Push Back

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about games that push back.

It sort of started with playing a lot more board games. Specifically, Eldritch Horror, Robinson Crusoe and Firefly. These games are largely co-operative, in that players are expected to work together against the board and the scenario to achieve their goals. Every turn, the player can take a few actions to advance their board state and when that’s done, the game will reveal events through its decks. Players will then have to deal with the revealed events that can range from mild setback to pants-shittingly awful for the unfortunate.

It’s fantastic. The game can go swimmingly at one point, the final goal just turns within sight, and then a revealed card can send players scrambling for a solution, cursing their luck and just moaning at the unfairness of the system. More importantly it’s fun. It’s us versus the board, and the board is winning, and its creates the kind of memorable emotional pangs that feed directly into the way we remember the stories of these games.

Eldritch Horro

Modern Video games don’t often do this well. A large part of video games seems to be the ever-increasing player skills and resources. The more you play, the more loot you gain, the more the game becomes less challenging. Balance in games is often tuned so the game is just that difficult, enough of a challenge for your current power level, but never bad enough to send you scrambling. The essential trajectory of the modern video game is ever forward, ever upward, until the power cap is reached and the game often becomes boring.

Expansions then just raise the power cap.

I’d like a modern open world game that pushed back at the player that reacts to the player’s actions and activities and challenges his growth through the world. Change the world such it’s rarely safe, do it with events that react to the players actions within that world.

There are a few that sort of do this already though.

 

Shadow of Mordor hints in this direction with the Nemesis system, even as the system is limited to the Orcish warchiefs. Killing warchiefs moves others higher into the hierarchy, increasing their powers and abilities. It was a great story generator, as we watched the enemy landscape change based on our actions. It’s a pity the rest of the world was so bland even after the Tolkien make-over. Nothing else happened in the world.

 

Don’t Starve is another game that pushed the player the deeper and longer he got into it. Changing seasons and event spawns made surviving a challenge even after the player managed a rudimentary shelter and some food. If anything, I wish the game allowed for a brief save point at deeper intervals, because once you get the hang of the systems, the first couple of days is a slog.

 

Alien: Isolation is another that pushes the player well. It’s a horror game and understands that a key part of a horror game is making the player incredibly vulnerable. Even as it gave players more options and tools to deal with its challenges, it would shift the balance of power back against the player. Ben Sones writes a pretty good post about it. It’s a shame the game couldn’t keep it out throughout and shits the ending.

 

Previously I spoke about how stories can arise from the push and pull of actions, that the player can feel that the story is unique his own depending on how the game responds to his actions.

 

When we were playing Eldritch horror, it did feel like it was our story, and every time we played those games, our stories were different. Sometimes we’d succeed in preventing the rise of the elder god, even if we had to fight crippled midgets in San Francisco to do so, or unearth ancient artifacts from the amazons. Sometimes we failed and Astaroth devoured the world, even if we had accumulated enough loot to buy over Shanghai and enough magic to lightning strike monsters from across the globe.

We hated the system sure, and we also thought it unfair. But it was fun, and it was meaningful. It meant we had to consider our actions, weigh the risks of whatever actions we took. When the game gets hard, it was challenging cos it felt like we were pitting our wits against it, wondering what sort of horror it would visit upon us if we were to choose poorly.

And all in this, I wonder how we can incorporate that feeling into a modern AAA game, or whether the audience is even there for it. I imagine it might be able to work, in something like the Far Cry series, where the basics and fundamentals of the game lends itself to this constant push and pull between the player and it’s main antagonist.

Man, I really hope i get to write it down at some point.

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The Beat – Interactive Storytelling Series Part I

It starts with a beat.

In screenwriting, a beat is the smallest unit of story. It can be an action that propels the plot, a twist that alters the story’s direction, a shot that establishes tone, mood, theme; or dialog that reveals characters. Beats are the bricks in which the story is build, and it is how the audience experiences the story.

