The year in video games: Indie titles hint at gaming possibilities

Dec. 14, 2012 | 9:00 a.m.

Times video game critic Todd Martens shares his 10 favorite games of the year. Among them: "Halo 4," "The Unfinished Swan" and "The Walking Dead." (343 Industries, Giant Sparrow and Telltale Games)

1. “Unfinished Swan” (PS3). Best example of a game as children’s bedtime story. “Unfinished Swan” may be a first-person shooter, but instead of guns, players fire paint and water to color and grow a kingdom. Much is said about the cinematic aspects of modern games, but perhaps it’s time to think of them as literature as well. (Giant Sparrow)

2. “Botanicula” (PC). Like a window into the world’s most fanciful garden, “Botanicula” provides hours of pastoral eye candy. Players click and listen — audio cues provide most of the clues — as they guide a band of plants and critters through musical topography. The environment provides countless surprises. Click a plant, and an adorable insect orchestra appears. It’s the puzzle game as relaxant. (Amanita Design)

3. “Sound Shapes” (PS Vita, PS3). The likes of Beck and Deadmau5 contributed to the game’s soundtrack, but ultimately the soundtrack becomes the game. Players guide a ball through corporate and volcanic landscapes — rolling, scrolling and falling to safety. Simple, yes, but it becomes a grander sensory experiment when it becomes clear that actions can add or subtract from the melody. (Queasy Games)

4. “The Walking Dead” (PC, Mac, PS3, Xbox 360, iOS). Plenty of games ask players to kill zombies. Few turn it into an existential crisis. This five-part game inspired by Robert Kirkman’s comics de-emphasizes action and instead focuses on one’s own survival choices and, yes, players will be judged. (Telltale Games)

5. “Horn” (iOS). Perhaps the best argument yet that a mobile game can offer an experience as rich as one found on a console or PC. Horn, a blacksmith’s apprentice, wakes up to discover his entire world has been cursed, and the mystery of how and why propels this story forward. (Phosphor Games)

6. “Halo 4” (Xbox 360). Microsoft’s in-house 343 Industries’ first crack at the console’s famed franchise resulted in the year’s most tightly focused first-person shooter. What’s more, 343 infused a sense of humanity to the line-’em-up, shoot-’em-down series by focusing on the hero Master Chief rather than the usual interstellar warfare. (343 Industries)

7. “New Super Mario Bros. U” (Wii U). Nintendo’s side-scrolling Mario series has become the video game equivalent of a Ramones album. The stomp-and-run dexterity formula doesn’t change much, but when it’s this perfect it only needs to be slightly tweaked to stay relevant. (Nintendo)

8. “Dishonored” (Xbox, PS3). Sneaking and voyeurism is encouraged. Slaying and shooting isn’t. But the choice is ultimately up to the player, as this steampunk revenge epic can be a violent action game, a tense spy game or a supernatural thriller as each mission has numerous paths to completion. (Arkane / Bethesda)

9. “Scribblenauts Unlimited” (Wii U). Use the Wii U’s GamePad to draw and write your way out of tricky predicaments. If a bored child is blocking your path, draw him a dog — or a dragon. Your creativity is the game’s primary limitation. (5th Cell / Warner Bros. Interactive)

10. “Lili” (iOS). Explore the island of Geos as Lili, a young magic academic on the hunt for mystical flowers. Instead, she uncovers a world inhabited by wood-constructed creatures that look sprung from Geppetto’s toy shop, and players tap and swipe as a school project becomes a charmed action-adventure. (BitMonster Games)

Pick almost any year since 2005 in cinema, and it can pretty safely be labeled the year of the superhero. In much the same way, video games have been celebrating the year of the first-person shooter genre for at least half a decade.

Despite the glut, not many of those gaming titles can make you cry, but “The Unfinished Swan” just might.

The latter is from the perspective of a 9-year-old boy, one who just lost his mother and wants to make his father proud. His weapon? A magic paintbrush.

It’s a moving narrative that is just one small part of a shifting conversation on the gaming landscape.

