Dec 31, 2011
As you've probably spotted, we've spent the last week since we broke up for Christmas publishing personal accounts of some of our favourite games of the last 12 months, and we've also named our overall Game of the Year for 2011: Valve's wonderful Portal 2.
Traditionally though we leave it to you to bring order to the chaos of the year just ended by voting for your top games and giving us your reasons. We take your top-five lists and scientifically jumble them all together to create the Eurogamer Readers' Top 50 Games, and then publish it all in one go along with a selection of your comments.
This year we had our largest ever response and we also received far more comments than before - and far more than we have been able to use here, so apologies if you submitted something that we weren't able to use. We did read all of them while compiling the list, and it was fascinating to see where you agreed and disagreed on the games included. The comments we did include are a snapshot of the range of views expressed.
One last thing - while the consensus around the game at the top of the list was huge, so it can reasonably be termed the Eurogamer Readers Game of the Year 2011, it's worth remembering that lists are just a bit of fun, and that at this merry time of year it is not worth getting hot and bothered about whether one game is definitively superior to another. Trust us - we learned that one the hard way.
Happy New Year! Here's the very best of the one to which we all just said goodbye...
50. The Binding of Isaac (PC)
- Publisher: Valve
- Developer: Edmund McMillen, Florian Himsl
- The Binding of Isaac Review (9/10)
What we said: "Binding is not the game I would have expected Edmund McMillen to create in the wake of Super Meat Boy. That was a painstaking, pixel-perfect work - some seriously Old Testament, Miyamoto-esque stuff. In other words, he was a total control freak. With Binding, McMillen and Himsl created the rules of the world and then set it in motion. Yet this game is nearly as much fun as Super Meat Boy, and more profound. It proves that there's more than one way to make a masterpiece."
Indy said: "[Developer] Edmund McMillen convinced me to buy this game simply by explaining the concept on his wonderful blog. It sounded so much fun so I wasn't surprised when it indeed turned out to be a lot of fun. I was surprised, however, at the amount of different items and how each and every one of them served a purpose without killing the balance of the entire game. That's some wicked game design right there. You either love or hate the art style, dark humour and overall themes of the game, but even if you're the most religious person in the world you wouldn't deny this game is downright fun."
neuroniky said: "I bought this on the day Skyrim released, and I spent the night playing it instead of the latter. A unique game with a twisted humour and a classical SNES gameplay with a 'let's try one more time' factor that makes it impossible to stop playing it."
49. Terraria (PC)
- Developer: Re-Logic
- Terraria Review (8/10)
"Single-player Terraria beats the pants off single-player Minecraft."
mrpsb, Eurogamer reader
What we said: "There's a reason Terraria has sold a few hundred thousand copies in the first few months it's been on sale. It's because, if Terraria really does have a bottom, no one can be bothered to go find it. They're having far too much fun on the surface, and the spaces in between."
mrpsb said: "Single-player Terraria beats the pants off single-player Minecraft, and has been delivered in a fraction of the time."
mkreku said: "Little masterpiece! No apparent story, nothing to drive you onwards and no manual that tells you what you can do. And yet I played it for 100 hours!"
Heitzu said: "A brilliant game, especially if you have someone to go adventuring in your generated world with. Plenty to see and do, bosses to fight, dungeons to explore, ores to be dug, homes to be built, floating islands to discover, armour to forge, the list just goes on and the most recent update adds even more!"
Dr Strangelove said: "Minecraft meets Metroid meets Zelda in never-ending wonderful 16-bit realms. Since Counter-Strike has no game destroyed my life like this."
48. Beyond Good & Evil HD (PS3, Xbox 360)
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
- Beyond Good & Evil HD Review (9/10)
What we said: "Can a game so shrouded in cult praise deliver so long after the fact? Surprisingly, yes. Beyond Good & Evil is still a wildly ambitious game, often beautifully constructed and with its own distinct personality. Stacked alongside its modern descendants, like the less interesting but equally commercially-challenged Enslaved, its pioneering qualities are plain to see."
ssuellid said: "This bored the crap out of me on its first release. I don't think I had the patience for it then. But now I like the relatively slow pace, the character design and the tweeness. More HD remakes please."
nopizzanocry said: "Loved this game when it released, it is a pleasure to meet with it again. Like meeting an old good friend. The game's world is fascinating and incredibly deep with a smart gameplay."
CraigC8 said: "A classic back in the days of the original Xbox. One of those games I go back and play every six months or so and still never get tired of it. Now come on Ubisoft and develop Beyond Good & Evil 2!"
47. Sonic Generations (PS3, Wii, Xbox 360)
- Publisher: SEGA
- Developer: SEGA
- Sonic Generations Review (7/10)
What we said: "Sonic Generations still doesn't do much to dissuade us that the hedgehog's best days are distant memories, but at least it is a worthy tribute to them, capturing the subtler elements of the original Hedgehog's enduring appeal although still falling foul of some of his weaknesses. And looking ahead, it also suggests that the next 20 years - for Sega will surely continue to pump out Sonic games until its dying breath - at least hold the promise of many more enjoyable birthdays to come."
OneClassyBloke said: "Sonic Generations is my favourite game of the year. Critically, it is average, but for the fans who stuck with the series through its highs and lows, it's a wonderful gift and will put a smile on even the most jaded Sonic fan."
NineOverSeven said: "A great mixture of the past and present. The music is fab and modern Sonic is actually fun now. Just a shame about the Planet Wisp levels."
Butr0sButr0s said: "After all the garbage that has been shovelled out to SEGA's nostalgic fans, it feels like hell froze over to finally get a great Sonic game. The 2D throwback levels maintain the physics of the originals while updating the classic chiptune soundtrack, and the modern levels harness the speed-run addiction of the best 3D Sonic offerings."
46. SpaceChem (PC)
Dec 31, 2011
Was 2011 a great year for gaming or wasn't it? Regardless of where you stand on that particular debate, it's been responsible for some of the medium's finest efforts. Going through our Games of 2011 has provided some heartening reading, and the likes of Bastion, Quarrel and Clash of Heroes HD go to show that when it comes to "Actual New Games" we've had our fair share over the last 12 months.
But it's the sequels and new instalments in long-running series that have, perhaps predictably, taken the limelight, and they've presented fascinating insights into how different developers approach the sometimes sticky business of iteration. Eidos Montreal pulled off a commendable balancing act with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, managing to replicate the 1999 original while offering an entirely new vision, while Nintendo once again revived and renewed its two most well-worn mascots with the dizzying one-two punch of Super Mario 3D Land and Skyward Sword.
Elsewhere, Dark Souls spread the punishing formula of its predecessor over a wider, more intricate world - and Skyrim trumped its own forebears by creating the most sumptuous and expansive world that the Elder Scrolls have ever unfurled in.
