Category: Games


Aspirations occupy a very unique position within our mind. Despite having their fair share of time under the spotlight of our consciousness, they do not dissipate into nought. They retain a sense of permanence in a very distinct way. They are also great indicators of the time passed and the changes it has made on us.

When your consciousness is wandering, idle, you may bump into some of these past aspirations. Old or new, they are like that friend whom you bump into occasionally who not only reminds you of that time in the past — your personality and thoughts back then,  but also holds a mirror in  front of you to reflect where you stand today.

I have seen many of my own aspirations over the years. Ranging from naive ones during childhood, to the idealistic ones from teenage, to the more realistic ones today. It is relative but as you discover yourself everyday and the skills you have and the confidence you have in the said skills, these aspirations redefine themselves.

Steering on to the Topic

But let’s leave behind the stream-of-consciousness and rather personalized beginning to actually come onto the topic.

Over the past year, I have had opportunities to live through one of my primary aspiration I’ve harbored since I was a child. To become an author and to write for a living. Whatever opportunities have come my way in different sections of my life, I have grabbed them and I feel I’ve made the best usage of time that I could. Handling different parts of your life — academic, professional and personal within a common aspiration is challenging but immensely rewarding.

But one of the other aspirations which has persisted with me over the years — to make games — has always met some or the other obstacles. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that one of the primary reasons I joined a Bachelor’s course in Computer Engineering was because I wanted to learn aspects of programming and AI.

It isn’t like I didn’t give it a shot before. I have been listing down concepts and turning them into game design documents over the past two years. But design documents are just that — pieces of paper that speak of only ideas. So, I tried making an “experimental” shoot-em-up last year but unfortunately I had lost confidence in it before it was even complete. I found that working solo is a difficult deal because you have to be decent in the three pillars of development — programming,art and sound. I consider myself okay in the former and latter but not art.

So, when I heard about Ludum Dare 26 and that it was being organized during the April 26th-29th weekend, I was excited.

Ludum Dare

Pretty sure, most of you are wondering exactly what is this Ludum Dare?

With 2,347 games submitted, LD26 was the biggest game jam event in history

With 2,347 games submitted, LD26 was the biggest game jam event in history

It is a “game jam” event that is held thrice annually and is now in it’s 26th iteration where people from all over the world — amateur hobbyists like me as well as professional developers make games from scratch over the space of a weekend. There are two events in each Ludum Dare — a 48-hour “Compo” event which is basically a competition with strict rules and requiring you to work solo and stick close to the theme. The 72-hour “Jam” event is a more relaxed affair where you are given more time and freedom to develop on your own ideas and work in teams.

I don’t know exactly what it was within me but I chose to aim for the 48-hr Competition (that’s what India does to you,I guess).

Preparation

There’s no real way of preparing for a Ludum Dare. The theme on which people make games on is only revealed once the event starts.

So, in the week leading upto LD, I focused on finalizing the tools I’ll be using. I had previously used GameMaker,XNA and Stencyl in varying measures but Unity had always been my ultimate target. Besides Unreal Engine, it is the only top-tier, professional-grade game engine available for hobbyists and indie developers.

Since I had never worked in Unity before, I set myself a task to atleast get a basic feel of its’ features. It was more difficult than I thought. It took me some time to wrap my head around its’ coordinate system, scripting of main camera, particle system and I had to even brush up some of the high-school physics and math concepts.

It was fun and challenging to learn but I knew the real challenge lay ahead.

Challenges Ahead


It was never going to be easy. In that very week, I had THREE back-to-back practical exams. So, I spent Wednesday,Thursday and Friday on them. Also on the day LD was going to start (with the announcement of the theme) I had to give my Senior Year project seminar in the college. So chances were that I was already going to start a good 8 hours later than everyone. Plus, I had a birthday lunch I was obligated to attend to on Sunday and I couldn’t excuse myself out of it.

It only got worse.  My Internet provider called up saying the maintenance of Internet would mean it would be down till Sunday morning. Just great. 

Basically, if I was planning to aim for the 48-hour deadline, I was already going to have to work with 10 hours less and without Internet to help me. Not a good start for things. I told myself that even if I wasn’t able to finish it, I’ll learn something.

With that positive mentality (hear O Pro-Life Preachers!) I went into the weekend.

Theme

When I woke up on Saturday morning, I immediately checked the site and found that the theme was “minimalism”. Since I had a project seminar in few hours, I had to get ready for that but I kept thinking about the theme and what ideas I could adopt into a proper game that is fairly unique but not too difficult to make.

Behold my infamous handwriting!

Behold my infamous handwriting!

Surprisingly by the time I reached my college at 9, I already had charted a rough concept and I wrote it down. By the time I was done with the project seminar (which was delayed no thanks to the lovely professors of our college) and I had returned home, it was 2. I took a short nap and began at 3.

Timeline

I had decided on a dynamic rhythm game with simplistic two-control scheme that had a rather deep underlying concept but absolutely no exposition.  Dynamic in the sense, the players could adjust difficulty of the game through their own actions. Create/destroy musical objects which repeat to form a pattern imitating one’s daily routine.

With the basic premise on paper, I began getting the setup ready. The LD’s “Compo” rules state that all the content — code,art and music needs to be made within those 48 hours. It took me a 4-hour sitting to get the engine set up exactly how I wanted for my game.

I then began coding the individual behaviour of the player “cube” and it was around 10, I could finally start working on the chief concept of the game — recycling objects. This required creating a custom module. Something which a newbie to Unity like me obviously suffered to do.

Unable to find solutions, I decided to plug in my MIDI keyboard and create some tunes in the meantime. A rhythm game needs to have some good tunes after all. I stuck with ambient music as the background soundscape as I felt it was minimalistic and sparse enough to suit the theme.

I used FL Studio for the beats. I really liked the simplistic interface and how easily one could mix. For the MIDI, I used the typical MAGIX Music Maker and stuck with the traditional play-record-mix-master technique to get the appropriate sounds. I liked how I could imitate sounds of a flute and of a violin using a low-pass filter applied onto lower keys of the keyboard.

While I was doing this, I was constantly trying to rack my mind to solve the issue  I was stuck on. It was around 3:30AM when the migraines started creeping in and I finally gave up for the night and went to sleep.

New Day, Late Beginnings

I had set my alarm at 6. I snoozed it.

When I next woke up, it was 7:30AM. Ugh.

Within 10 minutes, I was back to work. And tell you what, it took me just 10 minutes to crack the problem that was plaguing me for almost 4 hours last night. Just ten minutes.

Over the next three hours, I was on a roll speeding through the lost time last night. If this were the popular Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story, I would be a programmer “on fire”.

Unfortunately, my mean streak came to an end when I had to go for the birthday lunch. I came back at around 2PM and graciously avoided the comforts of an afternoon nap and set back to doing. I had been feeling weirdly confident since morning. As if, despite all the odds that had been stacked up against me, I was going to do it. At the same time, I was a little wary of being like a hare in the Hare and Tortoise and not getting too overconfident of where I was.

The workspace

The workspace

So, I continued working without a break. More tunes were created by 4PM, some of which were recorded live using my iPad and SoundCloud app on it.

Then I set aside everything to work on my primary weakness — art. I believe I have a decent visual aesthetic sense, but when it comes to creating them I’m no good. There’s this inherent phobia that drawing instills in me which seems to sap all the confidence I generally have for other things.

So, I got onto it. Using Inkscape and Photoshop, I created simple designs that described the type of instruments each track was imitating and keeping the color palette fairly simple.

I did not believe that minimalism = black & white. In my opinion, minimalism is something which conveys a deep concept through limited usage of aesthetics and exposition(if used in a narrative context).

So, as you can see the colours I used were a lot more vibrant than what most of the others used for their games.

It was about 8PM when I was done with art and sound. So, I started implementing them into the engine one by one. Surprisingly, art didn’t result in any obstacles. It was Unity’s sound design which gave me trouble as I couldn’t wrap my head around how I should use it to fit the purpose of my own game.