One of the steps of screenwriting involves writing out the beat sheet*, a list of all the story elements that can be assembled into the actual story. When seen this way, we can see how each beat effects one another; and when properly ordered, how the story unfolds. It’s a basic framework in which writers use to grow stories, adding details, shading and depth as needed to create a deeper resonant experience for the audience.

Then John Mehdi disagrees, and rips out the Dean's heart screaming, "NO ONE LIES TO ME"

Then John Mehdi disagrees, and rips out the Dean’s heart screaming, “NO ONE LIES TO ME”

 

I like to think the beat sheet is a good framework to use when designing a game that wants to tell stories through its systems, mechanics and world, a game that provides players the tools, and vocabulary to craft his own experience and create his own story. A game where any meaningful action the player takes becomes a beat in their story.

I scrounged the wreckage for what food and materials I could find. A nearby fireaxe became the key in which I hacked scattered luggage for what treasures they held. When darkness descended, that same fireaxe bore me the gift of firewood. Then dried leaves, and a lick of flame from a liberated lighter birth me a flame to last me through the night, hopefully. Tomorrow, I had to see what else I could do.”

The Forest

First I’ll chop the tree, then I’ll chop that creepy figure standing in the distance there.

 

Of course the game has to respond in kind. Good games are build on strong player feedback, and these feedback range from cheerful celebrations of color and sound, impressive animated sequences, to digital loot that triggers that endorphin drip in your brain. These can be the beats of the story as well. “I got this fantastic sword from surviving an epic battle with the dungeon’s final demon.”

But it can’t just be a list of cool things happening next to one another.

Here, I’ll let Film Crit Hulk explain it.

“Stories are defined by cause and effect. Perpetually. Constantly. Vividly. Stories are built on that simplest of mechanisms. This causes that and that causes this and so on and so forth. It’s about setups and payoffs. It’s about action and reaction. It’s about information followed by dramatic consequence. Cause and effect lend meaning to events. They link scenes together. They give wholeness to seemingly separate ideas. Cause and effect are the linking of your chain. They make a story a story”*

hulk_reading_header__index

HULK READ! because hulk think that stories are the connection has with other human not-hulks.

 

So when the game responds to the player’s action with a beat of its own that moves the story forward, or reveal part of its world, it contributes to the players overall experience of his story. And when the response isn’t entirely predictable, it can become this constant back and forth, between player and system, between character and world, to create a story that’s unique to the player’s decision.

That’s what games can do that the other mediums can’t. Where their story has to be ordered as some point; filmed, written, animated and told, a game’s story can unfold as long as the player has meaningful actions to take, and the game has the responses to return in kind.

Or course, all this works under a certain context, and context is key in the telling of stories.

Hopefully, I’ll get to that idea next week.

Stray Thoughts

* – Another good example of this idea is Trey Stone’s and Matt Parker’s “But” and “Therefore” talk. Where they essential explain the idea of how each beat affect the following beat into order to create the story.

– I was trying to work the phrase “Player actions are the verbs of the game” somewhere up there, but it didn’t work. But I like it as a phrase, because it essentially sums up what I’m trying to do in thinking of game mechanics and features as vocabulary in telling a story.


Craft work.

There’s a craft to storytelling.

The storyteller does not invent story; the storyteller utilized craft to invoke story. Images, music, vocabulary, style are all in the service of imparting ideas, emotions and characters in their audience’s mind.

There are tons on books on the craft of screenwriting, easily as many essays and thoughts on the process of novel writing. Poetry, song, painting have had years of studies devoted to the –ology of their particular type of storytelling.

Yet there is no similar craft for the kind of stories games can tell.

Early games borrowed a lot from traditional pen and paper RPGs, with tons of texts and the occasional image to prop them up. Later on, it borrowed the language of cinema, and brought it with it the cinematic experience, but also the unskippable cutscene.

 

Also include deep ruminations on the nature of war.

Also includes deep ruminations on the nature of war.

