2011's Unsung Hero's

A selection of great titles from 2011 that many end of year lists forget.

Matthew Sawrey - @matski53

2011 has undoubtedly been a prolific year for top quality big budget triple A releases and with the advent of 2012 comes the usual onslaught of top 10 of 2011 lists. We all know that many people's list are populated with the big guns: Skyrim, Dark Souls, Uncharted 3, Skyward Sword, Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dead Space 2, Gears 3, Rage, LA Noire, Minecraft, Little Big Planet 2, Portal 2, Fifa 12, Crysis 2, Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, Assassins Creed Revelations, Forza 4, Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land and Rayman Origins amongst others.

But what of all the great smaller titles released this year, lesser known but by no means of any less quality, there have been many great games other than those huge budget blockbusters. So here's to the ones that may have slipped by unnoticed in 2011.

Always on the periphery of the videogame market, 2011 saw many great original and creative releases for Apple's iOS devices. None more so than Hemisphere Games puzzler Osmos (iOS, PC, Mac and Linux) in which players control a single celled organism consuming smaller organisms to increase in size whilst avoiding absorption into larger ones. A simple premise playing similarly to the early sections of Spore or Flow, Osmos is at once challenging, addictive and a wonderfully relaxing experience.

A streamlined take on Angry Birds slingshot gameplay mixed with Puzzle Bobble, Amazing Breaker (iOS) tasked players with destroying colourful crystal sculptures of everyday objects using explosive projectiles. Finding a sweet spot between the simplicity of its premise and providing a challenge, the 80 levels of Amazing Breaker are perfect iOS time drainers.

A descriptor that perfectly summarizes FDG Entertainment's Blueprint 3D (iOS). An original puzzler taking full advantage of each iOS device's touch screen ability; requiring players to rotate a random 3 dimensional jostle of white lines until they find the correct perspective to assemble the image of a blueprint in the fastest possible time. Another of those "just one more...." iOS titles Blueprint 3D has a unique and distinctive charm to its simplicity.

What many critics have lauded as a modern puzzler classic, Spacechem (iPad, PC, Linux and Mac OS X) places you in the role of a Chemical Engineer and tasks the player with designing a "reactor" to refine and combine atoms and molecules into new compounds. Not for the light hearted puzzler, Spacechem quickly evolves in complexity with a dizzying array of variables and factors equating to an assortment of paths to success as well as failure. Completing a Spacechem puzzle will make you feel even more of a pseudo-scientific genius than besting one of GlaDos's brain teasers.

Taking a more straightforward approach to puzzling Disney's Where's My Water (iOS) tasks players with carving out sections of earth to re-route water to a showering crocodile. Simple, quirky and addictive, this is a must have for fans of Cut the Rope. Equally addictive was iOS maestro Halfbrick Studio's raucous, machine gun fuelled Jetpack Joyride (iOS). Itchingly compelling, this one touch distance platformer provided a burst of highly polished iOS quick fix gameplay (Gamewhelk review).

For a more substantial experience iOS devices were hardly lacking in the adventure genre this year. Point and click meandering, mytho-poetic adventurer Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery EP (iOS) proved to be one of the most unique; with strikingly beautiful 8-bit stylisation and serene, gentle pacing. In stark contrast Chair Entertainment and Epic Games's action RPG Infinity Blade 2 (iOS) was rich in touch screen combat and pushed the Iphone to its graphical limits whilst improving on almost every aspect of the critically lauded original.

Freebird Games PC RPG adventure To the Moon (PC) proved that no amount of celebrity voice acting or realistic facial animation is a substitute for an emotionally relatable and engaging narrative. With a beautiful aesthetic design reminiscent of Chrono Trigger, To the Moon may be a brief encounter but it is an affecting one that you will most certainly remember.

Desktop Dungeons (PC) is a randomly generated dungeon puzzle adventurer, currently in a completely free beta release (Available-here). It straddles the line between a casual, accessible experience and a hardcore punisher in which death is as frequent as a jaunt through one of Dark Souls oppressive dungeons. This quirky indie title is most defiantly worth a few minutes of any gamer’s time.

A dystopian cyberpunk futuristic turn based strategy title presented in icy dark blue tones, Frozen Synapse (PC, Mac and Linux) is a game all about its core mechanics that just so happens to have an alluring and individual aesthetic. The player assumes command of a squad of mercenary soldiers aiding a resistance group in fighting a corporate government regime. Battles are presented from a top down perspective with an array of tactical options composed with such refinement that Frozen Synapse is at once approachable and complex.

Ever the preserve of inventive experimentation, the online services for the big consoles have provided some of the most unique and creative experiences of the year. Tim Schafer's studio Double Fine lived up their name providing a double bill of inventiveness, starting with its third person Mech-shooter twist on the burgeoning tower defence genre, Iron Brigade (XBLA), with fun easily accessible multiplayer and addictive looting gameplay. Its equally fine companion, Stacking (XBLA and PSN) couldn't have been further away in premise. An adventure puzzler set during the Industrial age inhabited by Russian Stacking Dolls, the player controls a small doll named Charlie Blackmore attempting to reunite his family. Unique in premise, style and tone Stacking really is worth the investment as one of this year’s quirkiest titles.

