For me, South Park: The Stick of Truth is to fantasy games what Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is to multiplayer, squad-based shooters. And it totally works. For those who might be intimidated by Skyrim, The Stick of Truth is a great intro. It’s kind of glitchy, but so are most fantasy epics, but it kind of deconstructs fantasy tropes without leaning too heavily on the idea that they are doing satire. It feels both comically sound and also quite serious about being good, which is something difficult to do in games.
Every year, it seems as though a game comes along that is the equivalent of an indie Oscar contender. Though a few games are in the running - Gone Home and The Stanley Parable, to name two - my vote for 2013 has to go to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. (Perhaps we should call it the Braid Award? No?)
No game this year has really given the emotional punch that I got while playing Brothers. It’s equal parts whimsy, fantasy, and allegory. You play as two brothers, each controlled by one thumbstick, the only interaction coming from occasionally using trigger buttons. More on the controls later.
The story’s MacGuffin is that the brothers’ father grows ill, and the boys - guided by a map - go on a quest to find a cure for his ailment. It’s a simple story, but one that works on its most fundamental level. You travel through several environments, encountering different puzzles that you must solve using this simple but challenging control scheme.
It seems like a game that wouldn’t have much to offer beyond the obvious gimmick, but Brothers uses what I’ll call the “cooperative stick model” in ways that a lot of games probably would not attempt. Some of the movements will seem ordinary if listed - climbing, moving items, etc. - but the way the game asks you to interact with the world constantly engages your understanding of the controls.
The puzzles are never that hard, but the timing, coordination, and execution sometimes are. It takes some time to become accustomed to the control scheme, and even after that happens, the game challenges your ability to use the controls to your advantage, so the three-ish hour experience never becomes dull from repetition. As the landscape changes, so do the nature of the puzzles. If you think you’ll just be able to keep the “left” brother on the left and the “right” brother on the right for the whole of the game, think again.
Additionally, with each major shift in environment, more about the world is revealed. I should have but didn’t realize at first that Brothers is most definitely a fantasy game, though the trailer doesn’t really reveal that. I don’t want to go into specifics, but the way the game uses some of the more common fantasy conventions is really quite inventive. I’ll leave it at that.
It is a story worthy of Disney or Pixar, and its length only serves to reinforce its sort of cinematic nature. Brothers is one of the few games I’ve ever played that feels like it could only exist in the world of video games. The control scheme is not just cool; it is fundamental to the emotional experience of the game. It is not just representative of a way of moving through the world. Through using both characters simultaneously, you are almost forced to feel more of a bond with them, and to recognize the relationship between them as brothers.
If this sounds hokey, it kind of is. But it also totally works, and that is not just me reaching for something meaningful to say about a much-lauded game. Brothers does something different. Really different. And it deserves acclaim.
The game is not without its faults, however. There are a few killer glitches, and I encountered one, which made me restart an entire chapter. It was only a half-hour retread, but that still ruined some of the magic of the game.
Additionally, though the game ends up being quite transcendent, something about the length of the ending and the epilogue felt as though it were stretching the narrative a little too much. It could have been a bit more concise. I’m also not a fan of the Simlish all of the characters speak, but I can let that go.
My last criticism is the most severe. Even though I loved most of the exploration, I found myself bored with some of the puzzles. I should still underscore this point by saying that there is almost no fat on this game. It moves from beginning to end at a pretty clip, but some of the puzzles almost seem ordinary when compared to some of the more exhilarating stuff.
Overall, however, the experience that is to be had in Brothers is only paralleled by a few from this year, and to be placed in the company of games like The Last of Us and BioShock: Infinite is quite a feat indeed. It isn’t just about the story, either. The game’s mechanics hold up on their own, and players could do worse than sitting down, controller in hand, to spend a few hours with these siblings.
In plowing through the Best Of 2012 list - timely! - Mark of the Ninja is a game I sort of passively avoided. It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t believe all the positive vibes, but I have to admit that nothing has interested me about 2D games for the past few years, even platforming stealth games like Mark of the Ninja, so it was with some hesitation that I even picked it up.
I don’t remember being super impressed with it the first time I played it, but that could have also been the fact that I was in a very anti side-scrolling, “retro” games headspace, and it wasn’t until I FINALLY got to Limbo this year that I realized what I wasn’t getting.
See, these games aren’t merely casting their reels into the vast ocean of 80s and 90s nostalgia. Some of them have interesting mechanics and visual styles, and some of them are just fantastically fun to play.
Mark of the Ninja fits into all of those categories. It feels great to play, it looks fantastic, and it is fun in a way that no stealth game has been in some time.