These days, both styles are wielded with immense skill and experience to give us the rollercoaster thrill ride of the Call of Duty series, the expansive, the lore filled text heavy Skyrim, or a deft combination of the two in Mass Effect. Yet these are all examples of games still appropriating other storytelling techniques in service to the story that the designers want to tell. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fantastic, and highly enjoyable but I don’t think they are all great examples of just how different game stories can be told.

It’s in the player experience; that should be key to the story that the game is trying to tell.

I'm a survivor!

I’m a survivor!

Games are interactive, the actions the player takes, the decisions that they have to make, the situation that the game places them in; these are tools in which games can invoke a kind of story to the player, making the experience a part of the greater story.

But we have no craft for that.

We do have terminology; phrases and concepts unique to the problem of telling stories in games. The most popular being “ludonarrative dissonance.” We’re throwing buzzwords like “player-authored”, or story generation around more as well, to achieve the holy grail of “procedural storytelling”. Granted, some of these are useful, but only up to a point of arguing about the merits of particular design.

More often than not though, we’re still in service of the game being fun, and the story of the game being secondary to that fun, that trying to tell a meaningful story with those mechanics is a lot like the story paragraph game: Entertaining,, but ultimately meaningless.

Obviously, I’m stumbling my way to some sort of a point here, in that I’d like to understand more about the kind of craft that games can employ in order to tell the kind of stories in can tell. What vocabulary can games employ in their use of mechanics, systems and other tools it has at its disposal to craft the kind of story for their players that resonate.

I have some ideas.

Let’s see if I actually manage to write them.

frustrated-writer-2

One of them has my bank code!

 


2014 in games.

1. This War of Mine (PC)

This War of Mine “In modern war … you will die like a dog for no good reason.”

I needed to reach the end of my game before I could safely say this is the best game I’ve played this year. It’s a simple survival sims, but it captures so much of what it’s like to be a helpless civilian caught in the middle of a pointless war, or so I imagine. Yet that’s its strength, that it effective communicates an experience like no other, and it does so interactively.

The sheer grind of scrounging for wood to heat your shelter through the winter, the difficult decisions to starve for just a little bit more so the food will last longer, the agony of wondering if we should loot that helpless elderly couple for their supplies. This game isn’t fun in the traditional sense, but it reaches emotions that are rarely explored in the medium, and does so with grace and authenticity. For this, it deserves my vote.

2. DreamQuest (iOS)

DreamQuest

“Don’t be afraid to eat the squirrels”

It’s perhaps to its credit that the game doesn’t track hours played, because I’m fairly certain my phone exist mostly as a dreamquest machine right now. A sublime blend of two highly compelling gameplay systems (deckbuilding and roguelikes), the game has consumed all the stolen moments in time between life. Waiting for the bus; play dreamquest. Idle moments at the bar; play dreamquest, lounging between dives; play dreamquest. Drowning out relatives constant droning; play dreamquest. The art is horrible yes, but only goes to show that strong game design can often trump the superficial need for the graphical arms race.

3. Wolfenstein: The New Order (PC)

BJ

Who would have thought Wolfenstein would provide a thought provoking meditation on the nature of war and its cost. That a game that features Nazi moon bases, clockwork robotic dogs and Nazi mad scientists engineering the end of the world would be a establish real human characters. That the name BJ Blaskowicz would invoke a soft-spoken, soulful man caught in a war of regrets. Apparently Machine games did. I haven’t wanted to play through a single player FPS like this since the original half-life, and this is so much more.

“Right now, it’s going to be loud.”

4. Dragon Age: Inquisition (PS4)


12 companions

This was always going to be on the list somewhere. DAI is the game Bioware was destined to make. Expansive open worlds to explore, secrets to uncover in every nook and cranny; A large cast of characters that joke, cajole, fight, and codex entries that could cover an entire series of books that George Martin will take the better part of a century to write. I hope the next Mass Effect takes its cue from DAI. Few game studios ever create worlds and stories like Bioware does and DAI is a showcase at just why they are top of the RPG game.

