The Games that Shine

This site has only four prior posts about gaming. Most of them have been critiques, of a sort, of things being done right now, like 'Gamification,' and free-to-play models, but rarely do I devote any time talking about what a truly joyous experience gaming can be.

My aversion to mainstream gaming culture distracts me from all the good there is in it. A huge host of  polished but derivative games act as very vocal ambassadors for gaming culture, and most of them, sadly, are in the 'swinging dick' genre. This includes 'Gears of War,' 'Call of Duty,' 'Battlefield,' and 'Halo.' These are not always bad games, but they hold almost no interest for me.

I've spent a little bit of time with the single player first-person shooters that involve fantastical or science fiction elements. On the other hand, you have Blackwater-developed war games, Army developed war games, and even Turtle Beach sending a contest winner to a war zone in order to promote their gaming headset. In addition to these very recent examples, a small but extremely popular slice of gaming culture is often simply juvenile and vile. I watched a short segment from Spike TVs video game awards last month in which an on-stage actor, dressed in military camouflage, tea-bagged an award recipient. I'm no moralist, and I get the reference. I just don't find that stuff funny.

Any time you place a bunch of unsupervised, anonymous teenagers in a room together and hand them virtual weapons, you're bound to see all sorts of scatological humor, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and intolerance bubble up to the surface. I'm not shocked, or morally outraged, or demanding that things change overnight. I'm not naive about human nature. I just have no stomach for it. I've been gaming since I was very little, and seeing these sorts of bombastic, banal, war-oriented themes interceding with a hobby I treasure is sad for me.  It's my nerdy little hobby and it's been co-opted by all the popular kids. Let's say you have a geeky little bird watching club in high school, and the jocks and cheerleaders come along, take it over and began tranquilizing the birds and painting school colors and logos all over their feathers. It's a weird example, but it's kind of how I feel.

Fortunately, there is much to be thankful for in gaming. There is, of course, Child's Play, for starters.

There are also numerous independent developers out there now really pushing their respective genres. Some of them even succeed as sophisticated homages. Let me introduce you to a few that I really like. There are many more than this, of course, but these spring to mind first.

Bit.Trip series (Gaijin)

Bit.Trip Beat, Core, Void, Runner, Fate, and Flux all employ an art style hearkening back to the old Atari 2600 and marry it to punishingly difficult game play and a really wondrous chiptune soundtrack. The controls range from restricted, pong-like movement, to full x/y axis motion, to running, jumping and ducking.

VVVVVV (Terry Cavanagh)

Boasts another brilliant chiptune soundtrack and is visually inspired by the Commodore 64 games of old. The sense of isolation and well, beauty is done to perfection here, with a game mechanic that exploits the concept of gravity to the fullest. Very difficult, and very, very wonderful.

Braid (Jonathan Blow)

Occasionally pretentious but beautiful and deviously designed puzzle platformer that forces you to rewind time in order to collect puzzle pieces that open up the world, which is a lovely, impressionistic marvel to behold, even now, four years after its release. Winner of numerous awards.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional)

You stumble through dark rooms and catacombs in search of your memory, all the while being driven mad by unseen forces around you. You have limited flints used to light candles that can increase your sanity, but this flints are far too uncommon. The developers urge the player to immerse themselves in the experience and not focus to much on the technical, like saving their game and achieving goals. This only serves to enhance the immersion of the experience. Winner of two awards at the Independent Games Festival.

Cave Story (Pixel /Daisuke Amaya)

A wonderful hybrid of side scrolling adventure game and shooter that puts you in a colorful world of rabbits, eggs, caves, and a giant killer.. bar of soap? This game was originally programmed over a period of five years by famed game designer Pixel. Inspires in part by numerous NES classics, including 'Metroid' and 'Blaster Master.' The loving attention to detail shines through. Best of all, the game was freeware for a long time.

Limbo (Playdead)

This Danish indie game has you controlling the silhouette of a boy traversing a dangerous, dark world of forests, rivers, and cities. The art here is very reminiscent of Edward Gory, Fritz Lang, and childrens' book artist Stephen Gammell. Entirely in black and white. Very spooky. If you are arachnophobic, then stay far away, as you are pursued by a predatory giant spider for the first half of the game.

Peggle / Plants vs. Zombies (Popcap)

Peggle is essentially a colorful and psychedelic adaptation of pachinko. Plants vs Zombies is a castle defense title that pits a garden full of pea-shooting plants against shambling hordes of zombies. Amazingly addictive. I have both titles on my computer and on my phone, and they are real time suckers. In July of last year, EA bought Popcap, so Popcap is no longer remotely independent.  For now, though, the Popcap brand remains peerless.

Super Meat Boy (Team Meat)

You navigate a red cube of meat through spikes, spinning razors, pits and other obstacles. When you finally pass a stage, every doomed iteration of your play-through from that stage plays out before you simultaneously in a glorious red visceral gush. The game contains references to just about every old school game I treasured in my youth. Difficult as hell, but a total joy to play. Full of color and imagination.

Fruit Ninja (Halfbrick)

This is my guilty pleasure. I've heard Jon Stewart name drop this one, so I know I'm not alone. Swipe your finger across your phone to slice various fruits being tossed up in the air. Avoid the bombs. That's basically it. Its imitator, Fruit Slice, is not nearly as polished, but still fun to play.

Audiosurf (Invisible Handlebar)

If you can get past the clunky menus, you are in for a really special experience. You ride along a rail, filled with dips, valleys, curves, along the way allowing differently colored blocks to fill up against your avatar, much like the old game Klax. The difference here is that the stages are visual representations - down to every turn, dip, and speed - of any song in your library. For music lovers like me who already think visually about the songs they love, playing this game is a true Zen experience.

It's truly important to remember that there is a quiet undercurrent of talent, self-respect, and sophistication running through the game industry. Gaming's louder, more visible representatives may be the ones breaking all the sales records, but they don't represent the gaming industry and its best hopes for its future.


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