Monday, August 23, 2010

Embarrassment of Downloadable Riches

I spend a lot of time trying (trying!) to come up with different vantage points from which to view games, but today I want to state the obvious: we console owners are finally getting a taste from the cornucopia of independent and mid-budget downloadable games that PC gamers have been playing for years, and it tastes good.

Frankly, it tastes better than anything else on the menu. Throughout the start of the year, everyone (myself included) was all abuzz about what a crazy awesome year 2010 would be for games. Right up there at the start, we had a hot dozen AAA games released, with more coming each month. And they were good, really - a couple of them were kinda great. But in the midst of the heavy rain and the dead redemption, I didn't quite see the downloadable games coming.

I suppose I should've. Though I'd still say that Batman: Arkham Asylum was my favorite game of 2009, Chair's downloadable Shadow Complex is the one that I still come back to. And in terms of bang-for-buck, it's the most value I've gotten out of a game last year - three and a half playthroughs for a $15 game. What's more, it'll be a game I always remember - its map and audio cues are most likely forever ingrained on the part of my brain reserved for only my deepest videogame obsessions.

So now this year we've got Limbo, which is easily going to be in the running for a ton of folks' GOTY (including mine). We've also got Deathspank, which is both seriously funny and compulsively enjoyable. I've heard that the new Scott Pilgrim beat 'em up is great, though I'm going to wait until I've read the comics to play it. The re-release of Monkey Island 2 is gorgeous and the updated music is totally groovy.

And that's to say nothing of the games I haven't played or am forgetting about. In addition to the scores of great PC downloadables out there, there are plenty of WiiWare games that I haven't checked out. Monday Night Combat sounds like an awesome blend of TF2 and tower defense, and when I saw Shank at GDC, it looked like a total blast. Everyone says Hydro Thunder Hurricane is rad, and Mitch Krpata says that it is definitive proof that games are art. (He's kidding, but still, it sounds like a sweet game). I loved the new trailer for Double Fine's upcoming game Costume Quest and think that game looks totally freakin rad - sort of like a combination of Penny Arcade Adventures and that one episode of Buffy when Ethan Rayne shows up and makes everyone's costumes become real. You know, the one where we learn Giles used to be called "Ripper."

There's more. I just downloaded Crystal Dynamics' brand new Lara Croft game, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. It is flippin fun. This one, I did not see coming at all. A good friend of mine (and former roommate, 1778 represent!) worked at Crystal Dynamics for a long time, and so it was always with great interest that I followed the production of their past Tomb Raider games. I've been a fan of the series since the first game, but Lara's more recent adventures have felt slow and stale to me. They're competently made games, but both Legend and to a greater extent Underworld seemed forever in the shadow of Uncharted, the upstart that took the Tomb Raider template and refined it until there seemed no way for Crystal Dynamics to catch up.

So rather than trying to add better voice talent and more bombastic setpieces, they totally changed tack. (This may or may not have been tied to Square Enix's takeover of Eidos and the no-doubt brutal paring-down that happened in the wake of Tomb Raider: Underworld's lackluster critical reception and sales.) So the team shrank, production values dropped (along with the Tomb Raider name), and the new game was announced as a downloadable title. The floating camera became isometric and the game-design was refocused on fast-paced puzzle solving and arcade shooting. Lara became waaaay less of an eye-candy eyesore. And damn, you guys - the resulting game is leaner, meaner and far more enjoyable than any Tomb Raider I've played. I've been having a total blast with it and I haven't even played the by-all-accounts awesome co-op. It makes me feel smart, fast, and generally good about myself, which is... well, it's nice! Thanks for making me feel good about myself, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light! I think you're pretty neat, too.

What's interesting is the degree to which publishers have conditioned people to think that a $60 on-disc game offers a "better" or "bigger" experience. Or that downloadable games are no more than a diverting way to spend your summer while waiting for longer, richer AAA games of the fall. In truth, most of the things that that kind of thinking suggests we should hold against downloadable games (length, simplicity, etc.) are precisely the things that make them so good.

Smaller teams seem to make games that are more focused, and can achieve a purity of artistic vision that is becoming increasingly rare in big-budget, hollywood-inspired AAA games. I'm not sure a big, well-funded team could have made Limbo any better than it was. Downloadable console games are nice and short, or at the very least, most of them seem to know when to begin and when to end. The process also allows for design experimentation and the games tend to be purer from a gameplay perspective, since bloated cutscenes take too much time and disk space. Best of all, the downloadable sphere can allow studios whose on-disc games hadn't done that well a second chance at a more distinctive, better-designed game while simultaneously offering indies a crack at the mainstream.

But the real kicker for me is that with the exception of Guardian of Light and the Monkey Island re-release, every game listed above is a brand-new intellectual property. In a year that has seen (and will see) more sequels than perhaps any other, the fact that there is a constant stream of new properties and ideas coming from the downloadable sphere seems like kind of a big deal. With the incredible costs associated with releasing a AAA game on disc, publishers want to put their money behind the sure thing. The fact that games like Brütal Legend and Bayonetta didn't sell that well only reinforces that mindset.

So there's gotta be somewhere for cool, original ideas to go, and that appears to be straight to download. Which yeah, I'm sure a lot of you are saying, "Duh!", but it's a trend that's been feeling particularly noticeable lately. And as much fun as I'm sure I'll have with some of the big-budget sequels due out this fall (Please, Fallout: New Vegas, please. Don't suck), I actually find myself more excited to check out Costume Quest and its ilk.

2010 has indeed been a banner year for games, but not the games I was expecting. Which is just fine by me! My 360's DVD drive had been blasting off like a damn Dustbuster anyway.
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