January 22, 2014 5:34 PM | John Polson
After a long winter's nap, we speak to the last of our devs to wrap up the year of 2013 and offer four very practical wishes for games in 2014. Speaking today is Jake Elliott from Kentucky Route Zero, along with other developers from Ridiculous Fishing, Guacamelee, and Sharecart 1000.
Kentucky Route Zero developer Jake Elliott:
2013's top games:
Paralect by Loan Verneau: Very rough in a very interesting way that just makes the experience more alienating. The writing is vital & fun, and plays with the sound of language more than any other recent game I can think of.
Zero Hour by Andi McClure: You don't often see interactive fiction at this scale, which I guess is the novelty that first grabbed me about Zero Hour. I like Andi's work a lot -- it's usually quite technically ambitious (or maybe for her it's not about ambition; she's clearly a super talented programmer) but also has this playfully small scale. Little gems of weird software.
Ultra Business Tycoon III by Porpentine: Porpentine is a great writer of this kind of very intensely personal pulp science fiction. I think this is my favorite of hers.
Artgame by Pippin Barr: I watch Pippin's work very closely. First and foremost that's because he makes great work but it's also because, like me, he has one foot in games and one in the art world, though he makes a lot more of that duality than I do. He's also great at talking about his process -- read his blog! Like all his games, Artgame starts as an arty one-liner and then blossoms into a perfectly-executed experimental videogame.
Device 6 by Simogo: For the sound design alone -- fantastic! I think we often forget that players spend so much time reading text, and even the most text-heavy games (IF, visual novels) neglect typography. But Simogo have the design chops to make a text-heavy game that luxuriates in type.
Gone Home by Fullbright and The Stanley Parable by Galactic Cafe: Thrilled to see these games get such a large amount of attention and positive critical response. So much has been said about both of them that I don't think I have anything interesting to add, but I would feel weird omitting them from this list. Definitely two of my most valued experiences in 2013 :)
2014 wish list for the industry:
I hope we find more ways to support a variety of activities in and around games. I'd like to see design & development practices beyond the kind of commodity/product sale structure become sustainable -- how can we support each other's practices and not just buy each other's products? Some of the most exciting art makes a really unexciting product when you try to force into that box. How could critical writing about games be a sustainable practice even if it didn't always fit the kind of news/reviews structure that media companies know how to profit from and that game developers know how to understand as part of their marketing process.
Is there room for more exploration of the "Let's Play" form or something like it, that could become a sustainable practice for more than just two or three celebrity YouTubers? Again, I think that would take a shift away from product marketing as a function, somehow ... I've been very excited over the last few months to see some of my favorite designers and critics use platforms like Patreon that explicitly sustain practices rather rather than facilitate product sales. But we still need more support for more kinds of cultural work -- that's my biggest hope for games in 2014!
Guacamelee developer Chris McQuinn
2013's top games:
Desktop Dungeons by QCF Design: For the longest time I kept on going back to Desktop Dungeons - despite having much more fancy games on my computer. Being a sucker for dungeon crawlers and short game experiences, DD is all about gaming the system, looking at a spell, and thinking outside the box as to how you can take advantage of it. If you get bored (angrily frustrated), pick a new race/class, and the meta-game starts all over again.
Risk of Rain by Hopoo Games: Brutally difficult, or maybe I'm bad at games. Or both. Despite this - Risk of Rain plainly offers the player one pivotal choice: when to activate your doom? (the portal). This judgement call was one of the most satisfying choices made during my video gaming experiences last year.
Gunpoint by Tom Francis: Hacking in games is one of those concepts that's tough to make fun. Awesome in theory, but usually more often than not monotonous. Gunpoint came up with an innovative solution to this problem with the Crosslink device, whereby I felt like a badass cyberpunk, hacking the network like a champ. Add in an art style that was enjoyably refined - made this one of my favorite games of the year.
MegaCity HD by ColePowered Games: Games on my phone usually don't last very long - but MegaCity has found a permanent little home. A cool little puzzle game that made me the ultimate city planner. Is it a cross between SimCity and Tetris? Who knows. What I do know is that I found myself planning many moves ahead - trying to predict where the next park, or powerplant would be placed to max out my column points. This mindset of planning ahead while maintaining the board in front of you is a nice mental sweet spot in gaming.