Players uncover a magical world in "The Unfinished Swan." (Giant Sparrow)

Players uncover a magical world in “The Unfinished Swan.” (Giant Sparrow)

Ever since Nintendo’s 2006 console the Wii and the explosion of the mobile and tablet gaming sector penetrated the market, the race has changed. Titles such as Telltale’s “The Walking Dead,” Thatgamecompany’s “Journey” or Queasy Games’ “Sound Shapes” are deviating from the norm by no longer jockeying for a position in the battle to be bigger, badder and lengthier.

They’re so simple in concept, most of these games make our 10- to 12-button controllers feel like an ostentatious indulgence. In the case of “The Walking Dead,” its story unfolds using many of the gameplay techniques first introduced in the mid-’80s via the point-and-click PC adventure. “Sound Shapes” will, on the surface, be familiar to anyone who has sampled a “Super Mario Bros.” game.

Where they challenge — and arguably even push boundaries — is in user interaction and character development. Split-second dialogue choices dominate “The Walking Dead,” “Journey” is a quest completed primarily with thoughtfulness and “Lili” is the all-too-rare game that features a female protagonist, one it’s worth noting who is book smart rather than handy with a weapon.

BitMonster's "Lili" was the rare game to star a female protagonist. (BitMonster)

BitMonster’s “Lili” was the rare game to star a female protagonist. (BitMonster)

“Swan” producer Max Geiger, 26, originally dreamed of making whatever would become the next “Halo” or “Call of Duty,” at least until a professor at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies suggested to Geiger that the mechanics for making a successful first-person shooter were a “solved problem.”

“That was a wake-up call,” he says. “That set me on a path for exploring different things and what this bold new language of interactivity could be used to explore.”

“We felt that stories, particularly folk tales, children stories and children books, were fertile ground to draw from,” says Geiger. “One of the jobs of children’s literature is to teach young human beings that they are mortal and that they’re in a world filled with mortality.”

He and the game’s creative director, Ian Dallas, cite French animated classic “The King and the Mocking Bird” as well as the Mediterranean-influenced work of artist M.C. Escher as primary sources of inspiration. And shooters.

“A lot of those games are power fantasies,” says Geiger. “You’re a 7-foot-tall space marine stomping around in power armor. We wanted to make the player feel like a 9-year-old boy.”

There will always be a place for the awe-inspiring combat engines and pixel achievements, just as filmmakers will push for new advancements for 3-D or tinker with frame rate. Now, though, the mobile and download arenas are expanding the opportunity for risk-taking developers.

Telltale's "The Walking Dead" has revived the point-and-click adventure. (Telltale Games)

Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” has revived the point-and-click adventure. (Telltale Games)

If there’s a criticism against titles mentioned here, it’s that they’re short. But that’s irrelevant. Our lives are cluttered enough as it is, and iPhone-friendly games such as “The Walking Dead” and “Lili” can fit into our day rather than demand a portion of it. They’re also affordable, available at a fraction of the cost of most traditional console games, making them better positioned to show a nongaming audience what is possible with interactive storytelling.

There’s more to come. In the works is L.A. Game Space, a planned nonprofit in downtown that aims to nurture new talent and educate visitors on independent gaming. Add in the now-annual IndieCade festival in Culver City, and we are amid an independent gaming renaissance.

Of course, the independent market has always been bubbling just under the surface, and it has a large audience to reach. There’s also the simple fact that experimentation never comes easy. “We want to make games that have something to say,” says Geiger. “Most people,” he adds, will feel games are not the “place to say it.”

And then there’s the always-shifting fiscal realities of the creator-publisher relationship. Giant Sparrow, the company that designed “The Unfinished Swan,” has a partnership with Sony, but will a large corporation feel the same love for smaller-minded games in 10 years?

In one sense, the answer doesn’t matter. The ideas are out there.

– Todd Martens

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Review: ‘Dishonored’ is only as violent as you make it

Review: ‘Borderlands 2’ survives with a sense of humor

Nintendo’s Wii U: The console’s first must-have games

Review: ‘Halo 4′: Master Chief is human after all

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