And that is saying something.
There were SO many wonderful games of 2012 that I can’t quite make sense of what my “favorite” experience from the year that was, but I can say that Mark of the Ninja ranks right up there with XCOM and Hotline: Miami for me. (Note: I still have Far Cry 3, Sleeping Dogs, and Syndicate to finish up.)
I’m relatively new to Klei games, but I remember hearing not-astounding things about the Shank games, so I never actually played them. Based on the strong feeling I got from ‘Ninja,’ I’m really tempted to pick up both Shanks.
I won’t bother too closely with the plot details of the game, but basically you play as a ninja who must take down an organization doing shady things. I mean, the story is fine, but like with Hotline: Miami, this game is best whenever it is being played. The story is really secondary.
What is so amazingly, blisteringly good about Mark of the Ninja is the controls. Simply traversing the world is bliss-inducing, for several overlapping reasons. It is partly because your character can stick cleanly to most surfaces and yet move smoothly through the environment. It is that, combined with the fact that the game allows traversal of each level via one of several avenues that makes Mark of the Ninja such a great gaming experience.
Now, this is all leading up to a discussion about the stealth mechanics and how the-opposite-of-awful they are in this game, but the stealth wouldn’t really be all that interesting if the game were on a rail whatsoever.
Instead, players can take any number of paths to reach their various objectives. You might want to go vertical and climb a building to reach the next area, or you might also prefer to crawl through the sewers and other subterranean paths in order to advance. The level design is agnostic to the player’s choice, so there isn’t really a single route they are expected to take, in most cases.
I think this is an interesting distinction, because if it were a 3D game, no one would commend the number of options players are able to take; however, the fact that the Mark of the Ninja is 2D and yet offers more than enough options for progression gives it a freshness I haven’t seen in a lot of games of this type.
It is also different from other stealth offerings in that it involves some fun platforming-style movement. Games like Dishonored - which I thought did stealth better than most games - often involve exploration between the stealth, which can be interesting but feels more often than not like a means to an end, but Mark of the Ninja is made so that very few parts of it feel interstitial.
Though the controls can be a little too sticky for my taste, especially when precision is required near an easily-alarmed enemy, overall the controls are astoundingly good.
As far as the RPG elements, Mark of the Ninja includes a series of upgrades to weapons and attacks, based on the way the character plays the game. You receive an overall grade for your performance in level, but you also get an actual numerical score, as well. This is the unspoken stick in the game. The scoring system encourages stealth and rewards gamers accordingly. Your score plummets if you, like me, fumble your way through the game and get seen by every guard who is not entirely blind.
However, even though the scoring system is punitive, that never actually seems to impact the game in any real way. Your score goes down, but that (combined with the fact that you die easily) is punishment enough. No need to heap insult on top of injury.
Additionally, the game resurrects players from the dead quickly, so that players are not forever loading. It is one of the things that most indie games from 2012 got absolutely positively right, from Hotline Miami to Fez to Mark of the Ninja. Let the player die - hell, encourage the player to die - but then quickly give him / her the opportunity to smash his head against the wall again…or succeed. It’s actually quite a fantastic development of the last few years.
Mark of the Ninja is a must-play for anyone who enjoys stealth or side-scrolling action games, or some combination of both. The story is well-written enough to keep players engaged, but it is the way the game plays that will draw them through to the end. You can pick it up on sale from Steam on the cheap, and it is definitely worth the price at a discount.
In which I (sort of) review Hotline Miami…
Violence is at the forefront of Hotline Miami, and even though I would like to argue that it isn’t, I can’t really do that. Each and every minute of the game is slathered with a fine grease of red stuff, and to make the case that it is a distraction would be a foolish thing.
I tried to write that article already. It was deleted, retyped, and then deleted again.
However, I don’t feel the violence in the same way that I think other people might. That is a strange distinction, I think, and maybe I’m not alone in it, but most people tend to talk very explicitly about how the violence in Hotline Miami affects them.
I’m not put off of by the gut-wrenching, head-smashing violence, partly because of the pixelated nature of it all, but I think it’s more because I was way too enthralled with the controls and the strategy and the music to be concerned by the blood.
Had the game been a thin veneer for violence, a thinly-veiled gimmick, then I would have put it down almost immediately. I’ve long since grown out of my need to be force-fed extreme material for the sheer enjoyment of it.
It wasn’t the violence against others that kept me playing Hotline Miami; it was the violence I inflicted upon myself that dragged me through all twenty-plus chapters of this pixelated action puzzle game. You diediediediediedie, and yet, the game is never really about dying, kind of like Stephen King’s books are not really about evil but about good triumphing over evil.
