This was an interesting year, both for me at home, working, and as a casual observer of the gaming industry.
At home, I built a new game from scratch and played it online, wrote a pretty design doc, struggled against unexpected difficulties working alone and being focused, and overcame said struggle. Progress on my still-unannounced game is moving forward, and I hope sometime next year I can reveal what's been taking place under the hood. Working on this alone is slow, but I hope the end product is worth it. I suppose we'll see.
This was also an interesting year for my maturation as a designer. I think my opinion about addiction in games is firming up, it was interesting to see how this reflected on console makers at E3, and it gives me a lot of pause about the future of games.
After this year, I see addiction (i.e. fun) as a necessary pacing tool, and have decided to stop giving so much credit to games that make it the point of gaming. I truly feel like I've wasted my time after chasing down every objective in Assassin's Creed, even if I enjoy myself while doing so, and I want more out of my entertainment. If I want to just be addicted, I can play Farmville, and I have a hunch that as this kind of design invades every aspect of our lives (an inevitability, I think), the masses will pick and choose what their addictions will be more carefully, and hopefully demand more from their entertainment. But designers have to have a mastery of addiction under their belt (do I? I don't know!), and can use this judiciously (too much and it overwhelms the narrative, too little, and it makes the mind wander) and intentionally (maybe removing addiction for a period would help the player connect with an avatar) to great effect. I'm starting to believe that not having this ability is like only being able to make movies with the long camera cuts of old films -- appealing to some, but not many.
Regarding consoles, watching Microsoft and Sony fumble over themselves at E3 for the same market Nintendo has but doesn't seem to know what to do with (SOS in three-deeeee) was revealing and depressing as a game enthusiast. All of my addiction thoughts made me realize that Nintendo, despite all my love for them, does little to bring new emotion to games (not that they need to or should) and suffers for trying to go back to games that once upon a time (perhaps unintentionally) pushed the bounds, like 3D Mario and Zelda. Sticking to the formula of novel tech and addictive tropes (alright, alright... and solid kinesthetics and interesting level design) is great for snagging the casual, even if the love affair is brief. I expect the 3DS to be bananas. This leaves Sony and Microsoft as my game enthusiast saviors, which is sad when Sony, the best supporter of emotional gaming (Uncharted, Flower, Trico) is the widely regarded as the loser in the current war. Perhaps emotional boundaries should be pushed on a smaller budget.
Meanwhile, Apple and Facebook kill in the casual market, and I really don't know how you create something and stick as a content developer in either one. That's not to say you can't, but I have a difficult time believing that Farmville's success isn't a ton of right-place-at-right-time, and it seems to takes a lot of muscle or serendipity to stand out on the iPhone. I'm curious to see how the consoles will deal.
It was also a busy year for game playing. Here's a brief on everything I played, many of which I didn't quite get around to writing about:
Kinect arrived for Christmas, and I did about all I expected to with it: marvel at the neat technology and enjoy some dance mimicry on Dance Central. It might be too bad that I'm expecting no killer games to arrive for it (ever), but it may mean being pleasantly surprised, later.
Red Dead Redemption was fun to plow through, and I was happy I stuck to the main quests. It really did feel like a nice, developed world, and that, combined with some nice storytelling and immersion made it a fun playthrough, but the hype did hurt it: most of the game was just traveling and shooting, and I really felt like I was traveling from one story sequence to the next by the end of the game.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was a massive bag of addiction that I kind of resented in the end. The story should balance it out, but I am never given a good reason to connect with either Desmond or Ezio because neither ever do anything to warrant my sympathy. The result is my desire to meet the game halfway for all of its wacky overwrought sci-fi conspiracy theories is simply not there, and I spend all my time joyfully chasing one map icon to the next in hopes of full completion while my life slips away.
Call of Duty: Black Ops was an interesting experience, like all of the production value was present for the checklist without much of the heart. I can't pinpoint why, off-hand, and may not even have a good reason.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was a sloppy (combat, level design, storytelling) experience that jelled in its second half. The combat was serviceable but monsters seemed designed to stuff fun abilities like air combat, I almost got completely stuck in a few environments simply because I couldn't tell where an open passageway was thanks to bad cameras, and the story was so full of mumbo jumbo that I just gave up on it. (As an aside, Patrick Stewart's voiceover script sounded like dear diary entries from an obsessed junior high sweetheart.) Despite all the flaws, the art direction and settings were so interesting and constantly varied that I enjoyed much of the journey, and once I figured out parry timing (it took waaay too long) I had a good time with combat, too. The ending was an I'm-clever designer twist followed by another twist that had no bearing on my game whatsoever, but whatever. Pretty pretty smashy smashy. Not bad.
Limbo was a real artsy, soulful gem, but I was disappointed with the ending because it seemed like a missed opportunity that didn't capitalize on the mood it set. Just a personal thing, I bet.
Halo: Reach may have been my favorite in the series, which isn't saying much, so let me put it another way: Halo: Reach is good. It had a nice pace, the story was easy to follow, I cared about what happened, and the production value was nuts. I was honestly surprised by it.
Halo: ODST was kinda incoherent to me and all of the combat scenarios kinda blended together for me. I did not enjoy.