“Cassandra greatly approves”

5. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4)

Nemesis
I struggled a little with the 5th entry on this list, trying to decide between games like Dark Souls II, Alien Isolation, or Legends of Grimrock II. In the end, Shadow of Mordor wins out with one simple reason; the Nemesis system. When it first announced, I wondered how they would do it, I wondered how it could even work. And now that I’ve played it, I think it has finally ushered in the age of next-gen gaming. It’s not graphical wonkery, nor technical mastery, it’s design

The rest of the game is a serviceable hodgepodge of gameplay systems, married to an incredibly trite story, set in world that is a little too bland. Kudos to the team though for not thoroughly defiling Tolkien’s world building which some had feared early on. It’s a shame that Mordor itself has to be the dark serious gritty brown world of brutal violence and ancient elven ruins instead of something more interesting.

On the other hand, I really like that the world existed beyond the player’s presence, with its wildlife, orcs and ghouls all reacting against one another.

Yet it’s the nemesis system that will inspire games to come, and I hope to see the future where it isn’t tied to just Orcs, but perhaps mafia dons, Templar Agents, assassin targets, et al.

“You have to visualize your goals”

The Godfather Award

1. Android: Netrunner (LCG)

SMCI still go to a game almost every week. I can’t help it. They release a new pack every month or so, and a big box every half a year. There are new card combos to try out, new concepts to build around, (My fave of the year being the Social Justice Warrior deck) new games to play, and often, new friends to make.

Few games are ever alike, (apart from the those bastards playing NBN Astrobiotics.) and each is a contest of wills, maths, and lies. There’s nothing the tension when a game can hang in a single click, or the high when your glory run connects, or the joy when your janky combo actually fires that one time.

I’ll probably be playing this far into 2015 as well, so expect to see it nominated again next year.

“Last click, Run.”

Honorable Mentions

1. Alien Isolation: A good job on bringing back the survival space horror genre, with a great AI to anchor the entire system. Shame about the pacing, the repetitive key hunts, and those last few sections.

2. Dark Souls II: It felt more like DSII was made by a bunch of talented forgers trying to ape what Dark Souls did right, but it missed out a lot of the secret sauce that held the original Dark Souls together.

3. Legends of Grimrock II: It charming to get back to the fundamentals of the dungeon crawl, even if I had to do it one step at a time.


The Noob Tube.

I watch a lot of TV

There’s a lot of good television running. Currently on my slate is Orphan Black, Person of Interest, Elementary, Game of Thrones, New Girl and Arrow. Previously, I’ve watched seasons of Justified, The West Wing, The Wire, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Scrubs, Generation Kill, Fringe. The list is long and generally varied. If the AVclub covers it, I’ll probably watch it at some point.

Games can learn a lot from the storytelling structure of good television.

My current favourite series

See, television also advertises with Men holding guns.

Games have long been trying to ape film’s more cinematic style in their visual presentation and their storytelling style. In an industry that’s constantly in some sort of visual arms race, drawing from cinematic visual aesthetic is certainly a great strategy. But films are generally two hours long, with a storytelling structure designed to make the best use of that time. The classical Hollywood style is the oft repeated 3 act structure, usually with the mythic journey grafted on.

Games can stretch from anywhere between 5- 20 hours long. A Hollywood three act structure is going to seem limiting when your Act II lasts several hours and your audience might have stopped paying attention, either because the plot was lost in their meandering, or they can’t get pass certain gameplay sections. That isn’t it doesn’t work, and there are plenty of examples to cite with a strong storytelling in games emanating from the cinematic structure of storytelling.

Yet games have much more in common with Television.

Click here for comedy

“You’ve never read a book and 3 chapters in, the book goes, “what are the major themes of the book.”

Note: I originally expanded a bit more on the following thoughts on how games can draw from television’s storytelling style, but each point spiralled out into these massive walls of text. I’ll probably want to expand on them in individual posts on subsequent days then.

