Now that we’re one month into the new year, I want to take a moment to reflect back on my favorite games of 2012.
In 2011, I published this list of my favorite games of that year. I feel like it was a pretty solid list, but this year I wanted to do something a bit different.
All too often, we talk about “games” as objects, systems, products – as readily identifiable things that we can evaluate in the abstract or download onto our computers. That isn’t untrue, but games are also so much more. They’re events; social contexts; play enacted by specific groups of people; particular moments in time.
Colloquially, there’s another meaning of the word “game” – game as a specific instance of play, a specific match, i.e. “Did you see the Knicks game last night?” It’s what Bernie DeKoven means when he talks about the “well-played game.”
In this post, I want to pay tribute to my favorite “games” of 2012 – specific performances, instances, and events that really meant something to me. The list is admittedly idiosyncratic, subjective, and a little self-indulgent. And that’s the way it should be, I feel (um, unless you’re a journalist or something), because games, at their best, are deeply personal affairs. Games generate memories, and I want to share some of mine with you.
(Note that I’ve deliberately left out any games of Johann Sebastian Joust, which I want to deal with in a separate post)
11.) 0space sleepover in Boston
It’s 2am on a Friday night and me, Ramiro, Dan, and Arthur are still in Ramiro’s hotel room, awkwardly sprawled out on his king-size bed. We’re playing 0space – a wickedly fun local multiplayer shooter by Beau “teknopants” Blyth. Rami is there too, but he’s already fast asleep on the couch beside us. The five of us have all traveled to Boston for PAX East, but instead of hitting the conference party circuit, we’ve elected to stay in and play games.
Conferences like PAX East can be exhilarating, but they can also be stressful and exhausting. You give a lecture, or participate on a panel. You exhibit your game, talking to fans and press all day. Maybe you even chase publishers. You try to catch up with all your colleagues (a futile endeavor), and you try make new friends too. You stay out late, drinking, networking, partying. Then you wake up early and do it all again.
Except not this night. This night we’re shunning the rest of the world, and instead we’re basking in the simple joy of 0space, a brilliant 2-4 player game with a superb sense of pacing and a lot of strategic depth. For the first time in years, I feel like I’m at a high school sleepover – one of those nights where you and a few close friends would stay up until sunrise playing GoldenEye, or Super Smash Brothers. I feel like a kid again.
In 2012, I showed my game to hundreds of fans, networked with other developers, did a lot of interviews, and even won several awards. But more than any of those professional achievements, what stands out in my memory are the more interstitial moments – hanging out with friends, shootin’ the shit, playing games. There’s something special about games like 0space, and I hope that there will be more such 0space nights in my future.
(I also hope that Rami won’t fall asleep next time.)
10.) Hokra “World Championships”
Last year at GDC, I participated in the Hokra tournament at the AOPATAD party. By early 2012 I had already played Hokra at a number of indie game parties, and I had become quite skilled at the game. At GDC, I wanted to win. More importantly, I wanted to “test” myself in the heat of public competition, and I wanted to have fun doing so!
I teamed up with FRACT designer Richard Flanagan. Our strategy was simple: on offense we would stick together. I would take the ball, dribbling as best I could, while Richard would try to tackle our opponents to give me as much time as possible in the goal zone. Our strategy proved effective, and we made it all the way to the finals. The finals!
The championship match was a best-of-five affair. We lost the first round, but won the next two. Up 2-1, we were just one round from becoming champions.
Of course, we proceed to lose the next two rounds. Nevertheless, despite our loss, it was a memorable and deeply enjoyable experience.
Local multiplayer games, at their best, take the most positive aspects of teamwork and competition, and celebrate them through spectatorship and performative play. It’s the reason I’m so proud to have launched our Sportsfriends project last year. Competitive local multiplayer games are something worth championing.
9.) Incredible Scrollshooter at the Museum of Art & Design
One thing that disappointed me about a lot of Best of 2012 lists is that so many of them exclusively covered games as products – games that you can go out and download or buy. This is a shame, because one of the most exciting trends of the last few years has been the rising popularity of installation games – games designed for specific events, setups, and places; games that you can’t just download onto your laptop.
