Face Off pits two gladiators against each other as they tackle gaming's most perplexing conundrums. This New Year's Eve edition is a chronological throw-down: which decade gave PC gaming the most? Podcast Producer Erik Belsaas says it was the '90s—the origin of modern PC gaming. Executive Editor Evan Lahti insists it was the '00s, with its speedy internet, better PCs, and shinier graphics engines.
Evan: The 1990s had the CD-ROM and the McRib sandwich. The ‘00s had Windows XP and two terrible Star Wars movies. I think the latter birthed better games: the Battlefield series, Crysis, Company of Heroes, BioShock, Dragon Age: Origins, Guild Wars, The Sims, Rome: Total War, Star Wars: KOTOR, and the best Civilization games happened then. What've you got, Erik?
Erik: Lucasarts, id, Ion Storm, Interplay, Blizzard: the iconic names that created franchises that we still discuss today. “RTS,” “FPS,” and “MMO” had no meaning before the pioneers of the '90s came along with some-thing other than sequels and rehashes: Baldur's Gate, Wolfenstein 3D, Duke Nukem 3D, MechWarrior, Unreal Tournament and every LucasArts adventure game from Sam & Max to Grim Fandango.
Evan: This is going to devolve into who can name-drop more game titles, isn't it?
Erik: Pretty much.
Evan: Cool. In that case, let’s put the best we've got on the page. What are the top three games from your decade? Mine: WoW, Counter-Strike, and Half-Life 2.
Erik: Just three? How about X-COM, Fallout, and The Secret of Monkey Island. Timeless classics that we still play today.
Evan: Is that the best that the decade that gave us the Spice Girls has got, grandpa? The innovations of the '00s will last far longer. Half-Life 2 wasn't just the basis for the way modern action games tell stories, it’s the technological foundation for the most ambitious mods we have today and the preferred canvas for machinima creators. World of Warcraft’s meteoric rise brought PC gaming into popular culture, ruined innumerable marriages, and earned its own South Park episode. Top that.
Erik:Your great games are all parts of established franchises that began in the '90s. For that matter, the original Counter-Strike mod came out in 1999, before Valve turned it into a retail product! Take away the names that began in the '90s, the '00s would've created very little of their own.
Evan: Megabyte for megabyte, I’d rather replay Half-Life 2 than its predecessor. Likewise for Diablo II, Warcraft III, Fallout 3 and other major franchises that began in the '90s but matured in the '00s. I really think that the tech of the '00s (better operating systems, fast internet, faster PCs) produced better gaming experiences. EVE Online couldn't exist in the '90s. Team Fortress 2's dozens of free content updates couldn't have streamed down our wimpy modems—the same goes for 25-man WoW raids or a heavily modded playthrough of Oblivion or Morrowind.
Erik: You've got a short memory. EverQuest allowed 72-man raids. And before Oblivion and Morrowind came Daggerfall, which was amazing and heavily modded. Doom, the father of modding, came out in '93.
Evan: I’ll play your game, Belsaas. Here's my ace: Deus Ex, our most favorite game ever, happened in 2000.
Erik: Deus Ex is a good game...but how about StarCraft? Has any other game absolutely defined its genre or rallied an entire nation behind it like a sport?
Evan: I was worried you’d play the Korea card. What can I counter that with? The 100-million-selling main-stream success of The Sims? The booming popularity of independent gaming? ...Peggle?
Erik: Peggle? Well I’ve got...you know...uh...Carmen Sandiego. Fine. Peggle wins.
"You can call it the Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator if you really want to," Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance said as we were introduced to the Gravity Gun, one of the most memorable physics-twisting tools of PC gaming. Soon you'll be able to lug around your very own triumph of science: collectible manufacturing company NECA announced a 1:1 Gravity Gun replica available for purchase in spring 2013.
Though it misses this holiday shopping season by a few gluons, the model—still in an early prototype stage—looks like it'll tout just as much fine detail as NECA's Portal Gun. A pre-order form should be available soon, NECA said. We presume it won't take headcrab legs as currency.
