GRAND THEFT AUTO V
Let’s start with the obvious one. So tarred is the GTA series by its controversies, its cantankerously misogynistic plot lines and its own undeniable success that including a Grand Theft Auto in your Game of the Year list can almost feel like a shameful admission. Yes, part of me did enjoy running over that granny – but that’s not the reason it’s made my list; nor, I suspect, the list of anyone who’s of an age and disposition to write about the games they play.
GTA V simply oozes ambition (so a quick wipe with a cloth is recommended before you put the disc in) and while that ambition doesn’t always crystalise into quality, it reaches the player through a sense of scope and opportunity that GTA IV, its gloomy younger brother, rarely managed to attain. Someone recently expressed a desire to me that games media stop awarding points for “effort”, but I’m not sure I agree; I think players can both apprehend and appreciate a sense of hard work, even if it isn’t quite the same as craftsmanship.
GTA’s shooting mechanics are functional, but never exceptional. Indulging in cars with multiple headlight settings and fold-away canopies leaves the player cortorted horribly around their controller trying to change the radio station. There are collectables, but only the most obsessive players will care to find them without the checklist so thoughtfully provided by Rockstar themselves. The characters brush against defining events before stumbling back towards the status quo. (Trevor and Michael lose and gain loved ones at the whim of a mission structure, without any real agency from either the characters or the player.) There are few occasions where the moment-to-moment gameplay of GTA V is anything more than “solid” and yet there is such a banquet, such a wealth of sight and sound available at anyone time, it’s a remarkable accomplishment that even satisfactory results have been achieved. After all, there are games that don’t even succeed in aping just one of the diversions Los Santos tosses casually onto a tennis court or shooting range.
GTA’s ambition is exciting because, with minor stumbles, each iteration noticeably improves and refines what’s gone before – cruising out around Mount Chiliad at sunset, it’s not hard to imagine a day when these cars will feel as good as a racing game, the gunplay as weighty and satisfying as a finely-tuned FPS, and the characters we interact with as likeable and nuanced as the anti-heroes we indulge in elsewhere. Maybe you don’t consider GTA worthy of such a lavish stage on which to play out its chauvinistic mafia stereotypes and bellowed satire, but its ambition is infectious and the game becomes engrossing through the sheer scale it asks you to consider and the choices that scale provides. And in the future, well, maybe we’ll surpass the am-dram and see the same sprawling canvas turned to tales that really do engross and decisions that matter. Anything can happen on a stage, after all — and no-one builds a theatre like Rockstar.
SAINTS ROW IV
Indeed, it’s testament to the opportunities afforded by an open-world “stage” that both GTA V and the fourth installment in the Saints Row series could come out a couple of months apart and provide substantially different experiences. Described quite fittingly by Ben Croshaw as “Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad”, this is a series that has deliberately tuned its core mechanics to be biased, unwaveringly, towards the player. This isn’t to say that the game isn’t occasionally frustrating, mind you, but the intention is clear – keep the player feeling powerful, keep the objectives ridiculously clear and encourage experimentation.
It’s the superpowers that help keep the game firmly out of GTA’s bailiwick, of course. It’s interesting to see how carefully separated the new abilities are from the Saints Row of old; stick to traditional activities like shooting and driving and you’ll level up, as the Saints always have, and unlock better things to shoot and drive with. Superpower upgrades, by contrast, are solely out in the world and it’s physically running and jumping that lets you upgrade… well, mostly your running and jumping. It’s a neat solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist; when you’re able to reach your destination with a few Kryptonian bounds, you won’t be climbing back into a pimpmobile any time soon. It’s for this reason that the initial disappointment at finding the city recycled from the previous game soon becomes irrelevant; the buildings and landmarks are little more than blurry platforms or distant targets and the meat of the story missions take place elsewhere.
A game that does its best to avoid the player having to work hard at anything could go disastrously wrong, but makes it ideal fodder for people who don’t get much time to play games – at times, it feels rather like having an in-built Game Genie. Even when you’re stripped of your superpowers temporarily, there’s a generosity of design that lets you nip around the corner to get your health back, or spam the big gun until you stumble out the other end.
The truly unexpected heart of the game, though, comes from its characters. Freed from narrative expectations, they’ve gradually established themselves as real people and, even better, real friends. There’s no defining moment in the series where this happens, but the game takes pains to point out how far we’ve all traveled together by giving Shaundi an unexpected plot arc of her own that pulls no punches with the series’ own shortcomings and, implicitly, vows to do better. When all is said and done, you can believe that The Boss and Pierce are lifelong friends in a way that never quite rings true with Michael and Trevor.
Oh, it’s really bloody funny, too. It seems like that should be taken as read, but in a generation of space marines popping out from behind monochromatic chest-high walls, any game that can make you laugh is doubly welcome, especially when a lot of the laughs aren’t scripted but from the sheer joyous energy of your own absurd situation and the exaggerated impact of your actions. It turns out that absolute power is actually really good fun.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS
If I were a 90s gaming magazine, this would be the space for a tenuous segue: I’d claim Saints Row and GTA to be twisted mirrors of each other, and then use that to feed nicely into discussing the dual-dimensionality of A Link Between Worlds, right before some art editor ruinsed my grand simile by putting a massive screenshot in the way and forcing the player to hunt around the page for the next paragraph.
Then again, if I were a 90s gaming magazine I wouldn’t have been at once so intrigued and concerned about the prospect of an out-and-out sequel to Link to the Past. Yes, LTTP was fantastic and still gets played regularly, but that was rather the problem… wouldn’t I, not to put to fine a point on it, know where everything was? The answer turned out to be “sort of”.