In 2012, one of the most straight-up fun games I played was one such installation game – a piece called Infinite Scrollshooter, by Keita Takahashi (of Noby Noby Boy fame) and Ivan Safrin. On the surface of things, Infinite Scrollshooter is a rather generic shmup game for up to 4 players. The twist, though, is that game is played on a whole series of television screens placed around the room. You carry a wireless controller, and when you navigate your ship past the edge of the screen, you have to run a few steps forward to the next screen.
The result is a kind of mashup of Gradius and B.U.T.T.O.N. – a competitive videogame that initially feels familiar, but inevitably devolves into a physical scramble. I should also mention that Babycastles did a superb job building the “course” that housed the screens. For example, check out the wild tunnel through which players had to scamper.
A few weeks ago, I tweeted that I wanted to see more installation games like Infinite Scrollshooter on Best Of lists. Immediately, I received a number of objections. One concern was that a game like Infinite Scrollshooter is somewhat “elitist” – after all, it was only up and running for one weekend, and only in New York City. Why bother recommending a game that nobody can play anymore?
As you can imagine, I strongly disagree with this line of thinking. There’s a lot to say on this issue – too much for this blog post. One point I do want to make, though, is that it can be enjoyable to just read about and think about a game in the abstract, even if you can’t play it. One relevant example here is GlitchHiker – a game that I never got to try myself, but a concept that is inspiring to me as a designer and player of games.
So when somebody like me enthusiastically gushes about a game like Infinite Scrollshooter, the point is less about the game itself and more about the possible futures that concept suggests. The critical point here is that you too could build an installation game in your own community. That’s why it’s so important that we continue to talk about games like Infinite Scrollshooter. Just because you can’t distribute or sell a game doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Quite the opposite, sometimes the best games of them all are the most ephemeral ones – games you and your friends make for your own context.
8.) Full-Contact Tic-Tac-Toe w/ Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo
One of my proudest moments of 2012 was improvising a very physical version of Tic-Tac-Toe, on the spot, during the Game Developers Choice Awards.
The moment was caught on video, and you can totally watch it here.
The story is, Stephen Totilo (Editor-in-Chief of Kotaku) was interviewing every developer who won a Game Developers Choice Award. But instead of just interviewing them, he decided to give each of them a challenge. He’d ask each winner to re-design Tic-Tac-Toe, on the spot.
Stephen did not know what he was getting himself into when he asked me.
Riffing on my work designing physical games like B.U.T.T.O.N., I immediately thought about Around the World – a party game played around a ping pong table (in Around the World, you have to run to the other side of the table after you take your turn). Stephen happened to be sitting at a circular table, and so I improvised the following mod: after drawing your ‘X’ or ‘O’ you have to run one full revolution around the table before you can take your next turn. The catch is, if you can somehow overtake your opponent in the race around the table (e.g. by wrestling them out of the way), you can take two turns in a row.
Predictably, I ended up roughhousing Stephen – the editor of Kotaku! – into the table.
And the cherry on top, so to speak, was Stephen’s final exasperated remark: “oh, go innovate somewhere else!”
7.) Acro-yoga with Marek
It’s a sunny April afternoon in Berlin, and I’m walking through Tempelhof Park with my friends Joanna, Natalie, and Marek (the artist behind award-winning indie game Spirits). Marek tell us he has a surprise for us, but he won’t tell us what.
Finding an open space on the grass, Marek gets down on his back, sticks up his legs, and tells me to lean on his feet.
Marek begins to guide me through a complex sequence of body contortions. Finally, as if by magic, I find myself hovering over Marek, supported by nothing more than his legs. I feel like I’m flying, and the experience is equal parts astounding and exhilarating.
The activity is called acro-yoga, and Marek happens to be an excellent guide. Joanna and I took turns “riding” Marek’s legs, attempting to hold precarious yet majestic poses for as long as we can. Acro-yoga is as much about trust and communication as it is about physical skill. Like the best motion control games, playground games, and sports, it gives you the kind of “rush” that comes from tackling challenges that are simultaneously mental and physical in nature.
Call it what you want, but the whole activity felt rather game-like to me. One of my most memorable experiences of 2012.
6.) Late-night Cart Life
I was absolutely thrilled to see Richard Hofmeier’s “retail simulation” game Cart Life make IGF this year. Technically, the game came out in 2011, but I would argue that it only finally “came into its own” in 2012. If you follow me on Twitter, you know just how impressed I am with the game.
