The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Bethesda Game Studios, PC/Xbox 360/PlayStation 3
His name was Drelas. I stumbled upon his sleepy cottage, nestled into the foothills beneath a craggy backdrop of one of Skyrim's seemingly never-ending collection of frigid mountainscapes, while on one of my directionless walkabouts.
"Oh man, Drelas?! Let's see what this guy's about," I said aloud. I'd been tossing verbal updates to my roommate Adam as he went about his day. "This game is enormous. It gets lonely out there . I could use a pal." I was, like many, dumbfounded by the game's sheer acreage.
I approached his door.
"It's not locked. The sun is out. Who keeps his door unlocked during the daytime and then attacks you without warning?"
I've only heard Drelas speak two words. "Who's there?" which I suppose is technically three. After that he let his fireballs do the talking; punishing me with devastating magicks for the better part of twenty minutes until, finally, I was able to escape his house, run around back and hide in the mountains, only to be beset upon by a dragon -- the first I'd seen while adventuring on my own.
"Drelas is a dick," I said, crouching behind a rock. "At least I've got this dragon to rumble with."
Skyrim's tutorial sections only appear as you mind the critical path. I did that for a little while, but when I was told to go kill my first dragon with a full army of warriors, it felt like those kids you see at Disneyland called up on stage to dual Darth Vadar in front of a crowd of parents. They wave their lightsabers like drunken fools, slay a Sith Lord, and are given a commemorative photograph. I didn't want that. After putting a couple wild arrows into that puppet lizard, I left crit-path behind and never looked back.
Now, here I was, with my own real dragon to slay. There would be no commemorative photograph or awkwardly delivered line of dialogue (of which there are maybe millions) telling me how incredible and heroic I just was. This was my fight.
Here's the thing about dragons in Skyrim and being level seven: they will set your ass on fire and you will die.
I ran screaming down the mountainside back past Drelas's house, the dragon in hot pursuit. As I bounded through his cabbage patch (everyone has a cabbage patch), Drelas burst out of the front doors, saw the beast above my head, and redirected his previous ire.
And then something great happened. A magnificently programmed NPC and I--but a humble user--paired up to kill the dragon. It was a long and drawn-out fight--the fruit of a bunch of beautiful gameplay and AI systems working in concert to create this fitting third act of our relationship.
There is a thread in the Idle Thumbs forums entitled "Making the Game Your Own." It's inspired by moments from the podcast where we transfer the story in our head back into the game and out again. It's not just about your gameplay experience being unique, but about it being yours--owned and named and cherished the way only a thing that is yours can be.
I'd already transferred so much into Drelas. I was looking for a friend and he was a curmudgeonly old fuck who'd rather set me on fire. But now he was making sure I didn't get killed by this devil in the sky. Maybe he was like the misunderstood Clint Eastwood character from Gran Turino and I was one of those kids on his block. Maybe I'd read it wrong. Then again, I stopped watching Gran Turino thirty minutes in.
With the dragon dead at his feet and me about a hundred yards away, Drelas just stood on the crest of a hill. Why wasn't he going inside? He just stood there looking confused, like he lost his keys. Oh! He's hurt, I thought. Holy shit, he's injured. His magicka is empty. And he's just...standing there.
I drew my bow.
And yeah, I killed him. I put two arrows in him and he fell face down into a shrub.
Adam came into the office. I was standing over Drelas's dead, half-naked body. He'd been wearing a neat pair of robes I later discovered I could disenchant in his house.
"What the fuck happened?"
"The dragon, it--no," I said. "I killed him. He saved me from a dragon and I killed his ass."
"JESUS DUDE! What are you going to do now?"
"I'm taking his house. Yeah. That's mine now. I think I saw some cool stuff in there,"
"Why, man? That's ice cold. Why are you doing this?"
I thought about it and couldn't answer. But now, after some time has passed and I've got over the shame of it all, I know why I took Drelas's house. Because Skyrim let me. I took that house because just like the game itself, I could make it mine.
Supergiant Games, PC/Xbox 360
There's something about the human voice as a buoying element in games. I think people just like hearing someone talk while they play.
Many games are nearly or completely wordless, and the more powerful for it--Ico, Limbo, classic Metroid games. But there's another class of games on the opposite end of the scale, where speech is nearly constant: GTA's talk radio stations, BioShock's audio diaries and public announcements, Portal's GlaDOS. When dialogue in a cutscene starts, nine times out of ten I reach for my phone and check Twitter. But when your party members are chattering while you walk around in a BioWare RPG, or when MacMillan is talking you through All Ghillied Up in Call of Duty 4, or when York idly chats with himself about Back to the Future in Deadly Premonition...that stuff is great. It has a pull. It's a unique sensation.
That's why people latched onto the narration in Supergiant Games' Bastion so strongly. It's not just someone talking while you play, but someone talking about what you're doing, when you do it. It's a great flourish. It also unfortunately overshadows what is really strongest about the game, its clever and well-considered suite of systems surrounding the core gameplay and story.
Bastion is a game about building your character and rebuilding the gameworld as you go. Rebuild part of the Bastion, and get access to a new system that supports building your character. And what elegant systems! Weapon upgrades are a perfectly balanced set of binary choices leading to either a highly specialized or broadly useful weapon. The tonic system is an array of wonderfully differentiated and carefully staged passive abilities, resulting in just the type of character you want to play. The shrine system deserves special mention: an opt-in series of game difficulty modifiers that each make the experience more diabolically challenging with commensurate XP gain. Each system is modular and no decision is permanent, encouraging ongoing experimentation and as much or as little investment as you like.
The narration and story is great, and the final story choice you make is really thought-provoking. But none of this would matter if those narrative elements weren't supporting a game whose systems were firing on all cylinders. Bastion has both.
I can't tell if Minecraft has finally revealed to me why some people love MMOs, or confirmed why I hate them. In Minecraft I can collaborate with friends to do amazing things I could never do in real life, I can explore a huge neverending world, I can kill some monsters, loot, craft, and build to my heart's content, but I don't have to worry about the MMO things I hate: leveling up, unlocking areas, doing what I'm told in order to advance, and inevitably falling behind.
Much has been said about the beginning of a Minecraft playthrough -- punch a tree until it turns to wood, break down the wood into sticks to make a wooden axe, shovel, and sword, then start digging up some dirt bricks to build yourself a house for the night. Repeat those steps forever for more interesting bricks, tools, and structures. But what that simplicity allows can't be overstated. Minecraft combines the simplest trappings of an RPG with the sky's-the-limit potential of LEGO, and just a sprinkling of the feeling you get from digging for a cereal box prize. It's a creative collaborative outlet (and time-ruiner) like none other.
Working with friends to create something in Minecraft is one of the most fulfilling all-encompassing experiences I've had playing a game. Whether it's building a simple store room, a trans-continental multi-line subway system, or a gargantuan flaming effigy to shared feelings towards Nick Breckon, the sense of teamwork and tangible accomplishment felt in Minecraft is unparalled. That we're all in the same virtual space is nothing new, but that we're creating that virtual space and exploring it together in a tangible way as complete equals, is. There is no administrator, no quest-giver, no DM, no level designer. There's just the game, asking you to mine, craft, and make whatever the hell you want.