Don't Starve by Klei Entertainment: I hate this game. Yet I love this game. I haven't been such an expert in useless in-game knowledge since World of Warcraft. With that said, Don't Starve had me returning night after night to become better, make a bigger fortified house, or craft more powerful items. Sometimes a game is great simply because of the extreme polar opposite emotions you feel as a player. For example: joy (meat effigy) and white hot rage (Deerclops)
2014 wish list for the industry:
Being an independent developer in the industry has really improved over the last few years with regards to media coverage and accessibility to the market. I feel many people's wish list have been answered. What would be great to see is a commitment that developers earn a fair price for the games they make. It is a scary thought that all platform markets become a race to the bottom with regards to price, the way the handheld market has somewhat become.
There seems to be a significant number of media outlets experimenting with different ways to provide video game coverage. A few examples of this are background story pieces, video commentary on current topics, and a mish mash of vlogs/podcasts/let's plays. These are really compelling innovations. I just hope that the general gaming population enjoys this content as much as I do so that this initiative can continue.
Sharecart 1000 co-creator Damian Sommer
2013's top games:
Corrypt by Michael Brough: Michael Brough is probably my favourite game designer doing things right now, for so many reasons. I'm probably reading WAY too into Corrypt, but I see the entire game as being one elaborate metaphore for humankind's relationship to technology, and that relationship's effects on everything around us. I don't want to spoil too many things, but when you're playing Corrypt, think of your avatar as humanity as a whole, and think of magic as the industrial boom of the 20th century and maybe you'll see why I freak out about this game all the time.
Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn: I played a game a while ago, called Elude, which was a designed to demonstrate what depression feels like, to people who'd never experienced it. While I think Elude did a pretty good job at simulating the condition, something Depression Quest does is so incredibly clever, that I think it might completely usurp Elude as my go-to depression awareness game. Depression Quest offers you multiple choices for how your character will go about their life, but a lot of the time, an obviously healthy option such as "Go to the party and spend quality time with my friends" is crossed out and unable to be clicked on. Depending on how deeply depressed your character is, you'll see your character's climb out of the mire, or you'll see them spiralling downwards. All from just showing the options, and then crossing them out.
Fjords by Kyle Reimergartin breathed new life into the Sharecart 1000, so for that it holds a special place in my heart. Other than that, though, the game is a wonderful combination of exploration, puzzle-solving and pure mystery. It taps right into the same niche that Starseed Pilgrim does, but manages to remain fairly accessible, while Starseed's curve is more like being pushed off a cliff. To be clear, I love Starseed Pilgrim as well, I just wanted to put Fjords into perspective.
Gone Home by Fullbright Company does the absolute BEST job of any game I've ever seen at getting a player immersed in the headspace of a character. The situation they've created is just so damn clever that I still think about it all the time. It's the early 90's. You've been away in Europe for a while. Your family moved into a new house while you were away. You come back from Europe, and go to the new house your family moved into. Nobody's home. Cellphones are not commonplace. You've never been to this house before. Though your character did grow up with their family and should therefore know who they are, you have been away for so long that they've grown without you, and you're learning new things about them. Don't even get me started on how I justify the voice-over dialogue (not because I don't want to, but because it gets into spoilery territory).
Papers, Please by Lucas Pope: I won't ramble about this too much, since everyone talks about it, but the clunky UI was such a brave and powerful choice and I respect this game so damn much.
2014 wish list for the industry:
Honestly, I rarely ever think towards the future, so I'm having trouble coming up with anything right now. I guess I'd like to continue to be surprised and impressed with direction that games are going in. I'm loving so much of the content developers are putting out right now, and for the past two years I've been exposed to so many things that have challenged what a game should and could be. I love it, and I want to see more.
