Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Small Games of 2012 (Part 1)

2012 may not have brought about the apocalypse, but it did produce a slew of excellent small games. So excellent in fact that multiple media outlets have awarded the small games Journey and The Walking Dead game of the year. Journey comes from thatgamecompany, who brought us 2009's Flower. The Walking Dead, based on the comic/TV series, comes from Telltale Games. Unfortunately, I haven't played either (my Playstation 3 broke this summer so I haven't played Journey, and no matter what good words people say about The Walking Dead I'm just not that interested in zombies, even if those zombies are used as a metaphor for the human condition). Instead, I'll discuss here those small games that I did manage to play in 2012.  Ready?

To the Moon (Freebird Games)

To the Moon was a game with a great premise. You play the role of two scientists who have been summoned to a dying man's house. The man has a last wish, he wants to go "to the moon". These scientists have the means that will allow the dying man to accomplish this. Using a fancy machine the scientists are able to enter the dying man's mind and relive his memories, subtly altering them so that the dying man will have the memory of going to the moon. One part Inception, and one part Citizen Kane, the premise and overall idea of To the Moon is brilliant. The game utilizes a retro 16 bit art style, so it looks like an old Final Fantasy game from the 90's. While the gameplay itself isn't very deep- it's basically a point-and-click adventure- the story draws on a lot of emotional strings, from the gentle piano pieces that it uses, to the secrets the two scientists find in the dying man's memories. Even the idea of going "to the moon" may not have meaning it initially appears to.

Unfortunately much of the emotional impact the game is undercut by one of the scientist characters. Nearly every time something poignant happens, he's there to make some sassy or sarcastic comment. It's like watching the end of the movie Titanic with Rose about to say goodbye to Jack forever with the whole theater on the verge of tears when some guy blurts out "Hey buddy why don't you just get on the flotsam with her, ya big dummy!".

I kept thinking that the creators of the game thought up this grand emotional tale but didn't want to be seen as sissies by their guy friends, so they made sure to have a completely annoying and unnecessary character ruin several moments of potentially great emotional impact. Despite this, I guarantee that you will probably find yourself in tears as the final scene plays out.

Fez (Polytron)

I've already discussed my love of Fez and needless to say, I still think it was an absolutely fantastic game. A perfect homage to videogames of the 80's, Fez managed to make me feel like a kid all over again.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Remedy Entertainment)

A semi-sequel to 2010's Alan Wake (which I wrote about), this small downloadable title continues the adventure of the titular author who finds himself trapped in his own nightmares. Breaking free of "the dark place" from the first game, Alan Wake- ahem... wakes up in a semi-real bit of Arizona, having surrendered some of his memory in order to do so. The game tasks Alan with recovering those memories in a style reminiscent of Groundhog Day. While it continues with the same style of gameplay as the original, American Nightmare introduces a real nemesis, an alter-ego version of Alan named Mr. Scratch (whose name, in a small bit of brilliance, is never actually pronounced, with only the sound of a scratched record whenever anyone says his name). Mr. Scratch is an excellent foil to Alan, a womanizing douchebag who knows Alan's plans since he essentially is Alan.

Like the original, the game has excellent voice acting. Alan Wake really does come across as a real life horror novelist stuck in his own story. On top of this, the entire game is taking place inside an episode of "Night Springs" (think Twilight Zone) which is sold well by having the game narrated by a Rod Serling soundalike. While the gameplay itself isn't very challenging, the game has just enough flair and humor to recommend it. You can watch the first few minutes here to get a taste of just how self-aware this game is (for example, I love how the episode of Night Springs is "written by Alan Wake").

That's it for now, as soon as I finish up one last small game I picked up during the holiday Steam sale I'll be back with part 2.

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