But our own game of the year was the only one blunt enough to carry its sequel status on its sleeve - though the game in question was bold enough to tinker with the very idea of what a sequel can be. And it had to really - what emerged from the test chambers the first time around flew close to perfection, a brilliantly judged and refreshingly small slice of first-person puzzling. Following that up felt like madness, but the result was a giddy and intoxicating madness that was the work of an undoubtedly special developer.
And so, for the third time in the 12-year history of Eurogamer, the honours go to Valve for Portal 2, our Game of the Year 2011.
The Courtesy Call
Tom Bramwell made the step up to become Eurogamer's operations director this year, but that didn't stop him from reviewing the likes of Rage, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Need for Speed: The Run. Because it can't be fun times every day.
"When I look back at this year, the thing I can't help but fixate upon is that some of the magic has disappeared from gaming," says Tom, "Less than a decade ago, Half-Life 2 was able to introduce revelatory new graphics, physics, AI and narrative (remember the scene where you play catch with Dog?) all in the space of one game. These days, I rarely get the same feeling of staring at a new dawn as I once did peering across the oppressive landscape of City 17. Inventing new genres and revolutionising existing ones has grown so much harder that few have the budget or talent for it.
"There are a few exceptions, however, and Valve is perhaps the most obvious and - thanks to Steam - likely to be the most enduring. One of perhaps only two massive studios to Never Make A Bad Game (the other one is Blizzard), the Seattle developer hasn't released anything with quite the same impact as Half-Life 2 since 2004, but it has gotten better at what it does with every release, whether that was telling a story in Portal, making a competitive game entertaining for everyone in Team Fortress 2 or getting complete strangers to have enormous fun working together in Left 4 Dead.
"Portal 2 is almost boringly brilliant at times. It tells a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, it makes you angry and happy and sad and it makes you laugh out loud, it conveys increasingly complex gameplay ideas without confusing you, and of course you never look the wrong way. What I particularly like about it though is that it tells you pretty much everything you could want to know about the Portal facility and its history, but it remains mysterious and interesting beyond its magnificent final sequences. (And I haven't even tried the co-op, which is supposedly amazing).
"When I finished Portal, I remember thinking that it was admirable in that day and age to make a game that wasn't designed to be a multi-game series or, ugh, a "franchise". It was a complete game. It seems weird to say it about a sequel that seemed so unnecessary until around a year ago, but Portal 2 is much the same. The great thing that both situations have in common is that you know, should Valve one day return to Aperture Science, it will be worth the wait. Portal and Portal 2 are the first games in the same series to both claim Eurogamer's Game of the Year, but I doubt they will be the last games made by this wonderful developer to do so."
Christian Donlan is engaged in a vicious duel to the death with Simon Parkin for the title of 'nicest man in videogames', yet he still finds time to write lovely things about games such as Super Mario 3D Land and Animal Crossing.
"The puzzles were great," snarls Christian, "but I mainly love Portal 2 because of Aperture Science, a place where hubris has brought brilliant men to their knees, and corporate euphemism has evolved into something truly ghastly. Vast, echoing, and capable of endlessly resculpting itself, it's a weirdly convincing glimpse into a post-human future: part CERN installation, part nuclear bunker, and part Ikea warehouse. It has the best Really Big Doors I've ever seen in a game, and its air of expensive desolation seems like a good fit for a world still reeling from the bizarre collapse of the bond market.
"I read Michael Lewis's excellent book The Big Short recently, which explores the insane and cynical decisions that led to the financial crisis, and the characters and the terminology all reminded me of Aperture Science. If anybody's ever going to make a great game about mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps, it's probably going to be Valve. And it's probably going to have GLaDOS in it."
"I laughed," laughed Oli, "I laughed at the self-aware, silly wit of "Press Space to Speak". I laughed at the balletic, multidimensional slapstick set-pieces of co-op. I laughed when I followed a tangled thread of logic through to a spectacular stunt, like dropping a river of goo from the sky by switching off a tractor beam - amazed and gleeful at the wordless cunning the designers had shared with me. I laughed at the squabbling voices in my head and the animated tics of the psychotic robotics. I laughed at the moon.
"I laughed because I was really enjoying myself. The original game was an ascetic taskmaster, but this long and loving sequel reinvented itself as the consummate great entertainer. There were more intricate, expansive, innovative or all-consuming games this year. There were even more sophisticated ones. But I don't think any others, not even the great Nintendo comebacks, dared to be this much fun."
Simon Parkin is most probably better at Street Fighter than you. He's also quite good at unearthing fascinating untold stories in gaming.
"It's gaming's oldest trick: the mute protagonist, allowing us to project our own thoughts, words and humanity onto the blank slate avatar," says Simon, "But Portal 2's silent heroine Chell invites us to identify with her in deeper ways. She is the white-collar worker in all of us, awakened to the corrupt, abusive system in which she operates in the first Portal, before raging against that machine in this sequel.
"That her weaponry is wits, not bullets, places her closer to us still. She relates to our menial desk jobs better than any Gordon Freeman or Master Chief ever could. Those armoured warriors are metaphors for our night fantasies, gung-ho heroes who shoot first and ask questions never, thoughtless yet cathartic lightening rods for our daily frustrations.
"Chell, meanwhile, is our daytime fantasy, sticking it to the man with silent, determined quick-wittedness, watching the perverse system crash down about her as she prods at it, not content till the entire corrupt operation has been sucked into space, the void where it belongs.
"Fitting, perhaps, that Portal 2 should be game of the year in which the financial systems of our world collapse about us, silent Guy Fawkes protestors staging sit-ins as the GlaDOS's of our world lurk unseen. Portal 2 is a comedy, for sure, but it is a black one. Wheatley and GLaDOS are two sides of the same, inhumane system, wooing us with their empty promises and cheeky witticisms like so many bank adverts. But beneath the jokes and smiles, these are monsters that want to destroy us. We understand that now.
"Chell allows us to turn the tables, not with guns or flames, but with portals that allow us to turn the system's anger against itself, deflecting it away from us to its point of dastardly origin. In that way, Portal 2's catharsis (and what is a video game if not catharsis written in zeroes and ones) is so much deeper and more satisfying than the adolescent rage of so many first person shooters.
The writing is smarter than any other video game, and the puzzles enjoy a clockwork wonder that allows us all to feel special, smart. But Portal 2's true appeal is in allowing us all to take down our personal Aperture Science Labs, to taste the justice that we all crave. In this way, Portal 2 occupied 2012's hearts more than any other."
Kristan Reed created numerous different personas so he could vote for Dark Souls over a thousand times as we rounded-up our games of 2011. Martin voted for Portal 2 a thousand and one times. Sorry Kristan.
