanse of options at any given moment always intimidates me into submission.  I find this to be true of this genre as a whole.  I greatly enjoyed reading about one man's experience playing Galactic Civilizations 2 (which then inspired my own Starcraft chronicling), but I didn't last more than half an hour with the game myself.  Perhaps the pace is too slow.  Or perhaps I'm too worried about the eventual ramifications of my choices.  Am I increasing my population fast enough?  How did the computer make battlecruisers already?  Am I doing anything right?

I won't let my ineptitude stand in the way of recognizing the Civ stands out as true sandbox gameplay.  I simply need help stopping my enemies from kicking down my sandcastle. Perhaps Civilization Revolution, the streamlined, hand-holding version developed for the 360 would be more up my alley.

AC: Civ IV and games like it are the reasons why the Strategy genre will always be stuck in its niche - these games are all well done and polished to an exquisite sheen, and deep as all hell. That's the problem. They're all rabbit holes, and once you get in it's hard to climb your way back out. This is precisely why all strategy games since Ensemble Studios' seminal Age of Empires II have left me cold. As a grown-ass man with a real and a fake job, my free time is an increasingly precious resource. If I'm ever to play even a quarter of the worthwhile experiences out there, I've got to stick to games that are quick and concise, or games that can be played in short bursts - neither of these apply to strategy games, which require hours to learn and more hours to master. I'm probably missing something, but I'd rather play ten Braids than even consider wrapping myself in the thick, warm but potentially suffocating blanket of a strategy game.

Andrew – I want to roll Katamari up into my life

825998d7d6a8bcd500c656cd7a4eceb7-Katamari_Damacy AC: I would be remiss if I let this whole discussion go by without giving Katamari Damacy a mention. Though the core concept is all too familiar now, this was truly a strange beast in 2004 - as the diminutive green Prince of All Cosmos, you were tasked with recreating the galaxy's stars after your capricious father destroyed them during a bender. You did this by rolling your katamari, an extremely adhesive ball, around and picking up objects.

The most remarkable thing about this game was that its appeal knew no bounds. Its sequels have seen diminishing returns on this, but in 2004 and 2005 anyone playing Katamari Damacy would quickly see a crowd of people develop just to watch what was happening on screen. The sense of scale was and is unsurpassed, especially in levels where you start as a tiny katamari underneath a car in a parking lot and end picking up trains and houses with no trouble at all. The shrieks and grunts that people and animals made as you rolled them up proved an endless source of hilarity, as were level designs that had cows and bears flying around all over the place.

This game showed the potential of the Wii mentality years before the Wii was released - it was developed on a shoestring, sub-$1 million budget, emphasized gameplay over graphics, and had a pick up and play control scheme that anyone could learn, even people who had never played games before. People who had never owned a console before in their lives were asking me how much Playstations 2 cost just so they could buy and play this game. We need more games like this.

RK: Yet another game I never played for lack of Playstation 2. It seems I missed quite a bit.

Watching Gene roll people, cows, buildings etc. into a giant kicking, screaming ball, I suspected that a deeper meaning was lurking around behind all the bright colors. It's a critique of capitalism, apparently. Not to diminish a clever and elegant argument, but I'm one idiots clapping and screaming for the prince to go back and get the giraffe he missed. I can't testify to the game's mechanics, but I can say this: the lay person passing Killzone 2 might mistake it for Halo, or Call of Duty. Anyone passing by Katamari will know it is Katamari. In an incomprehensibly crowded field, it is singular. 

CG: Katamari's unique type of gameplay is refreshing in a sea of copycats and homages-to.  To elaborate on the mechanics for you, Rob, it featured a control scheme wholly unique to the budding dual-stick revolution kicked off by the Dual Shock controller.  Press both sticks forward, you go forward.  Both back, you go back.  Push one forward and the other back and turning commences.  Aside from a few extremely complicated arcade mech games, I'm not sure I've ever seen a game use this kind of control scheme.  Another way it remains, as Rob put it, singular.