The point of Hotline Miami is to be successful, to inflict violence at the risk of one’s own life. It isn’t the stuff of Nobel Laureates, not even close, but even though the game is a neon light covered in blood and cocaine, it’s impossible to deny that there is something else there, too.
It even aspires to something higher - sort of - even if the purpose isn’t always clear. That the game never actually makes its intentions entirely known probably add more to the unseemly feeling of the text for most people. You can’t really defend this game if you don’t know what in the hell it is trying to say with the violence.
Or maybe the game isn’t about its message on violence at all.
But I digress.
In a game where you play as a character identified exclusively by his outerwear, you’d expect there’s not much characterization to be had, and maybe you’d be right, but rather than feel less for the character, I became utterly interested in who this violent, misguided, and largely silent protagonist was.
It becomes obvious early on that he is being manipulated through a series of surreal phone messages. That, or he doesn’t want to understand the truth of the message on the answering machine. Some of the phone calls sound pretty innocuous, and yet, the following scene ends with bodies strewn about an 8-bit landscape, covered in their own guts.
You could almost argue that surface meaning matters, that the literal meaning matters in any sort of text, especially one like Hotline Miami, and if that is the case, then I have misjudged the game entirely. I ignored the surface visuals for what lay beneath it. Game mechanics are nothing if not the gears that run the machine, and the handling in Hotline Miami is really what stands out.
But they aren’t the only thing that stands out.
If not for the soundtrack, which added to the surreality, I might have put it down earlier, but here I am trying to separate the game into parts again. Nothing in Hotline Miami works without the other things, which is great. It speaks to how cool the experience is that one element cannot stand alone, and though most games are constructed so that the parts do not stand alone, Hotline Miami, through its simplicity, is able to boil all of those parts into a single, segmented being. The violence and soundtrack and mechanics are like three animals feeding off of one another for survival, in other words.
But back to the gameplay.
I played my ‘Jacket’ a little bit more cautiously than I’m sure most people did, partly because I am abominable at the whole experience. It should give you hope that I’ll never become an assassin of any stripe, because I stumbled my way through large parts of the game. After so many dozen deaths in a given section, I managed to find myself getting lucky and then using that luck as an operating strategy for the rest of the level.
But I also played it somewhat safe and strategic because I liked watching the parts of the game coalesce. Seeing the mobsters’ particular paths meant I could Beautiful Mind it, putting together a battle plan before I stepped through the first door (or elevator or whatever).
I had to balance the benefits of a stealthy campaign with going full Tarantino on the fools walking around with knives, pipes, and shotguns. There is no substitute for being able to seamlessly traverse a level without being seen, but the one substitute is running roughshod through a level, relying on pure adrenaline to get you through. It is amazing.
Lucky breaks can be blissful experiences.
The game itself doesn’t quite know how it wants you to play, either, which is a bonus. Of the various tips one receives, one states that weapons make no noise, while another tells you how playing Mister Yellow style will get you a better score. There is no right way to play the game, except whichever way you play it.
However, I will say the game rewards recklessness. You’ll get a higher score and better grade if you turn Punisher on everyone. The Time Bonus is not for the stealthy, and scoring players definitely gives the game some replay value, if you’re not tired of the game’s whole aesthetic by the end.
But, ultimately, scores and strategies don’t matter. Not even the violence. It’s the controls that really make Hotline Miami special. The game gets progressively more difficult, so if you don’t plan on getting better at the game, you at least have to perfect each level’s set of circumstances to be able to propel yourself forward to the next one.
This is something I found entrancing. If you think about it, this is the link to the older generation that really matters, not the throwback graphics. I sort of miss games that required playing through lots and lots of times in order to get better. The way the game immediate reloads means that you can pack months of practice into a few hours of gameplay. It’s actually kind of amazing. I’d be interested to know how Mario would feel if the game had been able to reload the way that Hotline Miami does. Take any platformer, really, and apply the quick respawn of HM to it, and it almost seems to improve the experience.
The narrative becomes too surreal for its own good, but I kind of like that it’s never actually laid out for you. The other thing is, I think it will stick with me for far longer precisely because it kept some of the cards hidden. The game never really lays out what’s happening, and the story isn’t really what matters, so I’m okay with it.
Overall, Hotline Miami is one of the top two or three 2012 gaming experiences I had in 2013. (I had to play catch-up on lots of games.) It is a nice companion piece to Mark of the Ninja, which I played concurrently and will be writing about in a future post.
Play Hotline Miami. Hurl yourself against the gun barrels of your enemies until you’re no longer having fun.