Remember Uplink? (No, not that Uplink.) Valve called its original demo for Half-Life "Uplink" in 1999. It took place during Gordon Freeman's journey through the spooky Lambda Core, but Valve eventually cut the content, later repackaging it as a separate demo. Black Mesa: Uplink reproduces Uplink's levels through Black Mesa's art assets and textures.
Tasked with reactivating an antenna to send a distress signal, players must guide Gordon and his magical, mighty crowbar (minds out of the gutter, kids) through the Lambda complex's radioactive bowels. You'll meet Black Mesa denizens we all know and love: scientists, Barney, Vortigaunts, dead scientists, and headcrabs. Because it was a demo, however, Uplink doesn't last long, but it presents a new branch in Black Mesa's storied saga.
Grab Uplink from Mod DB. Note: You'll need the also-free Black Mesa for it to work.
Games get a bad rap for being a solitary, violence-obsessed form of entertainment. But they can also be a collaborative, violence-obsessed form of entertainment. Just ask the close-knit PC Gamer team.
Tom F: Co-op based games teach us the value of teamwork better than any kitten based motivational poster, by showing us how many more of our enemies we can crush if we can just learn to work together.
Graham: They’re not just violent either. We can build giant penis statues together in Minecraft. No, wait, that’s bad. We can control egotistical millionaires in FIFA! Oh God, no. Rich?
Rich: Well, Supreme Commander celebrates the pioneering spirit, by asking us to build a host of clanking deathbots... I got nothing. Chris?
Chris: Uh. Diablo III shows that hell is easier with other people? Hm. Senior? Bail me out?
Tom S: I can’t, I’m too busy shooting these damn zombies. Stop intro-ing and let’s go play together.
Portal 2 - 2 players, Online
How does it work? You and a friend play comedy robots in co-op-only test chambers.
Why is it good?
Tom F: The puzzles get magnificently complicated when designed for two. You can jump through each other’s portals, so you’re often setting up a jump that your partner will perform. And because every puzzle requires two players, you’ve got to figure out where to put four different portals, and coordinate your approach. It bent my brain in the same ridiculous ways that Portal 1 did.
Graham: I use my portals to make a corridor slick with gloopy paint. Tom places his at either end of the corridor, creating the world’s first infinite slip ’n’ slide. I run down it and build absurd momentum, and as I reach terminal velocity, Tom moves one of his portals so that when I exit, I’m flung out over a chasm filled with acid. Co-op Portal 2 means entwining not just your portals, but your brains.
Minecraft - 2 to many, online or LAN
How does it work? Join a server and collaborate with friends – or strangers – to build the biggest, best, and most phallic structures you can.
Why is it good?
Rich: Within minutes, I was building a spa. I don’t know why I was building a spa. No one had said “let’s build a spa” in the chat channel, but there it was, forming before us. Graham, now-departed Craig Pearson and I, had hollowed out an underground chamber, constructed a raised dais of glass, and diverted water to create a lovely jacuzzi pool. Our subterranean sauna was lit by lava, and we sat in it, content.
Graham: My first time was on a new, private server with a few folks from the PCG community. In three hours we dotted the landscape with giant Darwinians, and built an underground bunker with launch missiles, library and steam rooms to avoid a player who had built an ugly golden bridge around the world. It felt like I’d spent an afternoon building sandcastles with friends.
Fifa 12 - 2-5 players, local
How does it work? Two or more players join forces to defeat the nefarious forces of Computron, the dark lord of kicking.
Why is it good?
Rich: Football is incredibly frustrating. FIFA recreates that frustration perfectly: genius moves undone by idiot players. But in co-op, I managed to reduce that frustration through one simple method: blame someone else. I think I’m great at FIFA 12 at the best of times; when I’m playing in co-op, I’m flawless. Graham, on the other hand, is terrible.
Graham: And Rich smells bad. For a while, we were playing two-on-two, but then our fourth man lost interest. We started playing two-on-one. Here’s what we found: the player controlling a team on their own has the advantage. To work together in FIFA is to anticipate the other’s moves, making runs and pulling away defenders. If you do it right, you’re unstoppable. If you’re Rich and I, Rich smells bad.
