Four Games That Broke My Heart in 2012 (and Changed My Perspective on Gaming in 2013)
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
I've already wrapped up some of my favorite virtual fashion memories of 2012, but I can't let New Year's Day pass without tipping my hat to some of the games that really captured my attention and imagination. 2012 was a surprisingly good year for storytelling in games, and it feels there were a lot of titles that either plucked at your heartstrings or tweaked your mind. More than talking about my favorite games or characters of the year, I wanted to talk about the stories that totally blew me away and changed my expectations of what a game's narrative can really do. Suffice it to say there may be a few very mild spoilers ahead, so tread lightly:
I wouldn't go so far as to say that Dishonored's story is particularly groundbreaking or moving, but it definitely raised the bar for what I expect from a story featuring even stock game elements like a dark, mysterious, powerful male hero... out for revenge.
Yawn, right? My initial interest in the game stemmed entirely from its H.G. Wells-meets-George Orwell world--I'm generally not a fan of the stealth genre, and at first blush much of what it seemed to offer beyond that didn't strike me as very innovative. While the gameplay of Dishonored turned out to be infinitely more enjoyable than I'd expected, I found myself paying attention to the story way, way more than I would have in most action/stealth games with a brooding male protagonist and endless other tropes. History has taught me that story and dialogue in games that rely on those things often won't be terribly good, but Dishonored is a significant exception (which Hamlet has written about here), and as the ending I'd earned was revealed (and sorry guys, there is absolutely a bad ending) I was surprised at how hard it was to accept. There are so many little touches as the story plays out that kicked me right in the chest, and I spent the night I finished it immersed in the game's wiki, utterly obsessed.
If you want the full, devastating experience of Dishonored, be sure to use The Heart (a beating heart held together with clockwork and black magic) on everyone and everything possible. In a voice suspiciously similar to the murdered Empress it shares tidbits that flesh out the world and the people around you, and even seems to have its own opinions and emotions. If I was writing an article about my favorite game characters of 2012, The Heart would easily be #1, even if it only seems like an ultra-creepy scanning mechanic when you first use it.
Analogue: A Hate Story
This is a bit of a placeholder. This year I played through several games by Christine Love, so I wanted to talk about them all even though Analogue: A Hate Story is the only 2012 release (available on Steam for $10, but you can pick up her other titles on her website for free for both Mac and PC.) These games can feel a little odd at first, depending on what you're expecting, since they operate like something between a dating sim and a technology sim.
Most of each of these games is spent digging through other peoples' virtual breadcrumbs: In Digital: A Love Story this is done with oldschool BBSes in an imitation Amiga interface so accurate my father thought I was actually making calls through it; in don't take it personally, babe you're sifting through the lives of your students via semi-private messages, emails, and wall posts; while in Analogue there's an AI helping you dissect the history of an abandoned spaceship where some very sinister things (based heavily on Korean history) occured. Each game has a strong argument to make and sometimes the development of that argument can feel a little heavy-handed, but the experience of unearthing each scrap of it is what makes these games so engrossing, and they're absolute must-play titles for anyone who likes to think while they game.
The Walking Dead
No one will shut up about The Walking Dead right now. It seems to be on every Top Games of 2012 list out there, which is no small feat for a release in a genre that a lot of mainstream gamers had probably written off. I don't have much affection for point-and-click adventure games either, but I couldn't ignore all the feverish raving about it. The premise of this game is more or less the same as the TV show and the graphic novel sharing its name but with a different cast of characters (and minimal overlap), so fans of all or none of the other properties can appreciate it.
I played this game with my best friend--he handled all the clicking, and I was the conscience on his shoulder helping him make the tough choices. And there are a lot of tough choices. Even though everyone seems to know consciously that the story doesn't branch off that much it feels like everything that goes wrong is your fault; you worry that any hesitation or misstep might have extreme consequences down the line and every single episode has at least one moment that, like I experienced with Dishonored, feels like a kick in the chest. I cried over this game. My friend cried over this game. Burly dude game critics have admitted to crying over this game. It's impossible not to take the events personally as they unfold, and it's hard for me to pin down exactly why The Walking Dead is so much more effective in doing this than any other choice-driven game I've played.
Well... The phenomenal writing definitely helps.
If you decide to run through all five episodes of this game in one weekend, know that you'll be putting yourself through a pretty harsh emotional rollercoaster. Playing this game can be almost traumatic, but it's one of the most powerful and well-authored gaming experiences I've ever had.
If you think it's a slight to put some sort of flash cartoon frog math game right after something as significant as The Walking Dead, then you probably haven't played this game and I feel bad for you.
Look, I'm not going to lie. Even looking for screenshots for The Walking Dead made me start to tear up. I want to end this on a light note, and Frog Fractions is probably the lightest note possible.
Frog Fractions didn't so much break my heart as it did break my brain. It's impossible to talk about this game without giving away all the best parts, and the first time I played it I quit because I was stuck and didn't really realize how much more there was to see. Until you see the credits you haven't seen anything. So go play it. It only takes about an hour, it doesn't cost you anything, and you'll never look at frogs (or fractions) the same way again.
Just don't forget to swim down.Tweet
Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.