Sunday, January 3, 2016

My Favorite Gaming Moments of 2015

Another year, another fantastic collection of memories from all the games I've played. 2015 was the year I finally entered the next (or to most now, current) generation of consoles, finally purchasing a PS4. But before I did that I caught up on some older games, which you'll see below. Being years behind on video games keeps you out of the conversation when new stuff comes out (and will make people respond to games I'm currently play by saying "oh you're just playing that now?") but it's both great on the old wallet, and you feel exactly no pressure to beat a game quickly before the next new release comes out around the corner.

With all that said, here are my favorite gaming moments of 2015:

1) Becoming A Glutton For Punishment In Dark Souls, Pixel Dungeon and Don't Starve: Shipwrecked

Difficulty is such a fascinating aspect of of video games. As players we need to be challenged, but swing too far in either direction and you risk losing our interest. You hook us by dangling the carrot of mastery just right over our heads, knowing we're eventually bound to catch it

What I learned in 2015 is that I have a near endless tolerance for difficulty so long as I feel the game is teaching me something every time it punishes me. If roaming down a dark hallway gets me eviscerated by a powerful monster, that sucks, but if the next time I roam down that same hallway, I feel like I'm ready to take that monster on (or dodge it in the nick of time), then you've probably got me hooked, and also very paranoid about hallways going forward.

This is the treadmill Dark Souls, Pixel Dungeon and Don't Starve: Shipwrecked (an expansion to the game that took over my life last year) put me on for many many painful hours this year. Each game seems to take glee in kicking you down the stairs, wiping out anything from minutes to hours of progress at a time. I know I'm saying nothing specific about what these games are like (honestly, looking at the pictures or watching videos will be have enough of an effect for people who play these types of games), but I'm simply trying to capture the cycle of pain followed by the intense satisfaction that comes with rising above each challenge the game throws at you. That is, until something new kills you.

2) Capturing The Very Essence Of Fun In Rocket League

I honestly can't think of a more succinct expression of "fun" in video games than this:

Rocket League is fast paced, virtual soccer played with cars. There are no penalties, no time outs, no injuries, no out of bounds. It's the perfect distillation of the sport and in my humble opinion, the only version of the game that needs to exist.

The first time I scored a goal in Rocket League, I literally shouted with glee, something I haven't done with a game since perhaps my childhood. It's such pure joy to play it, and the only reason I stopped this year was because I felt myself falling behind the increasingly skillful competition, but I really need to go back because it really is such a wonderful experience.

3) Fighting An Epic Intergalactic War In XCOM: Enemy Within

I've played a countless number of war games in my life, and I've never truly felt like I had a stake in any of them; the lives lost are never more than numbers, and any strategic decisions made carry none of the weight they're supposed to. They either work or they don't. Most games will either invest you in character's story for simplicity or will have you moving pieces around like a game of Risk, completely distancing you from the realities of your decisions.

XCOM (which I'm terribly late to party getting into) resolves all of this, completely investing the player in a global war humanity is engaged in against a hostile alien threat. Every soldier has a name, rank and personality and if he or she dies you will never see that character again, which is devastating from both a story and a gameplay perspective (recruiting newbies is costly and time-consuming). In between battles you are constantly asked to make impossible choices: how do we spend our limited funds to fight this increasingly hopeless war? What countries need to be saved at all costs, and which can we afford to abandon? Questions like these took a toll on me for nearly a month of my life.

4) Hosting Perfect-er Party Game Nights With Quiplash

Last year I declared the Jackbox Party Pack to be the best party game ever created. And now, one year later, I need to amend that statement: Quiplash (made by the same creative team) now officially holds the title for me as the new best party game of all time.

The game works similarly to all the Jackbox Party Pack games: using your smartphone, you enter answers to questions like: "The worst theme for a pinball machine," or "A better name for France," and your answers are pitted against other player's answers and voted on by the group at large. That's it. I liken it Cards Against Humanity, one of the more popular party games out there at the moment, only here players are relying on their own creativity over a set of dirty sounding cards they've probably read before.

The game is an absolute blast with the improvisers I've played with, but muggles (a special, unique term we've come up with to describe non-improvisers) also love it and have handily won over people with supposed "comedic experience" so don't let be a deterrent. It technically caps at 8 player but the entire room/party can join in as audience. Download this game and play it at your next social gathering, you won't regret it.

5) Finding My Own Form Of Meditation In Alto's Adventure

I've tried meditating a few times, and it doesn't really work for me. But when people describe the zen-like state they reach (or lie about reaching) I'm reminded of my experience playing Alto's Adventure, a deceptively simple looking smartphone/tablet game.

Alto's Adventure is at its core, an endless runner - your character is snowboarding down an infinitely extended mountain as the weather changes and the sun goes up and down. The only interaction you have with the game is tapping the screen: you tap to jump, you hold your finger down to attempt to flip as you jump. Every obstacle the game has to throw at you you'll see in the first five minutes of playing.

Something I can describe this simply shouldn't have hooked me the way it did, but boy did it. For starters, the game is gorgeous, and Alto's singular soundtrack hooked me in a way few others in recent memory have. The controls are perfect, every move feels just right, and the game never throws any curveballs your way to try to end your run. And lastly, I can't think of any better words than "zen-like" to describe the state I reach at a certain point in playing, jumping, diving, grinding in perfect harmony with the game's environment as the rest of the world melts away.

Honorable Mentions:

Her Story: Wanna solve a fun little mystery? Just play this game, you won't regret it. The less I say, the better.

Plants Versus Zombies 2: I started playing this game the moment it came out two and a half years ago, and I'm still coming back to it regularly thanks to new content updates and daily challenges. There's no other single game that's kept my attention for this long.

New Super Smash Brothers: Ditto for this. SSB hasn't been out as long, but if you count the series I love it more than any other fighting game and I still prefer an afternoon playing this with friends over just about any other gaming experience.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor: The first game I played that felt like it couldn't have worked on a previous gen system. There's a "revenge" mechanic where the bad guys (orcs, or whatever Tolkien named them) level and rank up in your encounters with them, and they roam the world separate from any of your specific missions, so you can encounter one or more of them at any time. They call you out and chew the scenery in the process while they do it, too. I loved it!

Batman Arkham Knight: It's a shame that this series has provided diminishing returns with each sequel, but that's not to say I'm not still thoroughly enjoying them. Playing as Batman is still one of the best things you can do with your video game time.

I had an incredible time playing through all of the above (I didn't even get into board games, which maybe I'll remedy in a later post), and if you're interested in hearing more about this stuff, I talk about these topics regularly on a podcast I joined this year with a few improv friends. You should give it a listen if you've got a love for games and share any of the same passions I do.

Happy New Year all - here's to many more amazing gaming experiences in 2016!