VICE Gaming recently ran an article titled "Ten Things I Hate About Video Games in 2015". Clearly it was meant to be fun, a light-hearted poke at a few potentially frustrating facets of this pastime loved by hundreds of millions of people around the world. Naturally, though, some readers took it too seriously. Their cussing comments were completely predictable, and wider social media posts comparably dull in their dismissal of this section's dedication to the great and not-so-awesome sides to gaming in its many glorious forms.
But there can be no yin without a yang, no Butch without Sundance, no Kane without Lynch. Also: yawn. There was always going to be an equally irreverent, entirely subjective flipside to that first post, a snapback selection of celebratory considerations highlighting just a little of what makes gaming great right now. You'll probably hate it. But you never know, so here's ten things I love about video games in 2015.
PLAYSTATION PLUS CONTINUES TO BE BRILLIANT
So you want £40, the price of a (special-offer discounted, usually) new boxed game, for 12 whole months of downloadable gaming, covering every active Sony console on the market? Sign me up, thrice over. (Okay, just the once will suffice.) When PS Plus launched in 2010, no other console market provider was close to Sony's way of thinking – to keep its customers content with a once-monthly refreshed roster of games both new and notable to dig into. Sure, they're not always must-play affairs, but recent "Instant Game Collection" inclusions like OlliOlli 2: Welcome to Olliwood and the supremely shiny Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty! (pictured, above) have been more than warmly received by this rusty old gamer.
Xbox has its similar "Games With Gold" programme running on Live Gold, but in terms of value for money it pales beside Sony's proposal: in 2014, PlayStation Plus subscribers unlocked access to almost £1,000 of "free" software, compared to Xbox's £397. Now, Nintendo, what the fuck is up with not having such a service, offering some of your amazing catalogue of classics to subscription-paying customers? I would eat that shit right up. Gimme A Link to the Past, something endearingly mental from the more mischievous section of the Wii's library, and a local multiplayer-friendly game from the Bomberman series for starters, and I am all yours. Fifty quid a year? DONE.
SPEAKING OF NINTENDO, HOW GREAT IS THE WII U THOUGH, REALLY?
Come on, now, it's actually pretty great. I appreciate that it's the exact opposite of cool to be the outsider in the playground who's got the HD Wind Waker and Captain Toad for post-classes company instead of Bloodborne or Killzone or Destiny or FIFA or whatever the kids of right now are talking about when they should be shutting the fuck up about games and getting on with committing Shakespearean soliloquies to exam-ready memory. But trust me: when you're a little older, a little slower, and you've reached the point in your gaming life where keeping up with the graphics arms race is just too exhausting, the pure gameplay of so many Wii U titles leaps at you, off the GamePad screen to splatter all over your goofily grinning mug.
Take Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, for example: perfect, for what it is. It's a beautiful-looking, laidback puzzler that's absolutely drenched in time-tested Ninty charm. Mario Kart 8: great. Super Mario 3D World is platforming as an art form – as you'd expect from the company that brought us the pioneering Super Mario 64 back in the mid-1990s. And it's not all cutesy, play-with-your-kids-safe, nostalgic throwback fare, either: the Wii U has one of the hardest post-apocalypse-set games of all time in ZombiU – you'll never see a cricket bat in the same way afterwards – and the best hyper-violent third-person action title of any console right now in the shape of the ever-so-long-legged Bayonetta 2. Play that in front of your offspring and expect the next week at school to end prematurely, as they're suspended for fly-kicking a classmate in the forehead.
That 200cc Mario Kart reveal during the latest Direct, though? Lame, Ninty. New games, please. New games.
INDIES ARE TAKING ON AND BEATING THE BIGGER BOYS
This year's BAFTA Games Awards pitched the tiny team of Roll7 against Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft and Sports Interactive in the category of best sports title for 2015. Their side-on arcade-style skateboarding title OlliOlli was up against FIFA, Madden, Football Manger, Forza Horizon 2 and the hugely successful motocross platformer-racer hybrid Trials Fusion. They only went and bloody well won.
Other indies walked away from the BAFTAs victorious, too. ustwo's gorgeous mobile puzzle game Monument Valley won in two categories; State of Play's Lumino City came out top of the pile amongst the artistic achievement competitors; and while its announcement received a somewhat frosty reception given game director and co-designer Adrian Chmielarz's "pro" Gamergate position, there's no doubt that The Astronauts' astonishing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was a worthy champion in the field of innovation.