"When you've spent most of your year wading hip deep in hundreds of indie downloads or trying to provoke your own mental demise in the bleak depths of Dark Soul, it's tough to find time to play much else," writes Kristan.
"But it would have be akin to prolonged self-harm to deny oneself the velvety goodness offered by a few days in the company of the spring fresh Portal 2. When games emerge with unceasing creativity, it's actually quite depressing in its own way, because it sets the kind of standard that few things can ever live up to.
"From the moment Stephen Merchant's rascally West Country tones cajole you to your senses inside a bland hotel room, there's a dark playfulness to Portal 2 that never lets you off the hook. But more importantly - to my mind - is the proof that games can be witty, crafted, knowing. Portal 2 felt like a clear statement of intent about the kind of quality level that gaming narrative should be attaining, but so rarely does.
"If Merchant's off-the-cuff delivery feels spontaneous, unplanned, lucky, then you're probably on the money. But remember, this is also Valve we're talking about - a developer that frets on and analyses every tiny decision it makes. Nothing went into Portal 2 without a level of care, craft and attention to detail bordering on obsessive, and that's a large part of why it's so unfailingly enjoyable.
"Even when the game's trying to break your brain with indecent puzzle proposals, there's always an elegant solution staring you right in the face. Giving up is never an option. The fact that Valve manages to flesh out an already genius concept in so many surprising directions is also a measure of what we're dealing with here. And who seriously thought the co-op mode would turn out as well as it did? Not me.
"The problem with something this good is that you race to the end because you're loving it so much, and then curse its conclusion in the knowledge that you won't have this much concentrated fun for a long time."
"Portal 2 wasn't my most anticipated title of 2011," Dan recalls, "It was my most dreaded. I loved the first game so much, and yet everything I loved about it was precisely the sort of thing that couldn't work a second time around. Small and perfectly formed, the genius of Portal was inextricably linked to its unassuming nature. In particular, the way the story crept up on you so that by the time you realised you were actually part of a pitch black comedy adventure, you were also three quarters of the way through a superb puzzle game.
"The news that this delicate idea was to be expanded into a longer game, with new abilities, and a robot sidekick, and multiplayer...ugh, it gave me shivers. I wanted to trust Valve, but couldn't see how even one of the greatest studios around could inflate such a beautiful little trinket without making it gaudy and obvious. Shows how much I know. Portal 2 may have lacked the surprise punch of 2007, but it was funnier, smarter and found dozens of ways to fill its playing time without resorting to meaningless padding. And, clearly, that's why Valve actually makes games, while I just blab on about them on the internet."
Dec 30, 2011
Thanks to quirks of the calendar and the narrowing technological gap between the devices in our pockets and those lingering under our TVs, the latest instalment of the Uncharted action-adventure series arrives barely two months after we reviewed the last one, Drake's Deception, and doesn't look all that different. Even by the Call of Duty-regurgitating, never-knowingly-not-a-sequel standards of the modern video games industry, that's an impressive rate of iteration.
The difference, of course, is that Uncharted: Golden Abyss is one of the first games to be released for PlayStation Vita, and while the timing is perhaps unfortunate - even when Vita reaches Europe in late February, Drake's Deception will be barely four months old - you can understand the choice of talisman. If anybody is going to convince sceptical gamers that Sony's new handheld can deliver premium-quality gaming on the go, then surely it is Nathan Drake.
With original developer Naughty Dog sticking to the PS3 for the time being, Drake's latest fate is thrust into the hands of Sony's Bend Studio, and the team best known for the Syphon Filter games proves a fastidious steward, carefully ticking all the right boxes over the game's six-to-eight hour lifespan. There's a reluctant love interest, double crosses, fossils and relics galore, and an ancient city of gold to be found by jumping, shooting and dangling through jungles and ruins across South America.
The dual-stick controls are new to handhelds but familiar to every console owner since PlayStation 2, and although the symbol and shoulder buttons are micro-switched rather than analogue (meaning you click them rather than depressing by degrees) that doesn't make much difference here, so the experience of controlling Drake is immediately comfortable and intuitive.
Drake's range of actions is much the same too. He jogs around, jumps heroically across ravines as required, and moves smoothly over rock faces, vines and walls between convenient networks of recessed handholds. When he comes across enemies - Uncharted games are always infested with identikit hired goons with little to differentiate them, and Golden Abyss is no exception - he can either hide from view and use stealth attacks to incapacitate them, or use cover-based third-person shooting to wipe them all out.
"For perhaps the first time, this is an Uncharted adventure you may replay to find things you missed."
Golden Abyss is even faithful to its predecessors' eccentricities, which are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it means that if a guard spots you - even if you eliminate him before he can say anything - then everyone in the vicinity will be aware of your location and reinforcements will appear from nowhere, hurling grenades with unerring accuracy to flush you into the open. On the other hand, it means that you can knock someone out in plain view of another guard's patrol route and he won't bat an eyelid, which is actually as useful as it is stupid.
In other areas, however, Golden Abyss is forced to deviate from its master's script. Vita is no slouch visually, allowing the developers to frame Drake in the vast and evocative comfort of twinkling chasms, mountains, rainforests and forgotten civilisations as he shimmies across a ledge or hangs from a creaky old beam, but it can't hope to match the extraordinary technical accomplishments of the plane sequence in Drake's Deception or Uncharted 2's ice caves. Nor does the engine seem quite so comfortable with moving parts, slowing to a chug with half a dozen enemies on screen in a complex location, and the pool of different environments is shallow.
As a result, the extremely heavy scripting of the last PS3 game - which rarely allowed you to probe beyond the borders of the carefully managed visual effects spectacle to which you were party - is generally absent. The developers' compromise has been to highlight usable handholds, ropes and other means of progression with a shimmer of light and a lick of gold paint, which is a more traditional means of guiding your progress, but one that leaves you free to pick your own way through your surroundings and - gasp - even explore!
Sony Bend has also been tempted (or perhaps bludgeoned) into embracing the Vita's touch-screen and rear touch panel, but it has generally been careful not to replace any expected and understood functionality with novelty waggles and gestures. So while you can drag your finger across a sequence of ledges for Drake to then scramble across, this remains optional (an option I generally exercised when I needed to scratch my nose, incidentally). The big exception is stealth takedowns and melee fights, which must be performed with a touch-screen tap, but this proves just as comfortable as hitting a button.
Instead - perhaps aware that gamers suddenly freed to wander around may actually do so - the developers have injected the majority of the mandatory new-fangled control ideas into the margins of a world we never previously explored. So now, in addition to occasionally picking up glittering relics in nooks and crannies, Drake can also collect charcoal rubbings (rubbed out on the touch-screen), slice through bamboo (using your finger as a machete) and generally rotate, drag and wipe anything he finds lying around.