Hour Long Experiences

Research has shown that players play their games in hourly sessions, be it an hour or two, maybe three. Those sessions are further divided into 15 mins game play loops, where design feedbacks rewards, teases, plot development in an effort to keep players engaged, entertained and feel like their hour was meaningful. Television is similarly build from 15 min ACTs, usually written to its act breaks in order for ads to do their thing. Stories are twisted and turned based on that 15 minute structure, (A 30 min episode has a somewhat different structure, but the concept is the same, it’s writing to the act breaks) so audiences will stay tuned through the commercials.

Story Arcs and World Building

Serialized television have long story arcs spanning multiple episodes. During this time, they’re laying the groundwork for that story, building their worlds with locations, a cast of characters, and a thematic through line that keeps the premise and the story coherent. Games excel at world building, and arguably is the best medium at allowing its audience to best experience a world unlike their own.

Where television builds their worlds slowly, adding pieces to it when necessary to unfold longer stories, games can adopt the same method when parcelling out information about the world to the player.

Seasons == Sequels

Shows want seasons, sometimes 6 seasons and a movie, and there’s nothing more a publisher wants more than a sequel. When television goes into multiple seasons, audiences will remark that it’s a sign of its quality, and there are some seasons that are just better than others. Often, it takes some shows a season or two before it gets to telling that really great story, using the cast, world, and premise it has long since established to get around to it. Justified’s season 2 wouldn’t be possible with season 1.

Game sequels on the other hand, are more often thought of as milking the cash cow, rarely deviating too much from the original. Developers are more likely to design more of the same, but BIGGER in an attempt to placate, or satiate the fans of the series. There is a the possibility where games can develop it sequels as extensions of the original premise, market them as more seasons, more reasons to spend time with characters you like, game play mechanics you think are fun, and still have the leeway to explore, and iterate on what has been build before.

The Player Character and his Cast

We’re going to be spending several hours in the company of the player character. The best of which we can identify with, relate to, and hopefully feel some empathy for. We’d probably also want to like their supporting cast of characters. Snake and Otagon is probably one of the more famous bromances of games, and Nathan Drake wouldn’t be much of a likable character without Sully and Elena. Establishing a likable ensemble of characters enables the game to fill out more of its world with charm and personality, and attaches the player to the story that surrounds these characters. Good television often has strong ensemble cast; the downside of which is less focus is placed upon the central character. I thinks there’s a balance that can be explored, creating an interesting cast of characters around the PC, exploring their stories and their relation to the game alongside the game itself, and develop more than just 1 interesting character per game.

Summary

It’s probably too much to say that games should be emulating television entirely in their storytelling and conceptualisation. Yet while TV has since evolved multiple storytellings styles in the past decade, games have somehow moved at a much slower pace. Arguably, games aren’t always the medium in which story takes priority, but since television provides so many good examples of long form storytelling, world building, relatable characters, and hours upon hours of entertainment, there’s possibly a lot games can learn from how its done.

Stray Thoughts

– I’ve tried avoiding the word “Episodic” since that has troubling connotations when we recall what happened with Half Life 2, or virtually what other games promised back in the early 00s. but if Telltale has proven anything, episode gaming can work, and can span stories into a wider set of situations and plot. The Walking Dead is probably the best example of how episodic gaming, with a story structure that owes a lot of televised seasons can work.

– Grantland recently published an exceptional article on how Game of Thrones will change the future of television storytelling. It’s a bit optimistic to be sure, but the success of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Justified in this new era, while network television struggle beyond its few hits is possibly key to the article’s insight. At best, perhaps it’s prescience for future games as well, that we’ll do well to start chasing and consolidating niche markets, as the big mainstream guys dwindle into the few remaining IP.

– Themes are for 8th grade book reports.

– Of course, Television can, and often does work with a much larger ensemble cast, since they can cut away from the main character for quite a long time, and there are plenty more difference between the mediums that a one on one grafting is impossible. Hopefully, I’ll get down to penning my actual thoughts about how it might work.


Blog Necromancy.

We’re back.

It’s been a year, a year since I joined up with Ubisoft Singapore, to work on Assassin’s Creed. A year in which fantastic games have been released, and ideas have percolated in my head. A year where I actually taught a university master’s class in storytelling.