Even after more than 25 years in the company of the Zelda series, familiarity isn’t necessarily inevitable. Skyward Sword introduced plenty of new gadgets and some truly devious dungeon mechanics, not to mention taking advantage of the Wiimote’s most reliable gestures to add subtleties like bomb bowling. By deliberately hanging their hat on LTTP’s Hyrule this time around, Nintendo were making a choice; acknowledging that this was retreading old ground and taking the opportunity to play with expectations. In some ways, it was like returning to a childhood home and seeing it transformed by an eccentric millionaire.
While the game never managed to bridge the gap between modern Zelda cutscenes and the pace of the gameplay (Ganon was given particularly short shrift) the story could have been told by glove puppets and it wouldn’t have mattered. This wasn’t a world to stand around and drink in the ambience, like Ocarina of Time – it was a childhood dash around a theme park, a dozen glittering secrets all beckoning simultaneously. The dungeons were generally satisfying and occasionally wonderful, with the Palace of Darkness a particular highlight.
In all honesty, though, the removal of the map and the dungeon items FROM the dungeons seemed to do away with a vital “tipping point”. There’s a moment in the best Zelda dungeons where you go from being a bit lost and slightly baffled to having a “click” in your head – suddenly, you understand how everything fits together and the rest of the dungeon is now yours to enjoy conquering. More recent Zelda games have relied on the dungeon item for these moments; you pull a weird gizmo out of a chest, wave it about, and the revelation of its function is accompanied by recollection of half-a-dozen other places it might also be useful. By contrast, dungeons in LBW were often an enjoyable march towards an obvious destination, with all the tools already at your disposal.
The success of the item rental system is debatable, but either way, it was a gutsy decision to dust off something so coated with childhood nostalgia and serve it up in the cold light of 2013. Hyrule was never going to seem so labyrinthine, dangerous or imposing as it did when I was ten, but the joy of finding a hidden door or dashing about with the Pegasus Boots may well be ageless, in both senses of the word.
THE STANLEY PARABLE
For those not in the know; The Stanley Parable is a first-person adventure in which the player guides Stanley through his office building to discover why everyone else has disappeared, with their actions being called out by a narrator. As the narrator generally explains what Stanley’s going to do before the player obliges him, they have the option to pick the wrong door, start backtracking and generally doing all of those things players can do that makes storytelling in games so difficult… and the narrator will attempt to outwit them in return.
How and where you impose your free will upon the game (if you do so at all) will cause a number of reactions, each of which acts as a discussion, deconstruction and – at times – game-endingly bleak acceptance of the problems reconciling a coherent, sensible narrative with a player’s desire to, well, play.
Not since “THE CAKE IS A LIE!” has the dynamic between a player and the antagonist struck such a chord, and it makes sense. In some ways, Stanley Parable and Portal are bedfellows; they both take place in a dystopian and seemingly endless office environment, both GlaDOS and the Narrator view the player’s refusal to do what’s expected as a personal affront and both respond with a passive-aggressive assault on the player’s worth. Yet where Portal uses its titular gun to deconstruct the expectations of movement and space in gaming (but remains resolutely a game), The Stanley Parable tears down the walls of the world itself and asks why we even need them.
Despite moments of introspective nihilism, The Stanley Parable is incredibly funny, blending Monty Python’s surrealism and antagonised monologues with A Bit Of Fry and Laurie’s penchant for metahumour. You can tell a game’s done something right when people are quoting it at you and reviewers are trying to ape its stylings when they talk about it. The fact that people WANT to talk about it speaks volumes. It’s been stated “it’s exactly the kind of thing Steam was made for” but the truth is that the more people who are exposed to this sort of thing, on as many platforms as possible, the better off we’ll all be. Not just for the opportunity to have meaningful conversations about the nature of the games we play, but because they’ll almost certainly think it’s really funny too.
Yes, yes, I know. It’s not cheating because it wasn’t available to buy as a UK release until 2013, so there. While it’s true that some of the aspects that made Earthbound so unique back in the 90s, like its modern-day urban setting, aren’t so unique nowadays the general plot is so bonkers and endearing that it scarcely matters.
While it’s tricky by modern standards, Earthbound is actually fairly forgiving as long as you accept the simple truth: you will grind. The only real penalty for death is losing what cash you had on you, so tenacity can take the place of RPG experience and leave players free to enjoy the simple things in life, like beating up a giant monster made of sick.
Earthbound’s a story about childhood, and the way that children perceive what they see and hear. Adults can get taken over by invisible forces and act crazy; boys use baseball bats as weapons while girls get better results with frying pans. Homesickness is an actual debilitation and must be forestalled by phoning your Mum. Animals can talk and bars are gateways to weird, alternate universes where adults say weird stuff and it’s hard to get to where you’re going. The truly remarkable thing is that so much of this is implicit, waiting to be discovered or ignored by players as they fancy. It’s a far cry from the heavy-handed philosophising of RPGs afforded the luxury of cutscenes, even when the game actually slams the brakes on with a trippy interlude and invites the player to consider how much they’ve accomplished so far.
It can be hard to make time for games like Earthbound, especially with the instant gratification of a Saints Row or a Mario 3D World within your grasp. No other game has quite mirrored its atmosphere, nor provided such a weird and unsettling final battle (which, when researched, becomes even more unnerving in retrospect). Most certainly the hardest game on this list to love, Earthbound was worth the wait nevertheless.