Dec 30, 2011
So what's your favourite Christmas game? One you played at yuletide, rather than actually based on the festive season, that is. You have one, naturally. All gamers do.
The reasons are clear enough: 'tis the season to get games and consoles all wrapped up under the fake plastic tree, and 'tis generally the one time of year when the To Do list for every day is "Sweet FA".
For kids, the summer holiday may seem to stretch endlessly into an unimaginable future, but it's more likely to be spent outdoors, setting fire to things, shoplifting and suchlike; plus the games you really want aren't usually out until the weather turns blue and the afternoons go black.
I have very few detailed memories of my childhood - other than, strikingly, what games I was playing over the various Christmases of my youth. What makes games particularly wonderful in the winter months over other entertainment media (except novels, but then they've always had rubbish graphics) is how deeply you can submerge yourself in their world.
Christmas '89 was Ocean's Batman The Movie on Amiga, the computer itself memorably packaged in a cardboard sleeve with the Dark Knight's logo emblazoned on it, the game itself wowing before I'd even started playing, with its thrilling title screen exchange: "'What are you?!' 'I'm Batman'."
My best gaming Christmases, though, were sponsored by Nintendo. Super Mario World in '91 (Yoshi!); Super Mario Kart in '92 (That first race around Rainbow Road); Donkey Kong 64 in '99 (Will this game ever bloody end?).
But no series has consumed me more utterly over that period from Queen's Speech to Auld Lang Syne and out into a differently-numbered dawn than The Legend Of Zelda.
Link's Awakening (Christmas '93), was a quiet, compact revelation. Aged 15, I probably should have been sat in a snow-capped bus shelter sniffing glue; instead I was glued to a tiny monochrome screen.
Ocarina Of Time ('98), meanwhile, speaks for itself. But, the sad fact is, I can't remember having an amazing Christmas game since. Sure, I've played games every 'holiday season' since, but, due to commitments of one form or another, the festive gaming marathon has become a forgotten ritual.
Which is why this year I'm on a mission to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas: sitting alone in underpants playing a single game for days on end. And there can be no better game for this purpose than Skyward Sword, my long-lost Link, if you will, to the past.
I've already put in around 25 hours in fits-and-starts, which has proved more than sufficient to rank it high in my list of games of the year. But Link's quest is far from over.
And with Christmas comes the prospect of completing the adventure at my leisure, exploring every square inch above and below the clouds, tying up side quests, catching bugs, and generally wallowing in the experience.
For a game releasing in the twilight of the life of a console whose games already looked dated when it launched five years ago, Skyward Sword has moments of real beauty.
The huge areas are often teeming with life and cute incidental detail; characters are delightfully idiosyncratic in design, and the Wii's relative lack of fidelity is compensated for magnificently over distances, as environments blur-over impressionistically before sharpening into view.
It doesn't matter that it doesn't look as good as Uncharted: Nintendo's artists have to work harder to impress, but the results are up there with the very best Wii has to offer.
Speaking of Uncharted, earlier this month Naughty Dog sparked a fiery and important debate over the quality of storytelling in video games.
Singled out for criticism were game makers' tendency towards "quantity over quality" and a focus on scenarios over characters. Clearly, the carefully scripted, performance-captured, big-screen heroics of Nathan Drake are a world away from the idealistic cartoon simplicity of Link and Zelda.
And yet, while Nintendo is more interested in deploying archetypes at the service of the adventure than exploring complex personalities, Skyward Sword's characters feel more rounded than they ought to through clever visual storytelling.
The prologue, for example, is a touchingly restrained account of the yearning and shyness of young love, with a blushing, tongue-tied hero, an assertive, gently-teasing heroine, and an oafish, boastful rival (the brilliantly jock-ish Groose).
Meanwhile, as limited and self-consciously daft as your dialogue with incidental characters is throughout, as always in Zelda the quirky cast provides a consoling continuity in those moments of respite between dungeons.
In short, it's a world you can believe in and lose yourself in (and, really, I wouldn't mind living in, as long as I had a nice wooden cabin within easy reach of Fun Fun Island).
These bits are only fully appreciated, though, when the central action is truly captivating. And on that score, Skyward Sword is as good as any Zelda.
Notably, there's none of the aimless meandering that for some plagued Twilight Princess. The areas en route to the big dungeons are intricately designed environmental puzzles in themselves, only occasionally let down by falling back on the old "find these three things" formula.
Even the sections immediately post-dungeon have been given considerable thought and attention, the exit from Lanayru Mining Facility a particular standout sequence, serving no real purpose other than to inspire awe.
Really, though, Skyward Sword is all about the controls. It's depressing in a way that it's taken Nintendo this long to release a gamers' game that powerfully makes the case for motion control. (Which, to be fair, is one more than either Microsoft or Sony has managed.)
Are the MotionPlus controls foolproof? Definitely not; and for that reason alone, I can perfectly understand why some will never warm to game that lacks the reassurance of a conventional control scheme.
But I'm more than prepared to forgive the occasional wild glitch and the regular need to 'center', for the enlivening cut and thrust of sword fighting and the brilliance with which it's been worked into the game.
Now, almost every encounter is tinged with an element of uncertainty, requiring your absolute attention, rather than idle, semi-comatose button-bashing.
The ultimate pay-off comes in the boss fights, easily some of the best of the series. The need to stab and swipe with accuracy results in fabulously intense, stressful encounters - on one occasion, reducing me to a shaking, gasping, sweating wreck after barely scraping through with a sliver of remaining health.
Even items as straightforward as the Beetle and the Gust Bellows become a delight to use thanks to the responsiveness of the controls, though some - like the frustrating net and the oddly flappy harp - show not everything is better with MotionPlus.
From the time I've spent with it so far, then, Skyward Sword is by no means perfect, but it's more engaging, charming, exciting and rewarding than most other games I've played this year - or any other year.
And it is my perfect Christmas game because it captures the mood of the season: celebratory, nostalgic, warm-hearted, sentimental, unhurried. All the things which, the older I get, the more I find myself mawkishly cleaving to.
Now, if you don't mind: do not disturb till Jan 2nd (gaming in progress).
Dec 30, 2011
Xenoblade Chronicles isn't the best-made game released this year. It's not quite my personal favourite, either. It's not the greatest role-playing game in what was surely a banner year for the genre; nor is it the most exciting new game from Japan or the most welcome comeback. It's not even the best Wii game of 2011. But it was something none of those games were: a lovely surprise.
We should have known better. It had been well received on its domestic release last year. So was it xenophobia that had led us to disregard the Japanese RPG's capacity for invention? Was it elitism that had written off the Wii as anything other than a home for curios, snack gaming and the occasional, dutiful prestige Nintendo release? No, it was bitter experience. The same experience that told us not to expect a game like Xenoblade to ever make its way to Europe, never mind releasing here before North America (where it will see the light of day next year) or selling out when it did so.