Also, can I just gush about the preposterous soundtrack for a second?  Weird poppy electronica.  Oddball Engrish jazz.  Heartwarming Japanese children's choirs.  It all clicked in that weird way where you're not really sure you like it until you discover yourself instinctively putting it on in the car.  The infectious nature of the soundtrack matched the bizarre, whimsical fun of rolling up shit for no reason other than to roll up more shit.  It's some of the most innovative fun I've had in a long long time.

Craig – The shadow of Colossus

sotc1 CG: Having already discussed Passage, I'll acknowledge my fascination with the rise of the videogame auteur.  Yes, we have our Miyamotos and Kojimas, members of the old guard who can still dictate industry trends.  But we've got new ones, people dedicated to advancing not just How we play but Why.  Fumito Ueda, of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, comes to mind.  SotC, in particular, stands out as an example of elegant game design.  The choice to limit the enemies to sixteen massive colossi embodies an elegance often missing in an industry of level-grinding and backtracking. 

SotC caught my eye when I read a preview that described it as a game with nothing but boss encounters.  I'd been playing a lot of Warning Forever at the time, and I thought the idea of slaying sixteen giants - and nothing else - sounded cool.  I wasn't prepared to feel remorse when I defeated them, but I did.  The game's puzzle nature diminished replayability; I often feel like I mourned not just the colossi, but the experience of beating them.  Spoilers in this game weren't just story nuggets like "Atlas is Fontaine" or "Dude, you're Darth Revan!"  The gameplay itself could be spoiled, and that it is tied intrinsically to the self-sacrificing journey of a boy who only wants to revive his lost love makes the every ounce of play precious.  Furthermore, the ending satisfies while retaining an element of surprise - despite in retrospect seeming inevitable.  Not only does it flip the game's core mechanics on its head, but it dares to show the player the awful results of the protagonist's Mephistophelean bargain.

Despite not having touched the game in years (I'm convinced knowing what to do will cheapen the experience), I can still hum portions of the soundtrack, particularly this tune of triumph.  The music direction in SotC reminded me a lot of Valve's approach: use music only when you have to, it makes the silence more meaningful.  Nothing plays when you wander the empty landscape in search of the giants.  Rarely have I seen sound design do so much to enhance a sense of loneliness.  And that loneliness intensifies the bond between the player and Agro, the horse.  Agro is there for you, always, but like a real animal, it might take him a while to get there. 

SotC's bare bones narrative style is it's biggest strength.  Great emphasis is placed on the game's world and on how the player interact with it.  There's not much else you need to do, I feel.  Andrew, you may now commence framerate hating.

AC: At its root, I suppose it could be described as "framerate hating," but I see it as one of the more serious problems a game like Colossus can have - the game attempts to absorb you into its eerily quiet, carefully rendered world. Its boss battles are similarly absorbing, albeit in a fantastically theatrical way. And yet, whether you're scaling a 500-foot beast or riding Agro across an empty plain, the framerate always chugs along clunkily, the Playstation 2 laboring to render Team Ico's artistic vision.

At best, it's a distracting nuisance, something you gradually and unwillingly become used to as the game unfolds. At worst, it's a menace, breaking that fabled "immersion" and drawing you out of your epic quest to wonder "lordy, couldn't they have optimized this a little bit better?"

Maybe it's just "framerate hating," but I think it's a crying shame that Sony (as the game's publisher and Team Ico's sugar daddy), with its deep pockets and (at the time) unquestioned dominance of the home console market, let technical issues mar what would otherwise be one of the medium's heretofore greatest triumphs.

RK: Yet another PS2 title I had to admire from afar. I spoke earlier about the sense of wonder that makes good games truly great - Shadow of the Colossus, perhaps even more than Half-Life 2 or Bioshock, left me awestruck. And I didn't even play it.

I'm convinced it's the lighting. SotC exists in a weird half-light, suggestive and (appropriately) ambivalent. Not to toss out any spoilers, but the cruel plot twist left many of my friends heartbroken - some even cried. To provoke an emotional response of such magnitude with a game that is, essentially, a series of well-designed boss fights, is an accomplishment in and of itself.

For what it's worth, gamer blog Destructoid named SotC their top game of the decade. I can't say I agree, but then again, I can't really argue against it.

Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion of the story, same bat time, same bat channel!