There’s no way I could write about Cart Life as eloquently as Joel from Electron Dance has already, so for the most part I’ll defer to his essays on the game.
(I also recommend you read this superb Eurogamer interview with Richard)
What I do want to mention, though, is that I distinctly remember the night I first tried Cart Life. I was on vacation, and I stayed up most of the night playing through Melanie’s story. As JP LeBreton so eloquently put it, to play Cart Life is to feel “cracked across the jaw by moments of blinding empathy.”
It’s true that Cart Life employs game system, mechanics, and repetitive interactions to create a media experience that feels fresh and original. However, what I remember most are the little vignettes and beautiful animations sprinkled across the game – the conversations you have with your daughter; the smalltalk you make with your patrons; the nightmares Melanie suffers each night; that heart-wrenching cutscene of Melanie preparing for bed each night.
Cart Life stands as a real triumph in the pursuit of videogames as sophisticated cultural form. You can download it here. Give yourself the gift of your own late night session.
Oh, and don’t miss Richard’s irreverent Cart Life trailer from IndieCade.
It’s some ungodly hour of the night, and I’m still up, sitting in my room in Copenhagen, streaming the Knicks-Lakers game on my laptop. I’ve stayed up to watch the game because basketball phenomenon Jeremy Lin is at the apex of his improbable rise from bench warmer to superstar, and he is torching the Lakers. It’s like watching a real-life fairytale.
The story of Jeremy Lin is as inspiring as it is unbelievable. An Asian-American point guard – out of Harvard, of all universities – comes out of nowhere to assert his gutsy, fast-tempo style of basketball on the NBA. Though short-lived, the era of “Linsanity” was particularly enjoyable for me as a lifelong Knicks fan. For the first time since 1999, the Knicks were finally relevant again.
In that aforementioned, now-classic Knicks-Lakers game, there is this one moment in the 4th quarter where Jeremy Lin sinks a dagger three from the corner. Madison Square Garden explodes, and sportscaster Mike Breen exclaims: “The Jeremy Lin show continues here at Madison Square Garden!” Jeremy Lin ends up scoring an eye-popping 38 points, and the Knicks win.
(Also see his absolutely fearless game winner against Toronto)
No matter what Lin does with the rest of career (sadly, he signed with the Rockets in the off-season), Knicks fans will always remember his unlikely transformation into New York City hero. It’s the kind of story that sports and games so excel at producing. It’s also a useful reminder of how important spectatorship is to the past, present, and future of games, as well as how inseparable games are from issues of race, identity, and culture.
4. Proteus: “Frog God” trampoline mod
I already featured exploration game Proteus in my Best of 2011 list. But I would argue that our trampoline mod (affectionately dubbed the “Frog God” mod), is something different. Or, at least it felt that way to me.
This past August, a group of friends and I headed to the Danish countryside for a week-long game-making retreat. My roommate Christoffer and I brought with us two 4-meter (!) trampolines. The plan was to spend the week making trampoline-controlled games.
While Bennett, Florian, and George worked on their games, I worked on transforming the trampolines into Unity-enabled game controllers. Using two gryoscopes sown underneath each trampoline, I wrote a program that would detect when the player bounced on the trampoline, and how hard they bounced.
Among several other games (see here, here), George prepared a mod of Proteus in which you play as one of the frogs (thanks to Ed Key for the support!) The frog bounces when you do, and its jump height depends on the strength of the jump. Holding two wireless controllers, one in each hand, you use buttons to control which direction your avatar looks and moves. We set it up at night, with a large projection of the game world on the side of the house.
The experience was nothing short of magical. David Kanaga’s music and sounds melded beautifully into the soundscape of the real summer evening – the sound of the nearby sea, the crickets, the wind. Under a starry sky, we took turns jumping, giant grins plastered across our faces. I distinctly remember one moment with George on the trampoline, Marie and I gazing on in total wonder.
Jumping on that trampoline in that context, or even just watching someone else do it, was an experience of unbridled joy. And that joy was further amplified by a sense of accomplishment. We had hacked this thing together (um, aside from the game itself), and boy did the fruits of our labor taste good.
(Honorable mention: the Proteus chill-out room at the AOPATAD party, which fostered a similar experience of wonder)
3. Kaizo Mario 3
You’ve seen Kaizo Mario (a.k.a. “Asshole Mario”) before, right?