I tried to look up at the Internet.

Still no internet.

I was seeing visions of yesterday, where I was stuck on a problem and without help from the Unity forums, I wouldn’t be able to get past them. But somehow, a few workarounds later, the sounds worked pretty much like how I wanted. I guess that is an important aspect of design as well. “Trying to adapt things as much as possible”.

Late Run 

Around 10PM, I had this crazy idea. An idea that could certainly have a positive effect. Now, I despite this being my first time in any game jam, you need not tell me that even entertaining these ideas was basically signing a death certificate. Given the time constraints, you had to stick with the idea you had originally thought. I had managed to do it thus far — but this idea seemed too delicious to not implement it.

So,leaving all my scheduled plan for the game aside, I started focusing on this. It was not before 2AM when I had finally finished this. With the deadline date, just a mere 5 hours away, I decided I needed to wrap up ASAP.

So, as I was finally getting the win/lose conditions implemented, I realized something.

I had not even made the Main Menu.

Again chucking everything out of the window, I frantically set to making the Main Menu, the “How to Play” screen as well as the Win and Lose screens. This took art and some new scene scripting to implement but I finally did it.

The screenshot at 5AM. With 2 hours left on the clock

The screenshot at 5AM. With 2 hours left on the clock

The GUI needed tweaking, so I set on doing that.

It wasn’t until 6AM when I was finally done. But then I just recalled that I could make the background music vary according to different “phases of life” or the progress bar atop.

So, I spent another hour doing that. Then, almost frantically, I baked the native version (Windows) of it and quickly set about uploading it on Dropbox. It was just around 7:10AM (the deadline was 7:30AM) that I logged onto the Ludum Dare site and filled up the submission form, describing my game and uploading various screenshots.

I had made it on my first Ludum Dare. I had finished making my first “complete” game and that too within the 48-hour Compo deadline as I had initially aimed. Despite all those obstacles that the world threw at me, I managed to do it.

Post-Mortem

In retrospect, I am rather proud of myself. Not because of the game. But because of the dedication I never knew I had within me. I don’t recall ever waking up for the entire night for something I was working on. On occasions, when I have done that, I’ve done it if I was reading a really interesting novel (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle),watching a really interesting TV series(Twin Peaks) or playing an addicting game(too many to name).

But never for something related to work or even a hobby. Something where I wasn’t getting entertained. I lost motivation while developing a number of times before and this time I had plenty of opportunities where I could have table-flipped and just quit. But I didn’t. I stuck to my target and that makes me really proud of myself. This past year has been great for a number of reasons and I think I might have found another good reason for that.

What’s better is that the game has received some really good praise from fellow LD-ers and their comments both on the game page and my Twitter were really encouraging. Even the criticism has been helpful since I apparently had messed up on a number of small factors(resolutions on Web browser etc) but it’s all cool.

The best part besides finally having a “finished” game? THE MOTIVATION! I have loads of it now. I had heard people say how a finished game helps and now I am experiencing it first-hand. I’ve already made plans on reviving some of my older “ideas” and seeing if I could implement them. All while implementing some features I left out of the LD48 game due to the time constraints.

So expect to hear more of this “new” side of the old Ansh in the coming weeks.

Of course, here is the game page on the Ludum Dare site. Currently, I’ve managed to port it on all versions — Windows/Mac/Linux as well as Web through Unity without any major issues. I explain the underlying concept and the mechanics much better there. So,it’ll be better if I keep it simple here.

Any feedback is appreciated. I’m new to this and I’ll take any words — praise or criticism alike with a pinch of salt and take it as part of my learning process.

That is all for now.

–Ansh

 

EDIT: Indie Game Mag featured my game as their “Indie of the Day”

Greetings,

For the final installment in the annual “Best of 2012” series, I present to you the very greatest of the gaming from last year. This is the typical “Ultra-Late Edition” I have been doing lately, since I like taking additional time to play the numerous games which have piqued my interest over the last year, so I can give a proper opinion on what I thought was the supreme pick among them.

It’s never that simple though…

Where We Stand

2012 was a year which in the near future both gamers and academics will look back as the key turning point in the transition the entire gaming medium is going through.

Pushing the Limits

Pushing the Limits

We are right now at the flux of change, at the precipice of seeing our medium transition into something we hope will be much better without losing too much of what made us fall in love with it in the first place. It is clear that gaming — both as a medium and a community is no longer the single monolith it was a decade back. It has fragmented into these branches which have vocal supporters and flagbearers of their own. This is a good thing as variety only serves to enhance a medium, rather than destroy it.

It is important as change permeates around us that we take a moment to look at our own definitions and evolve them accordingly. I have heard many people deriding over what they see as “not game enough” and while I respect their opinions, I believe that with time definitions need to change, else they remain nothing but narrow-minded relics of a mind which couldn’t maintain pace with time.

As much as there were signs of negativity particularly from the bigger companies who continued to wade through stormy waters amid layoffs, giant losses and controversially disastrous games. It seems like only now, some of these big companies are realizing that the gaming bubble which got created with the rise of Wii and games like Guitar Hero and Call of Duty Modern Warfare has long since burst and by spending on forced multiplayer modes they are only spreading themselves too thin — something that comes back to bite their own asses.

This is a topic that I want to speak at length about and thus this blog isn’t the best idea to continue venturing on it. For now, this should give you an idea of how I perceive certain aspects of our medium.

The Diary of A Gamer in 2012

For me, 2012 was an excellent year. I did not only play the most number of games I have in a single year, but I also played games which only served to deepen my appreciation and love for the medium. In a time, when I see many gamers I know get jaded of AAA games, I am glad that my penchant to unconventional games from less-popular sources and genres has continued to keep me enchanted.

Be it visual novels in Katawa Shoujo or Analogue: A Hate Story or the incredibly complex grand-strategy in Crusader Kings II or my brief but prominent affairs with shoot-em-ups on PC with the Touhou series.

One of my beloved genres from the past saw a popular revival from a familiar source with The Walking Dead while little indie games like Unmanned and Dear Esther continued to redefine what “games” mean to me.

A brief affair with the danmakus

A brief affair with the danmakus

I also got a chance to play what has surely become one of the most enchanting and seductive worlds I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of through the means of a game in Vampire: The Masquerade-Bloodlines which also is a delightful RPG on top of it.

I was briefly intrigued by the Mass Effect 3 “Retake” controversy but ultimately came out unaffected and holding it just above the original ME1 in the pecking order.

Dishonored reminded me of moments I used to cherish in games like Deus Ex and Pokemon Gold but was thoroughly missing in recent times until it showed up.

As winter approached, I got into night-long conversations with NeonNinja on Steam and together we began a process of influencing each other into playing awesome games. I shall not speak of what games I influenced him to play(as there are many 😛 ) but I shall speak of what he made me play. Because I am greatly thankful to him for that.

He made me play Spec Ops:The Line. A deeply flawed military-shooter which embraces every cliche in the book of generic shooters, only to sharpen them into knives and put them in your gut — one by one. I don’t recall any game which has resulted in as much critical analysis in recent times as Spec Ops did. In its flaws and successes, Spec Ops and Hotline Miami defined the flux of change 2012 represented. They both abhorred and reveled in violence only to turn back the mirror on the player. Spec Ops in particular bravely showed how the medium had progressed yet how badly it was being held back by its own conventions.

You can look at my complete list of “Games Finished in 2012

Game of the Year Awards

Let us begin with the award categories. Each has a winner and a runner-up. Let’s do this.

Best Visual Design

ninja

Winner:  Mark of the Ninja

Klei’s fantastic 2D stealth platformer was a brilliant 101 in how to explain every single thing that is happening on the screen through visual means. From spheres that indicate the intensity of noise your actions make to brilliant light & shadow effects. The masterstroke was the clear distinction between foreground and background which never distracted from the excellent stealth gameplay of MotN.

