Games of the Year 2015 (Part 3)

The final five of my Top 15 Games of 2015; again it is worth repeating that being in this final five does not reflect on relative quality, only timing.

OlliOlli 2

OlliOlli 2 is an entertaining follow-up to the original OlliOlli, expanding on its straightforward skateboarding action and serving as another prime example of how the endless runner genre can be expanded into an in-depth game. Combining the simple jump-and-dodge action and challenge chasing of something like Punch Quest with the arcade skateboarding action of the classic Tony Hawk games, it is challenging yet still easy enough to learn. The plethora of such fun, retro-style action games which merge modern light game sensibilities with the finely-tuned ideas of retro gaming that can be bought on various download services is a pleasant thing; many of these games serve to remind the player of the good memories they have of retro games while including many of the changes to the medium that have improved it.

Mario Maker

Mario Maker stuck with me far more easily than the comparable LittleBigPlanet mostly because Mario is iconic and something with which I was familiar. As a creation kit for 2D platform games it is not perfect – the gating of map components, while a sensible ease-of-use feature for new players, was too slowly undone – but as a recreation of Mario physics it is spot-on. As a result levels can be made that do not necessitate anything except experience of Mario to take part – one of the things I disliked about LBP was its idiosyncratic physics and mechanics that never seemed to gel with me. The virtues of Mario Marker are primarily ease-of-use and quality-of-life ones; the core game engine within is so timeworn and refined it is hard to fault. Players may not upload a level they cannot beat (removing some of the issues endemic to other user-creation engines of unplayable junk levels predominating), for example. In many ways a refined, user-experience focused Mario level maker is the best use of retro game nostalgia possible; the player may design their own play experience and be given the tools of classic game design with a user-friendly front-end.

Assault Android Cactus

Although this game was released via Steam Early Access some time ago, it was finally finished in 2015 and was very much worth the wait. A twin-stick shooter with a large library of unique characters, interesting multi-stage bosses and entertaining cheat codes unlocked by scoring well, it is – much like OlliOlli 2 – a modern user-experience gloss on retro gaming. Cheat codes range from deformed models and colour filters to adding AI players, super-difficulty modes and most interestingly of all a slightly erratic but interesting first-person mode – arguably unplayable on some levels but entertaining it how functional it is. Although it is mechanically a simple arena shooter there are enough level gimmicks, enemy variations and weapon options to make it highly replayable; there is a lot of fun to be found in taking a new character with a new moveset into old levels to set a high score. A real highlight of the level gimmicks is a very difficult late-game level which turns the basic timer mechanic (players must grab battery items to keep their timer going) on its head by adding an AI rival competing for the same power-ups.

Star Wars Battlefront

This may be a controversial choice; some people have argued this game too simple and lacking depth to have lasting enjoyment value. I would argue that in theory this is its virtue; it sells itself as offering a Star Wars experience and provides that without the in-depth customisation that adds busywork to Call of Duty. From the off players can be Star Wars characters, getting the iconic Rebel and Imperial blasters, X Wings and TIE Fighters without needing to unlock them. Powerups add some democracy to the Battlefield inspired vehicle action by limiting the opportunity to camp vehicle spawns, and also add the joy of getting to fly the Millennium Falcon or become Darth Vader. One can sit down and get as epic or as restrained an experience as one wants; it is a FPS for busy people and there is definitely a place for that. While, arguably, Call of Duty‘s 5-minute matches are perhaps more suitable for quick play the work of maintaining classes and the drip-feeding of unlocks via weapon XP, unlock tokens and so on adds a metagaming level to it that Star Wars does not have. Players can get new blasters, but that is as far as it goes and the iconic weapons – the classic Stormtrooper rifle, for example – are available from the start.