Indie gaming has never been in a more exciting place than it is now. You only have to look to upcoming titles like No Man's Sky, The Witness and Rime (to name just three, off the top of my head) to see how releases from lesser-known studios are just as worthy to get excited about as anything carrying the Halo or GTA brand. The division between triple-A output and that from places of greater individuality and more impressive innovation is smaller than ever: less a chasm between continents, more a crack in a paving slab, allowing players to step easily between high-budget blockbusters made by hundreds and rightfully award-winning games from teams of tens.
WHICH LEADS US TO: CHOICE!
Games come from all walks of life today, offering a range of experiences that defy simple categorising into convenient pigeonholes. Yes, there are plenty of ways to be a burly space marine mowing down aliens with an array of fancy firearms, and that's fine – hell, I love a good sci-fi action game as much as I do something of more cerebral appeal (look, just play Bulletstorm already). But duck beneath the mainstream surface of contemporary gaming and the underground stretches on into infinity. Possibilities are truly endless for what can comprise a video game – once you strip away money making requirements from your development considerations, or at least relegate them to the position of a less pertinent concern, anything can comprise the core of your new project, be that narratively or mechanically.
Look at the first-person shooter. Such a staid genre – you know what you're getting every time, with games playing identically within slightly different corridors of death. Except, no. Isn't Portal a first-person shooter, of sorts? Brighton-based studio The Chinese Room's Dear Esther (pictured, above) began life as a Half-Life 2 mod, so where does that fit within the FPS bracket? Stick a reticle in the middle of the screen as you zoom around its oddly warming world and isn't Proteus just an FPS set to super-casual-seriously-don't-kill-anything mode? Well, no. But you see what I mean: if you've one game as a starting point, and you love one or two aspects of that experience above any others, the chances are that someone's made another game that exclusively focuses on those very same elements. You probably want to play it. Like, right now.
THE INDUSTRY IS CHANGING, FOR THE BETTER
Gamergate was shit. Sorry, it is shit, for those people in the industry still going through hell (and admirably refusing to let it adversely affect their essential work) because of some progress-retardant pricks on the internet who truly believe that a video game must conform to this, that, and the other set of archaic parameters. "Must have defined objective." "Must comprise player-empowering escapism from reality." "Must make prominent use of bikini armour." And so on.
But the bombast of bullcrap that came tumbling out of Reddit and other more toxic messageboards has had a positive effect on games-makers out there. No, I don't mean with regard to how PRs interact with the press, and who buys drinks for who. (For fuck's sake, have you no idea of how the media, any media, works?) I mean with how developers are addressing their female fans, how they're adapting avatar designs to be more representative of their audience. Makers and players are incredibly close right now, with studios listening to gamers and adjusting their plans accordingly. And a new kind of criticism, which befits a medium as fresh as gaming, is cutting through the noise to find purchase. Take the multiplayer combat arena game TowerFall Ascension, for example. Developer Matt Thornton introduced the game's new Blue Archer character with the following words, in February 2015:
"If you keep up on gaming news, she may seem familiar – her appearance is loosely based on feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian. Anita's work has been an inspiration to the TowerFall team. Her "Tropes vs Women in Games" video series gave us a valuable new lens through which to assess our character designs. TowerFall is about bringing people together, so it's vitally important that the cast of playable characters makes everyone feel invited to join in. Simply put, this wouldn't have occurred to me if not for Anita, and feedback from players has reinforced how important it really is."
Gaming is reaching a new level of maturity. The average age of a gamer in the UK is 35. Just as many women play games as men. (And, please, enough with the hardcore versus casual argument – if you regularly play video games, you're a gamer, simple as, and I don't care if that's Angry Birds or ARMA 2.) The medium is growing up, and that will inevitably lead to some pains, like Gamergate and other controversies before it. But, in ten years' time, I expect we'll look back at 2014, this year and maybe next as a watershed period for gaming. To stand against such a strong forward momentum is to be crushed underfoot, so to those who would say, "Gone Home, not a game," I say: better stand clear.
I GET TO PLAY THINGS I MISSED BEFORE THANKS TO "DEFINITIVE" EDITIONS AND HD REMASTERS AND ALL THAT BUY-THE-SAME-GAME-AGAIN STUFF YOU PROBABLY HATE
I get that some people are now thinking: "Whatever, you cretinous noob, I completed Grim Fandango on the day it came out in 1998, and you're utterly lame for only experiencing it now, in 2015, on PS4, because obviously if you don't play everything on PC the very second it's available you are Just Not Doing It Right."