Runner-Up: Mass Effect 3

In more than one way, ME3 was pretty much the best of the previous two games and it carried that even in terms of its visual design — which showed both the neat, bluish hues of ME1 that spoke out “SCI-FI” loud and clear while the darker colours did their job in displaying the gloom of a universe under siege. With a rich colour palette that is thoughtfully used, ME3’s art design consistently hit all the right notes throughout Commander Shepard’s final stand against the Reapers.

Best Audio Design

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Winner: Hotline Miami

Dennaton’s retro bloodfest would be nothing without its heady cocktail of trance-inducing 80s synth-pop that put you under a spell of endless repeats and mushing the tiny heads of your enemies into a bloody pulp. It has been said the most underrated sound in the world is silence. Hotline Miami pays its due respect to it and it wouldn’t have won if it weren’t for the sudden eerie silence that occurs when you kill the last enemy. The “silent walk back” wouldn’t be as effective if it weren’t for the sudden silence as the din of its synthpop tunes gives way to your rising guilt.

Runner-Up: Lone Survivor

Jasper Byrne’s kinda been my favourite indie developer in 2012. Besides making one of the favourite tracks in Hotline Miami, he also made this wonderful 2D-survival horror that evokes memories of Silent Hill only if you played it on an acid-trip. It burst into dreamy psychedelic jams amid eerie silence and the sharply increasing noise as enemies approached nearer as you hid in darkness, as you held the empty gun you have in your hand only increased the tension.

Best Game Design

WinnerCrusader Kings II

Like some of you may know, I have a great interest in game design so to me personally — game design while a very expansive topic also comprises of providing players with tools and a set of defined rules in a universe that is their playground. Some call it “sandbox” others call it “true freedom”. None are so in real sense.

Crusader Kings II is. Instead of focusing on battles and war, it focuses on character, dynasties, courtroom politics and relationships. In addition to giving an incredible twist to so many conventions of gaming least of which includes the very concept of “death” and it’s unpredictable nature sets it in a league of its own. Couple that with its ability to provide gamers with tools and rules and then leave them to their own doing in a world that’s as rich in its realism as its rife with randomness and the arbitrary. If I had ever seen a brilliant example of game design that didn’t follow the conventional rules, CKII would be it.

Runner-Up: Super Hexagon

On the opposite side of the spectrum is this minimalist masterpiece from Terry Cavanagh. Incredibly difficult might be its most common tagline but what Super Hexagon does is it encapsulates the entire history of action games within a game about a tiny triangle and converging sides of a hexagon. Be it reflexes, precision, instant-decision making coupled with observation and foresight — the skills we associate with action games — are the very core elements of this brilliantly designed minimal action game. The simplistic controls are merely the icing on the cake.

Excellence in Writing and Narrative

spec-ops-header

Winner: Spec Ops: The Line

You might notice the mention of “narrative” in the title of this award. I generally don’t do that. This is the reason why. Spec Ops is not going to win any awards for its dialogues. But it is how its anti-war narrative weaves and blends every single aspect of its sandstorm of elements — its generic gameplay, the metaphors and the slow realization as it all snowballs slowly into something darker as the game progresses until it finally punches the player in the gut.

Exploring “the line” between the player and the character they control might seem like an impossible and overly-ambitious narrative, Spec Ops does exactly that exhibiting the growing disconnection between the players and Gen.Walker as responsibility on their own actions start to swirl into a spiral of questions as the game heads to its apocalyptic finale.

I could write essays about this game but they have already been written. It brilliantly explores the “space” between us and the characters we control in games to such a brilliant effect that it is a shining example of what games are capable of as a storytelling medium.

Runners-Up: The Walking Dead AND Analogue: A Hate Story (TIE)

More than a cop-out, this joint runners-up decision is apt because both the games deal with characters in extremely uncomfortable situations and how their spirits and relationships with those around them are constantly tested. In The Walking Dead, it is in a post-apocalyptic society where the very vestiges of human civilization break down into something worse than the plague. With emotional highpoints and powerful characters tied with a central relationship between Lee and Clementine make The Walking Dead one of the most powerful stories in recent times.

In contrast, Analogue: A Hate Story is bipolar switch between the light-headed conversations around cosplay to the serious depiction of a deeply burdening patriarchal society. Its’ characters are not burdened by something as immediate as the zombies but the suffocation in their society moves them to act beyond their character. A great showcase of both the humor and seriousness the visual novel genre is known for.

Best Soundtrack

rin_22

Winner: “Enigmatic Box of Sound” — Katawa Shoujo OST by NicolArmarfi, Blue8,delta, CplCrud and Juno

This was a pretty solid little visual novel that made people talk primarily because of its misleading premise and how it was made by a group of world-spanning 4chan users remotely over a period of two years. But once it got released (for free) it earned praise because its treatment was sensitive where it needed to be and solid otherwise.

The highpoint for me personally was the soundtrack. It reminded me of my love for classical music particularly those from Frederic Chopin and Scott Joplin, and some of these wonderful melodies using simple piano and acoustic guitar are so beautifully done that no words are needed to describe them.

So while you have “Daylight” describing the gentle calmness of the mundane, we have a sombre menu music in “Wiosna“. There is depression and broken shard of a person that was Hanako in her “Jitter” (high-point in terms of music describing a character’s mental state) while “Nocturne” captures the very essence of this soundtrack and what it is capable of. Solidly consistent throughout, this was as simple choice as any I have had to make in this blog.

Runner-Up: Hotline Miami

Which doesn’t mean it didn’t have any competition. Hotline Miami wouldn’t be the same game without its heady soundtrack which included licensed tracks and original from Jonatan Soderstrom’s fellow indie conspirators. While we had Pertubrator’s “Miami Disco” or M.O.O.N’s “Hydrogen“. There also had to be a brilliant Mission Score screen music with Jasper Byrne’s supremely ambient synth-mammoth in “Miami” which would bring back the 80s in gloriously loud fashion back to our ears.

Non-2012 Game of the Year

For those games from the yesteryears which I played for the first time in 2012.

Rich and intoxicating -- one of the best ever

Rich and intoxicating — one of the best ever

Winner: Vampire: The Masquerade-Bloodlines

It’s no secret that I’m a closet(?) goth and I adore dark and brooding atmosphere be it ones created by a game or music. Bloodlines was the final game made by the ill-fated Troika and they eventually shut down after its development. At release, it was a buggy mess and got mixed reviews. But when I played it last year, I adored it. It may have fixes but this game has what so many games lack — a soul and a beating heart. With a rich and brooding atmosphere that smells of approaching doom and a narrative design that weaves all the best elements of RPG. Add in a clunky but well-designed gameplay based on World of Darkness tabletop rules and brilliant music and you have one of the most immersive games ever created. Period.

It has its dips and highs in the form but it ends on such a brilliant note that you spend the next two minutes gaping at the screen in amazement.

The brilliance is in it’s second playthrough especially if you play as the Malkavian class. They are “bipolar, semi-insane and hallucinating” vampires so you have some of the most ridiculous experiences in RPGs. From having hallucinations and “voices” that subtly forebode events to come to having arguments with the STOP sign and the TV announcer, this is a game steeped so heavily on narrative ambition, it serves as a shining reminder of what RPGs are capable of.

