Thing of the Year 2010

“…what really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films – these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fuckin’ truth.”

My favorite games of 2010:

1. Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain speaks to exactly how (and why, though less importantly) I play games. I play in character whenever possible (doing what I think the characters would do, not dressing and talking like them), I like permanence in my decisions, and I try to always play games the way they were intended for me to experience them (see playing in character). I extend these preferences to every game, and few truly take me up on it. But Heavy Rain is built for them. While the story is in parts preposterous before it’s done, the storytelling is never less than riveting if you’re willing to invest yourself in the characters and set aside the minor mechanical incongruities that you could let annoy you.

I loved the mundanity of the world it built – I was compelled to be a good husband and help my wife carry the groceries, or make sure my kid didn’t watch too much TV before bed (getting the Good Father trophy without even knowing it existed was such a bizarrely satisfying feeling…perhaps one that will make sense years from now). I loved having to regularly make hard decisions and live with them, even the unwanted consequences of an itchy trigger finger. I loved talking with others who finished the game and seeing how differently they did things, and how they reflected on their choices. Heavy Rain plays on real fears beyond, well, fear, a distinction that makes it not only a game I was hugely eager to play (rather than the survival-horror games I avoid every year), but one that wound up as my favorite game of 2010 by a mile.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Enslaved is a game where going from point A to point B has meaning every single time. The purpose for your exploration and combat are motivated more by character and context than by gameplay, and I never felt like I was doing anything for the sake of it. And I was absolutely sold on that adventure by my two favorite characters of the year, Monkey and Trip (whose silly names even manage to not sound so silly when they come up). The players’ relationship to the characters, and the characters’ relationship to one another and to the world around them all change by the end, but with an elegance and bittersweetness that honestly left me missing them when it was over…and still missing them now.

Much has been said about Limbo’s masterfully sparse and creepy atmosphere, which you can easily experience by watching a video or playing the first five minutes of it. Equally as masterful though is the contextual design that teaches you how to solve dozens of sublimely clever puzzles without showing you a word of text or ever expanding your move set beyond ‘jump’ and ‘grab’. There’s a fine line between Limbo’s methods and a traditional trial-and-error approach, but the difference always left me feeling satisfied when I figured something out rather than relieved. Though that’s probably not the best word to describe it considering the dense gloom of the world and the skin-crawling threats that many of the puzzles indulge. Limbo succeeds by stripping away everything but the barest bones of its design, story, and aesthetic, and still managed to prove me with some of the most harrowing interactions I’ve experienced.

Super Meat Boy
Platforming perfection. Super Meat Boy feels better than Mario ever has, as crazy as it sounds. And that liberation of precision let Team Meat design dozens of downright evil levels that feel insanely challenging but never unfair. And as much as I blasphemed Mario just now, growing up on him means that nothing matches the visceral satisfaction of a great platformer. Fantastic art and an even better score provide a necessarily awesome backdrop to assure that no element of the experience ever wears whilst you sacrifice hundreds of lives to the same saw blade. In a year that made me realize that my very favorite games these days aren’t “fun” in the traditional sense, Super Meat Boy was the exception that proved the rule.

Costume Quest
You know what I love most about Costume Quest? Its length. It’s also endlessly charming and legitimately hilarious, built around an incredibly accesible and enjoyable RPG-lite core, but it didn’t stay a second past its welcome for me. How rare is that? I had enough time to get invested in the fun story and characters without them losing my interest, did everything/found everything without it feeling laborious, and was engaged with the interactivity and variables of the battles enough that they never became grindy. Seriously, HOW RARE IS THAT? A wonderful game top to bottom that I’d recommend to anyone.

These occupy a very similar mind space for me, and paint a pretty interesting profile of developer Platinum Games. They seem to have nailed making incredible-looking and incredible-playing games in whatever genre they deign worthy. While they have yet to attempt any meaningful innovation, the expert implementation of certain tried-and-true mechanics – in the case of both of these games, the use of bullet-time – are enough to keep them feeling progressive on top of near-flawless fundamentals. If they can ever provide more than silly stories and characters (no matter how self-aware they may be at times), sky’s the limit.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
This is the only game on this list that I haven’t finished, and that’s only because of co-op scheduling woes. While I’ve been told you can play it by yourself, I’m taking that on faith because I’ll never try it. When co-op games are actually built for co-op – not just adding an extra player and doubling the enemy count – they’re usually something special, and some of my favorite games. Guardian of Light sets up a beautiful symbiosis between two characters with complimentary abilities, and places them in a surprisingly physical and experimental world. There were so many times when I suggested outside-the-box solutions to tricky physics puzzles, and they actually worked. I don’t know if I was hitting on the only solutions, but the feeling that that sort of design engenders is precious and thrilling.