So I’m back here to focus some of the thoughts I’ve had so far, and as a more sustained attempt to journal my thoughts, stray or otherwise, about games and storytelling into something cogent, structured, meaningful. This year, I’m supposed to be embarking on a project where I can delineate the vocabulary of game storytelling, and various approaches to initial conceptualization.*

There’s a lot of misunderstanding regarding story and storytelling in the games industry. I can’t even begin to speculate why that is, without probably taking flak from my initial statement. Suffice to say, various designers, artists, animators and all sorts of developers disagree on what story actually is in the process of making of game.

Games, after all, historically aren’t an entirely narrative driven medium.

There have been great game stories, great games with barely a story and good stories in games that are just above interactive. As a medium, games develop and iterate so fast that it has yet to settle into any recognizable form and structure that you easily hang storytelling upon. The storytelling in Uncharted and Dark Souls are two very different beasts, and yet they both work.

Games need to develop it’s own storytelling vocabulary; perhaps stop borrowing from the language and aesthetic of just film, and branch out to other medium, such as comics, television, short film, and even novels. It’s getting there, as I suspect that we can point to various games that have unique styles of storytelling to them, that draw from all sorts of strange influences.

As games continue to grow, we’re going to have to find new ways to communicate bigger and better ideas to our audiences. We cannot keep circling the drain of good vs evil, human vs aliens, action movie plots that recycle the same basic idea over and over again, while neglecting the themes and story that inform the game world as a whole, and developing systems that steal attention away from our thought processes. Games are a system of mechanics and dynamics, but that’s not all they can be.

But I’m probably worrying too much.

We’ve seen some fantastic narrative games lately. Telltale’s Walking Dead, the beautiful elegiac Journey, Irrational’s ambitiously flawed Bioshock: Infinite. Even the rebooted Tomb Raider was a solid story told fantastically, rooting its narrative in empathizing and understanding its title character.

The indie scene also continues to churn out some interesting gaming experiences such as Kentucky Route Zero, and Proteus, and Kickstarter continues to give hope for the revival of those epic RPG journeys full of ideas, themes and strange imaginative concepts.

I’d just like some common way for us to be able to discuss the future of game storytelling.

Stray Thoughts

– I seem to have been beaten to the punch about creating a storytelling vocabulary. Ernest Adams tries to solve the interactive storytelling problem by laying down the smack on misguided preconceptions about what interactive storytelling can be. I’ve read through the article, while nodding my head in agreement, but have yet to really delve deep into his massive PDF thesis statement.

– Back on Gamasutra, the Death of LucasArts, once a premier interactive storytelling studio, sparks a few nostalgic reminiscence. It’s been a while since I played any of those, and I have fond memories of Full Throttle, and Monkey Island, but I wasn’t playing games when these were at the height of their popularity. I feel like I may have missed out.

– I really hope that I’ll be writing more in the blog, if I’m not too distracted by building netrunner decks and constantly losing on OCTGN. 😦 I need netrunner tips.

 


My games of 2011.

2011 was a massive banner year for games. Triple A titles and Indies alike got released in droves and came in such high quality it boggles the time, and made demands what little free time I had to even manage playing, trying, or sampling all the big and small games. There are a couple I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to try before figuring out this list, but as it stands, this lists represents what I thought were the best games of 2011, and the kind of games I’ll be learning from now that I’m an actual designer of such.

In Order

1. Batman: Arkham City

The Dark Knight Descends!

I’m the Goddamn Batman.

Few other games will truly re-create the immersion of being a superhero, flying high and pummeling faces. Arkham City takes the best of Batman’s lore, scatters its stories around an open world bursting with life, and sends you under the Caped Crusader’s cowl to do everything that he would do, to keep Gotham safe. The stories were a bit much, dueling their narrative threads for attention, but when focused, it told a superb Batman story, (with a few comic bookish handwavium applied) and ties it all up in one fantastic ending. If anything, Arkham City is one of the few Batman stories to really understand Batman and Joker’s relationship, then manages to build a smart game around it.