2012’s The 5 Greatest Moments in a Game (spoiler-free)

(in no particular order)

  • Crusader Kings II: “My Story Vol.1” was basically my first playthrough of this brilliant game. For the first six hours, I alternated back and forth between the tutorial trying to grasp the majestic and complex systems of the game. I began as a small Count in Ireland. Smartly working my way through court, I gained the claim to my neighboring county and I smartly slipped poison into its count’s drinks and claimed it for my own. That marked the beginning of 400 years of “history” where I would rise to power eventually capturing all of Ireland, parts of Scotland and parts of France, only for my son’s homosexuality (a sin in those times) to make him hated by the nobles who staged a revolt and killed him. My young son who wasn’t of age was under a regent who got blinded in a tournament and his handicap nature resulted in the son(which was me) to become bloated and I ended up marrying a Muslim princess and converted to Islam. DISASTER. As the Pope and the King of England all declared Crusades on me and the second-half of those 400 years was spent fighting and scheming against enemies from all sides until I managed to survive with pretty much what I started when the 400-odd years of the game were completed. WHAT A STORY!
  • Hotline Miami’s “A Silent Walk Back” : In a game that reveled in its own violence by glorifying every bit of it to the point where it got a little too much. But still the loud music and the generally reckless combat made it too entertaining for the players to ignore. Until you had killed the last enemy in the area. When the “cassette” suddenly gets stuck,rewinded and there’s an eerie silence. As the din of the loud synthpop clears, you walk back the very same path you came. Watching your bloodied “masterpiece” as guilt slowly boils within you. A brilliant sequence that tied in perfectly with its anti-violence by irony theme.
  • Mass Effect 3’s “The Fate of Tuchanka” : This was always going to be difficult to select as ME3 had MANY brilliant moments but I finally went for this because not only was it an emotional highpoint but also it brilliantly merged the variations in decisions from the previous two games on a scale BioWare had never attempted before.
  • The Walking Dead’s “Farewell” : Everyone knew it was coming but still it brought in the emotions. Superbly done.
  • Spec Ops:The Line’s “White Phosphorus Scene” : At once, a brilliant criticism of modern military shooters and the blow-up of everything the game was building upto in its preceding eight chapters, this scene was the infamous gut punch which brought EVERY gamer — thoughtful and observant or trigger-happy in face with the brutality of war. Every bit of this scene and how it takes place is masterfully done.

The Best of 2012

I hate saying this every year but 2012 was really a solid year in every aspects and those who say it was downright the greatest year in gaming aren’t that far from the truth. The variety was another sign that as a medium it was taking all the right steps. There were clear signs that few games helped the medium progress far beyond what we expected. There were also some stellar representations of lesser known genre and basic creativity came from every angle in 2012.

I still cannot understand people jaded with “same-old” gaming. They are either not looking at the right places or are too narrow-minded to accept the new games. Because as far as I know, 2012 was a landmark year — one where the division in the industry became all the more clear and I’m glad for it.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Super Monday Night Combat
  • Binary Domain
  • Lone Survivor
  • Analogue: A Hate Story
  • Torchlight II
  • Borderlands 2

The Top 10

Narrowing down to a Top 10 was a mammoth task. I know few have given up on making a Top 10 list but I stuck with my intention to make a ranked list like every year.What I have here is a “snapshot” of what I thought. I may disagree with this list a year or so down the line but for me this is how it stands.

How have I differentiated in a year with so many great games? I have done so on two criteria: a) how much I liked them (top priority obviously) and b) on the basis of their importance to the medium.

10) FTL: Faster Than Light

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Subset’s roguelike space-simulator is a classic example of the creativity that is brimming in some of these indie developers. One of the early games to come out of Kickstarter funding, FTL showed that money in right people’s hands can result in challenging and intensely original games. With eight sectors and perma-death/no reload of roguelikes, FTL became that a solid “one more try” game for countless people. It helped that the MIDI-esque downbeat tunes helped create an enchanting atmosphere for our space adventures.

9) Mark of the Ninja

Mark-of-the-Ninja-1

Klei’s 2D stealth platformer is easily the best in it’s class because there is little that compares to it. But it also proves right my definition of stealth game which goes: “Stealth at it’s best is a puzzle with dynamic components”. MotN is a designer’s game and it shows in how impeccably designed every element of it is — from visuals to audio to its mechanics. It is a great example of how a solid vision behind a game can make it a cohesive and engaging experience.

8) Hotline Miami

HotlineMiami4

Dennaton’s reckless 2D-gorefest was at the forefront of the indie movement in 2012 because not only it represented the overused retro aesthetic but it did so while appearing fresh. Cactus aka Jonatan Soderstrom’s philosophy of “gameplay mechanics first” shows in Hotline Miami with it’s gameplay taking centerstage. Everything — from it’s Drive – esque story to its’ anti-violence by irony theme revolves around that gameplay. With brash aesthetics and loud music, Hotline Miami was a step in the right direction for both the medium and indie development.

7) Dishonored

Dishonored

Arkane’s steampunk stealth adventure harkened back to the golden-era of PC gaming where Thief, Deus Ex and Splinter Cell existed side-by-side and level design worked in tandem with player agency without breaking immersion. Dishonored is the “Greatest Hits” of those stealth games implementing some of the best mechanics from each while giving its own original twist. It may have had an underwhelming story but the mission hub and its structure was so well-implemented that you could not help but praise Arkane (and Bethesda) for taking such brave risks in this day & age.

6) XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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Firaxis made the bravest attempt in the history of the turn-based strategy to remove all the barriers which had limited the appeal of this traditionally complex genre but in this “accessibility” they somehow managed to retain most of the richness of the XCOM series. Transitioning into the modern-era with cover-based turn-based strategy, XCOM Enemy Unknown is a golden example on how to make a complex genre accessible to almost everyone by a detailed tutorial and abstraction of lower-level design elements and only focus on the essential aspects.

That along with some of the emergent narrative aspects on the battlefield made it an immensely enjoyable game — one that takes the most looked down aspect of modern development and turns it on its’ head for a delightful strategy game without any inaccessible barriers. This is no longer an elite club, this genre is now open for everyone — was the statement Firaxis made with Enemy Unknown.

5) Mass Effect 3

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BioWare’s closer to their brilliant sci-fi trilogy had to be special. For two games and over eighty hours, their trilogy had captured imagination and had players invested in the universe and its inhabitants. But you could count on BioWare to dispel doubts after Dragon Age II, because they brought in their A-game for ME3. Making it a deeply personal tale as well as a galaxy-spanning “kill the baddies” was made special only because you had invested so much time and choice in the game. And it all showed beautifully. Tuchanka, Rannoch or the Citadel. It worked in ways both clear and subtle. The gameplay was an improvement — almost a best of both the previous two games and while sacrifices were made, they only reinforced the tension and urgency of a universe under siege.

Old faces brought in the nostalgia while new faces were admirably built. Much of the wasted potential of ME2 squadmates was developed here. It all built beautifully to the finale on Earth and no matter what you may think of the eventual outcome, nobody could argue that the 100+ hour journey spanning multiple games, planets and galaxies wasn’t worth it. The journey of one Commander Shepard was memorable. Thanks for the memories, BioWare.

4) Super Hexagon

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I learnt to appreciate minimalism in different ways and it all began with a visit to an art exhibition. But it was only when I played Terry Cavanagh’s minimal “action” game did I realize the sheer beauty of minimalist design. Super Hexagon captures the entire 25 years or so of action games in a tiny triangle and converging sides of a hexagon. It demands every bit of attention and skill you’ve used in action games for the past 2 decades be it observation, foresight and planning or plain old reflexes and quick decision-making. Super Hexagon is a wonder in design because every element it has is necessary. There is no filler, nothing you feel is excess to the requirement.

Chipzel’s high intensity chip-tunes and the ever-changing background colour and perspective makes Super Hexagon a tense experience capable of making your heart pump with excitement in a mere 20 seconds.

That is a sign of a solid game, if I ever saw one. Just look at *this* gameplay video to get a little taster of what it’s capable of.

3) Spec Ops: The Line

When I said at the start of this list that I’m ranking games with their importance to the medium being ONE of the important criteria, this was the game I was referring to.

Simply put, there was no game in 2012 which was as important as Spec Ops:The Line was. What began as a generic excursion to near-future Dubai with a typical dudebro squad, slowly started growing darker and more mature. By the time you were questioning the identity of your enemies and the very intent of why you’re supposed to shoot them down, you know this game had its’ claws on you.

But then, there came the metaphorical sandstorm and the game continued to rise steeply in ambition. At one point, I was sure this game was going to cave in. But that moment never came. It was a narrative-driven experience with generic shooting and sloppy controls and cover mechanics. That is not the reason why this game is No.3

The reason it is No.3 is because it not only criticizes its own genre by ironic example and shows the brutally dark side of war but it also explores the medium and points fingers at the player. But that isn’t it, it continues down that path exploring the growing disconnect between us and the character we control questioning the responsibility of the characters’ actions and our involvement in the game.