Unheralded (except by the fans who campaigned for its release), unsullied by hype, unburdened by expectation, Xenoblade Chronicles was a gift. And when you popped it in the machine, it was the gift that kept on giving.
Few games this year have been so faultlessly generous. It's a huge game and absolutely stuffed with collectables, side-quests and distractions, a teeming to-do list to rival a modern MMO. And in its later stages, where many single-player RPGs start to wear thin - or at least, start to narrow back down toward some climactic confrontation, leaving their other threads flapping aimlessly in the breeze - Xenoblade Chronicles establishes an end-game that may end up meaning more to you than its typically melodramatic plot.
The rebuilding of Colony 6 is a fairly simple time- and resource-sink, albeit on a monolithic scale. But as you watch a town reconstruct and a community come to life, you feel immense pride and investment in your adventure. Like Bastion, Xenoblade Chronicles doesn't just ask you to save the world, it asks what you'll do with it once it's saved. But where Supergiant's game poses a stark philosophical question, Monolith Soft and director Tetsuya Takahashi offer a typical Japanese parable of rebirth through hard work.
But it's never a chore, because Xenoblade Chronicles is generous in spirit as well as in substance. It's an incredibly welcoming game, if not in the sense of having the streamlined structure and solicitous polish of a contemporary blockbuster - indeed, its charm is distinctly rough-hewn, from the clumsy gusto of the British voice cast to the artwork that wobbles from lyrical to plain. It's welcoming because it's enthusiastic, humble and extremely keen for you to enjoy yourself all the time. Comparing it to the likes of Final Fantasy 13 is like comparing a slick chain hotel to an eccentric family-run B&B.
In fact, Xenoblade is so anxious not to withhold its delights that is almost trips over itself at the start in a mess of tutorials and innumerable bewildering systems, each with its own arcane vocabulary. But when was the last time you could accuse a JRPG (or just about any game, for that matter) of having too many ideas? This, in a year not short on sumptuous epics, is what really sets Xenoblade Chronicles apart. It's a mad contraption, a shameless kitchen-sink production that does everything it can think of, and all of it a little bit differently.
It's also - and this is one reason I'm so fond of it personally - the first and only Japanese RPG to pick up the gauntlet thrown down five years ago by the great Final Fantasy 12, a masterpiece of formal reinvention that has been roundly and disgracefully ignored by the Japanese industry (and the Western one, for that matter) ever since. FF12 made openness, immediacy and flow its watchwords; FF13, whatever you think of it, headed in precisely the opposite direction. Although there have been great examples of the genre in the intervening years (Dragon Quest 9 comes to mind), none have dared disturb the status quo.
Takahashi had other ideas, but it wasn't hubris that drove him to scrap the blueprints and start again. Quite the reverse: it was humility. The expensive and personally draining anti-climax that was his cinematic Xenosaga series led him to consider investing more modestly this time around - and pouring it all into gameplay. So we get story and action flowing smoothly together in the game engine, no random battles, an open-ish world bustling with life and an extremely fast-paced, real-time combat system with remarkably clever party AI.
It's not quite the game FF12 was - it's neither as daring nor as tidy and impeccably tuned. In combat, its sheer verve once again gets the better of it as you struggle to bring various party and status dynamics under your control. But the free movement, seat-edge tension and glorious clatter of battle are more than recompense enough. Over and above that, the play fields teem with a broad ecosystem of life and high-level monsters roam free in low-level areas - reinforcing the feeling that this isn't a scrolling diorama of grind but a real world of opportunity and risk for you to explore.
A world like Skyrim, or Azeroth, or Dark Souls' Lordran: a world that possesses a unity of place. A world that's fundamentally more important and more interesting than what goes on in it (and not just because the Bionis is not a planet or a continent but an unimaginable giant, frozen in time, with forests spilling off his limbs). A world that existed before the politics or wars or soap operas that set whatever drama you're enacting in motion - and that, with your help, will exist long after too.
That world is why I haven't even mentioned Xenoblade Chronicles' story until now (it's serviceable enough, since you asked, balancing cliché with some proper twists and likeable if stiff characters). A world like that is perhaps the greatest thing that an RPG can offer you. In fact, it could be the greatest thing that any game can offer you. Xenoblade Chronicles wasn't the only example of such a world this year, but it was perhaps the most unexpected and delightful of them all.
Dec 29, 2011
A hazy myth, an elegant contraption, an eccentric vision, an unforgiving mistress: Dark Souls has many sides. All bear the fingerprints of creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, who in 2011 established himself as the most interesting designer working in blockbuster games today. Not that this, sequel to Sony-born Demon's Souls, has much aside from giant sales figures to identify it as a big hitter. In all other ways it eschews the churning mainstream, taking design decisions that are both unfashionable and, prior to its chart-dominating success, seemingly commercially unworkable.
Because it's a game that obscures its precise systems with the fog of misdirection, whispering clues that lead nowhere, forcing you to feel out its systems and geography, absent of any handholding. For players used to explicit goals with well-furrowed roads to reach them, this feels like play with the stabilisers removed. Indeed, when it comes to your task and the route by which you arrive at it, Dark Souls has nothing to say.
Its tutorials come as paper cut admonishments; training levels that suckerpunch you back to bonfire save points with nothing to show for your troubles but some muscle memory, a bruised ego and another plan that must be torn up and replaced with something better. Dark Souls has nothing to say to players who wish to succeed simply by showing up.
The single save slot and constant recording of progress make rewinding the clock on your history impossible and as such this is a game that asks you to own your choices like no other, wearing failures as defining scars. Dark Souls has no mechanism for players wanting quick reloads that allow them to, attempt by attempt, write the perfect journey through the game.
The complex weave of non-player character storylines carries on about you regardless of your attention, and the lines between friend and foe are blurred. Favours are just as likely to be repaid with brutal backstabbing as shiny trinkets. For players used to being repaid in gold and reverence by their virtual quest-givers, Dark Souls has nothing to say.
Instead the game relies on the messages of others to give hope and inspiration. The mystified multiplayer is quite unlike anything else in games, the opportunity for voice chat barred by Miyazaki, limiting communication to messages scrawled onto the ground by other players in their worlds, and pulled into your own. "Ambush coming up," warns one. "Shoot its tail," instructs another. In the early stages of the game the sense of asynchronous camaraderie is beguiling, even though the deliberate down scoping of the console's features feels old-fashioned.