Diablo 3 - Up to four, drop-in, drop-out co-op across the whole campaign
How does it work? Every player you add to a game of Diablo III boosts the health of your enemies, increasing the challenge – but far less than it did on launch, when damage increased as well. Otherwise, it’s just Diablo III with more people.
Why is it good?
Chris: D3’s normal difficulty is very easy, but it gains a lot of life if you’re doing it with friends. Experimenting with new skills adds a slapstick dimension to demonbashing that’s better with other people. It’s basically that bit from Lord of the Rings where Legolas and Gimli are competing to kill the most orcs, strung out over 15 hours.
Tom S: Having a friend or two around gives you more freedom to experiment with new abilities. If you’ve got a Barbarian chum to wave and shout and take punches to the face, you can sacrifice a defensive ability for that demonic ghost bat bombing run skill you’ve been dying to try. Few things amaze and terrify a co-op partner as effectively as an unannounced demonic ghost bat bombing run.
Chris: It used to be that co-op Diablo III didn’t work: it was too diffi cult, and actually reduced the amount of loot you seemed to get. Patches have since redressed the balance, and working together to crack Inferno is a satisfying challenge.
Alien Swarm - Up to 4 players, online
How does it work? It’s a top-down shooter where you control a squad of four marines shooting aliens in a scripted campaign.
Why is it good?
Rich: People love swarms. The swarms of aliens in Alien Swarm (clue’s in the name), are best dealt with by coordination: one of your group becomes point-man, clearing rooms with shotguns and flamethrowers. Another takes up the rear, machinegun blaring to dissuade any would-be alien pouncers. This coordination is the result of a kind of natural, happy trance that players fall into, rather than tiresome enforcement.
Tom F: I’m a Medic, which used to mean I was the sensible, cautious, team player. Until I realised I could take a chainsaw. It’s terrible. It’s a terrible weapon, don’t use it. You can’t just charge into alien hordes, blade revving. OK, just one more go.
Trine - Up to 3 players, online or LAN
How does it work? Each player can transform themselves into a thief, warrior or wizard at any time. In the mode we play, you can have two Thieves at once if you like.
Why is it good?
Tom F: It’s a physics-based platform puzzler, which in co-op means dropping heavy objects on each other for fun. The wizard can create boxes and levitate them, and your co-op partner can stand on them. Most of our solutions involved carting each other around on telekinetic elevators.
Graham: Trine’s best class is the grapple-hooking, arrow-firing thief, because of the arrow-fi ring but specifically because of the grapple-hooking. In the singleplayer game, you’re forced to switch away from the thief to navigate obstacles and fi ght larger enemies. In co-op, two thieves are better than one, and combined you’re able to spend more time as a swinging idiot. The best kind of idiot.
Left 4 Dead 2 - Up to 4 players, online or LAN
How does it work? - There are lots of game modes now, but the one we play most is still the campaign: four players against the AI-controlled zombie hordes.
Why is it good?
Tom S: I ran through Left 4 Dead 1’s campaign on its hardest diffi culty setting with a group of regulars. We played in the 4 6 5 same small room for many hot, panicked hours until our cries of fear overruled the rattling pistol fire coming out of our speakers. The defence events and climactic mission fi nales offered us a chance to take stock and plan, but the best moments happened when those plans disintegrated in the face of an unexpected Tank charge, or a perfectly placed Witch.
The AI director never quite offered the longevity that it promised, and the monsters lost their scare factor after a while, but Left 4 Dead is still a superb, if harrowing, co-op experience. Ever since Valve ported the fi rst game’s superior maps into the sequel, Left 4 Dead 2 has been the better choice of the pair.
Tom F: There’s an achievement for winning a garden gnome on the fairground level, and taking it all the way through the rest of that campaign. For me, that is the game. It takes both hands to carry the gnome, so whoever’s holding it can’t fi re their weapons. You can set it down and grab it later, but among huge crowds of zombies and charging Tanks, it tends to get kicked around with alarming force.