As body count piles and brutalities get worse, Spec Ops marches towards its chilling finale. In the end, it is a game I’d never play again. The controls have nothing to do with it, but I’d rather not experience a game where I’m tired shooting people I don’t want to shoot. Where I’m tired following a path I don’t want to follow, playing a character whom I am growing increasingly disconnected with.

It explores the never-asked question in games “Where does your character’s responsibility end and yours begin?”

In words of a certain review I don’t recall, “The only way to really win Spec Ops:The Line is by switching off the game and walking away”

2) The Walking Dead

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For what had once been my favourite genre in games, point-and-click adventures went through a very rough patch in the past decade. But Telltale had always been at the forefront of the revival and the revolution. The revival was for the point-and-click genre — over past six years — Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit and Back to the Future are some of the few shining examples in their catalog. The revolution was that of episodic gaming. What was seen as a cash-grab model, turned out to be a perfect fit for The Walking Dead which thrived on its short-length episodes to administer maximum impact on its players.

The emotional tale of a convict trying to redeem himself in a post-apocalyptic world where the very foundations of civilization are slowly rotting into barbarianism, Lee finds his only hope for redemption in Clementine, a lone child amid the chaos. Together along with a ragtag group of memorable misfits, TWD creates one of the most memorable adventures with moments of intensity and twists and emotional high-points.

Players made decisions at key points which didn’t impact the story as much as how everyone viewed Lee. This worked wonders especially during the latter two episodes where Telltale learnt to manage both storytelling and their cinematic gameplay in a natural manner which certainly the likes of Quantic Dream and Hideo Kojima can learn from.

It may have revived the popularity of a genre but TWD is at No.2 because it shows that emotionally powerful tales of relatable human-like characters can be told through games.

1) Crusader Kings II

Recipe for disaster,bro.

Recipe for disaster,bro.

This should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has been around me for the past year or so. From Twitter hashtags #CKII to constantly annoying my friends on just how rad this game was.

And it is.

In many ways, CKII is my dream strategy game. It is a game filled with immense depth and complexity. I love that in any strategy game. It is also not RTS. That helps too. But it is not a game about a “nation” or a “faceless ruler”. CKII is about a character — one which you character and whose shoes you walk in as. It is essentially a role-playing game in a grand-strategy’s clothes. You have attributes, traits and negative aspects. You interact and build relationships with people around you to achieve higher.

Besides intricate court-room politics and the general dose of backstabbing and scheming, CKII treats player death very uniquely. When your character dies, it is not GAME OVER. Instead, you continue playing as your heir. You inherit the situation your ancestor(the previous character) left you in but are now a new person. New positives and new reasons for people around you to hate. This is akin to a Reset button while carrying the entire baggage and shit your ancestors left you in.

It works brilliantly. Death can occur anytime,anywhere. On the battlefield, in the courtroom. You could be assassinated, you could fall off your balcony. You could catch the plague and survive or you could die while having sex with your wife. It is extremely random and unpredictable JUST like actual death. No other game I know treats death like this and this has tremendous affect on how a player looks at this game.

I was constantly worried about death. When I knew I was having a good run, I wanted to secure the future. Make sure my heir is well-educated, has no enemies but then he has an accident and dies and now I have to contend with his vastly inferior younger brother. You have to live with your own sins and decisions and this is the sheer beauty of CKII. Only one of the many aspects of it.

In a year with so many quality, grade-A level games, there was never any contender for the No.1 spot for me. CKII was the clear and simple choice.

And with that, the “Best of 2012” series comes to an end.

I hope you enjoyed it and if you have comments on what I said about the industry and various games OR want to criticize my No.1 choice as CKII (which shall be met with fire!!) or anything else feel free to do so.

Until next time.

Take care.

And see you on the other side.

Ansh

The Space That Games Exist In

Much like their older brethren, video games inhabit a space that isn’t the easiest to define. It is even tougher to define exactly how important this space in which the worlds that games exist in is to the medium itself.

It is considered natural for the community to cast a critical gaze at some of these aspects as games progressively evolve as a medium and embrace themes and topics that had previously been considered impossible to encapsulate within the pixels and polygons of a video-game. Such discussions often revolve around whether games are being held back by their by naïve fantastical worlds that are still stuck within “traditional” gaming cliches  when that effort could be diverted in making games a more serious medium.

Escapism has come to be attached with negative connotations in certain communities of late.

Validation from experts of more established medium has become a "holy grail" for many in the industry

Validation from experts of more established medium has become a “holy grail” for many in the industry

But is that really true? Should games focus primarily on the real world in order to push the envelope of “games as a serious medium”? Should we singularly consider our eternal quest is to receive validation from experts of other fields?(read: Roger Ebert)

The Traditionalist’s Imaginarium 

At first glance, it would be seem foolish to leave behind the very foundation on which the video-game medium has been built upon. Unlike other mediums that began as a means to express their creators’ opinion or views, games evolved very different in that regard. They evolved primarily as means of entertainment, its virtual domain extending the ability to provide escapism to its players to the extent no other medium could hope to achieve. The human mind finds it easier to escape into a world that isn’t real.

Fantasy worlds are incredible in their ability to draw players' into their worlds and provide escapism and an "out-of-body" experience

Fantasy worlds are incredible in their ability to draw players’ into their worlds and provide escapism and an “out-of-body” experience

Leaving behind the very foundation of the medium to venture into the unknown for the sake of an uncertain and interpretative “progress” would be foolish and quite frankly a little naïve. Fantasy worlds have time and again shown that they can suspend players’ imagination and immerse them more efficiently than many “realistic” worlds manage to. Games are often that time of the day many look forward to when they can relieve themselves from their worldly burdens and undertake world-saving tasks in a world devoid of stereotypes and pre-conceived notions.

It also doesn’t mean that fantasy worlds are entirely rooted in its creators’ imagination. Many role-playing games based in an imaginary setting like Dragon Age and Mass Effect feature many elements that have been directly inspired from the real world. Its representations of alien/fantasy races, their characteristics and societies mimic that of our real-world cultures. It can result in an interesting reflection on our own world but through the portal of an imaginary one. It is also capable of bringing questions surrounding freedom and ethics – something which many role-playing games center their key decisions around.

Games like Journey and ICO hold a certain appeal because they resemble fables from hazy dream-like worlds that stand somewhere on the line dividing imaginary and reality. They speak as profoundly about the real as they speak in abstract.

In absence of pre-conceived notions and stereotypes, many of these fantasy worlds are excellent means of drawing its players into their world capable of providing an “out-of-body” experience – something we know more commonly as escapism. Suspended in such a state, it is much easier to have a deeper emotional effect on players, which would explain why many gamers of fantasy RPGs often daydream about the world.

Labeling such worlds as naïve and unbecoming of the “potential” of the medium is unfair to what they do manage to achieve.

“The New Real” Movement

Games based in a real setting and focused on real issues, however, possess the ability to drive home a more powerful message with much ease. Without the imaginary world and its lore, real-world settings do not need to concern themselves in unnecessary exposition and can instead directly focus their efforts on surrounding players with issues – interpersonal or international, the player knows are very much real in the world around them. These games haven’t always been around forever.

Let us take a time to distinguish between games based in a modern setting versus games based in a real setting. There is considerable difference between both as one can rightfully take creative liberties with its setting behind the cover of “fictitious representation” while the latter’s very selling point is its realism essentially representing realism of our life and the world –whether it’s told from a fictional point of view or a documentary-styled real view. Molleindustria’s Unmanned was an interesting but brief interactive meditation on a drone bomber’s life as he remotely kills alleged “terrorists” from thousands of miles across – never experiencing the brevity of his actions nor feeling the risk of war – and this disconnection with his own actions was admirably shown. This was a fictional excursion but in a real setting.

