Friday, October 16, 2009

Guns, maps and goo

Back in pre-histoy, when men rode dinosaurs to work and Simon Cowell was still a teenager, this blog was born. I often wrote about games and games culture, particularly around the birth of the Wii - when the possibilities afforded by waggling a thingy in the air (fnar) seemed endlessly exciting.

These days, however, I'm struggling to care about my consoles. I spend a lot of time on Rock Band and Guitar Hero - but they're just another way of listening to music (even if some of that music is by Tool).

Then there are those "open world sandbox games" that promise a million solutions to each task. They always sound promising, but they can't hide the fact that the task in question is, without fail, killing someone. Your choices ultimately boil down to this question: "Which noun would you like to use in committing a brutal murder?" As someone whose favourite game moments came in the cartoony, imaginative brain-teasers of the Super Mario and Banjo Kazooie series, the endless parade of headshots and body armour and healthpacks and "melee assaults" is horribly uninspiring.

Furthermore, thanks to Grand Theft Auto, every game now seems to be set in the middle a huge, sprawling city. Even Burnout has adopted this format - leading to the ridiculous situation of a racing game where you can take a wrong turn. Do you remember the last time you went the wrong way in your car? Was your reaction either (a) to say "hey, this is a really exciting, unpredictable driving experience" or (b) to bite a huge chunk out of your steering wheel and shout "you fucking imbecile" into the rearview mirror? If you answered (a) then congratulations, you have won a job at Microsoft Games Studios.

The obvious conclusion is this: Games need rules. It's as true of Monopoly as it is of kiss chase. I’d rather that designers concentrated on giving me focussed, structured gameplay than sending me on aimless quests around endless maps telling me I should enjoy the freedom. Wandering around unsure of what you're supposed to be doing is what you do when you've got Alzheimer's or a seat in the European Parliament. If it not fun, it's not a game.

But enough grumbling, let me tell you about the best game I've played this year. It's called World Of Goo and it's a taut little puzzler, full of charm and character. All you have to do is stack little blobs of gloop together to reach a big pipe in the sky - but the designers have taken the care to create a quirky, satirical story around the tiny goo-balls' predicament. It's utterly compelling, and frequently hilarious.

This weekend, you can get it for the bargain price of $0.01 (or whatever sum you decide to pay, Radiohead-style). I heartily recommend that you do.

In the meantime, here's a lovely little video from Adam and Joe's Radio 6 show that perfectly encapsulates my formative gameplaying experiences.


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