So you take it in turns to sacrifice your firepower and carry the precious cargo, relying completely on your friends to protect you and your porcelain companion when it’s your turn. If a zombie does get to you, all you can really do is bash him with the gnome.
The carnival finale, set in a huge stadium, was just too intense for any of us to survive it gunless. So when the helicopter finally arrived to bail us out, the real challenge was a frantic scavenger hunt for a chipped red hat among the seething infected. Finding him, grabbing him, and making it out alive was the most nail-biting co-op experience I’ve ever had with the game.
Half Life 2 - 2-10 players, online or LAN
How does it work? The Synergy mod enables two or more of you to jump straight into Half-Life 2, Episode One or Episode Two’s singleplayer campaign.
Why is it good?
Tom F: Half-Life 2 is a huge and amazing adventure. And while there are a lot of great co-op games, there aren’t many that are huge and amazing adventures. People don’t make long, varied, story-driven journeys through meticulously detailed and gorgeous places when they’re making a co-op campaign. So a mod that makes Half-Life 2 and its two episodic expansions work cooperatively is an amazing discovery. I don’t know how it works, but it does.
Graham: Tom and I played through the entire of Half-Life 2, and into Episode Two, over many happy lunchtimes. The best part is the Highway 17 segment in Half-Life 2. You’re both given your own buggy to drive across the countryside, and the solitary bungalows that dot the coast are perfect for cooperative assault: one person bursting through the front door while the other circles around the back. The Combine only seem to be expecting one of you, for some reason...
Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 - " players in campaign mode, 2-4 players in terrorist hunt, online or LAN
How does it work? We play Terrorist Hunt: you and the other players have to clear out a big, complex building in which a fixed number of terrorists run around and try to ambush you. It’s brilliant.
Why is it good?
Tom F: Terrorist Hunt is an immediately exciting concept, because it feels more like a simulation of a real armed-response firefight than any campaign level could be. You can’t be sure the level designer isn’t going to have the terrorists suddenly come from behind you, because the level designer doesn’t make that call: the terrorists do.
Graham: It’s doubly cool in co-op, because the challenge is so overwhelming. Even with the foresight of a snake camera under the door, it’s just tough to take out six terrorists in a room before any of them kill you. So you plan: I’ll take the left two... You throw a frag... I’ll come from the other door... You rope down to the window. And then you completely screw it up.
Mass Effect 3 - Up to 4 players online
How does it work? Fight to complete a mixture of objectives on small but open levels against randomised enemy forces. Level up characters and promote them into the singleplayer campaign to improve Shepard’s chances.
Why is it good?
Chris: ME3 multiplayer takes what is good about co-op survival modes – last-stand heroics and impromptu acts of daring – and adds incredibly varied races, classes and weapons that prevent it from ever becoming samey. Right now, I’m enjoying a Quarian infi ltrator that disintegrates enemies at close range with the Reegar Carbine, a gun we’ve come to call THE PLASMA HOSE. I’m just as happy charging around as a Krogan vanguard, or racking up headshots as a Turian sentinel carrying a Black Widow.
Tom S: New classes and bizarre new weapons are added regularly through free updates. You’re always holding out against waves of familiar enemies, but the variety of ways in which you can off these enemies expands every month. The N7 classes BioWare added recently push the boundaries of what the Mass Effect universe can sensibly contain. The Shadow can dart across the map and slash foes with a psychically infused katana, the Destroyer’s weighty carapace gives him the grounding to wield a rapid-fire grenade launcher with decent accuracy and the Slayer is a teleporting martial arts expert. With so many powerful abilities to choose from, playing with friends becomes more about showing off than anything else.
Chris: BioWare’s free updates to the game have been excellent and generous, particularly the new maps. They’ve drawn me back to the game and kept it feeling fresh, which is essential for co-op.
Supreme Commander - 2-7 players, online or LAN
How does it work?