Unmanned admirably showed the disconnection of a remote drone bomber with his own actions

Unmanned admirably showed the disconnection of a remote drone bomber with his own actions

Others like the recent Depression Quest weave together interpersonal experiences of its creators and their battles with depression that not only wonderfully weave a self-conscious tale but also make its’ players aware of the very detail of emotions which one experiences in depression. Depression is still very much a taboo in the modern society – and people tend to overreact to it and the game aims at spreading awareness about “Exactly, how does it feel like?” and with its story brings out the possible options to overcome it. Such a personal experience makes games incredibly personal experiences – something which we never knew or even imagined them being capable of of a mere decade ago.

Such “real” games are capable of suspending its players in an odd “in-limbo” of real and the unreal where despite being immersed in a game, they are constantly reminded me of the world or an aspect of themselves. This self-aware immersion is an excellent example to showcase the kind of progress we’ve made as a medium. Add that to such game’s ability to drive home a harsher message on a socio-political issue or a personal experience making video-games an intensely relatable experience – a stark contrast from the escapism of the fantasy world, don’t you think?

I conclude quite predictably, that when it comes to the “Fantasy or Reality” arguments in games, there is no one correct answer. There may be preferences for one or the either but the strength of any great medium isn’t that one needs to give way to other — no matter how archaic or unfitting it may seem to our ambitions to be taken seriously. A medium is marked as mature for its ability to accommodate varied experiences. Literature is adored globally because we can have Crime and Punishment alongside American Psycho with Picture of Dorian Grey as the differing variant. Films can have CGI-effects infused blockbusters and documentaries. Neither holds its medium back.

Likewise, games are starting to offer experiences like Unmanned and Depression Quest. Even AAA games like Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line — two games with a common theme of anti-violence that treat it in different ways — one revels in it, while the other wears you down with it. We have to appreciate this important change — a world where different experiences can live.

Games exist in the space of our mind where the perception of our own reality blurs and that of the game becomes increasingly real

Games exist in the space of our mind where the perception of our own reality blurs and that of the game becomes increasingly real

The Space That Games Exist In

Whatever it may be, games based on real or fantastical elements will retain their validity as long as they are successful of taking players out of their physical shell and provide an experience that involves them.

Because at the end of the day, video-games do not exist in the harsh realities of our world nor do they exist in the vibrant imagination of its fantasy world. They exist in the space in our mind where the perception of our own reality blurs and that of the game becomes increasingly real. Some call it escapism, others label it as immersion.

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[Update]: This blog post got a mention in Critical Distance’s February 2013  edition of “Blogs of the Round Table

Japanese games have unquestionably played a pivotal role in the evolution of video games – both as a technology and as an artistic medium since its conception. As a result, their games have been an integral part of any gamers’ life – irrespective of their age, background or genre preferences. Japanese games and their associated culture are adored, at times to the extent of reverence in the Western world, so it should come as no surprise that games from the “Land of the Rising Sun” hold a special regard – an entity equivalent of a holy shrine, in any gamers’ mind.

In simpler words, it is a sensitive, touchy topic for most of us and a potential minefield for controversy.

Right off the bat, let us look at the core question of this debate: “Has the quality of Japanese games declined over the last few years? Are they in danger of becoming insignificant in this day and age? Or is this just a relative decline against the exponential rise of Western game industry?”

I will be seeking the answers to those questions and a few more but not before I properly analyze the reasons behind each of those questions from almost every angle and try to cover most of the bases.

That’s simply because, what seems like a simple “Yes or No” answer to a “This or That” debate actually demands more analysis and thought than it might be apparent at the outset.

Act I: The Past

Anatomy of the Term

A term’s original purpose and its actual usage might often vary

 

Point of Debate No.1:

“Comparing Japanese and Western games is a totally valid, reasonable and completely legitimate comparison”

“Japanese” and “Western” games refer to the games developed in the respective countries. Western generally refers to USA, UK and Canada — the three English-speaking countries, but the term has also come to occasionally include European developers too. For the sake of simplicity, I shall be considering Euro developers as “Western”.

Firstly, I want you to understand that the purpose of why these terms were initially used should be painfully obvious to us – as a means of categorization.

But it is natural human tendency to first categorize and then stereotype that category by attaching certain recurring elements to it. It happens when we think of a race, community, culture or as in this case, to an entire industry.

So, Japanese industry got tagged with certain clichés and Western industry got tagged with some. Irrespective of the fact that they may belong to different genres, implement different mechanics or maybe even take inspiration from the country across the Pacific. It isn’t uncommon to see a Western-RPG developed by a Japanese company (King’s Field, Vagrant Story, Souls series) and neither is it unheard of the other way around (Septerra Core,Anachronox). Both the industries have given us a lot of examples where they have taken inspiration from the other.

So, the question we should be asking at this point is: “Is it fair and sensible to group together disparate games into a common group and then compare such incomparable or mutually influenced games?”

Such comparisons don’t even regard such differences as relevant to the discussion. They happen to be comparisons just for the sake of it.

I think this has a great deal to do with the “forum mentality” of the Internet. Bored people gathering on a common Web page and to make their lives more interesting, they start comparing things in “Versus Battles”. “Sandwich or vagina? Michael Jackson or Charlie Chaplin? Japanese or Western games?”

Each of those comparisons has something in common, but the differences set them apart well beyond the point of comparison.

Despite its futility and absurdity, such a comparison happens and continues to provide entertainment to bored opinionated people and still takes up thousands of pages on the forums every now and then.

Only One Half of the Picture

 

Point of Debate No.2:

“Japanese developers single-handedly dominated the entire industry and brought it to what it is today. Western developers were mostly insignificant in this picture until their rise in late 1990s and early 2000s during the rise of Computer-RPGs and first person shooters”

 Until recently, people often used to regard Japan as the be-it and end-all of the entire industry. In my early days on the Internet, it used to annoy me that many people never considered for the slightest second that the picture they were viewing – the one where Japan has dominated the scene since the beginning – is only one half of the entire picture.

In other words, Japan has undoubtedly dominated and influenced console gaming beyond question. But console gaming only happens to be one half of video games. People overlook, often to the point of ignorance, the existence and significance of PC gaming.

Prior to his space adventures,Richard Garriott of Origin Games was as influential a figure to gaming in 1980s as Shigeru Miyamoto was.

That is the field where developers from the West have dominated. Right from the Apple II days, to the technological breakthroughs by Sir Richard Garriott, PC gaming has almost been single-handedly dominated by the West.

Some of the people I’ve met on the Internet strongly believe that Western developers were insignificant until the late 90s and early 2000s – namely the golden era of Computer-RPGs. They completely disregard the fact that the early technological breakthroughs on Apple II and the computer systems often were the chief driving force behind so many console developments. Techniques to maximize performance, memory storage and breakthroughs made by Origin Systems defined gaming during the 80s as much as Nintendo and Sega did in its latter half. Many of the early Japanese RPGs – Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were heavily inspired from Origin’s Ultima series.

Thus, it’s important to note that the West was as influential and dominant to a sizeable portion of gaming before it rose in popularity.

As a golden rule, popularity and influence should never be equated and I feel this might be the reason why many consider West as less significant to Japan before 2000. As someone whose gaming background is an adequate mix of console and PC gaming, I believe both West and Japan were equally dominant and influential to their respective spheres during the entire timeline of gaming history. West had little interest in consoles and likewise Japan wanted little to do with PC gaming. They were dominating in their respective spheres and were influencing each other occasionally.

I don’t believe that the West was a complete “nobody” that rose like a Phoenix from ashes to stun the Japanese industry in the space of a decade. Nor do I believe that being from a different gaming background can explain ignorance to such obvious facts.

Do not confuse popularity with influence. Just because Japanese games were the craze before the FPS and the subsequent CRPG-boom of the 90s doesn’t mean Western developers had no significant role to play in the evolution of the medium.

It is important to consider this point because only then can we have a proper idea at exactly how these two halves of the same picture have stood relative to each other during the medium’s four-decade timeline before we set out to compare them.

The Picture Starts to Blur….