What we all can learn: How to do an ending. The start of its final mission to the final climatic, emotionally resonant end, and even the credits sequence is a testament to finishing games with a Bang, and an encore. All games should bow out with such pizzazz, even if the game opens up for you to wander about freely later on.

2. Dark Souls

He's not the Goddamn Batman.

You will die a lot.

Your sense of achievement in Dark Souls is hard won. This is a difficult game and many will give up in frustration long before they begin to discover the nuances of the game’s finely tuned systems. It’s a game that isn’t afraid to show you failure, and serve it up alongside a steady helping of distress, melancholy and tension, because it knows nothing is as sweet as victory in the face of overwhelming odds. And while’s there’s so much to be said about the games difficulty, and what you can learn from it, a few words must be said to celebrate the its massive achievement in world building and level design. Most of which will go unseen as gamers give up in frustration.

What we all can learn: No, not the difficulty, but the Level Design. Dark Souls world is a labyrinth of inter-connecting corridors, dungeons, castles, underground lakes, hollowed trees, swamps and cathedrals. It’s all so wonderfully build as a world to explore, hiding its story bits in its architecture and mood, while providing a constant stream of surprises and awe around every corner. It takes what Zelda tries to do with its world, and actually creates a fantastical realm that’s a wonder to behold, even as it does its best to kill you.

3. Skyrim

Seriously, no one screenshot will do this game justice.

I’m the goddamn Dovahkin.

Pretty much every major games journalist writes about the massive scale of adventuring Skyrim provides. “A narrative loom“; one where stories of all kinds spring forth from the world and systems Bethesda has created. A place unlike any other, of dynamic, personal experiences and the beauty of its vision. Yes, Skyrim is an stellar achievement in games and in world creation. But Bethesda still has someway to go in figuring out the nuts and bolts of game systems. Improvements to the combat system will not go amiss, and deeper quests will perhaps create more emotional resonance. Still, it’s great that Skyrim has done so well. For awhile, RPGs looked like they might die to a hail of gunfire from the pseudo-military shooters, Skyrim has blown that perception apart, dragonborn style.

What we all can learn: Content. No one other game will have as much content, from epic quests, to little side stories in the world, as Skyrim. And not any one player will see them all, but there will be those who try. Sometimes, it’s enough to create little details that only one guy will see. Cos hopefully when he does, he’ll shout how cool it is to all his friends, and it’ll get viral.

4. Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings

I'm the goddamn Witcher

2011 really is the year of RPGs. The Witcher 2 represents the other end of spectrum, a game which puts you in the role of a single character, and tells a fairly focused story. For all that Skyrim does not do, The Witcher 2 trumpets. Fascinating deep characters, nuanced complex stories, and choice and consequence in the story that actually changes the story as you play it, The Witcher 2 best represents the kind of storytelling that doesn’t pander to your average gamer crowd, instead, confidently populating with characters that might be hard to relate to, but fully fleshed out in their idiosyncrasies. Still, like Bethesda, CDProjecky Red can polish up a little of its game systems so they don’t always interfere with the story they’re trying to tell. Also, Kudos to the Witcher for being one of the few games where the confrontation with the final boss can be dealt with by interesting dialog.

What we all can learn: Sex scenes. If games are trying to be adult, then we should bring along a sense of class and actual understanding of intimacy. For all its grit, grim, backstabbing and monsters, Witcher’s sex scene and the enduring relationship between its principal leads, seems to be able to accurately portray what an adult relationship might be like. Well, an adult relationship in a fantasy land at least.

5. Shogun 2

None of them wanna be the last samurai.

So not a shameful display.

Strategy games are less story-prone that action adventure and RPGs, but Shogun 2 does a stellar job in creating the tableau for which your Daimyo’s rise to power takes place. The Total War series may ostensibly be about those land battles, armies of ashigaru charging across the field while Samurais stand poised for battle; but a finely tuned campaign, with its RPG-lite characters and wonderful Japanese Aesthetic manage to create the sense that I really am grabbing power in 17th century Japan.

