The Game Critics Awards are a big deal. They're the Metacriticization of E3: after the show, more than 30 publications vote on 20 categories of awards, their ballots swimming together like a school of trophy-shaped fish. (PC Gamer is a few of those fish, too.)
This year’s awards were announced on Tuesday. And among those 20 categories this year, zero PC-exclusive games won. That happened in 2011, too. I’m confused and livid about that. We’re in the middle of a PC gaming renaissance—as a body of critics, shouldn’t our awards reflect that?
The awards have a mixed, embarrassing history when it comes to the PC. Let’s revisit the last decade of Best PC Game winners:
Were we really that overwhelmed by Doom III and SWG? But yeah: Spore. How did we get it wrong—so Price Is Right Fail Horningly-wrong—thrice? Spore is exactly the sort of game that woos multiplatform gaming critics that aren’t looking closely—it’s an amusing toy, an easily-explained curiosity from The Faraway Eccentric Continent of PC Gaming. On a ballot, Spore was an incredibly safe bet for someone who didn't see everything the PC had to offer at the show—like Dawn of War II in '08, or F.E.A.R. in '05. That this fooled us three times is evidence that collectively, gaming media hasn’t examined seriously what happens on the PC at E3.
A PC-exclusive game hasn’t won Best Original Game since 2006 or Best of Show since 2005. Both winners were Spore. But hey, let’s not dwell on that bleak and multi-appendaged past. 2012 was a decent year for PC exclusives at E3. There were plenty to pick from, and absolutely none were officially recognized: Neverwinter, SimCity, The Elder Scrolls Online, Hawken, Otherland, End of Nations, Shootmania Storm, MechWarrior Online, Natural Selection 2, World of Warplanes, Arma 3, Company of Heroes 2. The stand-out omission from the awards list, though, is PlanetSide 2. It should’ve won Best Online Multiplayer. It should’ve won Best PC, and it could’ve won Commendation for Innovation.
PlanetSide 2 isn't some exotic animal. It’s sci-fi Battlefield, but better, bigger, more beautiful, and it never sleeps. It also wasn’t sequestered in some obscure corner of the show—it was the first thing you saw when you walked through the doors of West Hall. You couldn’t miss it. Anyone could prance up and play it without an appointment. IGN, Polygon, GameSpy, and Game Informer did give it significant nods. I wrote in our personal E3 picks post: “Occupying someone else’s base means something beyond an icon changing colors on your HUD—just by contending for an outpost, you’re earning a tiny trickle of resources. Own it, and that earned-over-time allowance extends to your whole empire (while being denied to the enemy). The magic of that mechanic is apparent even in an hour-long play session with a character I’ll never use again in a crowded, loud convention center. Whether you like it or not, you’re a part of something.”
Sure, The Last of Us—the game that won everything—looks nice. It’s genetically-engineered for critical attention: Uncharted and zombies and movielike and full of those meaningful moral choices we can't get enough of. It'll probably enjoy plenty of high review scores and plenty of eye-level shelf space at GameStop. My peers were wooed enough by it to award it Best of Show, Best Original Game, Best Console Game, Best Action/Adventure Game, and give it a Special Commendation For Sound.
Maybe everyone played PlanetSide 2 and just wasn’t moved by its unprecedented scale and ambition, staggering balance of tactical complexity and accessibility, or original engine technology that makes Unreal 3 look like calculator firmware. I think that’s the sort of next-generational newness we should be drawing attention to. I don’t own a tablet, so I hope that’s an indication for how underwhelmed I am by tie-in apps, but did you see PlanetSide's jaw-dropping tablet/browser/mobile-driven infrastructure that lets you see dynamic strategic maps and join voice chat without being in-game? Egad.
Call it what you want
What's most upsetting are the names of the awards themselves. They're undeniably skewed to reward the companies that put on press conferences and that spend thousands of dollars making the show an expensive spectacle: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. The PC doesn’t have a press conference, of course (although we've daydreamed plenty about what it'd be like). And like a very-talented cousin that Sony doesn't want overshadowing itself at its own talent show, PlanetSide 2 creators Sony Online Entertainment don’t get a second of stage time at Sony’s conference. Coincidentally, critics don’t have many categories that invite celebration of the PC.
