Happy New Year

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jenga.pngHappy new year, everyone! I've been on vacation for the past couple weeks, but now I'm back in L.A., trying to overcome this holiday inertia. And you know what that means: obligatory end-of-the-year post! Er, admittedly, a couple weeks late. Nonetheless! With a little prompting from Ethan Kennerly, I'm going to run down the list of favorite moments from gaming in 2007.

10. Super Mario Galaxy - I lent my Wii to a friend for the end of the year, so the only Mario Galaxy I got to play was an extended romp following Thanksgiving dinner at Jamie's. I'm not sure that I'm ready to accept the proposition that it's as much fun as Mario 64 was, but it is fun. Long-jumping off of a platform and into orbit around it is one of the more satisfying things I've ever done in a game. But that isn't why Mario Galaxy gets a favorite-moment mention. I love collective play - when many people connect with each other over the shared experience of a game as it's being played - but I don't get nearly enough opportunities to play games in the environment you need to achieve it. The night I played Mario Galaxy, however, I was playing with a room full of happy, friendly, and turkey-stuffed people sharing the experience. A collective intake of breath accompanied every near-suicide as I attempted to navigate the Sweet Sweet Galaxy, and only by our collective force of will, and Jamie's cat-like reflexes as my P2, did Mario clear that last platform to safety. I think it was one of the few times this year that I got to feel the sublime sensation of shared play; certainly it was one of the most fun.

9. Bioshock - I still haven't played enough of Bioshock to give it a proper review, but I've played more of it than I had when I reviewed it the first time. And I have to admit, there's a lot to like about this game. It deserves a spot on this list just for the absolutely stellar atmosphere and environmental design. As for a favorite moment, well, on several occasions through the game I've experienced a quiet awe as, after clearing an area of zombie-like Splicers, I had a chance to walk around and take it all in. Perhaps my favorite such instance occurs before Splicers even enter the picture when, upon entering the lighthouse at the start of the game, I found a space somehow cavernous and claustrophobic, beautifully and lovingly and richly decorated, yet disquietingly empty. The air was filled by that haunting music, and I felt like I was looking in on something that had once been grand, and was forsaken.

8. Trauma Center: Second Opinion - I don't know why I love Trauma Center the way I do - it's much too hard for me, and that usually turns me off right out of the gate. But there's something entrancing about it, especially at the early levels, when I know that I can succeed as long as I don't screw up, and that knowledge makes me work furiously to finish before the patient flatlines. My favorite moment comes when Derek shouts, in one of the only bits of voice acting in the whole game, "I will save this patient!" It's cheesy, maybe, but the character's frank determination is infectious. And it's refreshing to play a game where success involves saving lives, rather than taking them.

7. Sam & Max: Season One - I was vaguely aware of Sam & Max, as a franchise and as a modern episodic game, before I picked up Season One this summer. I didn't realize that I would get quite such a kick out of it. After too long, this was my return to adventure gaming, and it was easy to remember why I loved the genre. The games are witty and clever but simple; the lack of complex or abstract puzzles puts the focus squarely on the story, which is fun and funny and nicely compact. Playing six 2 to 3 hour games made me realize that, while marathon games like Oblivion have their place, short games can be an incredible joy. My favorite moment was getting thrown into an old-school text adventure in the episode Reality 2.0. I'm just that much of a geek.

6. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass - You may remember that I was a little skeptical about Phantom Hourglass in the days leading up to its release. Drawing a path for your boomerang would be cool, no questions asked, but the whole concept of drawing on your map seemed a little gimmicky to me, and I was afraid it would bring down the whole game. Boy, was I mistaken. Phantom Hourglass is fun, although due to the onslaught of games this holiday season I haven't gotten to play as much as I'd have liked, but my favorite part by far was the dawning realization that I had seriously underestimated how developers could use that little gimmick to add innovation and depth to the play mechanics. For as many times as I've talked about data as content and information as currency, I had to play the game to understand how well treating information as a prize could work.

5. Once Upon a Time - I played Once Upon a Time for the first time during the week after Christmas, with my sister, while we were snowed in up in the mountains. I was extremely pleased to see how simple the game is, and how much fun it was to play. It falls into an odd and delightful cooperative-competitive category, where each player is ostensibly trying to win in a zero-sum fashion, but really everybody's goal is just to keep the story going. My favorite moment was when Captain Bart, the king-cum-pirate, instructed his lover to poison the kindly old woman who had cooked them nothing but potatoes every day. That's the kind of plot twist you just don't see in many of your commercial games.