Enslaved was interesting, but seemed rushed, so I felt sorry for the team more than I felt like criticizing it. Combat seemed influenced by some higher-up insisting that the camera get closer to the expensive avatar polygons and the game suffered for it, and a lot of the controls felt loosey-goosey, but where I really feel the game deserves criticism is in its story. The characters it wants you to empathize with do really unlikeable things, and even when they recover from this, the writers make them do things to ensure that you hate them again. The odd thing is in the case of the NPC tag-along that enslaves you, it's more or less completely unnecessary, since almost no levels require that you and her stick together, and the few that do could have easily been rectified through level design. The end result is almost a textbook case of how to get players to not care about the characters they're with. Finally, you never get a clear sense of who the antagonist in the game is until the very end, where they sloppily try to pass off a non-moral quandary as a moral quandary.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta was a joyful roller coaster ride with some of the most amazing tech I've seen on the PSP. I never quite get into Kratos -- he's needs to calm a bit -- but the novel set pieces and solid kinesthetics always win me over.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks reminded me that even Nintendo's most narrative-driven series still only does narrative with the lightest of touch, and pounds you with relentless addiction tropes. I finished it, but not without getting bored first.
Kirby's Epic Yarn was novel and quick, so it was cotton candy. Unfortunately, it did nothing to diminish my new view of Nintendo charm being largely addiction-driven.
Vanquish was an almost-successful attempt at the gritty, macho, roller coaster rides known as western shooters. I really think a more grandiose western score would have made it a much bigger hit, but it was a satisfying playthrough, and I'd look forward to a sequel.
Metroid: Other M I failed to finish. What little existed to make Samus compelling -- the quiet but competent loner exploring long forgotten ruins -- was pretty much thrown out the window for a gushy, jibbering, baby-hungry, biological clock-driven idiot surrounded by wooden military figures. It was Tomb Raider all over again, and I just couldn't take it.
Amnesia was a an indie gem with clever tension-enhancing design concepts that every survival horror designer should play and study. With almost no (no?) combat and horrors at every turn, it's probably one of the most least-played games that would be a joy for me to recommend. It's not without flaws, but well worth the low cost of entry. Give the demo a whirl on Steam, if nothing else.
Alan Wake was a goofy story with an underdeveloped gameplay mechanic. It was alright, I guess.
Machinarium was another small-team indie gem with a lot of heart and interesting art. It really does nothing new -- it's as classic as adventure games get -- but I'd recommend it the next time you find yourself lamenting a lack of them. It feels good.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 was Super Mario Galaxy streamlined. There's not much else to say, other than the opener, which slowly transitions from 2D to 3D gameplay, was a fantastic idea that I'd love to see repeated in other games. Other than that, it's addiction ahoy. Avoid that part.
Splinter Cell Conviction was fun, and did some clever things with text (like level names or objectives) being projected on the walls of the environment that I thought really worked when they weren't also using it to play videos and such. I thought the takedown mechanics were strong, and that I kept gaining in expertise in a way that reminded me of Batman. I wish I'd been able to try multiplayer because I think playing with a friend would have been a good time. Unfortunately, as the game progressed, more insta-fail conditions were imposed reminding me of my least-favorite thing about the Splinter Cell series. (As an aside, I sometimes wondered if a stealth game, rather than insta-failing you on detection, could simply make you unlock badass mode, insta-killing all the enemies, but leaving a trail of bodies that introduced different long-term consequences. Finding the right balance might be hard, but I think it would be a great alternative to waiting to load after some idiot AI "sees" you. Blerg.)
Heavy Rain was probably my favorite game of the year. It was rife with moments of avatar disconnection due to bad control that were extremely frustrating (and totally avoidable), but when the game clicked, it clicked HARD, and I can honestly say I've never felt as stressed out about a moral choice in a game. It was moments like these that make me believe nothing I played advanced the gaming craft more.
God of War III was more impressive graphics and set pieces, but I was also impressed by some of the pure story-driven game scenarios in its final act. They don't work like gangbusters, but they do the trick, and I was impressed by this "final" chapter and it let me reflect on older games. It's really too bad the original God of War decided to be clever by starting with the cliff jump instead of starting with your family being murdered. I think the whole series would have been much stronger for it. And not pushing to release God of War II on the PS3 has got to be one the worst decisions Sony has ever made; it was the killer app they never should have passed over.
Bioshock 2 surprised me because I didn't expect to enjoy the return as much as I did. I think what makes Bioshock work (and Portal) have much more to do with emotional mirroring between player and avatar and much less to do with gameplay, twists, or humor, so I wasn't surprised that the story didn't grip me like it did in the original. However, it was a good reminder of how strong the gameplay was, and how much a game can be carried on good kinesthetics and set pieces. Bioshock really did have it all. Or lots, at least.
The rest of the games -- Mass Effect 2, Demon's Souls, Borderlands, Bayonetta, and Torchlight all got their due in my reviews. It's surprising, really, how many games I passed over writing about this year; a trend I should buck.
I'm off for the remainder of the year. Have a good one -- I'll see you in 2011.