DanganRonpa Ultra Despair Girls

DanganRonpa and its sequel are fascinating, grotesque visual novels with logic puzzle elements. That this spinoff is a third-person shooter seems at first bizarre, but the result is something far weirder and more compelling than anyone could imagine. It redoubles the grotesque horror of DanganRonpa, with the loathsome Monokuma in many ways replaced as antagonist by a group of depraved children whose backstories – revealed in grim cutscenes – should be sympathetic but cannot easily be reconciled with the way they act. It is a game of ever-deeper depths of vileness and the only catharsis comes in its wearyingly peppy comedy between the dim protagonist and the erratic, lecherous Toko Fukawa (a returning character from the first game). Full of esoteric anime jokes, interesting and challenging collectible hunts and puzzle rooms and some strangely-designed shooter mechanics that work in a way that disorients veterans of the genre, Ultra Despair Girls feels like a meta-commentary on shooters and the expectations of misunderstood villains.

Games of the Year 2015 (Part 2)

These are the next five games in my Top 15 of 2015; again, there is no weighted or ranked order given, these are merely the games which I most enjoyed playing and would most recommend.

Black Closet

Black Closet is an unusual game; it is a dice-based investigation game with a heavy resource management aspect and a hidden traitor mechanic that give it the overall feel of a board game like Dark Moon or Battlestar Galactica. The joy of those board games is the way in which hidden information and personal agendas turn routine resource-management in the face of an increasingly punishing deck of crises into an experience of memorable personal stories of betrayal and deception. Simulating this with an AI on its own would be dull, as there is no capacity to “read” people or utilise social aspects. What Black Closet does is add the aspects of game design that a computer game excels at – narrative. Each crisis in Black Closet is framed with flavour text and different “actions” met with in-character responses. In one case, the suspect may break at the first sign of pressure while in another they may remain defiant to the end. Similarly, the ways in which the player must find the traitor include moments of character interaction, inviting suspects for interviews under social guises. Although it is largely randomly generated, Black Closet has a lot of character to it and an engaging mixture of gamist elements (in the assignment of “workers” to “actions”) and narrativist elements (choosing friends, pursuing relationships, acting thematically). One could convert it easily to a board game – it wears its mechanics plainly on its sleeve, and one could generate a deck of crises the size of Battlestar‘s, and a deck of social challenges to rival Dead of Winter‘s Crossroads deck, but in many ways the substitution of social interaction with visual novel narrative makes it unique.

Splatoon

What sets Splatoon apart from almost every other multiplayer arena shooter is its ability to follow through on inoffensiveness. It is worth noting that for the longest time the defence of shooter games against accusations of normalising violence was they they were clearly simulated and distanced from real conflict, their lack of realism and their competitive, sporting nature what made them incomparable with real war. This is not easy to rationalise with a movement in gaming towards ever more realistic weaponry, locales and political focus. The stories being told and the medium of the telling were unrealistic, but the visual trappings were realistic which, in my mind, undermines the claims that it is fantastical. And, indeed, if one is to believe that playing a game of war is harmless sporting competition, and that sporting competition wears the visuals of real conflict, there is an alarming association. By contrast, Splatoon offered nothing but play and sport. It at no point framed itself in real weaponry, or real violence, or even the real world. It was creatures playing with toys in friendly, pain-free rivalry. Its settings were sporting arenas and civilian places not bombed out and wartorn but put aside for sport. It did not need technobabble to explain why real bullets and missiles could be fired and the people respawn, it simply said that its focus was on paintballing. One may still argue that the very act of combat games is the product of a militarised society, but everything else about Splatoon suggests that it is prepared to follow through on the claims that shooter games do not depict real war.

N++

N++ is an abstract, pure game of geometric shapes, basic hazards and reflex tests. It is entirely skill-based, predictable and based on the mastery of its systems. As a result it is best described as the distillation of the platform game genre, and possibly even an ur-video game. What, I feel, these archetypal, pared-down games do is offer one extreme of why video games excel as a form of entertainment. Something like Steins;Gate is pure story, something to be immersed in. Something like N++ is pure skill, a reaction test and patience test. In some ways playing it is like work – it does not even have the theme and character of top-tier skill test Bloodborne, it is purely minimalist action. But at the same time it is rewarding in its abstraction. Card games are abstract – they are purely numerical and statistical exercises that do not try to tell a story. Perhaps titles like N++ – which are pure games yet not efforts to recreate physical games or sport-like activities in digital forms – fill that same niche as something like cribbage or whist do for board games?

