Joy in Mudville
November 01, 2011
More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. –Woody Allen
Gamers are a confounding lot. For a pack of people who like to play, we sure do seem miserable most of the time. We complain about review scores; we hate games journalism; we mercilessly pick at each other on forums; and we shake our heads sadly at projected dim futures for franchise X, developer X, or console manufacturer X. A newcomer to the ongoing “games conversation” on dedicated websites and social media channels could hardly be blamed for concluding that playing games and talking about them can take a serious toll on the psyche.
Let’s take a collective breath for a moment, shall we? When I survey the video game landscape and make a dispassionate assessment (as much as possible), it’s hard to understand why we’re so prone to gloom and despair. I see a bright horizon, filled with promise and terrific games.
The immediate future looks especially enticing. A “Magnificent Seven” assortment of big new games beckons me, and I couldn’t be more excited to play them.
- Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
- Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
- Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
- Assassin’s Creed 3
- Saints Row: The Third
- Kirby’s Return to Dreamland
- Super Mario 3D Land
One can easily scoff at this list. All sequels (so we’ve obviously run out of ideas); all AAA titles (so I’m obviously biased toward major studios); all console games, except Skyrim (so I obviously hate PC games); no Call of Duty 3 (so I obviously hate war games). Bibbidy bobbidy boo.
As I write this, Uncharted 3 is winging its way to me, “out for delivery” at any moment. The very thought of this brings me joy because the Uncharted games have given me so many gaming delights. I’ve written here before that a major Zelda title is my “drop everything” game, and Skyward Sword will be no exception. Will it revolutionize the Zelda franchise? No. Do I need that to fully enjoy the game? No.
I’m normally immune to pre-release hype, but Skyrim’s jaw-dropping trailers have me salivating for a new Elder Scrolls. Bethesda’s long record of superior craftsmanship suggests their new game will draw me into its world and, once again, steal dozens of hours from my life. I’m not the biggest Assassin’s Creed fan in the world, but the first two games point in such a promising direction that I’m encouraged Ubisoft will deliver a game that builds on what they’ve learned.
Dedicated Kirby players appreciate, as few others do, that Kirby games have consistently pushed in innovative directions, often jettisoning standard Kirby-isms in favor of other creative ideas its designers wish to pursue (e.g. Canvas Curse and Epic Yarn). As a swan-song Wii game, I’m curious to see what HAL Laboratories has come up with this time. The game is out now, but I haven’t yet had time to play it.
Super Mario 3D Land is a major Mario release, developed by Nintendo EAD, the company’s main studio in Kyoto, also responsible for the masterful Mario Galaxy games. The 3DS has been kicked around, and justly so, for its lack of quality games. A new Mario designed specifically for the system is clearly Nintendo’s attempt to help silence those complaints. It’s worth remembering that EAD has an admirable track record designing games that leverage a system’s unique properties (e.g. Mario 64, Mario Kart DS, and the Galaxy games), so optimism for a new 3D Mario doesn’t seem misplaced to me.
That leaves Saints Row: The Third, perhaps a curious title for me to enthuse over. At the risk of being a little cryptic, I'll say that the developer of this game, Volition, lives down the road from me in Champaign, Illinois, and I've seen bits of what they've been working on. Let's just say this game refuses to be ignored. You'll see what I mean very soon.
These seven games pile on top of the ones I’m currently playing with joyful gusto. Dark Souls has owned me for 40+ tension-filled hours with no end in sight. NBA 2K12 (GASP! a sports game?), broken online-mode aside, is a stellar sports game, the first I’ve seen to successfully blend cutting edge graphical realism and old-school simulation. Finally, Batman: Arkham City waves at me from its unopened plastic, crying "What about me? :-("
As excited as I am about these games, my optimism has other roots too. My recent visit to IndieCade convinced me we need not worry about a lack of vision or forward thinking in the games industry. In Culver City I saw a virtual cavalcade of terrific games, covering a wide spectrum of design ideas, and a burgeoning collection of designers eager to advance this art form in many new directions. I’ll write about one of those games in my next post.
More reasons for hope. This year I’m honored to again serve as a judge for the Independent Games Festival, held at the Game Developers Conference this March. Last year, the festival received nearly 400 entries, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. This year, the entry pool increased by another 40 percent! Even if many of these games never see the light of day, the raw numbers suggest more and more young artists see game design as their preferred mode of expression, and that can only be good for the future of the industry, broadly defined.
One last thought. My friend Corvus Elrod has been working on an indie board game called Bhaloidam. Corvus describes it this way:
Bhaloidam is an indie tabletop game from Zakelro that is an open and accessible storytelling platform. With it you’ll spin character-driven stories and weave them together with the stories of your friends. You’ll exert your influence upon the storyworlds you create together, shaping its future and controlling your characters’ destinies as you perform their successes and their failures.
45 days ago, Corvus announced a Kickstarter fund to support the project, seeking $27,900 from backers. That’s almost 28K for a boardgame with an odd-sounding title and nobody famous involved. Today Corvus and company are celebrating. As of this writing, Bhaloidam has received $30,948 in support from 567 backers. The project is a GO, and Corvus is moving ahead with an initial production run of books, boards, tokens, and packaging, thanks to a community of supporters who believe in him and his work. I think that's a pretty remarkable thing.
There’s plenty of cause for hope around here. Sometimes we just need to break away from the chatter, which seems inevitably to follow a negative trajectory. As Mark Twain put it, “Lord save us all from a hope tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.”