In 2012, fans were blessed with a new, third installment of that brutal, maniacal mod of Super Mario World. It is hilarious – one of the very funniest games of the year.
I do use the word “game” here in the “particular instance” sense of the word. Yes, Kaizo Mario 3 is a game you can download and play in your emulator. But, as I write about at length in Chapter 2 of my PhD dissertation, Kaizo Mario also stands as a testament to one specific playthrough. Supposedly, the series was designed by T. Takemoto for his friend and expert player R. Kiba. Kaizo Mario, at its core, is an adversarial matchup of a designer vs. a player.
The “Asshole Mario” video series does an excellent job conveying this adversarial matchup. What’s so brilliant about the videos is that they step us through the story (whether fictional or not) of Kiba’s triumphs and tribulations. As viewers, we can really feel Kiba’s frustration every time he falls for another one of Takemoto’s traps. The tragicomic nature of Kiba’s struggles is nowhere more clear than when the videos devolve into death montages of failure after failure, juxtaposed in rapid succession. Like all the best slapstick comedy, the Asshole Mario 3 videos elicit a strange combination of empathy and black humor.
The highlight of the new installment is surely Stage 9 – an ingenious series of challenges that require a keen sense of observation and a superhuman sense of timing. And don’t miss the final boss fight, which stands as an unbelievably impressive feat of platforming skill. Like, you can’t help but laugh when the Magikoopa appears.
The other takeaway here is that you don’t actually have to play a game yourself to enjoy it. I’ll probably never play Kaizo Mario 3 myself, and yet it’s still one of my favorite games of the year. Spectatorship provides its own pleasures, and we should remember that games are consumed and enjoyed in a variety of ways.
2. Spelunky ritual with Nifflas
I’ve already written at length about my Spelunky ritual with my friend Nifflas, here. Suffice to say, those daily (um, nightly) Spelunky adventures are some of the fondest gaming memories I have. Our ritual speaks to the way games can help nurture traditions, personal victories, friendships.
And, for the record, I do think Spelunky is a fantastic spectator game. Like my hero Hannah Arendt puts it: “The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”
1.) Slap Poker at the Game Developers Choice Awards
I’ve never felt very comfortable at award shows. Awards are a great honor, of course, but professional achievements are never as meaningful or satisfying as those “smaller” moments of genuine person-to-person connection. That might sound cheesy, but I swear it’s the truth.
So while I can understand why other devs would recite their heartfelt thanks on the IGF/GDCA stage, I can’t fully relate. I certainly felt grateful to a great many people, but I didn’t feel like I could adequately express that gratitude on stage, in less than a minute. Instead, I started thinking of ways I might subvert the typical “red carpet” proceedings, and do so in a way that was positive and fun for everyone involved.
Initially, I had thought that we might play J.S. Joust on stage if we won any awards. But we had already done that at IndieCade 2011, and it felt a little too self-promotional. I decided that the best thing to do would be to run a simple folk game that I could explain in less than 30 seconds. I immediately knew that the game had to be Slap Poker, a raucous, spectator-friendly game by my friend Ramiro Corbetta. The great thing about folk games like Slap Poker is that they’re portable, theatrical, and easy to explain.
We almost decided against it. In fact, we almost skipped out on the ceremony altogether to go setup at that night’s AOPATAD party! But in a last minute gametime decision, I went and found Ramiro and told him that we would indeed stage the game in the unlikely scenario that J.S. Joust won. After all, I hadn’t won any IGF awards, and surely I wouldn’t win a GDCA award, right?
Of everything I did in 2012 – and that includes completing my PhD – I am most proud of that moment playing Slap Poker on stage. It felt great to have a little fun with my moment in the spotlight, and it felt even better to use that opportunity to show the world a brilliant game by one of my good friends.
Because ultimately, gratitude isn’t just something expressed in words – it’s also a way of living, being, playing.
And, because I can’t resist, here are some other games (in the more familiar sense of the word) that left a lasting impression on me in 2012: BaraBariBall, Get on Top, CLOP, VESPER.5, Glitch Tank, Dyad, LUFTRAUSERS, Knytt Underground, TENNNES, McPixel, Gorogoa, Recurse, Clairvoyance, Crokinole.