2013's top games:
Spelunky by Mossmouth came out for PC this year, and with it came the Daily Challenge. It's weird to think that a single feature could redefine a game, but that's exactly what the daily challenge did for me. Spelunky (as has been said) is a brutally difficult game. When I first encountered it on Xbox 360, despite my respect for it, we didn't click. The problem was that Spleunky requires incredible concentration and patience, but the more I played, the more I just wanted to get through it, the worse my concentration was. I was trying to brute force it, and Spelunky is not a game you can brute force. Eventually, I burned out. This all changed once Doug Wilson told me about playing once a day (the practice that spawned the daily challenge feature). The beauty of the daily challenge isn't just that it's an interesting competition or that it encourages streaming or that it gives you something to do everyday: it's that it gives you a ritual of practice, and puts you in a community of practitioners. It encourages you to play the game in the way that is best for you to learn it, and that changes everything. Beating Hell for the first time took me over a hundred hours of playtime, and it was one of the best feelings I've ever gotten from a videogame.
The Yawhg by Emily Carroll and Damian Sommer: My fiancÃ© and I played this game obsessively for one evening, and it was far and away one of my favorite experiences of the year. A lot of co-op games secretly require the same skill-level of both players. If anyone is even slightly ahead, they can quickly turn into one player either bossing the other around, or intentionally holding back while the less experienced player explores. The Yawhg elegantly avoids this issue by obfuscating what your choices actually mean, leading to an experience that is more akin to reading a book together than solving a puzzle. The more times you play, the more the proper strategies start to reveal themselves, but because they show up slowly for everyone, nobody ever feels ahead or behind. Add in some odd and well-placed humor, beautiful art and music, and you have a perfect little experience.
Samurai Gunn by Teknopants: Despite the bugs, the lack of any real options to tweak, and the fact that after 40 hours I still don't know how showdowns trigger in stock mode, Samurai Gunn is by far my favorite multiplayer couch game of the past few years. It's incredibly deep, and yet dead simple. You swing a sword or shoot a bullet and if it hits someone they die. The fact that it behoves you to be aggressive (it's easier to get kills than to defend yourself) results in the impressive side-effect of making the game incredibly accessible to new players. I've had the same gender and interest-diverse group of high-school friends coming over to my house to hang out for over a decade now, and this is the first videogame aside wii sports that all my friends will play, even the ones that never play videogames. And it's about killing samurai. Amazing.
Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds by Nintendo: For a company that has been making games I love for literally my entire life, Nintendo has done something fairly magical this past year, and it's something that hit home the most in the latest Zelda.
Back in the 80s and 90s, Nintendo made really hard videogames. They were filled with imagination and secrets. Mario 3 and the original Legend of Zelda really exemplified their ethos in that period. As they moved into the contemporary time of 3d gaming, some things changed. Nintendo kept the smarts and imagination, but they became obsessed with accessibility and information (to the point where the opening of New Super Mario Bros. Wii U surreally goes out of it's way to explain in a cutscene why it is that the Tanooki suit is back... This from a series where you eat mushrooms to grow larger). To their credit, Nintendo has done a great job at succeeding in their accessibility goal, but it has clearly been at the expense of some of the magic that they had in the early days.
This year however, things have changed. Nintendo seems to have taken all it has learned and rebooted its ideals. Nowhere was this more evident than the most recent Zelda game, which was somehow both accessible and hard. A game where I feared dying, and actually did die! And when I did it wasn't meaningless like in New Super Mario Bros., it was emotional and intense, like in Dark Souls. Nintendo has finally made a Zelda game that lets you explore a world, not just walk a straight and narrow path. It's clear Nintendo has gotten a lot of inspiration from Dark Souls, and they have taken that inspiration and folded it into their model. Unlike Dark Souls, with Zelda I never felt like I needed to check a wiki.
Somehow, Nintendo has figured out how to make games that are hard enough that you want to find the secrets, but not so hard that feel like you need to look them up. In the age of the internet, this is an incredible accomplishment that I haven't seen anyone else come even close to.