Start a multiplayer game, put all humans on team 1, and some nice tough AIs on team 2. Crush.
Why is it good?
Tom F: It’s not the first co-op game you think of, but playing it cooperatively is how we’ve had the most fun with it. It can be dauntingly complex, so it’s great to have friends in there to help out if you forget to build anti-air or crash your power economy. In theory. In practice what usually happens is we beaver away on our own bases in silence for seven minutes then one of us says “Shit, fuck, they’re dropping in my base and I forgot to build point defence again, have you got anything that can help?” and the other says...
Graham: No, soz :(
Tom F: It’s about hatching your own masterplans, surviving long enough to see them complete, then raining the giant robotic fruits of your labours down on the enemy at the same time. My giant laser spiders are ready! Your flying fortresses are ready? Let’s go! My towering Galactic Colossus is ready! Your swarm of invincible death bricks is ready? Let’s go!
Dawn of War: Last Stand - Up to 3 players online
How does it work? - Unlike the main game, Last Stand gives you only one hero each. You’ve got to fi ght off increasingly tough waves of enemies until you die (likely) or beat wave 20 (unlikely). After the match, you usually unlock new equipment for your character.
Why is it good?
Tom F: I didn’t really get Last Stand until I levelled up a few times. The fun is in discovering new builds, and the role they can play in your group. As the Ork, I thought I was the longrange damage dealer: my autocannon certainly works for that, and when enemies get close I use my teleporting armour to get away. The notion of using the much tougher set, the one that can’t teleport, seemed pretty ridiculous. Until I unlocked the knife. The knife doesn’t do much damage, but it regenerates your health. Add some armour bonus trinkets, a self-healing trait, and an item that stops me being knocked down, and I can turn myself into an unstoppable tank. Suddenly I’m the guy charging into a nest of Tyranids to keep them off my friends, and coming out at full health.
Tom S: In the grim darkness of the future, three dudes battle ridiculous odds in a small stone circle. The setup may seem contrived, but DoW2’s overlooked co-op mode does a much better job of realising the Warhammer 40K fantasy than the campaign. Absurdly powerful heroes dominate the fiction, so I got a kick out of levelling up my venerable Space Marine captain and testing him against the hordes.
Last Stand understands 40K’s scale as well. The final waves throw more foes into the arena than you’ll see in any of the singleplayer missions, so victory may seem impossible. After a few levels you can start combining your heroes’ most powerful abilities to create a maelstrom of death. The glorious slaughterfest that results is worthy of a Space Marine’s final heroic moments.
Killing Floor - Up to 6 players, online or LAN
How does it work? Fight together to fend off waves of mutants, then stock up on guns and ammo at a shop that’s never in the same place twice.
Why is it good?
Chris: Without its guns, Killing Floor would be the bleakest, muddiest depiction of Britain at the end of the world since a bunch of Romans said “let’s go home, it’s cold and everyone here is mental.” With its guns, it’s one of the most satisfying co-op shooters around. My favourite is the bolt-action rifl e, which takes mutant head-popping and turns it into an avant garde musical genre. Bang! Chunk. Click. Bang! Blargh! Splatter.
Rich: I like the dual desert eagles. They go ‘whump’, like a pie dropped down a hole. But a really big pie, one that kills anyone unlucky enough to be standing under it in a spray of arterial blood. And when it kills them, this pie, it makes everything slow motion for a while, so your team can marvel at your incredible pie-dropping-stroke-gun-shooting skills.
Chris: Definitely play it with voice chat, though. Partly so that you can coordinate properly and warn your friends when they’re about to be sawn in half, but mostly so that you can talk over the truly, deeply dreadful voice acting. I started playing it during the Portal 2 promo campaign, when all the shopkeepers were replaced by GlaDOS. It was a huge improvement.
Borderlands 2 - Up to 4 players, online or LAN
How does it work? The whole campaign is playable in drop-in, drop-out co-op.
Why is it good?