 

Point of Debate No.3:

“At what point did the scales in the “Japan vs West” comparison tip in West’s favour? Was it during the CRPG and Shooter Rush of the 90s or some other point of time?”

 

If you’ve read up to this point, so far I have clearly defined a picture of two distinct spheres – console and PC gaming that were single-handedly dominated by Japanese and Western developers respectively. They both were equally significant to the rise of gaming – working on their own spheres while occasionally sharing their influences in a common pool.

The unlikely turning point in the “Japan vs West” debate

It was around the early 2000s that this picture started blurring. I think that it began with the arrival of Microsoft’s Xbox. Not only a company from the West had actually developed a gaming console but they were also encouraging PC developers to make games on their console by providing attractive incentives.

Bungie was the first one to bite. It’s a well-known fact that the development of Xbox’s “killer app” – Halo: Combat Evolved began on PC and it was only on Microsoft’s insistence and purchase of the franchise rights did Bungie shift its development entirely onto their new console.

Bungie’s overnight success might have helped Microsoft set a foothold in a console market dominated entirely by Japanese companies. But what Halo’s success also did was show all the other PC developers – Western developers that there might be a big-time breakthrough awaiting them if they made their games on the Xbox.

Two developers who had been extremely crucial to PC gaming up to that point – BioWare and Peter Molyneux’s Lionhead Studios were the next in-line to make the PC to console transition. Microsoft jumped at the opportunity. BioWare was probably the most revered PC developer at that point of time and having their next game—a Star Wars game of all things—would be potentially as big as Halo.

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic was released in 2003 on Xbox as a timed exclusive. For a company with an entirely PC-based fanbase, it was a tremendous risk. Likewise, Lionhead’s Fable followed suit. A lesser-known (and oft-mocked) Computer-RPG developer – Bethesda Softworks – made their console debut as well with their flagship Elder Scrolls franchise. Morrowind created as many waves on Xbox as Fable and KotOR did. Despite being their least acclaimed game, Fable sold more than any of the classic PC titles that Peter Molyneux had made before. Ditto for BioWare and Bethesda. These developers with their new-found popularity and appreciation for console as a platform inspired many others to follow suit. Many followed and in fact, entire genres (adventure) made their console debuts during Xbox’s life-cycle.

What also happened was that the previously PC-only developers began thinking on how to adapt and please console gamers. The word “accessibility” sprung up from such a train of thought and this would go onto define numerous multi-million dollar franchises from the West in the years to come. For the first time in the history of game design, “accessibility” was considered as a serious concept in development teams and this was just half a decade from the 90s where games had hardly bothered to be “adaptive and accessible” to new gamers.

“Accessibility” suddenly became a popular concept among Western developers

As if by coincidence, people will say that this was around the time Western games began getting “better”. Their rise began around this point. In terms of popularity, I’d agree in a breath. But in terms of quality, I’d disagree because if you were to ask any BioWare or Molyneux fan at that point, they would say KotOR and Fable were easily among the weakest games in the developers’ repertoire.

What I can’t deny is that Xbox despite being trampled by Sony’s PlayStation 2 served as a pivotal point in the “Japan vs West” debate which upto that point had never been drawn onto a common ground. But with Xbox, the West had finally stepped onto the territory that was previously belonged to the Japanese only.

The war had just begun.

 

Act II: The Present

 

Excesses, Sloth and Greed

 

Point of Debate No.4:

“At what point did Japanese developers go wrong and exactly how? Where did the West succeed where Japanese failed? What aspects led to the rise of West and the fall of Japan?”

 

With the dawn of the current console generation the Japanese industry sensed a greater potential of a technical leap. The new technology on the Xbox 360 and the PS3 gave them opportunity to showcase their storytelling to never-seen-before beauty. It is common knowledge that a great deal of Japanese developers – especially those who makes RPGs tend to have a strong “CGI fetish”.

There is no better example to view the excesses that have seen Japanese industry stumble this generation than the dual whammy of Capcom and Square Enix.

Square’s insistence on new technology featuring ZERO gameplay has gotten them nowhere

First Square Enix. They spearhead the aforementioned “CGI fetish” and this can be clearly seen from the fact that the E3 2006 trailer of Final Fantasy XIII was in the making for more than a year. A CGI trailer featuring no finalized gameplay elements at all. In the years that followed, we saw numerous interviews with members of the art team of Square Enix where they said that they would spend weeks polishing “rocks” in the game to make them appear shiny, perfect and really beautiful. Rocks.

Rocks. That’s all I need to say, really.

That should tell you the mentality of the developers within Square Enix. But let’s not get biased here, Square Enix is a large company with many teams and divisions under it. Some of them chose to focus less on that and instead chose to make an occasional creative game. The World Ends With You happens to be one of those rare creative exceptions from Square Enix’s minds this gen. Internal sloth, lack of direction and incessant spending of time polishing rocks led to the fall of a developer who had for two console generations heralded Sony’s home consoles into a new generation.

But for the PlayStation3, we never had a Final Fantasy VII or a Final Fantasy X. In fact, we wouldn’t have a Final Fantasy for 5 more years by the time which it was too late to make a grand opening statement the series had become famous for.

Excesses and sloth weren’t the only thing that plagued Japanese developers.

Gamers: As seen from Capcom’s eyes

Capcom showed how greed and mismanagement can result in mass-scale PR disasters. Led by loose tongued developers like Keiji Inafune, Capcom saw Oblivion’s “Horse Armor DLC” and thought if Bethesda could get away with it, why couldn’t they? By implementing them in majority of their titles, Capcom quickly earned a notorious reputation for trying to squeeze more money out of their players. Instead of being a paragon of unrestrained creativity that they were during the previous console generation, Capcom instead became the nefarious poster-boys of DLC-related “money squeezing”. Locked DLCs, actual mechanics as DLCs, Capcom continued committing those sins and more shockingly without the sign of any apology or remorse.

 

Besides these ideological and management shortcomings, Japanese developers failed to capitalize on one key facet that Western developers thrived and gained popularity on – developing games for non-fans. In other words, the Japanese didn’t think much of, if at all, about developing games to expand their audience beyond what they had. Nor did they do anything to address the eternal problem of certain Japanese games never making out of their own country.

Japanese developers continued to make games that catered only to their audience, while Western developers built massive franchises riding on easing non-fans into their world. The afore-mentioned “accessibility” became the West’s favourite word and in a gaming scenario that had just opened up to non-gamers, the West did everything within its power to capitalize.

Plagued by ideological problems and unable to cater to wider audiences, the Japanese game industry didn’t fall from grace nor did their fanbase didn’t shrink overnight. In fact, their fanbase has more or less remained the same but what has changed is that the volume of gaming population has increased exponentially and the West has been successful in converting a majority of them.  The Japanese couldn’t or really didn’t try hard enough.

The Core Point

 

Have Japanese games really declined? Is that decline relative to the rise of the West? Or has the Japanese industry really hit such a low and become that awful?”

Before we start comparing “Japan with West” and see how they fare today relative to where they were in the last console generation, it is important to realize a couple of things I have stated thus far in the blog. A recap if you will:

1)      The “Japan vs West” comparison is absurd as it disregards the differences in mechanics, genres and influences when grouping them together and multiplies the absurdity by comparing them to another such group.

2)      Japan wasn’t the only dominant force in the industry before the late 90s/early 2000s. West was as dominant as Japan since the 80s with regards to PC gaming – the other half of gaming as Japan was to console. It is a point to be noted for those who still believe the West arose from a “nobody” to “superstar” status in the space of a single console generation.

3)      The shift of PC-only developers to consoles and the coming of Xbox – brought the West onto the territory that previously belonged exclusively to Japan. It also brought forth the importance of “accessibility” as PC developers adapted their ideologies to suit newer audiences and expand their fanbase.

4)      Japan, on the other hand was hindered by their ideological excesses (CGI fetish, mismanagement and greed) and the localization barrier meant some of their creative games never saw the day of light in the West. Their major franchises didn’t care much about catering to the new audiences and as a result many franchises had their fanbase become an increasingly minority in the “population explosion” — exponentially increasing number of gamers diluting the significance of their fanbase.