Super Mario 3D World by Nintendo: Like Zelda, this latest Mario iteration also harkens back to Nintendo's earlier times. Here though, Nintendo has recovered a different relic of their past: They've gone back to their philosophy of just making games 'FUN' and not caring about the particular accessibility of any specific feature. The clearest exposition of that is the double-cherry power-up which clones your character. I've read that this came from a bug, and that is super clear when you play the game. The resulting affect is totally ridiculous, very difficult to control, and also incredibly goofy and great! Philosophically, the double-cherry feels so much more like the Kuribo Shoe in Mario 3 than the Goomba Skate that is meant to be its tribute. It's really exciting to see Nintendo letting lose with their design a little bit in the name of fun.
Dark Souls by From Software: So, this game definitely didn't come out in 2013, but it was such an important game for me this year I had to include it. Sorry that I'm so far behind the times. So much has been said about Dark Souls difficulty, but I think that's the wrong lesson to learn from the game. For me, what was astonishing about Dark Souls was two-fold.
First: its potential for expressivity in play-style -- Everyone I know who plays Dark Souls plays it entirely differently. Even my friend and I who both played dexterity based Pyromancers with the same weapons and spells fight in entirely different ways. For a third-person action adventure game, this struck me as a hell of an achievement. The way Dark Souls requires you to use and respect 3d space is truly revolutionary. I've never played a game where the actual weapon animations your equipment used were of such fundamental importance.
And second: the lessons Dark Souls teaches you through its mechanics. It's a game about being patient, about not giving in to fear, and about trusting yourself. It's a game where trying to get that last hit on a boss with bad timing will get you killed. It's a game where you have to wait, often at the brink of death, for just the right timing, not to strike, but to heal.
It's a game where often, the best move is not to be far away, but to be as close to the terrifying beast you're fighting as possible. Dark Souls is a game about overcoming your fear in the truest way possible -- not with reckless abandon, but with calm cunning. It's truly a game about conquering demons.
2014 wish list for the industry:
There are so many exciting trends for the future of games. Spectatorship and e-sports as driven by Twitch are probably the thing I'm most excited about in terms of mechanics. I'd like to spend this time talking about the community though.
This has been quite a year for Indie Games. The community has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few years, but it feels like we've really hit a true turning point in terms of diversity only recently. Suddenly there are tons of incredible articles and games coming from so many different sources that I'm hesitant to name any in particular, for fear that I might forget someone! Obviously we still have a ways to go, but the trajectory we're on feels pretty amazing. And with this diversification, of course, has come an increase in disagreement. Any time you have different groups coming together there are bound to be disagreements, and this is a good thing! Honestly many of the foundations of videogames could stand to be shaken up a bit. But while most of these discussions have been healthy and practical, a number have verged into bullying and toxic behavior.
Videogames is a complicated and diverse space, even without a diverse group of makers and players and writers. Certainly not all games are diverse, and there are far too many shooters and white-male centric plots, but videogames can be, and have been, anything. Games can be art or science or educational or violent or fun or compulsive. They can be built to make money, or generate fame, or be vehicles of controversy, or quiet ruminations on life. They can be personal or focus-grouped. Their creators can make tons of money, or just enough, or they can struggle in obscurity. Beyond that, all games are systems, which means they're less objects, and more lenses: things that provide answers when questioned. Our experience with them comes from our experience before them and informs are experiences after them.
Videogames is bigger and more complicated than any of us. It has existed longer than we have, and it will exist longer than we will. Even a single game is astonishingly complicated. The amount of art, computer science, musical background, design training, and capacity for creativity required to make just one small game is almost hard to imagine. Yet, many of us make games every day.
The one thing we have in common for certain, is our desire and drive to make videogames, to talk about videogames, and to play videogames. For all of those things, we need the help of each-other. Exploring things alone is too hard and too exhausting. So for this new year I hope that people are more respectful in the way they treat each-other. We're too diverse these days to expect everyone to understand where everyone else is coming from. The best we can do is make an effort and learn as we go. So lets cut each-other some slack and celebrate and use our disagreements as tools for learning, instead of wielding them as clubs to demolish one another through personal attack.
As a side-note, I want to reference ZoyÉ™ Street's amazing piece on this topic here, which should basically be required reading for everyone.
I look forward to a ever nicer, ever stronger, ever more diverse, and ever more interesting, indie scene in the coming year.