Since 2010, game writers have picked a Best Motion Simulation Game, a relatively recent trend, but inexplicably we can’t nominate a Best MMO. 13 dungeon-raiding, gold-farming years after EverQuest, and MMO isn’t a comparable genre to racing, strategy, or “social/casual,” which each have their own award? In "Best Hardware/Peripheral" components compete with controllers and consoles in the same incongruous, Frankenstein-category.
The oddest and least platform-agnostic award is "Best Downloadable Game.” Commenting on this makes me feel like a student who takes the awkward duty of telling his teacher that his chalkboard math is wrong. “...Excuse me? Every game on PC is downloadable.” The award was added in 2009, so it was absolutely a response to the healthy niche that $5-20 games have carved for themselves on XBLA and PSN. But if the goal is to highlight smaller-budget games, why not, y’know, make a Best Indie Game award? The Game Critics Awards have never had such an accolade in their history.
Sure, indie games don’t have the largest footprint at E3 (a separate issue that I’d be delighted to yell about), but they do have IndieCade, a small hub of games hosted off the show floor. Especially with Kickstarter’s emergence, it’s a complete failure to reflect the industry we work, buy, and game in that there’s no official opportunity for critics to praise indie games.
I know we’re usually encouraged to shrug off mainstream game awards, like the ones that appear on television. But this isn’t one of them, actually. This is the closest gaming media comes to having a collective voice about something. It’s the one instance where we’re communicating as a single organization. It’s an opportunity to get it right. And on the PC, we totally aren’t. If we’re not prepared to have a set of awards that at least fundamentally reflect the kinds of experiences millions of people are involved in—MMOs and indie games among them—what are we doing?
Gaming Heads, the creators of fine Team Fortress 2 statuary, opens the valve on its new Portal 2 line with this gorgeous 16-inch turret replica, ready to fill speaking and non-speaking roles in your home security regime, depending on how much you're willing to invest.
Can you really put a price tag on quality replica home security? Well yes, you can, and that price tag is $300. That money can secure you one of 750 Portal 2 turrets upon their Q4 2012 release, packed lovingly in foam with a certificate that ensures that this is a high quality product and not something you made in shop class.
Just look at this thing. Are you not pleased to the tune of $300?
Perhaps you need to see a more detailed view. Did I mention the motion sensor activated light?
Still not convinced? What's wrong with you? You act as if you don't have $300 to toss about frivolously on video game paraphernalia.
I can understand that, so I won't even tell you about the Gaming Heads exclusive edition, which adds voices from the game to the statue for a mere $30 extra. It's limited to 350 pieces; you probably couldn't have secured one in time anyway.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - email@example.com (Nathan Grayson)
The first time I ever played Portal was damn near magical. Each room I walked into held promise of some diabolical new assault on both my brain and the laws of physics, but I made them look like child’s play. At the time, I was certain it proved I was a genius with an IQ so huge that even my bulging genius brain couldn’t count that high. Of course, I soon came to find out that everyone> experienced Portal that way. So I wasn’t a genius. But the puzzle designers at Valve were.
To this day, Portal stands as the most masterful example of invisibly intuitive teaching I’ve ever discovered. It slowly builds upon itself – sneaking new techniques into your repertoire until you’re snoozing through puzzles that would’ve short-circuited your synapses maybe 20 minutes earlier. Is it a fit for classrooms, though? My first inclination would be to think not. I mean, it’s not exactly a hyper-accurate physics simulation – even with science jokes making up the bulk of both Portal 1 and 2′s brilliantly witty dialogue. That, however, is precisely the point, according to Valve director of education Leslie Redd and designer Yasser Malaika. It’s how> Valve games teach – not what they’re teaching – that could help save a rusty, way-behind-the-times education system.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (Nathan Grayson)
Year after year, many schools struggle to teach kids basic math and reading skills. Portal, on the other hand, taught my childlike, directionally-crippled brain a slew of hyper-complex spatial reasoning abilities. In about 30 minutes. So I guess maybe> it could be a good fit for the classroom. And hey, what do you know (aside from a Portal-imbued slew of hyper-complex spatial reasoning abilities)? Valve seems to think so too. The resulting program’s been dubbed Teach With Portals, and it’s just the beginning of Valve’s new Steam For Schools initiative.