Red Dead Redemption
Remember that whole playing in character thing that I do? Red Dead is also awesome for it, if you can set aside John Marston’s built-in psychopathic tendencies. Meaning that I always made sure to find a nice, scenic locale for him to pitch camp before I saved and shut down, I rarely ran when it made more sense for the character to be walking, and as soon as I was informed that there was a “tip your hat” button you’d better BELIEVE I greeted everyone I saw. The dusty world is thoughtfully constructed while still feeling organic, and the ambient details – from the rare rattlesnake slithering underfoot to stumbling across a hanging with a chance to interfere – are the most immersive and engaging I’ve played.

Mass Effect 2
I don’t really have anything novel to say about ME2. I wasn’t a big fan of the first game, but ME2’s focus on characters rather than the overarching story (which has never been as interesting as even the basic societal structures of the different alien races) gave me much more to feel invested in. Things especially clicked when it was suggested that I play a bit more from the gut for my Paragon/Renegade actions in cutscenes rather than my usual path of strict virtue. I loved carrying over my character and decisions between games, I loved both the beginning and the ending, and I loved getting to know my crew (especially Thane, my new favorite character in the series). It’s also probably the best objective pick for game of the year, but who wants that?

God of War III
Again, not much to say here – its virtues are apparent in the first few moments. Moments which I’ve put in the hands of a handful of non-gamer friends to show them just what games are capable of these days. It may have come out in March, but it still the best-looking game to date, with especially incredible animation, scale, and camera work. It’s also in a very exclusive club of games that I’ve restarted on a harder difficulty setting the second I finished. Usually when I’m done with a game I’m done forever, but the allure of the gratifying combat and endlessly stunning art direction cannot be overstated.

…and of course there’s also Minecraft

It’s tough to really consider Minecraft for end-of-year lists since it’s very much a work in progress, but as you can read in my previous post, it’s one of the most incredible experiences you’ve ever been able to have in gaming. A blocky realm that feels more tangible than any photorealistic ones I’ve played, and an incredible gameplay loop of collection, action, and creation. I honestly haven’t played much since that post, but that’s more to do with my preference for less open-ended experiences and wanting to not lose all my time to one game (same reason that I’ve never tried WoW, despite knowing that I would adore it). So yeah, you don’t need to lose your life to Minecraft, but it’s something that everyone should be checking in on once in a while.

Oh and Also Movies:

1. Buried

Any Buried synopsis will no doubt sell it more as a Time Code-level filmic curiosity than something worthwhile taken on its own merits as a story and an experience. And while that’s a fine reason to have passive interest in it, it grossly belies the “must-see” status of its brilliance that I really hope to impress upon you. But there’s also the challenge of describing it without spoiling anything or talking about why it’s so much more than “Ryan Reynolds in a box for an hour and a half.” Though it is very much literally that as well, the world they weave off-screen rings sickeningly familiar, while the physical and narrative tensions are written and shot so exquisitely that it feels more liberated than confined by its setting. Buried does SO much with SO little, and wrangled from me the most sincere tears, relieved laughs and stunned silences of the year. Which may sound like the hogwash hyperbole of a pull quote, but is something I absolutely think you’ll grant me once you’ve seen the film. Which you will, right? …Promise?

The Book of Eli
How to Train Your Dragon
Exit Through The Gift Shop
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo
Never Let Me Go
127 Hours
The King’s Speech
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I Love Music Too:

1. Les Savy Fav – Root for Ruin

I always qualify Les Savy Fav as my favorite band that’s still together, since so few of my favorites are. But there’s always been something so immediate to their aesthetic, it feels as if their breaking up would erase everything they’ve created from existence. Root for Ruin is simply another installment of their post-punk art rock affirmation, a gospel of forward-facing noise, sweat and sexiness. It makes a lot more sense once you’ve seen them live, but you’ll just have to trust me on that part. This album is perhaps more Pixies than before, though the energy is incomparable. I also think they’re more accessible than I give them credit for; endlessly clever lyricism that sticks in your brain-craw, their tinkling angular guitar signature, and surprisingly anthemic chorus marches. I will listen to this incredible album forever…assuming it doesn’t disappear.
Listen to a song

Yeasayer – Odd Blood
Listen to a song
Vampire Weekend – Contra
Listen to a song
Sleigh Bells – Treats
Listen to a song
Murder by Death – Good Morning, Magpie
Listen to a song
Matt & Kim – Sidewalks
Listen to a song
Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid
Listen to a song
Fang Island – Fang Island
Listen to a song
Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record/Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Listen to a song/Listen to a song
Title Tracks – It Was Easy
Listen to a song

Have a good year.

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 12:04 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I saw 127 hours and although I found it compelling… a movie about a guy in one location (who you know will always be in that location) can only be so exciting.

    I didn’t dislike 127 Hours but I felt like it dragged half way through simply because I sort of guessed what would happen for the remainder of it. Do you think Buried will have the same problem?

  2. A lot more happens in Buried, and I’d be shocked if you guessed it along the way. So, I wouldn’t think so. I liked 127 Hours a lot (as you can see) but Buried is far more riveting.

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