Friday, January 3, 2014

My Favorite Gaming Moments Of 2013

I can't believe it's been six years since I started this blog. Six years since I gave up video games, and boy did I miss them at the time. I'm happy to report that after all these years, my original post-Paused goal - reincorporating games into my life while still doing all the other stuff I want to do - has been fully realized.

Well, realized-ish. I may still play a bit more than I should, but I don't have many regrets about spending my free time doing something I enjoy so much. After all, if I wasn't still playing so many games, how could I compile my yearly list of favorite gaming moments? Speaking of which, it's time to share my 2013 list with all of you:

1) The Stanley Parable's Color Commentary

As a gamer, one of the things you instinctively learn to do when playing a new game is poke around to see how much you're able to get away with. Can you go anywhere you want to? Can you strip down and walk around the world naked? Can you stab, shoot or set on fire to anyone or anything you want to? Finding out your degree of freedom is one of the things that makes games like Grand Theft Auto so popular. But how much freedom do you really have in those games? Can you choose to live a life as a non-criminal? Ultimately that series - like any other game with a semblance of narrative - is funneling your experience down a very specific path, and only giving you the illusion of freedom along the way.

The Stanley Parable is well aware of this, and builds off the concept brilliantly. As the player and the person in charge of controlling the titular Stanley, you are confronted with how ultimately contrived most gaming narratives are - encouraging you to find out how many choices you really have. This playable form of criticism would be pretty depressing if the game wasn't so incredibly funny and brilliantly dealt with. I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil any of the fun. Any gamer who's been around the block and saved a world/universe or two needs to play this game, pronto.

2) The Last of Us' Moving Campaign

I'd been looking forward to The Last Of Us for some time. In fact, I think it's safe to say I bought my PS3 in anticipation of playing it. And I was not disappointed -  the thoroughly enjoyable gameplay (more on that in a bit) combined with a fascinating story kept me hooked from beginning to end.

Actually, I want to talk about the story for a minute, without spoiling anything. After I beat the game, I thought everything had come together so well that I grabbed my roommate to run her through the whole story, hoping she'd appreciate it too. Since we didn't have twenty hours to kill, I condensed everything by showing her the intro, telling her what else happened, then I played out the ending, which I found incredibly powerful. She wasn't impressed. And though my roommate may very well have a cold, black heart beating inside of her, I think what this might imply is that the story is intrinsically tied with the medium, in a good way. Joel and Ellie's journey - while unchangeable (as The Stanley Parable would be quick to point out) - builds on the time you spend in a terribly depressing world with the characters, learning about them, caring about them, and saving both of their lives on a regular basis.

A good story in a game is a rare gem, and something I almost never talk about when recommending a game. But with The Last Of Us, I can't possibly talk about my experience without expressing my love for the journey I went on with Joel and Ellie.

3) The Resistance: Avalon's Improvement On A Winning Formula

I've referenced the party game Werewolf (also known as Mafia) several times before on this blog. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'm going to talk about a newer, better version of the game, which I've thoroughly enjoyed playing for several nights over the past few months. A group of game designers sought to fix some of the inherent problems with the Werewolf/Mafia formula and put out a game called The Resistance and later, a second, updated version called Avalon, set in the world of Arthurian legend. In this version of the game, there's no more night phase, nor player elimination, so all you're left with is good old fashioned secrecy and baseless accusations.

The highest praise I can provide for Avalon is that a few days ago, on New Year's Eve, we were in the middle of our fourth game just before midnight hit. We stopped at 2 minutes before the ball dropped (while still discussing among ourselves who we trusted and who we didn't) and then, two minutes afterward, we hopped right back into the game. Your mileage may vary (I'm blessed with some wonderful obsessive friends) but all I can say is I'm thrilled that someone went and improved on a formula I thought once was perfect.

4) The Last of Us' Addicting Multiplayer

This is how much I loved this game. It's on my top 5 list TWICE.

Remember what I said before about the gameplay? Well, it turns out it was good enough for me to check out the online multiplayer (something I hadn't done in any game for years) and boy did I get hooked. It's always a plus when a game doesn't demand that you be a crackshot, or obsessively know every map like the back of your hand. Being able to sit back and play a medic, while scoring an occasional kill with a 2x4 made me feel like I was contributing, which is so important for people when they're first dipping their toes in the post-apocalyptic water.

Matches in the resource-deprived arena get super intense in a way the campaign's level never could because computer A.I. hasn't come anywhere close to matching human cunning. No matter how many virtual throats I slit, nothing will ever compare with sneaking up behind another person and doing the deed. After beating the single player campaign, I played the multiplayer pretty obsessively throughout the summer, and I even made a friend or two online, which I wrote a little something about. That same piece found itself in one of workshops later in the year.

That's right - on top of having my favorite story of the year, as well as an addicted multiplayer component, The Last Of Us also inspired me to write a personal non-fiction piece worthy of submission. I don't think I could praise this damn game any higher.

5) Mage Knight's Epic Day Long Adventures

2013 was the year of the co-op board game for me. There's something really cool about sitting around a table with friends, working together towards a common goal, and when a game gets the mechanics and the difficulty just right, it can make for a very memorable experience.

I'm not sure if it's an actual trend, or I've just stumbled upon a lot of these types of games this year. Hanabi, Robinson Crusoe, Eldritch Horror, and Archipelago are all enjoyable games that revolve around teamwork (except in the case of Archipelago, which threatens the group with an uprising that should, in theory, force the group to work together, but in the case of our group, it just meant every game ended early with an uprising). But nothing compares to the epic quests that came out of an all-day Mage Knight marathon.

Mage Knight is a deck-builder / dungeon crawler that can be played cooperatively or competitively, but our most memorable experiences came out of banding together in an attempt the beat the co-op scenarios into submission. And believe me, this is no easy task. We've spent multiple eight-plus hour sessions scouring the land, building up our characters only to get decimated by the campaign's end boss. And all it did in the end was get us talking about our next playthrough. What would we do differently next time, to ensure victory? (The answer, it turned out, was to sacrifice my poor character)

The experience is definitely not for the faint of heart. But if you can find a few worthy compatriots, I highly recommend diving in and experiencing this game for yourself.

Honorable Mentions

I hate to cut the list off early since I really did enjoy a lot of games this year. Some of them were overall excellent but maybe just lacked that specific 'moment' worth calling out. The new Legend of Zelda (A Link Between Worlds) brought on a healthy dose of nostalgia and was a worthy Zelda game in it's own right (it bears mentioning that it also got me to bite the bullet and finally buy a 3DS).

I haven't beaten Rogue Legacy yet, but it's essentially become my FTL/'Rogue-like' game of intense, just barely pleasurable frustration in the form of constant death and restarts. I truly hope my 427th heir finally conquers that castle!

If you haven't checked out Card Hunter yet, and enjoy strategy games at all, I highly recommend doing so. It's free, it's online, it's got a really polished aesthetic, and it's just overall quite excellent, so no excuses!

I also have to thank/curse the Project M people for getting me hooked on Smash Bros. again, after a somewhat disappointing experience with Brawl.

Lastly, I'll close with this wonderful present from the Cards Against Humanity people - one of twelve from their 12 Days of Holiday Bullshit Bonanza. It's a card with my name on it - now usable in any game of CAH that I play. I can imagine how my friends will make use of it.

That's all I got. Thanks for reading, and here's to some great gaming in 2014!