GLaDOS is recruiting new test subjects, and they might be your kids. Valve has invited educators to sign up for its "Steam for Schools" beta program, which offers a special edition of Steam featuring only Portal 2 and the puzzle maker. The idea is to use Portal 2's mechanics to teach basic physics and spatial reasoning.
The FAQ explains Portal in educational terms: "The interaction tends to be free-form and experimental and as students encounter new tools and challenges they may develop an intuitive understanding of physical principles such as mass and weight, acceleration, momentum, gravity, and energy. The games also put a premium on critical thinking, spatial reasoning, problem solving, iteration and collaboration skills, and encourage overall inquiry into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) learning."
Current lesson plans include "Introduction to Parabolas with the Puzzle Maker," "Spatial Visualization and Perspectives," and "Building a Simple Harmonic Oscillator." Well, when you put it that way, I no longer feel clever enough to play Portal 2.
More information on Aperture Science's educational efforts be found on the official site.
Today, at the Games for Change conference, Valve's Leslie Redd and Yasser Malaika announced that they'll be giving away their hit game Portal 2 for free, via the new Steam for Schools initiative. After signing up for a beta, educators will be able to get the popular sequel, the recently launched Perpetual Testing Initiative level maker and sample levels. Students making levels won't be able to share levels outside of a physical classroom, though. For more info, head over to learnwithportals.com
Valve has opened a new "Steam for Schools" initiative, offering a specially-designed and free version of Steam to educators. It's kicking off the new program with "Teach with Portals," a free version of Portal 2 and the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker offered through SoS to teach kids about science, technology, engineering, and math. And who better to show kids a passion for science than GLaDOS?
The official site (via Joystiq) details the program, which is now in beta. It makes educators the administrators of the limited version of Steam, so they can oversee their kids learning about physics and math using the game and tools.
It already hosts a number of lesson plans for physics and math, including ones on spatial visualization, parabolas, gravity, terminal velocity, and conservation of momentum, among others. The site hints that eventually it will host lesson plans at chemistry, game design, and language arts.
The FAQs detail how to apply. If you're an educator, you'll need to provide contact information for your supervisor and the organization, the subject, the number of computers, and the number of students. After that, your kids can learn about physics while GLaDOS complains about being a potato.
Oh, GLaDOS. Cruel, cruel GLaDOS. Here, the villain from the Portal games comes to life, in costume and utterly free of cake.
Mean, witty, and slightly crazy, GLaDOS is one of the most memorable gaming characters in recent memory—no wonder she's a fan fav. And no wonder all these folks decided to dress up as her!
Here's a look a handful of cosplayers tackling the same character. It's like when people show up to a party, dressed in the same outfit. Have a look in the above gallery and see who pulled off the best GLaDOS.
For more info on GLaDOS, check out the character's wikia. For more about Valve Software, the studio behind Portal, have a look at its official site.
Gravity is a pernicious reminder of our physical limits. It's the thing that keeps us rooted to the ground, it pulls our bodies downwards, makes us slow, ages us. The dream of flight, then, is a rejection of that limitation—see me? I can fly, man. I'm free, I can do anything!
And yet, I've found that when playing games, it's not the flying that I find most exciting. It's the moment that comes after—when I re-engage with gravity and come tumbling back towards earth. Flying in video games is great, but I love to fall.
Gravity Rush, a splendid new adventure game for the PlayStation Vita, opens with a scene depicting an apple, tumbling to the ground. Sir Isaac Newton may be nowhere to be seen, but the scene's intent is clear: This is a game about falling, pure and simple. And man oh man, does this game do falling well.
The game's central, brilliant idea is to give the player the ability to change which way is "down," and so which way the protagonist Kat will fall. Another way to think about this is that the player is able to change the axis of the world on a whim. Video games have granted a lot of cool powers over the years, but this is among the coolest.
It's an extraordinary thing, this game's sense of freedom, of kinetic motion. With a double-tap of the right shoulder button, Kat launches into the air, wind blowing her hair behind her, skydiving upwards towards the wall of a skyscraper. She lands (three-point lands, obvs), and runs up the wall, only to "fall" off the edge of the building and go tumbling towards the horizon.