Tom F: Two reasons – for one, the different abilities of each class mix well in a team fight. It’s great to see your Siren pluck a boss up into the air, and into range of your Commando’s turret and your Gunzerker’s... gunzerk. Secondly, cooperative play is good for diffi culty spikes, and Borderlands 2 sure has those. Dealing with an inordinately tough boss is less frustrating when there’s a whole a bunch of you coming up with new ideas and tactics, and a wider variety of weapons to try.
Tom S: Almost anything can pop out of Borderlands 2’s unfolding robot boxes. It could be a revolver that shoots lightning grenades, it could be a glowing, five-foot-long sniper rifl e with an enormous bayonet on the end. Whatever you get, it’s always better to have friends there to go “WOAH” or “whaaaat” or “give me that immediately.” Borderlands 2’s batty enemies are more fun to fi ght in a team, a constant stream of new gadgets to crow over makes it feel like the best sort of trick or treat trip, the sort where you get bazookas instead of sweets.
Arma 2 - 2 to many, online or LAN
How does it work? Players can join and play custom missions with each other, or mess around in the weapon playground add-on pack, Private Military Academy.
Why is it good?
Rich: The first time I played an Arma 2 custom mission with Marsh and Owen, it ended with me rolling sideways up a hill and giggling like a maniac. The second time, we were shot before we realised what the ‘open backpack’ key was mapped to. The third time, we found ourselves on a hillside, standing next to a crumpled chopper. It was dark, but the sky was brightening slowly as the sun rose somewhere off in the east. It would’ve been idyllic, were it not for the crowd of ornery locals taking potshots at us.
Together, we made it into a nearby settlement, where our rendezvous chopper was settling down into the dust. We sprinted towards it, tracer fire whistling over our heads, as we howled fears for our safety down our microphones. We were silly men, but Arma 2 quickly made us feel like (mildly inept) soldiers.
Marsh: Most of the time, my Arma 2 experience seems to consist of dying instantly or getting stuck in rocks. But occasionally, you roll the incredibly-complex-emergent-behaviour dice and get a scene as gripping and fluidly dramatic as anything from Full Metal Jacket. I don’t mean the toilet-suicide sequence. Running for that chopper with a busted leg and three shots left in my pistol as the enemy tightened the noose was one of the most extensive workouts my heart has undergone in many years. And it wouldn’t have been half the experience without Owen and Rich bellowing, “COME ON! YOU CAN DO IT!” as I lurched the final few yards.
Choosing the best thing out of a pile of really good things is always a tough decision, but hey, we're used to it. You too can participate in the careful choicemaking by voting for your favorite mod and indie game of the year over at Mod DB and Indie DB, where the top 100 nominations were just plucked from a gargantuan pool of over 9,000 mods and 5,500 indies.
With friendly vote buttons large and in charge until December 21, each database's 100 selections are sorted by genre and game for easy perusal. Numerous strong contenders vie for your mouse-click's thumbs-up, including noteworthy entries DayZ, The Dark Mod, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, and Natural Selection 2.
Current favorites leading the pack are Half-Life 2's powerful mod lineup—among which Black Mesa and our own 2011 Mod of the Year No More Room in Hell count themselves among the ranks—and role-playing indie games. You'll find Legend of Grimrock, Dear Esther, Mount & Blade: Warband, and others in the latter category. But like everyone's slowly expanding backlog of shame, plenty of other potentials yearn for your attention. Head to both award pages for the full lists.
Clear your schedule and make room on your hard drive: there are over 9000 mods up for consideration as ModDB's 2012 Mod of the Year award nominees, and only a little over five days to nominate them. A big green button on each mod's page makes it hard to miss the opportunity to give your favorites a bump.
There isn't much time, so we'll get straight to it after this obligatory acknowledgement that we said "over 9000" on the internet: tee hee, references. Moving on, DayZ and Black Mesa are tough to ignore, and The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod was a valiant community effort. Those might be the most talked about and praised mods this year, and we expect they'll secure nominations, but there are so many more that deserve recognition. Which are you voting for?
If you need a refresher, you might want to browse our recent mod coverage to see if you've missed any driving elephants or My Little Pony conversions.