Tales from the Borderlands

Telltale Games’ library of licensed adventure games, which offer limited interaction yet a strong focus on characters and choices which gives the illusion of far greater choice, can be seen perhaps as a Western analogue to the more popularly Japanese visual novel. They add aspects of first- and third-person action games as well as traditional point-and-click adventures, with reflex-based combat sequences and more freeform exploration, and the whole package is highly entertaining. Tales from the Borderlands is a good example – a spinoff of the comedy shooter series Borderlands, which takes what is arguably its most interesting aspect (the comedy and setting) and puts it into a form that needs a different skill-set to a loot-based FPS. Such reinventions are interesting – there is something of a tension between the heavily skill-based genres of game and the narrativist movement of the medium, and something that expands a series across boundaries is to be praised. What is particularly to Tales‘ credit is how funny it is, and how it does something interesting with the setting; by removing the shooting aspect, it is able to have a protagonist who is ill-suited to the violence inherent to the setting and so much of the comedy is about him trying to avoid conflict.

Yoshi’s Woolly World

Yoshi’s Woolly World is an excellent update of the classic Yoshi’s Island, an entertaining platform game which in its time was notable for its unique hand-drawn art style. Woolly World goes one further, with a hand-crafted aesthetic of everything knitted or sewn, and puzzles and mechanics based around this. Secrets are hidden by loose threads or knots to be untied, the trademark egg is replaced by a ball of wool, and secret items include more balls of wool which allow new characters to be woven. As a platform game it is not necessarily the most innovative, for even its methods of combining aesthetics and mechanics generally fall back on genre staples, but it is exceptionally well-crafted and enjoyable to play – surely enough of an asset. It is one of those games which tightly combines looks, sound and level design to make something which is consistently entertaining and high-quality. If anything, it makes clear the importance of aesthetics in making a game something more than a mere test of pressing buttons with good reflexes; N++ may be the epitome of skill tests, but Yoshi is a very nice piece of visual art.

Games of the Year 2015 (Part 1)

As 2015 reaches its end, it is time for the annual list feature; fifteen video games I enjoyed playing. These are not in any particular order, because it is impossible to objectively say which I liked more than any other – these are simply the fifteen games I played that were released this year that I would without hesitation recommend. There are several probably conspicuous absences – I have not played high-profile titles like Undertale, Fallout 4, Witcher 3 or Her Story. I am sure if I had played them they may have placed.

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GO WITH ME EXKAISER

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The 1990 TV anime Brave Exkaiser was the first entry in the Brave franchise, and while it is a highly generic super-robot series it is interesting to view it as laying the groundwork for ideas that the subsequent franchise entries would build on. Tracking the ways in which these ideas develop provides a way of looking at the franchise as a whole that in some way serves to explain its often interesting approach to a super-robot story. Central to almost all entries (the notable exception being Brave Command Dagwon) is a focus – often humorous – at the relationship between a young boy and some number of robot friends. In some cases this is heavily brought to the fore – Brave Police J-Decker runs with the idea by having a whole stable of robots all with human companions and even – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion – love interests. Often the intent is not to make a serious statement about the nature of machines and humans, but the shift from the child hero piloting a robot to a child surrounded by robots and aliens is an interesting angle which is often used for endearing comedy.

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Short Story – Delicacy of Touch

This is another story focused heavily on action, in an indistinct fantasy setting. There are elements of wuxia here, and elements of Japanese culture, and certainly elements of European nobility. I did not want this to be clearly identifiable as any one culture transplanted into another world, because what interests me in writing fantasy is trying to remove the social and cultural signifieds from signifiers; fantasy is at its best when recognisable things are not quite so recognisable.