Dark Souls is a game that calls to screen horrifying terrors, crocodile-skinned leviathans, fire-breathing drakes and obese executioners that pound toward you with single-minded urgency. But the most frightening demons are perhaps those it summons from within us. The petulant child gamer, who throws her controller at the wall in frustration; the irascible teenager who stops playing the moment he stops winning, all red-faced sulk. These are ghosts from the past we have supposedly matured away from, and yet in Lodran's stony network of brutality, they are called to the surface. Dark Souls has no words of indulgence for the bruised ego. Rather, those demons must be exorcised if you wish to progress, or embraced if you wish to submit.
And how many submitted? Few who start a video game finish it, just as so many books remain opened but unread. Games require perseverance, commitment. But in Dark Souls' case, they require skill too. Not the kind of skill that has become fashionable in games over the past two years: fetch quest persistence, hunger to gulp down drip feed experience points that offer rewards for merely turning the cogs. This is the systemic cancer that is deforming gaming's DNA, a lowering of the barrier to entry that widens the pool of players, but at the cost of a diminished sense of accomplishment.
Not all games have to be for everyone, despite capitalism's persuasive whispering in the ear of so many publishers. Dark Souls is a game for players willing to advance themselves, not just their avatar; to learn and perfect a skill, to improve. In this way, it silently summons the demons of an entire medium, before shooing them away with its single-minded philosophy.
It's not perfect, but that's somehow perfect for a game that centres itself around our imperfections. It frequently overreaches, with ambition outstripping technology in Blight-town as the framerate slows to a plod while the console strains to render the dank, cavernous walls and matchstick scaffolding. Likewise, the endgame competitive multiplayer player vs. player was ruined by some imbalanced covenant items - at least until the most recent patch - design shortcomings that stand out all the more starkly for the rest of the experience's brilliance.
Like Minecraft, the Gollum-like grip with which the game clutches its deepest secrets has forced the community outside of the game too, onto YouTube and forums and FAQs where scraps of knowledge are traded like precious gems. The value of the unspoken has been all but lost in video games, whose comprehensive tutorials and 'extras' menu options make explicit every inch of the developer's work. Dark Souls understands the worth in choosing to say nothing.
In part, that's because its silence it makes room for us to say something, and no game in 2012 has inspired not only such commentary, but also such communal storytelling. Fitting that the only moments of respite and safety in the game are bonfires, where flames scare off monsters, and warmth invites sharing. Outside of the game too, we come together around a virtual fireside, and begin to pick over our own personal stories, myths that pass from player to player, an oral tradition of play. We tell puff-chested of our victories, and murmur red-faced of our failures. There's humour and tragedy and wonder in these stories. And in them, we begin to understand that Dark Souls has so much to say. It simply asks that we are the ones to voice it.
Dec 29, 2011
Did you know that there's a new Mission: Impossible film out this Christmas? I had no idea until the other day. I assume they must have masses of advertising running for that on TV, in cinemas, online and "outdoors" (I eventually spotted it on a train station poster), but despite spending most of my life hanging off the digital world like a conjoined foetus, somehow its existence had passed me by.
So that's something to say for video games in 2011, because if nothing else they have been very noticeable. Professional footballers spend their Saturday afternoons sprinting across pitches ring-fenced by ubiquitous adverts for FIFA 12, and we stare at them through screens adorned with ball possession statistics brought to us by EA Sports.
Meanwhile, every other ad break during the X Factor - you'd cry if you knew how much they charged for 30 seconds - is a succession of Wii and Kinect adverts, occasionally interspersed by Saints Row: The Third or Modern Warfare. Battlefield 3 was one of Google's fastest-rising search terms of 2011, and every bus shelter on my way to work shouts at me about Uncharted 3's "gripping" gameplay, and has done for the past four weeks.
In the UK at least, games - and a surprising range of them - have become an inescapable backdrop to mainstream life. Meanwhile, I didn't even know there was a new Mission: Impossible film.
I certainly knew about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. And not just because it towered over Los Angeles during E3 or because Bethesda hired out the top of a snow-capped mountain in Utah to show it to the world's press. There was a trailer for it ahead of X-Men First Class when I went to see that at the cinema in June, five months before it came out, and it's on the front or back or pretty much everything I've picked up since.
This is a hardcore role-playing game, but it's one of the most heavily publicised games of 2011 - at times, it's felt as though Bethesda was trying to match Tamriel's epic scale inch for inch, billboard by billboard - and the result is that it's Christmas number one and has sold around a million copies in the UK alone.
"One of the best pieces of advice I can give anyone who receives it for Christmas and is starting out playing it is to avoid using fast-travel."
One of the best pieces of advice I can give anyone who receives it for Christmas and is starting out playing it is to avoid using fast-travel - the ability to transport yourself to a previously visited location unaccosted. Instead, just walk everywhere. Most of my enjoyment has come from exploring and discovering things while I was on the way to do something else.
You'll pick up oblique fragments of past civilisations that lead you on treasure hunts through scattered tombs filled with intrigue, you'll find yourself chasing across the countryside picking up the pieces after the forgotten events of a night out, and you'll encounter the most bizarre incidental details, like a mage chasing a rabbit down a hill throwing fireballs at it.
Before long you'll find yourself overflowing with anecdotes about obscure amulets and epic swords that you've enchanted with bizarre relics, and you'll be able to kill a bear from behind with a single blow, or steal the clothes off people's backs without them noticing.
What you end up doing will probably be different every time you load up the game, and because you can do things in any order and there are so many things to do, it all feels very personal. Then you go online and tweet or post on forums about it and you discover that it is quite the opposite - everyone has done something like what you're doing - but somehow that unexpected inclusiveness enhances the game's personality rather than diminishing it.
One of the reasons that I love Skyrim is that it's easy to forget yourself. When you play a lot of video games - whether you're a critic, a gamer or a developer - you tend to know your way around them too quickly. You start to see the underlying systems that define what you can do now and, often dishearteningly, what you'll be doing for the next 10 hours. Good games get around this by hiding their working to keep things mystical, or by making the systems themselves part of the fun, or by constantly distracting you in entertaining ways. Great games, like Skyrim, do all of the above.
And yet Skyrim's success - both critically and commercially - is also sort of scandalous.
This is a game where I almost ruined a 30-hour save-game file recently when I returned to the main quest line - the fairway down which all players are eventually driven - and discovered I'd broken the underlying game logic by having previously visited a key location and completed a puzzle. Upon being called into action, the non-player characters involved in the quest did not understand what to do in these altered surroundings, and it was only by reloading from a previous position and following strict guidance from an online wiki entry that I managed to coax them into playing along again.
Dec 28, 2011
It's Nottingham, the end of a crisp autumn day, and Eric Chahi's smile is as bright as the late October sun - although his is a face that seems reluctant to ever frown.
