Hi, my name’s Steve, and I play a lot of video games. In the past, I did this professionally, either as a journalist or for market research purposes. Now I do it because I built a Steam Box, and the Humble Bundle, where you can literally pay anything you want to download games by the half-dozen, has its hooks in me. There is no going back after crossing this threshold; there is only the next bundle, and the one after that. And the insidious Steam sales offering you last year’s Triple-A titles at a 75% discount. And of course there’s also the App Store, and PlayStation Plus, where games are so cheap and plentiful, or so heavily amortized, that they are effectively free. The flow of novelty is both intoxicating and addictive.
So you see, if I’m not careful, I will end up spending more time researching and downloading games than I do playing them. This blog post, which I hope to turn into a semi-regular feature in the new year, is intended to make me be careful. I am limiting myself to playing ten games at a time, while forcing myself to write about five. The thinking is that I will actually have to savor the games I’m playing, instead of simply burning through them on a mad search for the next high. I’ll write 100 words about each game at most. Economy of language leads to disciplined thought.
XCOM: Enemy Within
This year’s XCOM simply provides more of what made last year’s Enemy Unknown a great design, a perfect fusion of high-level management with detailed tactics. The new stuff–and there is a lot of new content–is built on top of the last game. This is an achievement akin to painting the Mona Lisa into the Last Supper. Play it on Classic or Hardcore difficulty in Ironman mode, so if you screw up a mission, it stays screwed up. The stakes need to be high for the game to work its magic to the fullest.
Games do not get more Northern European than this. rymdkapsel is a deep-space iOS strategy game engineered for maximum efficiency. The space station is made from pastel Tetris blocks, the characters are white rectanges, the controls only rarely require a second thumb, the music is a focused drone in the background, and the goal is to stay alive. These ingredients combine into a game that holds my attention for hours at a time, because figuring out which station modules to build where, and when, is a very interesting challenge.
The Binding of Isaac
This is a top-down roguelike adventure in the style of the original Legend of Zelda. Not very remarkable. The style in which it is executed, however, is… unique. The hero’s tears, born from extreme psychological traumas detailed in short cartoons, are weaponized. His enemies disgust on a visceral level–obese waddlers that belch flies, children with their eyes gouged out, bags of pus and filth that explode into blood. And it’s fun, even though playing it makes you feel dirty. This was made a small team of deviants who happen to know something about games.
Metro: Last Light
A post-apocalyptic FPS made by, for, and about Russians. It’s set in the subway beneath a thoroughly nuked Moscow, where survivors have split into gangs organized by territory. Contemporary Russian politics echoes through the tunnels, where neo-nazis, communists and nationalists kill each other with jury-rigged weapons. The air on the surface is poisonous, requiring the use of a gas mask that obscures your vision and doubles the claustrophobia. Russkies are survivors, though, and there is an undercurrent of dark humor that runs throughout. It’s worth playing.
In Antichamber, you dash around inside an M.C. Escher print. The game is series of optical illusions and oblique verbal clues to puzzle through before a timer runs out. The exit, inaccessible to the novice, is cruelly situated near the origin point, where you will be repeatedly deposited after failing a challenge. All of this is more intriguing than frustrating, at least from my perspective, because I rarely encounter a game that so openly jerks players around and messes with their heads.