Technically, this is eleven games and not all of them were released this year; but this year was the first time I understood them, the first time they left a mark. It’s a little distressing to see how many of these games involve shooting mans in slow motion, but there you go. It’s what I like. Apparently.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
Every bullet counts, but every reload counts more and I thumb fresh bullets into my powder-hot revolvers and stretch and strain every instance of slow-motion time to keep my combo going, to devour an entire town’s worth of no-good punks in a single breathless mouthful. In Gunslinger’s time attack mode, you are a momentum-powered engine of destruction and these armed men are nothing but warm red wet places to put your bullets.
I can feel my mind rearranging. For years – for ever – whenever I’ve run a tabletop game I’ve planned and schemed and refined my notes over and over, and that’s not happening. I came to the game with no ideas, and during character creation my players gave me more than I could handle.
We’re in a futuristic walking city. Okay – someone’s going to stop the walking city from walking in the right direction. Who? This player hates mutants. Let’s make it mutants! This player says he was in a gang. A rival gang is helping the mutants! Okay! I am frantically smoking at the back of a concrete-floored room and writing this all down, spinning ideas together until they hang in the air under their own power.
Bioshock looked incredible; it is a glamorous game, in that it has a glamour over it, much in the same way a witch might cast a spell over herself. Caught up in the hype of release and the sumptuous level design, I was tricked.
Wait, no; I’m bandwagoning, I’m deliberately saying that Bioshock Infinite tricked me into liking it so if people who didn’t like it for reasons that I a) can’t really agree with but b) I’m not entirely sure I understand read this they will still respect me, the same way that I used an indie screenshot at the top of this article rather than a breathtaking tableau from this game. But I am low on respect anyway, so: I liked Bioshock Infinite a lot. A lot. The combat was sub-par, but it functioned. The storyline was interesting, but it was in the wrong game. Whatever.
It looked – oh gosh, how it looked. The cardboard cut-out Red Indians and flames in the museum. The streaming red silk tied around the statue of Lady Comstock. The baptismal chamber and the myriad candles. The red-tinted sky and flaring banners of the uprising. I’ve never seen a game more beautiful.
Grand Theft Auto V
I crashed my car near the beach and as I staggered out of the wreckage and away from the police a man pulled out his cameraphone and took a picture of me. That. That writ large. That almost-stupid level of attention to detail, spread across the entire game like expensive jam on thick white bread. I’ll not rush back in to play the game; it felt disparate, unconnected, hard to remember thanks to the way it juggled narratives, but… he took a picture of the crash.
I told my friends about it. I think I might have tweeted about it. I got to exchange anecdotes with people about things they’d found, seen, experienced. It felt like talking about Goldeneye 007 back around the school dinner tables in the late nineties.
I will destroy my wife. I will run her corporation into the ground. I am a digital wizard, casting icebreaker spells that punch clean through her defences and let me into her private kingdoms; not just the cards she’s trying to play and upgrade to win the game, but her deck, her hand. Traditions thought inviolate are commonplace. I run a smash-and-grab operation every round, navigating through backdoors, earning cash with every heist.
It is Christmas and we are very far from home but we play our new present, over and over, and sometimes I win and sometimes I lose but this game, this game, I want to kiss this game on the mouth. This game is so clever. This game is fascinating. This game is gorgeous. If this game was a person I would need to drink an entire bottle of wine before I even attempted talking to it.
SUPER HOT. SUPER HOT. SUPER HOT.
This is turn-based combat in real time in your browser. It is gorgeous and slick and it makes you feel immeasurably badass and, for the first time since Max Payne did in the early noughties, it’s doing something clever with the idea of slow-motion gunfights. It can only go up from here. I am beyond excited for it.
Minecraft didn’t come out this year, but this year marked my discovery of how to play it. We built a server. Hungover and shattered from the night before, I miss the opening morning and the others scamper around and make a three-storey house in a great hill, and I decide that I want to mark the world. I want to make it my own.
I will build a cathedral.
So I do, and others help, and it quickly gets out of my control; there are stained glass windows, and a bell that rings at sunrise (although no-one can hear it) and a minecart ride to the coast that runs off the roof and, underneath the altar made of the blood of a murdered black sheep, lies a portal to another realm.
The world sprawls. There are grand works. Stories. James makes a pyramid that kills monsters and dumps their belongings in a chest, like some horrendous open-top slaughterhouse. George builds an iris door. Chris… Chris built Captain Horse’s Horse House. Captain Horse was Chris’ horse. He lived in a horse house.
Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel
I am invincible. I am unstoppable. I have a gun that shoots fire like a dragon shoots fire; people, other characters, talk around me but it’s like the buzzing of a beehive to my hungry bear. I have written about this before.
Monaco and Samurai Gunn
I am a bank-robber. I am a samurai. I am pulling my friend to their feet and spraying at guards with a sub-machine gun. I am parrying strikes as I skim through the air.
But both of these games deal in the abstract; their graphics are simple (but elegant, especially in Monaco’s case), their verbs are streamlined, the functions of a player are made clear and are easily defined. Your choices are various but obvious. Your techniques, your tactics, are complex but not complicated.
These tricks let players fill in the gaps; make the graphics better and they’d lose it. This is a game of make believe. Much in the same way that miniatures on a wet-erase mat can give your D&D players the idea of an epic battle, the blocky little sprites in these downloadable games give their imagination just enough room to manoeuvre itself into position.
I am a dashing ex-military ex-slave code-talker half-orc bard. My wife is a malfunctioning wizard robot built by goblins. My best friend is a stoic elven ranger sworn to uphold the honour of the Briarguard. We live and work in a forest temple, on the edge of the wild wood.
We are bound together, devotees of the forest temple. This all happened during character creation. Chris’ ranger was a bit boring so we considered some sort of hokey forest religion for him to get behind and all of a sudden we’re pissing out ideas, making up traditions, he gets a set of Temple Longswords that he only uses on special occasions, we can see the thorns and bristles around the wooden walls of the temple, smell the moss under our imaginary feet.
13th Age says YES to players. It says it loud and it says it long. It sings it. It asks them what they want from a game, and it gives it to them, and they’re none the wiser that it’s happened.
I am in Melbourne, and to say that it is no longer a strange city to me is strange in itself; I should not be familiar with this place. It is on the wrong side of the world. And yet; we are in Theatreworks in Melbourne and Pop-Up Playground have asked us to run Ludonarrative Discodance which is a silly game about dancing and charades. We crew, too.
I help out and Pop-Up Playground bring out their new game called The Ride, and it is astonishing. It is perfect. You play Viking warriors with cardboard swords and axes and you must duel an opponent in no-contact slow-motion, much in the same way you’d have pretendy slow-motion gunfights with your friends, and through the crowd move three people on hobby horses in silly horned hats and pigtail wigs. They are the Valkyries. They judge who lives and dies. If they tap you on the shoulder, you have to die in the most over-the-top manner possible.
And then – if you die – you carry on playing, as a helpful warrior spirit, and you can act in service of the surviving vikings. If they throw an axe, you can guide it through the air with spectral hands. If they want to fly, and you’re strong enough, they can fly.
I got to help people fly.
The Ride is liberating, performative, thrilling. I am hard pressed to think of a live game that I have enjoyed more.