What we all can learn: History. Few other games mine the majesty and depth of human history for their games to take place; Shogun 2 revels in Japan’s rich medieval lifestyle, abstracting what it can to its game and writing reams of words otherwise in its wiki. Shogun 2 has been one massively enjoyable history lesson and its a wonder it’s not requirement playing for any student studying 17th century Japan.

6. Bastion

We're all friendly now, but for how long?

Kid’s got a story to tell, he’s gonna tell it.

Who would have thought Cormac McCarthy could have inspired a computer game. A transcendent synthesis of writing, music and art; Bastion best represents that games need not be epic undertakings of multiple hours to be influential and memorable. Perhaps it’s not the best game, it’s hacking and slashing are enjoyable enough, but it’s a game with more on its mind that just creating another dungeon crawl. It’s a game about uncovering lost, a minimalist story in creating history as economically as possible, a game more concerned about the mood and emotion of its audience that the thrills and spills of action and adventure. It’s a rare experience of gaming, music and story and it was exactly the right length for it.

What we all can learn: Among other things, how a soundtrack does the heavy lifting in setting the mood. We remember songs; the best kind latch on to the reptilian part of our brain and creates emotions we weren’t aware we could feel. Bastion takes that, marries it to the poetic style of its narration and creates a game that artfully bittersweet, about love and lost and sacrifice.

7. Dead Space 2

In space, no one can hear you scream

Boo!

I’m honestly surprised to have liked Dead Space 2 as much as I did. Sure, its relentlessly bleak and gregariously gory. It takes its best cues for gore-porn horror movies with shock tactics and superficial religious iconography for some supernatural depth that at best, it’s B-grade horror movie with guns. But damn if it isn’t incredibly well done B-grade. Dead Space 2 is no System Shock, but it’s confident in its horror story, and it tells it well. It also seems to understand that real horror works best when your character is vulnerable. Isaac may be armed to the teeth with futuristic weapons, but its still a hard fight for your sanity, and peace of mind as your wander through the flesh-soaked corridors of Saturn.

What we call learn: UI? I guess not every game has to be an object lesson in design and storytelling; some can just be wonderfully crafted.

8. Atom Zombie Smasher

One last dot

Llama Bomb!

When’s there’s no story, no grand ambition in theme or aesthetic, and no massive undertaking in scope and content, and no experimental existential experiences; there’s just game design, pure design. Pure design is just play, and play is just fun. Atom Zombie Smasher is fun. Sure, it’s dripping with quirky retro style, sun-blast 60s music and pink freaking zombies, and yes, there’s some narrative thread about evacuating survivors from a zombie apocalypse, but all that’s background to carpet bombing zombies, or planning strike teams moving from street to street, or just funneling zombies into mine-laced avenues. Fun!

What we call can learn: Sometimes, a clever quirky art style can do quite a bit of heavy lifting in setting the right mood for some fun. I’m happier when something is stylistically unique; at the very least, it’s something you don’t see anywhere else.

Honorable Mentions

I haven’t had a chance to try “To the Moon” just yet, but I’ve heard many wonderful things. Similarly, Saints Row the Third sits out this list cos I have never played any of the previous Saint’s Row and have long since burnt out on Grand Theft Auto. But I hear great things of pure fun and will someday get to it. Also, Rayman: Origins I’ll probably love, so I’ll get to it soon enough. But for games I’ve played that deserve a mention; Driver; San Francisco is this year’s other surprise hit. Not since Burnout have I enjoyed a driving game. Anno 2070 would have been on the list for the amount of hours it has since sucked from me, but I don’t know what else to write about it. Orcs Must Die is the only tower defense type game I’ll play and enjoy, and Sonic: Generations made me enjoy Sonic again, and Portal 2 probably deserves a space up there for great writing, comedy and interesting mechanics, just that the puzzle part of the game was somewhat disappointing.

2012: I’m looking forward to Bioshock: Infinite, Mass Effect 3, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and one other game, which I can’t really talk about.