Okay, okay, sit down. And listen up. In 1998 I was going out to pubs and gigs and clubs and foreign places and having loads of laughs with a group of mates I can still call on now for (slightly subdued, but no-less-enjoyable) more of the same; having pretty bloody wonderful sex with a beautiful teenager (while also being a teenager, you understand); and laying down the foundations for a freaking awesome career in music journalism where, basically, my working day would consist of opening some CDs, playing those CDs, writing nonsense about those CDs on the internet, and getting paid for it. And then I'd go to the pub, again. That got me through until, oh, about 2008, when I bought an Xbox 360, fell in love with GTA IV, and never looked back. Ten solid years of not really giving a shit about video games, right there. And now I'm here. Worked out alright, didn't it?
So, I like the fact that old games like Grim Fandango have come around again. Beyond Good & Evil in HD? Bring it on. The first two Yakuza games presented in sparkling definition for my PS3? What do you mean "Japan only"? But yeah, old games, made new, ish. I'm into that, most of the time.
FACIAL HAIR IN GAMES IS JUST INCREDIBLE NOWADAYS, ISN'T IT?
EXPLORING HAS NEVER BEEN SO REWARDING
I wrote about this already, over here, but in summary: there's such pleasure to be had in just wandering around a fantastically realised game world. I've done it in Far Cry 4, simply pointed my own Ajay Ghale at nothing in particular on the map and walked until something found me. I adore launching Grand Theft Auto V to do nothing but drive around San Andreas, Non-Stop Pop on the radio. Getting lost in a game is something we were able to do in Shadow of the Colossus, in Vice City, in Super Metroid, in The Legend of Zelda, in Elite. But not like we can today, where the artificial worlds on screen are even more enrapturing than what is outside the front door. Or, perhaps they always have been, and it's just that technology's finally caught up with our imaginations.
EPISODIC GAMING REALLY WORKS
Telltale Games might be seen as the grandpappies of this particular method of content distribution, but 2015 is seeing more studios approach episodic delivery and absolutely nail it.
Playing a short, two-to-three-hour slice of a game, knowing that another serving is coming along in a week's time, or perhaps next month, is, for me, terrific. I don't have the time I once had to sit and play a game per night, for several hours per sitting. I have a wife, and a house, kids and all the responsibilities that come with that package. I have this job, too! Which, believe it or not, actually prevents me from committing as much time as I'd like to each and every new release.
Bloodborne? I've still barely scratched its gory insides, the Cleric Beast long since slaughtered but little progress made since. The most recent Dragon Age? Hasn't come close to even slipping into the PS4, yet. At least The Order: 1886 was so short that I could blast through it in just a couple of weekend sessions. Longer games, though, are tough to see through, and totally daunting before you even start when you're told it'll take hours to see anything good – unless they're conveniently broken up into staggered-release episodes.
Life is Strange: affecting, memorable, fantastic. Telltale's own Game of Thrones has really kicked things up several notches in its third episode, while the same studio's Tales From the Borderlands is fleshing out that universe in amazing ways. And Resident Evil Revelations 2 worked splendidly as a weekly dose of undead-slaughtering fun and silly jump scares. Kudos to Capcom for totally getting how said title's B-movie thrills would dull in impact over a prolonged playing time, but by dividing the game into chapters, and holding back on what's coming next each time, they guaranteed player anticipation and maintained attentions throughout the series' course.
I'M ACTUALLY EXCITED ABOUT 'FINAL FANTASY' AGAIN
VII was a long time ago. I've played other Final Fantasies since, and even completed the very divisive XIII, but I can't say I've really loved any like I did my time with Cloud and Tifa, Red and Barret. But there's something about the upcoming XV that has got under my skin. I really, really want to play the full thing, still on the board as a 2015 release to be.
Perhaps it's the blatant (but smart, nonetheless) borrowing of gameplay elements from other titles – the enemy detection bar from Far Cry, or the AI-assisted brawling that ditches the usual turn-based menus for a more Kingdom Hearts-y approach. Perhaps it's all the time – almost a decade – that's gone into its development, so much that Square Enix really aren't going to risk fucking it all up (surely). Or perhaps it's simply because the game is so bloody gorgeous (I mean, just look at that image above), so much of the time (except for the bits of "Episode Duscae" in which it didn't, but ssh about those, okay?).
I don't know. But what I do know is: I really, really want to play the full thing, as soon as possible. Please?
I could go on. I love the imagination being shown in the mobile market, how amazing games like Monument Valley and 80 Days are fostering greater interest in gaming amongst those who've not participated in it for several years. I love the contrasting approaches to games coverage, the offbeat style of Videogamer.com versus the straighter-faced delivery of Killscreen, to the wonderful words of Offworld. I love how free tools and engines like Twine and Unity are opening up the once-impenetrable world of games creation to anyone who just wants to try. I love sharing my digital exploits – my successes and failures – with the world, as our devices become more and more connected. I love doing this. But, y'know, Ten Things.