To answer the question at hand, I think Japanese games have declined. Speaking in general terms, Japanese games have without question declined in this generation in terms of popularity, influence and creativity.

“Is this decline relative to the rise of West?”

I believe so. Atleast, in terms of popularity, Japan has been mostly a blank bystander as it stood and watched the West grow in popularity while it did absolutely nothing to win audiences. I can see the likes of Wii Sports and Nintendogs as valid arguments to this point, but I don’t consider them games that actual gamers – casual or serious – would count among their favourites.

Gears of War and Oblivion defined this generation in more than few ways before Japanese games even stepped onto the scene

Japanese games generally are known for their inane habit to kick-start every console generation in style. When Xbox 360 came first with shiny new technology, Western games capitalized on that.  In fact, following the footsteps of Bungie and BioWare from the previous gen, a PC-only developer stepped onto the fore and created the game that would go on to define this generation – Epic’s Gears of War did exactly that. Technical achievements aside, it combined concepts old and new and showed us just how essential multiplayer will be to gaming experience in this console generation.  Gears and Elder Scrolls had laid foundations to tropes and elements that would go onto become staples in their respective genres long before Japanese games even stepped onto the scene and made a statement of purpose.

Even when Sony launched their console, despite it being considered mediocre by the sky-high expectations, it were the West’s new franchises – Resistance and Uncharted that arose out of the dust and made a mark on people’s minds more than any franchise from Japan did. Like I mentioned before, there was no FFVII or FFX to herald the arrival of a Sony console for Japan this time around. That sounded major warning bells everywhere.

In terms of multiplayer, which has often been considered a defining aspect of this generation and rightly so, the games from the West have adapted to it faster than Japanese did and led right from the get-go. It might have something to do with the fact that the majority of Western developers came from a PC background – which had a strong multiplayer foundation right from the 90s.

Japanese franchises have been merely chasing instead of innovating when it comes to multiplayer components. The multiplayer aspects of Resident Evil 5 and Lost Planet coming off as derivatives of its Western components especially after how most of the their gameplay elements were derived from the major franchises in the West.

The lone exception to this rule is Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls who looked at the multiplayer component like nobody did and they truly did something unique.

That still stands as a single example among many that state the contrary that Japan has been playing the “chasing game” with West in terms of innovative mechanics.

“Has Japan really declined to the point its games can now officially be called “terrible”? Or *gasp* “do their games “suck”?

No.

I will offer my explanation on reasons why I think the decline of Japanese gaming isn’t as worse as some of us might believe. Take this as my “counter-point” if you will:

Definition of Perfection — in more ways than one

1)      There Have Been Great Games. Many of Them : None of them as popular as Resident Evil, Final Fantasy or Legend of Zelda used to be but extremely significant. Some of them have been extremely creative, bold(Catherine) , retained core elements of their genre(Shin Megami Tensei), took the best to a whole new level(Bayonetta) or simply took what the West did and did it better(Vanquish).

2)      Dominating Genres :  Let’s look at the fighters, frantic action beat-em-ups and platformers for a brief moment. Those may not be the most popular genres today by any means but they are still very much significant and if you look at those three – you will see that Japan continues to rule those three genres. With the rare exception of God of War and Rayman, every major franchise from those three genres comes from Japan.

3)      Shift to Handhelds:If you look at the volume of “great” Japanese games and divide them in terms of platforms released on, you might be shocked to see that a majority of them appear on handhelds. This can be understood by seeing the shift of Atlus and Level 5 to handheld after their rise of prominence on PS2 and the rise of developers like Chunsoft( 999 and Zero Escape) and Kairosoft (the madly-popular Story games on the iOS/Android). Each of these three developers have generated massive numbers of hits primarily on the DS and mobiles.  This shift makes sense and seems natural if you ever looked at the DS sales in Japan. DS and now the 3DS continues to outsell the home consoles by a factor of four – at the very least.

Handheld gamers are less likely to notice Japanese games’ decline — and rightfully so

So, it isn’t like Japan has stopped making great games. They still do but with significantly less popularity, they dominate significant but niche genres and a major share of the Japanese hits this generation have come on handhelds instead of console, which might explain the fact why many of us think Japan hasn’t been significant this gen.  It makes sense too if you see the insane numbers DS and 3DS sell in Japan. Their developers are doing exactly what their fellow countrymen demand from them — more handheld games — and they’ve delivered quality on that front. On the other hand, a lot of us “serious” gamers from West and places other than Japan tend to consider handheld and mobile gaming as “appetizers” and console as “real gaming”. Combine both those points and you’ll see exactly why most of us can’t even name half the hits Japan has created recently. Because we didn’t even bother to look.

Ask anyone who ever owned a DS and they would say Level 5 and Atlus were among their favourite developers. Ask anyone who saw the craze behind Kairosoft’s Story series (Game Dev Story) and tell me that that hit wasn’t as significant as Angry Birds was. Ask anyone who played the now-revered Monster Hunter, Ace Attorney and Dragon Quest franchises on the handhelds and tell me they weren’t quality games. Tell me, they didn’t say that they still thought Japanese developers produced quality games –and by a dozen too.

Parting Words

Japan’s decline depends on how your perspective stands in regards to the gaming scenario right now — niche or mainstream, console or handheld

Japanese industry has seen a decline this gen. But there has been also been quality coming from Japan in generous doses, it’s just that either a) it has paled in comparison to the West’s phenomenal rise in influence and popularity, or  b) you simply didn’t care about the genres in which the Japanese have continued to dominate or c) because quite simply a considerable share of talented developers from the Japanese industry have changed their priority to handhelds just like their audiences have and many of us haven’t even bothered looking there.

Does this make them insignificant, terrible and awful? Certainly not!

The Point that Doesn’t Even Matter

Point of LOL-Debate:

“Is Phil Fish right in saying “Japanese games suck”? Is Fish a grade-A douchebag? Or is he a messiah of truth? But firstly, exactly WHO is Phil Fish?”

Phil Fish is the creator of the retro-indie hit Fez. Before it released, Fish said during GDC as a developer of zero games in the capacity of a game developer – “Japanese games suck”

Those glasses and that expression reminds me of something….OH SNAP!

Ignoring the obvious criticism and agreement his statement received, I’ll instead focus on him first.

“Was what he said actually his opinion? Or a cheap way to publicize his upcoming game by creating a controversy?”

This can go both the ways. It just depends on how you look at it. As someone who closely follows the indie development scene, I can say that it is extremely difficult for any developer – talented or not to get noticed. There is such a massive pool of talent and randomized creativity in the scene that catching the public eye is often the one and the only barrier between anonymity and superstardom.

Fish might believe in what he said. But as a game developer in GDC, I think it seems to be too convenient for him to make such a statement. If Fish had said it in a forum, we wouldn’t have cared.  But on a platform like GDC, it seems too convenient.  Now if CliffyB had said that same thing, we all wouldn’t have seen it that way. We would be outraged but cheap publicity? CliffyB? That man is a walking-talking PR machine. But as someone with zero means to publicize himself other than his unfinished game, I can’t help but see Fish using this as a cheap means of earning publicity. It’s a skeptical way to look at things, but given the circumstances (at GDC) and Fish’s situation (zero means to publicize himself and a new game coming up) I can’t see why that couldn’t happen.

Coming back to the point, I think it’d be quite unfair for any Western developer to judge the Japanese industry as a professional. They are allowed to do so as a gamer but saying the “Japanese industry is terrible” doesn’t explain anything because you have had zero experience working in one.

Now, when Japanese developers like Atsushi Inaba(Platinum) and Hideo Kojima say that you have to take their word for it. They have said “Japanese games have lost that spark” and I can take that as a valid criticism from fellow industry colleagues who understand the Japanese industry. But a Western developer criticizing and deriding practices and ideologies he probably doesn’t understand – be it CliffyB or Phil Fish – would just come across as a silly, unnecessary and absurd statement.

–Ansh