So in a world where there are spiritual, manicured courtyard gardens, one of hiding behind screens and long sleeves, there is also fencing and theories of swordsmanship that feel intensely European.

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Everything to Hide and Everything to Fear – Moral Panic in Concrete Revolutio

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Concrete Revolutio is a series which is complex, holding the cards of its main plot close to its chest; eight episodes in it is hard to see exactly where the endgame will be despite Shin Mazinger-esque flashforwards showing some dystopian, uncertain future where alliances made during the main episodic plots seem inverted and the utopia that the heroes want to fight for has failed. It is clear from these main plots that the hoped-for utopia is based on a faulty premise, but there is the hope that the characters will realise this; each story has their faith in the world shaken a little more, but how this ties into a future where their actions are framed almost villainously is as yet unclear. This is fitting; it is a series about the people who control the image of, and perception of, heroism and justice. It is a series that calls into question the popular perception of justice, and it is perhaps for this reason I find myself comparing it repeatedly to Giant Robo.

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Family, Brotherhood and Motherhood in Eureka Seven 46

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The overwhelming theme of episode 46 of Eureka Seven is family and the ability of familial ties to overcome grief and disagreement. It is not limited to traditional familial units, picking up on the series’ emphasis on nontraditional families and family-like entities and exploring how within close-knit social and professional groups like military units a certain kind of familial piety can exist. It would be easy to say that it is examining friendship more than family, but the constant theme throughout the series has been how, for people who lack biological parents, these social groups become a new family. What matters more than blood ties is that there are dependable – even if they are flawed – people to offer advice and support if needed.

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Iron Blooded Orphans Is, Unsurprisingly, Not as Good as Turn-A Gundam

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As G-Tekketsu proceeds into its seventh episode, it is a conflicting series; it hints at some very interesting ideas it has yet to satisfactorily develop, some other details have turned into a very interesting character study and it sits in an uneasy place between lazy formula and a genuinely interesting take on well-worn ideas. In my initial writing on the series I highlighted its subtlety and willingness to use body language and implicit bits of character development as strengths; it was setting up a contrast between a cynical and pragmatic yet ultimately ignorant hero, and an idealistic yet out-of-touch privileged woman trying to reach out to him. This continues for a while; during the series’ episodes on Mars, the protagonist, Mika, is shown to be illiterate and able to fight only by the muscle memory of his life as a tank driver – in time he admits this and tries to learn to write, but before then it is shown by his refusal to read manuals or instructions. Mika – and his superior officer Orga – remain the most interesting characters even as the series falls into a slump; their dynamic has become a strange inversion of the usual machismo of robot anime.

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NaNoWriMo Short Story – On-Site Procurement

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I have not written action, pure, enjoyable action – not a deconstruction or a subversion or any such thing – for a very long time. Whenever I try I find I want to subvert expectations – and so, in this season of writing short stories against my grain I thought I would write a simple cyberpunk-esque fight scene. There is not much to comment on – my intent was to simply try and write an exciting vignette rather than an in-depth dissection of a genre.

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NaNoWriMo Short Story: Teacher of Love and Justice (愛と正義の先生)

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After my last story ended up a very dark one, all about the horrible secrets behind something innocuous, I wanted to write something very lighthearted. One of my favourite animated films is Kiki’s Delivery Service, mostly because of how amiably it presents the idea of magic in everyday life and how it talks about ideas of the expectations placed on young people. I was thinking about it recently, along with other nonviolent magical girl anime; series like Creamy Mami about trying to use magic for fun. A lot of the ways in which magic is depicted in such fiction are as wish-fulfillment opportunities. They give a girl the chance to do what she has always wanted to, to not want for things. Even in the more combat-oriented series like Sailor Moon, it is someone on the bottom rung socially given the power.

If you think about it, magic, as the power to become something else, is effectively wealth and privilege. So, I began thinking about turning this around; what if a good-hearted person of comfortable means was given magic? How would they use it well? The answer, I felt, was this…

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