I played over thirty video games while I was at PAX East last weekend. As I predicted in my previous post, most of them were disappointing clones of other games. Also as predicted, there were a few great new games on offer at the convention. It would be exhausting to review everything I played, but what follows may be taken as an introduction to some of the most (and least) GeekMom-friendly video games coming out in 2011.
Snapshot, by Retro Affect, handily claims my “Best Game Overall” award. Its unique photography-inspired game mechanic is interesting enough to set the game apart, but Snapshot manages to be challenging and family friendly, too. Because this puzzle-platformer is gentler and more creative than most video games, I strongly recommend Snapshot for ALL AGES.
Bastion, by Supergiant Games, easily wins “Best Art”. This game is gorgeous! Bastion also has exceptional adaptive narration and between that and the art, it’s very easy to get engrossed in the story. Apart from those high points, it’s a standard – but highly enjoyable – fantasy RPG. Some mild cartoon violence prompts me to recommend this game for players AGES 5+.
Warp, by Trapdoor, is my “Favorite Underdog Story” because players help an alien escape from captivity. This game has that ‘cute-but-deadly’ combination I’m such a sucker for, but the cartoon violence in it is just a little too bloody for all players. My recommendation: AGES 12+.
Swarm, by Hothead Games, is the hands-down winner of my “Catharsis” award. You get points for directing empty-headed little minions to their doom – what’s not to love? This side-scrolling sci-fi adventure is a bit gross, and definitely not for everyone, but I think it’s harmless for players AGES 12+.
Dyad, a beautiful abstract tunnel-shooter, wins my award for “Fastest Game.” Dyad is a ‘tunnel-shooter’ in format alone because there is no actual violence in the game; there are no antagonists or weapons, just obstacles and tentacles. Because of the skill and speed involved, I recommend Dyad for players AGES 7+.
Afterland, from the experimental game designers at MIT, gets my “Thinker” award. This game takes all the trappings of conventional video games – from health meters to inventories to ‘enemies’ – and turns them upside down. The gameplay is non-intuitive, but figuring it out is half the fun. After all, Afterland was designed to make players think. Recommended for ALL AGES.
Firefall, by Red 5 Studios, is the only MMORPG to get an award from me: The “Ooh, Shiny” award for being the most interesting new or updated MMORPG at PAX East 2011. This game is light on story and heavy on team-based shoot-em-ups, but at least the art style is out of the ordinary. Unlike other games of its type, the art of Firefall has strong comic book appeal instead of all the creepy realism and chibi-adorableness we’ve grown inured to. Because if its anti-environmental militarism, violence, and the standard risks associated with playing MMORPGS, I recommend Firefall for fans of the genre AGES 14+.
It wasn’t all fun at the gaming convention. Plenty of games bored and annoyed me and most were just not worth commenting on. However, there were a couple of games bothersome enough to deserve remark: Brink, by Splash Damage and Shoot Many Robots by Demiurge.
Brink has art in its character customization, but it’s otherwise like every other first-person shooter around. Maybe worse. Just think about the setting for a minute: How can a near-future sustainable society ever occur without women? And at the rate the men kill each other in Brink, the place would be a ghost town overnight. I suppose that’s great if mayhem is all you want in a game, but if you like a little substance in your playtime, you can easily find better developed games than Brink. Not surprisingly, I rate this game FOR ADULTS ONLY, but I don’t recommend it to anyone.
Shoot Many Robots wins my “Worst Game at PAX East 2011” award for having no redeeming qualities. The concept is vapid to start; there isn’t even gratifying catharsis to be had from destroying mindless automatons until you develop a weird aversion to nuts and bolts. Speaking of weak euphemisms for male anatomy, this game is best described by paraphrasing its trailer thusly: “Grab some nuts and learn absolutely nothing!” I really wanted to have a sense of humor about that, but it’s just too lame. Rating: FORGET IT.
After three days of searching PAX East, I came to three conclusions:
The most interesting games tend to have genderless Player Characters. This is true of most of the games described above, and many beloved classics (Centipede, Frogger, Q*Bert, etc.). Ask me why this is so, and I could go for hours. Instead, I leave you to examine the games we play – with and without our children – and question how and why they make use of gender, and whether and how that affects us and our kids.
Games with the best character customization tend to be the least interesting to play. This seems counterintuitive, but I’m having a hard time finding an exception to the rule. I enjoy MMORPGS like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and so on, but eventually the quests all blur together and the grind becomes… Well, a grind. And yet every time I spot a new MMORPG on the horizon, I start to drool. Why? I love character customizers. I’m sure not all gamers feel the same way, but I think it’s worth figuring out why we like what we like, and whether that bait is really worth the hook it leaves in our wallet.
Finally, non-violent video games are rare and generally bland and violent video games are far too common and usually disappointing. This means that I don’t buy many games, but that’s probably for the best. In a way, I’m glad there are so many lousy video games made; they give me no excuse to play indoors if I don’t have to.