It's discombobulating at first—the "grav-boot" concept is nothing new to most people who play video games, but the idea of falling sideways off the lip of a skyscraper is. I was impressed with how quickly I got my head around the concept, and how much joy I found in simply getting around Gravity Rush's city of Heckesville. (It doesn't hurt that the game is gorgeously drawn, wonderfully animated, and features a lush and beautiful musical score. Despite a few flaws, mostly to do with repetitive combat, Gravity Rush is a game that I have yet to tire of playing. Evan agreed in our official review.)
It's crucial, however, that Kat isn't actually able to fly. Her gravity-shifting powers can only run for so long before she begins to tumble downwards, waiting for them to recharge so that she can fall back upwards again. If Kat were given the power of flight, the game wouldn't be half as interesting, exhilarating, or fun. It's the falling that makes it magic.
In the underrated Just Cause 2, players are set loose on a massive (and I do mean massive tropical island, tasked with causing as much mayhem as possible. They're given all manner of tools and weaponry, but only two tools that matter—a grappling hook that can latch on to any surface, and a parachute that can be opened and closed an unlimited number of times.
Immediately, what would have otherwise been a game about stealing jets, driving jeeps and shooting dudes becomes a game about flight. Or more specifically, a game about falling, with style. The number of techniques combining the pull of the grappling hook with the resistance of the parachute are nearly endless—there is no end to the joy of flinging protagonist Rico Rodriguez about like a little G.I. Joe character attached to a rubberband. And if and when you get bored of that, you can always hop on the back of an airliner, fly to the top of the skybox, and jump.
The gunplay in Just Cause 2 may be questionable, the A.I. idiotic, and the missions may be repetitive. But the sensation of falling—seen in this video at around the 2:00 mark—never gets old.
Valve's Portal games are among slickest falling games ever created. They're admirable not just for their tight design and sense of humor, but because they have some of the most focused falling in video gaming. When you fall in Portal, you fall with a Purpose.
Similar to Gravity Rush, Portal requires players to re-think their trajectories in order to progress beyond otherwise unpassable obstacles. But where Gravity Rush is mostly about action and high-flying acrobatics, Portal is about measured movement and problem-solving.
Back when I reviewed Portal 2, I talked about the game largely in terms of dominoes. A puzzle in the game is a lined-up row of dominoes, with you as the first domino in the bunch. Portal regularly executed a slick combined thrill of first realizing the solution to a puzzle, then throwing yourself through it.
One of the coolest additions in Portal 2 was protagonist Chell's "long fall boots," which let her fall from any height and land unscathed. Chell could fall any distance and, with a simple couple of blasts from her portal gun, wind up back where she started. I quickly learned to take it on faith that Valve wouldn't lead me into a situation from which I couldn't recover. I was free to fall as I pleased.
So many other great games explore our constant dance with gravity—Trials HD can at times feel like juggling, the aptly-named Gravity Hook requires constant slingshotting to move upwards, ever farther from the ground, and death. Max Payne 3 is at its best when its protagonist defies gravity, leaping down a stairwell while blasting away at his foes below, and the best platformers, from Mario to Journey, aren't as much about the jump itself as they are about the trajectory that follows.
"This is falling with style."
That now-famous quote at the start, of course, is from Toy Story. At the beginning of the film, Woody had dismissed his new rival Buzz's first flight as not flight at all. "That wasn't flying' Woody sputters. "That was… falling, with style." And yet later in the film, when Buzz saves Woody, this same line is delivered with a wink—for one moment, Woody and Buzz actually are flying. And while the rules of reality won't stay changed (Buzz can't fly in Toy Story 2, for example), for this one moment they transcend gravity and soar to safety.
We've all dreamt of flying; that moment in the dream when we think, "This is impossible, and yet here I am." But it will always be the fall that wakes us up, crashing back to consciousness with adrenaline in our gut and a gasp on our lips. It's the falling that brings us back to earth.
There's already at least one Portal cartoon in production. That one, however, looks like something Dreamworks would come up with. If you'd rather a Portal cartoon look more like something Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi would dream up, though, you might want to take a look at these.
These pieces are the work of artist Sandra Rivas, whose style is heavily influenced by John K.. What's cool is that she's turned all the cores and computers into people, and in doing so, has absolutely nailed them. Especially Wheatley.