Hollywood studios have approached Valve in the past to explore the possibility of adapting Half-Life for the silver screen, but before you could spit out "Uwe Boll," Valve declared that any sort of movie involving Freeman and Friends® would be created by its very hands. What-ifs persist, of course, and in an interview with New Rising Media (via VG247), Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw named Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro as a good fit for a hypothetical adaptation.
"Guillermo del Toro has the horror vibe that I think a lot of people miss out on when thinking about a Half-Life movie," Laidlaw said. "Half-Life is essentially horror after all. The science in it barely passes as hand-waving, but when a headcrab jumps at your head, it’s a precisely engineered jolt."
Laidlaw also thinks Total Recall and Starship Troopers director Paul Verhoeven could concoct something "insane" for a Half-Life film, and pointed to The Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson as a "purveyor of faithful adaptations." "There are probably a lot of good potential directors, but I think most of them are busy pursuing their own visions," he added.
Regardless of who would come aboard for the supposed project, they'd need the thumbs-up from Valve boss Gabe Newell, who holds a rather soured opinion of what Hollywood offered him so far. "Directors down there wanted to make a Half-Life movie and stuff, so they’d bring in a writer or some talent agency would bring in writers, and they would pitch us on their story," he told us. "And their stories were just so bad. I mean, brutally, the worst. Not understanding what made the game a good game, or what made the property an interesting thing for people to be a fan of."
Hotline Miami is all about learning through repetition, then executing a perfect murder ballet.
Tyler Wilde, Associate EditorThe word "repetitive" commonly has a negative connotation, and it's especially used negatively (all the time, every time, forever and ever) when talking about games. And often it's followed by a bunch of no elaboration at all. That doesn't make sense. I'm sure I've done it before, but criticizing a game for being "too repetitive" and leaving it at that is—strictly speaking—meaningless. A game might lack variety, but every game is repetitive. We repeat some pattern of input—running and shooting, stacking blocks, bouncing balls off blue dots—over and over, and expect uniform feedback. Then the problem changes slightly, and we tweak our input pattern. And then again. And yet "too repetitive" is lobbed at games all the time.
Alright, I know that sounds a bit pedantic, and I do recognize the difference in tone between "repetition" and "repetitive." Lack of variety is a fair criticism, but "too repetitive" is an extremely vague way to say it, and it dodges the truth: when we criticize a game for being "too repetitive," I think we often mean that we just don't like what we're doing. "It's repetitive" is shorthand for "this isn't fun (for some reason)."
If we like what we're doing, repetition is desirable. I like solving puzzles in Portal, and once I solve one I want to solve more. I don't want to solve the exact same puzzle again, but I don't want to stumble into a surprise Sudoku chamber, either. So Portal gives me increasingly clever arrangements of portal-ey logic problems. The puzzles get harder, but they're all just iterations of the same basic spatial problem I solved in the first puzzle. So after all my twisty, knotty figuring arrives at a solution, it always seems just as simple as the first time. That sense of clarity comes from repetition.
Super Meat Boy replays your failures, illustrating your own learning process.
Repetition is also how we learn, and both Super Meat Boy and Hotline Miami succeed by embracing that power. They present problems in small chunks—a level in Super Meat Boy and a floor of thugs in Hotline Miami—and rapidly reset them every time we fail. Each attempt gives us new information to apply to the next, building layers of experience on the way to that one perfect run. And that perfect run feels good: it's an accomplishment, like unknotting an especially tricky puzzle in Portal. Except in Hotline Miami there's more brain-stuff and skull chunks lying around afterward.
The same goes for Counter-Strike, StarCraft, and the rest. At their most basic levels, they're about repeating and mutating input patterns to solve variable, but not totally unpredictable, problems. The variables in Counter-Strike, for example, are the guns, maps, and opponents. That's been enough variety to keep us repetitively shooting at each other for 13 years.
