games

An Ode to Ingenuity 02.12.09: They Don’t Make Them Like They Used Too

February 12, 2009 | Posted by Jonny Richardson

I feel almost as though I’m stepping out of my comfort zone. Pessimism a garment fondly worn by myself and most Brits, and it keeps us toasty. Not only does arm us sense of humour as dry as chamois leather, but it ensures that we’re never disappointed when things ultimately go to pot. As such, writing an article which lavishes naught but praise on the modern game developer for providing us with varied and unique game concepts is a little difficult for me. I feel like a socially repressed teenage struggling to express themselves with a myriad of angst-ridden poems, usually about dying butterflies. Anyway, enough talk about me, and onto the main attraction.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve selected a choice few games I’d like to bring to your attention, which over the last few years have dazzled, amazed and have occasionally made me ‘woop’ with joy (a rare occurrence indeed). They come from an array of developers, in a range of styles, and I heartily recommend you check each of them out. Some titles you may well know, some you may not. I just hope you’ll join with me in saluting their ingenuity! So without any further ado:

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Portal

At a Glance:

Genre: First Person Puzzle
Developer: Valve
Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

Portal descended in the fall of 2007 from Valve HQ as part of the award winning, happily received Orange Box collection. Now the proud owner of a mantelpiece whimpering under the weight of a host of prestigious awards, Portal has been described as quirky, intelligent, and possessing a sense of humour so dark it’s conceivable that Bill Murray himself was involved in the script writing process.

So what it is about this game that’s so ingenious? I’d respond that it probably has something to do with the aforementioned wit, intelligence and dark humour!

Portal is a clever puzzle game which forces the player to think hard about how to answer the games challenges. The puzzles are played from a first person perspective, and are solved almost entirely with the aid of an inter-dimensional portal gun (hence the name), capable of opening portals from point A to point B. While this dimensional pondering makes for an outstanding puzzle game, Portal really goes above and beyond this by introducing a charming little story, in which the player goes head to processor with an AI named GLaDOS.

While being a short game by all accounts, Portal is delicious simply because of its unique puzzling elements, finely spiced with a gripping and hilarious story. Play it for the song which plays over the credits.

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Audiosurf

At a Glance:

Genre: Rhythm/ Racing/ Puzzle/ Odd
Developer: Dylan Fitterer
Platform: PC (Exclusive to Steam)

Even for an indie game, Audiosurf certainly is a strange one to describe. After much thought, the closest I can come to a description is that Audiosurf is the result of taking a blender and mixing together Tetris, the futuristic neon flamingo artwork of Tron, every piece of music ever digitally recorded, and Wipeout.

In its own words, the goal of Audiosurf is to “ride your music”. Each song you import from your library of tunes is analysed by the game, and transformed into a highway, its shape and structure dictated by the tempo and mood of the song. Fast paced, frantic pieces will result in furious game play calling for lightning reactions, while more mellow tunes will allow for a more ‘chillaxed’ ride.

Before choosing your song, you’ll pick a game play mode, which will effect what kind of challenge you’ll be entrusted with when on the highway; be it collect certain coloured blocks on the highway, or to dodge others entirely.

Audiosurf has quickly gained cult status on the internet, and rightly so. It’s a game with unlimited replay value, that’ll change the way you think about your music. Play it because it’s dirt cheap to buy (I got it for £2.99 on Steam!), and become one with your mp3 library! So long onto Steam, and get it now. No excuses!

While you’re at it, play ‘The Ocean’ by Led Zeppelin. It made me woop.

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World of Goo

At a Glance:

Genre: Puzzle
Developer: 2D Boy
Platform: PC, Nintendo WiiWare

Our third title and our third puzzle game. Coincidence? I think not. There is a reason that World of Goo has been included on this most unprestigious, uncomprehensive list. The reason is that it’s brilliant.

Released late in 2008, World of Goo is beautifully rendered cartoon world inhabited by delicious cute, squeaky Goo balls. It’s your task to safely guide said Goo balls to the end of level pipe, which promptly sucks the Goo’s directly to the next level. To make the challenge more palpable, you’re tasked with saving a set amount of Goo’s each level.

Owing a debt of gratitude to Lemmings and The Incredible Machine, independent developers 2D Boy (2 Ex- EA employees who describe their swanky San Francisco Offices as “…whichever WiFi coffee shop they happen to wander into on any given day”) have created a classic puzzle game in their own right, which is simple to play and wickedly fun.

From the sound effects to the music, to the physics engine to the enigmatic Sign Painter; World of Goo is a benchmark which other puzzle games will struggle to meet. Again, it’s a staggeringly simple concept, and yet it manages to be so playable that it borders on psychological addiction.

Unfortunately it’s a game which has been plagued by cancer that is pirating and illegal downloads. If you want to play for free, download the demo. It allows you to play the entire first chapter. If you like it enough to play the full version – fork out and pay for it. Let’s rattle some cages and fight for the little guys.

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In Memoriam

At a Glance:

Genre: Adventure/ Murder Mystery
Developer: Lexis Numerique
Platform: PC

“In Memo-whaaaa?” – Bet you didn’t play this one. In your defence, you may know it as “Missing: Since January” as it was re-branded for its US release. Unlike the developers, I’m not going to make the assumption that all Americans are stupid, so I’ll call it In Memoriam.