His eyes are permanently smiling and a playful grin is always ready to flicker across his features. His hair rinsed a blue that matches the shade of his suede shoes, he's delighting in the reactions of those sampling his own take on molecular gastronomy at this year's GameCity. It's another of Eric's many interests, and in the luminescent desserts and stereoscopic starters there's a combination of playfulness, curiosity and eccentricity that'll be familiar to anyone who's played his games.
When Heart of Darkness finally came out in 1998, six troubled years on from the game that made Chahi's name, it perhaps shouldn't be have come as a surprise that his next game was well over a decade away, that this talent would be lost to videogames for thirteen years.
It helped infuse his return, coming at the end of an Ubisoft E3 conference that until Mr. Caffeine pooped on our toothpaste earlier this year was one of the French company's most bizarre, with a certain mysticism. Sitting in on one of the show's demos, it was a mysticism amplified by Chahi's whispered presentations, roomfuls of people who had been beaten into submission by being drilled in the gameplay pillars of that year's new class of shooters now struggling to understand his gentle, splintered English, and struggling to comprehend this strange new game.
A self-confessed spiritual successor to Populous, From Dust is a god game infused with a spirituality very much its own. While it's still essentially about capturing villages, shepherding villagers and conquering the elements, From Dust's god is a far more playful one than any of its predecessors. Even the Breath, the on-screen pointer through which the player's actions are directed, is a spirited thing, dancing around with all the energy of a dog chasing its own tail.
And what the Breath enables escalates that spirit of play to giddy heights. With this tool at your fingertips, you can lift oceans, dirt and lava in thick, gloopy globes which can then be deposited at your will, painting entire landscapes in the process. It's a digital retelling of a toddler's afternoon at the seaside, where tiny hands sculpt castles, mountains, lakes and eddies out of sand - only here the child is promoted to a benevolent deity, playing with a land at its very genesis.
There's a rhythm, both in the rise and fall of the tides that lap against small shores and in the soft silting of sand as you let it rush down a mountainside, that's soothing. You're playing as an all-powerful god, though From Dust's more likely to transport you back to childhood, marveling at the cool tickle of damp sand running between your fingers.
For a game that's obsessed with play, and one that turns the dawn of creation into one large and very well stocked sandbox, From Dust can still be a demanding and sometimes stressful experience, especially in later levels. Nature's a volatile toy, and in From Dust it's always one step ahead of you, always ready to crush your sandcastles with one cruel tidal wave. It makes for a strangely humbling game, one that empowers you while reminding you of your own fragility at the very same time.
From Dust's theme and its mechanics invite lofty conjecture, yet its genius is how it always returns to the same core concept; it's about play, unadulterated. It's a purity that's rare to see outside of the indie scene - or outside of Nintendo - and in its meshed together with a high concept to make it's the kind of game that only an outsider could create.
The 13-year distance between Chahi and the industry is responsible for a blissful ignorance of the gaming zeitgeist - there's no XP system, no auto-posting to Facebook or Twitter of how many villagers you've saved or mountains you've conjured - that lends it a timeless nature, and makes it feel like a very singular vision.
Chahi spent those 13 years in an exile in which he indulged his curiosities, developing an interest in volcanology that's explicitly transferred to From Dust. It's not the only one that makes itself known in the game.
Playing From Dust is like spending an afternoon lost in conversation with this enthusiastic autodidact, pushing you towards its other influences; Koyaanisqatsi, the paintings of Zdislaw Beksinski or John Conway's Game of Life, the 1970 mathematical model and the archetypal god game.
To credit From Dust entirely to Chahi is to do disservice to the team at Ubisoft Montpeillier that helped bring his vision to life, but even though it's told from a thousand's arm lengths it's a very personal experience. There's the same sense of play, of a hundred profound ideas I'll never fully understand delivered with a smile and of a little eccentricity that you get if you're ever lucky enough to meet Chahi himself.
And it's a game that Chahi seemed to enjoy making as much as we've enjoyed playing it. Now that the industry has broadened to allow for something so esoteric it seems that he's more welcome, less likely to be burnt by an experience such as Heart of Darkness. He's ruled out a sequel to From Dust, but is already at work on a new game, suggesting that he's going to stick around a little longer - and it's absolutely wonderful to have him back.
Dec 28, 2011
SPOILER ALERT!: This piece contains story spoilers - from the very first sentence onwards.
My guilty little secret: I reloaded my quicksave about 30 times to try and save Faridah Malik when her helicopter's shot down and then assaulted by Belltower goons late in the game. Having played a stealthy, non-lethal character throughout the game, I was as much use as an asthmatic kitten in a straight-up firefight, so the rush of robots and heavily-armoured thugs that swarmed the downed bird made mincemeat of me the second I showed my goateed face. Trouble was, I couldn't sneak about doing careful silent takedowns, because after a few harrowing moments Faridah would be so much augmented toast. And while I did have the option of spamming the whole scene with explosives, I didn't want to compromise my 'no fatalities' ethos. What to do, what to do?
Well, cheat. Cheat within the confines of the game - quicksave, quickload, quicksave, quickload, incrementally creeping closer to an idealised set of circumstances wherein I'd made it to point X without being killed, had non-fatally taken out assault cannon-toting guard Y before he could pepper the chopper, hidden deftly at point Z then dropped an EMP grenade under robot Ω. No-one dead (unless you count robots), Faridah was rescued in time and I came it through it all with nary a scratch. That's my story. That's how the game records it. That's why I'm a bloody hero, right?
Of course, what I'd actually done was quicksave every second step, and quickload the second I was spotted or shot. Faridah died a good dozen times, as did I; the poor first guard to enter the scene, meanwhile, suffered 30 assorted fatalities and knock-outs as I experimented with everything in my arsenal in search of the most effect way to get a few steps closer to my desperate goal. It was shameful, it was pathetic, it was a distortion of Deus Ex: Human Revolution's concept that consequences matter. And I don't regret it for a second.
Why I don't regret it is braided in irretrievably in with why I enjoyed DXHR so much. Nominally, Human Revolution is the story of beardy, growly cyborg security guard Adam "I didn't ask for this" Jensen, but screw that guy, frankly. Screw him and screw his lost love and screw his double-dealing employers. This is about me - because DXHR, with its impressive freedom of action, is a soft, yielding material I wrap around my own brain so that it reflects me. Its reality is the reality I choose to give it - and I choose that Faridah lives, that she's rescued by me and that I do so without my ever breaking my own rules of engagement.
What my savegame abuse also achieved was to show off the game's combat flexibility and quite how spectacular a DXHR skirmish can be in the hands of a (cough) skilled player. This Jensen I'd built really could take out everyone in an open space filled with snipers and body-armoured shotgunners and rocket-spewing robots; leaping from cover to cover, a silent throttle here, a tranquiliser dart in that guy up there's face, a gas grenade at that clutch of thugs as they rush through the door, an EMP mine under that robot and then a stungun blast right to the belly of the last guard. Unconscious bodies and flaming robo-wreckage everywhere, and in the middle of it all lies one still-intact helicopter. I didn't ask for this, but goddamn if I'm not going to make the best of it.