Repetition can be pretty damn fun, so we've got to be specific, and always ask ourselves if it's really the repetition of a theme that bothers us, or the theme itself. I can shoot bad guys all day, so complaining that "the shooting is repetitive" in Medal of Honor: Warfighter would be confusing. Further examination would reveal that the guns, maps, and enemies have specific traits I don't like, which has nothing to do with repetition (except that the more I do them, the less I like them).
Fearing the dreaded "repetitiveness" may even be bad for games: that's probably how we end up with off-key phrases at pivotal moments, like a boss fight which takes away the gun I've been using the whole time and sticks me in a surprise platformer. It's variety, but it screws up the whole composition. A performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, for example, would not benefit from an unexpected dubstep interlude. No, I wasn't talking to you, Skrillex. Are you drunk? Go home, dude.
Anyway, if at first glance this looks like an ostentatious rant about a personal pet-peeve, then you may have seen correctly. But maybe not: try Googling any game name with the phrase "too repetitive." It's everywhere. I get what's meant by it (sort of, kind of, some of the time), but it says very little. It may not even be a criticism, because games like Hotline Miami wouldn't be fun without repetition. If dying and respawning didn't reset the level, and our prior kills stayed bloodied, it would be ruined. Maybe then we'd say that it's not repetitive enough?
Nailing down the range of possibilities afforded by modding's creativity yawns past the comprehension of us mere mortals. Yet, for a platform housing exploding horses, rug-cutting Combine, and the nesting-doll appeal of Minecraft's game-in-a-game sandbox, the PC keeps its lot of closed environments precipitated by developers and publishers as a means for balanced gameplay or brand protection. In an interview with True PC Gaming, Black Mesa Project Lead Carlos Montero flatly stated such a hindrance for mod growth "doesn't make sense."
"When you think about it, modders are like the ultimate fans," Montero explained. "They love this game so much, they're doing real, difficult, skilled work that you usually pay people for. Not only that, but they can add so much value to your game for the rest of your audience. Yet you still see companies look at this as competition. They sue and shut down these projects and ignore or drop support for people to mod their games. It doesn't make any sense. In my opinion, it’s the product of businesses (or lawyers) looking at this too analytically and short-term without understanding the long-term value it can create for their games."
Although Black Mesa earned the silent blessing of Valve during its lengthy session in the testing chamber, other ambitious projects met a not-so-friendly response from license holders legally stifling efforts. Montero's thoughts—the rest of which you can read in the interview—reflect a sentiment by modder-turned-developer Tripwire Interactive expressing confusion over why companies would stop mods on their games.
For Valve's employees, working at one of the most secretive development studios around constitutes a once-in-a-respawn experience. The leakage of Valve's employee handbook earlier this year colorfully outlined a flat management structure culturing a counterintuitive emphasis on peer-driven independence. Speaking to Seattle Interactive Conference attendees yesterday (as reported by GeekWire), Valve Product Designer Greg Coomer said the same free-form philosophy governing the company's work ethic also factors into firing someone.
"I wish that we had covered firing in the employee handbook," Coomer said. "It was one of the things that we left out. We tried writing it, but we didn't feel like we were capturing how Valve thinks about (firing) in a well enough way. It was almost a wording problem. We couldn't get it done in the time that we wouldn't to finish the handbook. The short answer of how we handle terminations, really, is the same as we approach all other decisions at the company: It's a peer-driven process.
"If it turns out that we made a bad hiring decision, or that somebody is just not working out, there’s a method we use to get the people who are involved in the same room and to walk through the decision about what should really happen as a result of this person not functioning very well. Some of the details are kind of boring, but the main answer is that it's peer-driven, just like we evaluate each other as peers.”
I wonder what a caricaturized "Termination and You" chapter in the handbook would look like—probably the Pyro immolating an office chair or something. Still, Coomer attributed Valve's higher rate of self-fulfillment to the significant flexibility it bestows upon its workers, saying, “There are attributes that other companies have quoted about themselves that they allow their (employees) to spend some fraction of their time actually deciding on their own what to work on, but at Valve that percentage of your time is 100 percent. Every single person is responsible for deciding what they do every day."