As a game, In Memoriam isn’t particually good. It’s a puzzler that’s rather lacking in substance. Yet it never tries to be anything else. It’s power and ingenuity lies entirely in the strength of its story, and the brilliantly original way in which it’s told. Allow me to throw down some plot and make with tha synopsis, yo! Comin’ atcha! Aiiiii!

In January 2004 Jack Lorski and his companion Karen Gijman went missing. They were in Europe investigating a string of high brow murders. Not my exactly my idea of a good vacation, but each to their own. A few weeks after their disappearance, a CD was posted to the agency for which Jack and Karen worked. On the CD was a mixture of disturbing video clips, strange cryptic messages and text written by ‘The Phoenix’, a serial killer who claimed to have taken our missing holiday goers hostage. After weeks of hopeless attempts to decode the Pheonix CD, the agency decided to release it to the public, in the hope that somebody could decipher it for them. As such, the CD you paid for at your local eltronics boutique is not a game, but a copy of the seriel killers coded CD!

What followed was nothing short of brilliant. Developers Lexis Numerique used existing websites and websites created specifically for the game to create the battleground which pitted the player against the challenges set by ‘The Phoenix’. The game was played almost entirely on the internet. You’d research the puzzles, and answer them on the Phoenix CD to unlock new puzzles. It was a damn psychological, tense affair. The CD itself is a dark, brooding thing, full of glance-over-your-shoulder-to-make-sure-nothings-standing-behind-you-with-a-knife style SFX, and disturbing video clips taken from Jack and Karen’s digital camcorder. Things reach a chilling climax when the serial killer starts to e-mail you with taunts and threats. It really blurs the lines between reality and game.

Play it because it’ll make you understand that being a detective isn’t like it is in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s more like Se7en. Give it a try if you can hunt down a copy!

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LittleBig Planet

At a Glance:

Genre: Platformer
Developer: Media Molecule
Platform: PlayStation 3

LBP was the winner of the prestigious (stop sniggering!) 411mania Games Award for “Most Original Title” of the year, 2008. It also won the award for “Most Over Hyped Title”, but that’s more to do with the incessant ramblings of the PS3 propaganda machine than this nifty platform title from Media Molecule.

What makes this game good is the lip-smackingly gorgeous graphics, cheeky sprites and solid platforming. What makes this game great, is its immensely powerful level user content creation tools. There are 3 aspects to LBP – ‘Play’, ‘Create’ & ‘Share’. With 66% of the game therefore devoted firmly toward player created content, its easy to see why this game has become so popular. Players are encouraged to get their own level designing juices flowing, and to upload them for the world to see. While player made content has been around since circa the beginning of time, never before has the process been so warmly embraced and supported by the developer.

It may be clichéd, but it’s as applicable as can be -the only thing holding you back with this game is your imagination. This has the potential to be more than a little dangerous to those among without a sense of imagination (you can classify yourself thusly if one of the highlights of your each day is catching up on the latest news in the Financial Times). Even if this is the case: don’t panic. You’ll still enjoy this game, purely for the reason that it’s narrated by Stephen Fry……. STEPHEN FRY!

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Psychonauts

At a Glance:

Genre: Platformer
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Platform: PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2

At some point in our lives, we’ve all sat there and thought about it. I mean really thought about it: What would we see if we were inside somebody else’s mind? Psychonauts earns a place on this list for answering this in considerable style.

Released in 2005, Psychonauts is a mind bogglingly imaginative title; spring loaded with wit, and executed through funderfully smooth game play. The player assumes control of Raz, a gifted child psychic who runs away from his mundane life in the circus to sneak into a summer camp which trains its students in the mysterious arts of the psychic soldiers – Psychonauts. Armed with naught but a tenacious pluckiness and a fashionable pair of flying goggles, its up to you solve why Whispering Rock camp isn’t quite as idyllic a place as it first seems.

Puzzles are solved in both the real world and the mental world. The game truly excels in the latter category, as you enter the minds of members of the camp around you in order to try and help them. You’ll see a selection of wicked, mundane, hilarious, fear ridden and down right terrifying minds, each jam-packed with personality. It’s platforming at its best.

The game may be showing its age from a graphical perspective by now, but this is easily overlooked because I deemed it so. Play it because it’ll make you wander what Raz would see if he got inside your noggin.

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Not Pron

At a Glance:

Genre: Jaw Grindingly Difficult Online Riddle
Developer: David Muennich
Platform: PC only

I like to do things, and I’m sure you’re the same. For this reason, I’ve included a (final!) game that’s absolutely free to play. All it requires is the PC that you’re sitting at, and the internet connection you’re squandering by reading my pathetic excuse for journalism!

Since its launch in 2004, ‘Not Pron’ has had around 13.6 million hits. Of those 13.6 million players to attempt the game, only 7 have completed it. It doesn’t take a degree in cunning to fathom why NP calls itself “The hardest riddle on the internet” then. The game is inventive, challanging, and will make force you to learn how the internet works. It’s bold, it’s difficult, it’l- Oh for God’s sake – Just play it will you?

Don’t be put off by it’s silly name. Mosey on over to the Not Pron website, and fail utterly. I think I got to level 20 once.

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So ends our magical mystery tour of all things good, happy and jolly. I think I’ll go and listen to The Smiths and be miserable again. As for you dear reader – which games would you add to the list? Disagre with anything?

Peace out y’all!

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Jonny Richardson

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