4. Elite Beat Agents - Rhythm games have always held a strange appeal to me. I'm terrible at them, which is what makes it so strange. Also, I tend to get bored relatively quickly. I have a Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix mat gathering dust from the brief period when I was bursting with excitement about that game. Ditto the bongos from Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. In fact, the only rhythm game that has stayed consistently fun since the time I got it is Guitar Hero II, which I guess is what I love so much about Guitar Hero. I got tired of Elite Beat Agents pretty quickly, too, but damn was that game fantastic while I was playing it. I absolutely love the idea of people being able to overcome any problem with a little luck, perseverance, and the support of a team of snazzy male cheerleaders dancing to pop hits. The wonderful, cheery absurdity of the story was like, well, music to me. Favorite moment: Cheering on a parrot in a scuba helmet to the tune of Y.M.C.A. Also, the phrase "Agents are GO!"

3. Mass Effect - Mass Effect was, by far, my most anticipated game of the year. And it lived up to it's promise as a worthy successor to Knights of the Old Republic, which is one of my favorite games of all time. Certainly, the game isn't perfect, but most of its problems boil down to the fact that some of the secondary systems aren't as well designed or polished as the rest of the game. In other words, it's important to continually stress how not-perfect the game is because it's really so damn good. As with KOTOR before it, I'm partial to the romantic subplot in Mass Effect. I guess that my favorite moment of the game was when I ultimately turned down Kaiden's advances in favor of pursuing Liara. I'm used to any romance in a game like this being linear, if optional. Having to make a choice, and follow through with it by explicitly rejecting a character that I had rather gotten to like over the course of the game, was emotionally potent, especially because the characters and situations were so well presented.

2. The Baron - The Baron deserves a proper review, and I'm still planning to give it one eventually. For anyone who isn't familiar with it, this is a work of interactive fiction that I found through the Play This Thing! blog last summer. It's a cyclical game, meant to be played more than once, and on the first play-through it's a good example of what the form brings to the table. The game is structured as a short series of encounters, where the overall organization is almost entirely linear, but there are many ways to navigate each individual encounter. The text interface makes me feel more of a sense of freedom in my interaction with the world, and it's worth playing the game just to remember what we lose by using graphical interface systems. There's a moment of realization at the end of the game, however, that imbues the whole experience with an additional layer of meaning. Maybe because I didn't really see it coming, or maybe because of the subject matter of the game, this was one of the most powerful moments I've ever experienced in gaming.

1. Portal - Come on, what's not to love about Portal? I can't even count all the favorite moments that came out of this game: perfecting the double-fling, discovering the graffito-ridden back rooms, Jonathan Coulton's song, reading the history of Aperture Science on aperturescience.com, the cake... Clearly I'm obsessed, but Portal is in many ways a masterpiece of a game. If I have to pick just one favorite moment, though, it's the line, "There was even going to be a party for you. A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the companion cube. Of course, he couldn't come because you murdered him."

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RJ said:

Based on your post here, I decided to try out The Baron. I've always had a soft spot for Interactive Fiction so I was actually pretty eager to try it. I don't know of many places that really "review" or recommend IF, so if you know of any (besides yourself) I would love to hear it.

As for the game: wow! Definitely leaves a lasting impression. I like that the game is so short and yet so powerful and effective. I wish the translation was a little better, and I think the direction away from puzzles and enemies and focusing more on story is fascinating. As you know I'm a "gameplay first" kind of guy, but I think IF has a special position where only so much can be done with the gameplay... and the medium is really there for authored stories anyway.

At any rate, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for mentioning it!

ndef Author Profile Page said:

I'm glad you tried it out, RJ! As I said, I found it through Play This Thing!, which is by no means exclusive to IF but does review it every once in a while. Your best resource, though, is probably going to be the XYZZY Awards. You can find the 2006 winners here; the 2007 winners haven't been announced yet. I'm not an expert on IF - I haven't played a lot of these - but my personal recommendations would be Floatpoint (which won Best Setting in 2006) and Lock & Key (which won a couple awards in 2002). Let me know if you find others that you would recommend!

Victor Gijsbers said:

Hi guys,

Thanks for trying out my, well, "game", and I am very glad you liked it. :)

As for the translation, I agree with RJ that it is a weak point. I am planning to do a rewrite of the English version in order to improve the prose, but it might not happen any time soon--I'm working on a big new Interactive Fiction project and I also have to finish my PhD. But is definitely going to happen sometime.


ndef Author Profile Page said:

Hey, Victor! Thanks for the comment. I hope you weren't offended by the term "game"; I use it in the broad sense of interactive media and don't mean to imply that The Baron is merely a diversion. In any case, thank you for creating it! I think it's very well done, it does a number of really quite interesting things with the narrative, and is emotionally powerful to boot.

Good luck with your current and upcoming projects! I look forward to seeing your next piece of interactive fiction when it's ready. :-)

Victor Gijsbers said:

No, I was not offended at all. I usually don't call "The Baron" a game because it doesn't really contain any elements I would call "gamey"--unlike my second IF "Fate", which has some puzzles, and my work in progress "Idols of War", which relies on CRPG-style tactical combat.

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