I was Cyborg Batman, an unstoppable force of black-suited vengeance. I would love to see a recording of my 'perfect' playthrough, with the staccato, incremental interruptions of cheaty saving and loading excised. I'd look like a god of war. No wonder DXHR's populace is so alarmed by the increasing numbers of machine-men wandering the world's perma-gloomy streets.
For all the conspiracies and the moralising about bio-mechanical augmentation, DXHR is also an excellent combat game with an extensive, player-selected toolbox that's never guilty of boxing you into specific weapons or specific playstyles. It might not quite be the equal of its revered forebear in terms of emergent possibilities - its AI and physics are perhaps too machine-tight to allow the sort of flexibility and mad experiments that Deus Ex 1 did - but what a superhero simulator it is.
I could, if I'd have so chosen, saved Faridah by hiding behind boxes and methodically sniping everything that moved. If you want to play it like a boring grey-faced man would play a boring grey FPS with a boring grey machinegun, go ahead and be boring and grey. DHXR allows that too. Me, I wanted to be right in there, doing crazy stuff like plummeting off rooftops in slow-motion.
Despite the high-speed, high-gloss violence, Human Revolution achieved something I honestly wasn't expecting: it made me feel like I was playing Deus Ex again. I was back to 18 years old, the same unblinking, hunched abandonment to this game's world and the jigsaw pieces it gave me to build my path through it. Just as in 2000, I was consumed by the compulsive need to hack every door and terminal, to read every datapad, to steal every credit; to have a strict code of stealth and non-lethality; to become drawn into the paranoid guessing game about which of my assorted contacts and opponents was the real enemy, the true puppet-master of all this conflict and betrayal.
A world forever on the brink of chaos, but one that I could nonetheless dictate the rules of. That's why I couldn't let Faridah Malik die. This was my reality and my story, and I had the tools and the ability to keep it that way. Consequences? Hah. They answer to me.
Dec 27, 2011
About 20 years ago, "closure" became a thing that we wanted after something bad happened. When someone dies, we are told that the grieving parties desire closure - that they want to take the death, put it in a box, and tape the edges shut on that sucker until it is good and sealed.
There's no closure in Bastion. The loss that opens the game is too huge to contain. The hero, a stoic white-haired boy named The Kid, wakes up from a night's sleep to find that the world outside his bedroom has vanished, replaced by a three-dimensional fog of emptiness.
Practically everyone is dead, but that's mere prologue. You're alive. So it's a question of what you're going to do with yourself. As you look past the threshold of your bedroom doorway into the void, the only reasonable option is to walk out there. The perverse reality is that even when the path ahead appears to hold literally nothing for you, you've got to go there anyway. That's The Kid's lot, the burden of the living.
And when you walk out that door, fragments of the world assemble themselves beneath your feet. It's the signature visual effect of a pretty game, and there's a parallel in another landmark 2011 game, Catherine. Both games have you navigate a world that floats amid a backdrop of indeterminate space. In Bastion, chunks of terrain rise up as you go. In Catherine, the chunks fall away as you go.
The basic message is the same. Standing still is not a viable option. In every game, as in every life, there are choices that lead to success and lead to failure. If that's the first law of gaming, then Bastion and Catherine explore the unspoken zeroth law: you've got to choose something.
The difference between the two games is that Catherine emphasises the negative consequences of the zero law - if you don't keep your life moving forward, your own fears and insecurities will grow and consume you - while Bastion focuses on the affirmative side. When The Kid advances in Bastion, his world comes alive with every step. It's not like you keep going in spite of the fact that there's nothing there - you keep going because there's nothing there.
In other words, the world of Bastion is one where living is a fundamentally creative act. The Kid "makes" the journey in more than sense of the word. I know because Rucks told me.
Rucks is the leathery old guy who narrates all of the action in the game. I say he's old, but Rucks has an ageless quality. He speaks with the weight of someone who's always been there and plans to stick around for a while because hell, why not? Maybe somebody will show him something he hasn't seen before. It could happen.
The timeworn sage comments on your exploits, in the present tense, as if we're all sitting around a campfire listening to him weave The Story of The Kid. He fills in the backstories of each world, tells us where the monsters come from, sets up major battles, and so on.
As with all good storytellers, Rucks makes the smaller moments as vivid as the big ones. One of his most memorable lines comes early in the game. If you take a break from demon slaying to bust up some nearby crates with your new hammer - and c'mon, nobody can resist a pile of smashable junk - Rucks says, "Kid just rages for a while."
The line is funny because we consider crate smashing to be an extracurricular activity of sorts. We don't expect Rucks to pipe up here, because we're not "advancing the story." Except of course we are. The occasional inanimate-object assault is just as much a part of The Kid's story as a frenzied boss fight. We never stop creating.
The Kid's creations carry an extra portent because they come in the aftermath of that huge, world-obliterating loss, which Rucks calls The Calamity. The specific details of The Calamity are hard to discern for much of the game, but we do know it's the disaster that blew The Kid's universe into wisps.
As it happens, this aspect of Bastion's story resonated with real-world events, as the game was released just a few months after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disfigured huge swaths of Japan's eastern coast. The tangled debris fields of The Kid's realm often evoke the before-and-after photos that were splashed across news coverage of the tragedy-the ones that showed homes, roads, farmland, and industry in the "before" shot, replaced by nothing in the aftermath. It was a real-life Calamity, made all the more inconceivable by its actuality, and its survivors were left staring into nothingness.
This is where The Kid lives, wading through the detritus of catastrophe. You spend most of the game battling demons of the past - spectres driven by some lingering anguish or bitterness. But then, after all the fighting is over, the true reckoning arrives.
History happens, and then we make something of it. When people die, and all their worldly vestiges crumble or fade away, whatever spirit remains must be the soul of the past. And in one of the universe's strangest ironies, the nature of that soul is determined by the living. The Kid lost almost everyone; that happened. By choosing what to do next - what lesson to draw from The Calamity - he determines what it all means.
So in the final moments on the hovering island called The Bastion, you face a choice in which you essentially decide which parts of the past to carry forward. Is your patch of grass the last bastion of the old ways? Or is it the seed of something new?
It's the essential quandary of the survivor, and none of the options offer a certain future. When we make a choice like this in real life, we call the moment of decision "closure." Yet the moment after this last decision is the most ambiguous part of the game. Bastion maintains that there is no such thing as closure. Instead, the past keeps extending its tendrils into the future, and we decide what to make of it in a terrifyingly, enthrallingly open world.