Another title offering a unique spin on the tower defence genre, Orcs Must Die! (XBLA and PC) marks Robot Entertainments first original IP. Much like Iron Brigade the game eschews the usual top down tower defence perspective in favour of a third person viewpoint whilst players prepare to stop endless hordes of Orc armies before they reach their goal. Polished, finely tuned and lengthy Orcs Must Die! is a fantastic budget twist on the genre.

Taking an opposite spin upon genre tropes with a futuristic military twist, Anomaly Warzone Earth (iOS, PC and Mac) reverses the usual Tower defence set up, placing you in the shoes of the creepers trying to reach a destination and melding tower defence with strategy. The player plans out vehicle pathways around turret laden city streets altering them on the fly through intuitive touch controls. The fact that it received an Apple design award in 2011 is fully indicative of its originality and quality.

The retro styled cell shaded action RPG Bastion (XBLA and PC) had the unique idea of having every action made by the player as well as plot background described by a gravelly voiced narrator. Taking place after a catastrophic event referred to as the "calamity" in which the game world was shattered to pieces, land re-assembles itself in-front of you as you progress. Bastion's original presentation and diverse RPG mechanics made it ones of this year’s best XBLA releases.

Eric Chahi's From Dust (XBLA, PC and PSN) (Gamewhelk review -here) granted players the power over environmental elements to guide a tribe of nomadic humans safely through a volatile and primordial earth. The spiritual successor to Peter Molyneux's Populous, From Dust's impressively realistic and dynamic elemental physics (Land, Lava, Rock and Water) may have been overshadowed by its slightly overreaching ambition, but it definitely deserves a look in as one of the most original strategy releases of 2011.

As the spiritual successor to Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez, Child of Eden (XBLA and PSN) is a similar experiment in synesthia; integrating sound, vision and touch into a cohesive sensory experience. Playing like a Hunter. S. Thompson lucid dream, it proved to be one of this year’s more creative and successful employments of both the Kinect and Playstation Move peripherals and more than lived up to the quality of its inspiration.

Two games based around a similar block puzzle platforming mechanic that could not have had more juxtaposed premises were Atlus's Catherine (Xbox 360 and PS3) and Southend Interactive's Ilomilo (XBLA). Catherine is an adult tale of a man struggling with infidelity and commitment. It will certainly hold your attention for both its esoteric strangeness and it challenging block platforming puzzles. Dealing with a slightly more innocent relationship, but still in the guise of a block based puzzle platformer Ilomilo tasked players with reuniting quilted friends, Ilo and Milo. Charming material patchwork graphics and perspective shifting gameplay made this one of 2011's most charming and endearingly cute releases.

Frozenbyte's Trine 2 (XBLA, PC, Mac and PSN) improved upon its predecessor in almost every aspect: Visuals, puzzles, platforming and combat were all more refined and balanced, whilst it retained the mythological fantasy setting. Taking the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde premise to another level players interchange between 3 characters within one body; a Wizard, a Thief and a Knight, each bringing unique skills and abilities to gameplay.

More of an action orientated platformer, Housemarque's Outland (XBLA and PSN) pilfers inspiration from Ikaruga's two dimensional light and dark mechanic, with players switching between blue and red forms in order to absorb energies. With an outstanding visual design reflecting that premise and fluid yet challenging gameplay this is one for the old school platformers.

The pet project of just one designer, everything in The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile (XBLA) is straight from the mind of James Silva. A fact that makes the slick hack 'n' slash side scrolling gameplay, gore-soaked yet muted visuals, co-op mode and intelligent nod's to the wider world of videogames all the more impressive. A great improvement over the previous Dishwasher, if you can deal with the copious lashings of crimson then this is definitely worth 800 Microsoft Points.

Full of Megaman style wall jumps and Super Meat Boy platforming League of Evil (iOS and PC) was hardly the most original release of 2011. What it was however, was 54 levels of slick, challenging and stylish bursts of platforming fun.

Top down twin stick vehicle based military shooter Renegade Ops (XBLA, PSN and PC) provides something to satiate fans of both the old Codemasters war classic Cannon Fodder and the bombastic carnage of Rambo. It may not have lofty ambitions toward high art, but it is loud proud and a shed load of fun. Likewise Sega's Aliens: Infestation (DS) provided some invigoration for the twin stick shooter genre. Mixing Metroidvania style progression and the patented Alien series tension drenched horror atmosphere, Aliens: Infestation is a brilliantly fun arcade flash back.

The Binding of Isaac (PC, Mac and Linux) harkens back to the NES Legend of Zelda dungeon formula but with a far more bizarre premise: An allegory of the bible story of the same name, Isaac is a young child whose mother receives a message from god demanding she take Isaac's sinful life as a demonstration of her faith. Isaac escapes through a trap door into a monster-filled basement delving deeper and deeper into both the dungeon and his past. Completely deranged and full of pitch black humour, The Binding of Isaac is a sadistically addictive experience.

Did you think The Dark Knight's opening bank heist would have made for a great videogame? Well it turns out, you were right! Overkill Software's Payday: The Heist (PSN and PC) is a randomly generated FPS bank heist simulator. A uniquely tense cooperative experience that feels a lot like a cops and robbers version of Left 4 Dead once things kick off, Payday: The Heist is a flash of originality in an otherwise creatively stifled modern FPS genre.

For the inquisitively minded Professor Layton and the Last Spectre (DS) finally graced European soil this year and proved to be another fine addition to this venerable puzzle series. Intriguing mysteries, plenty of plot twists and a well fleshed out RPG mini-game named "London Life" results in the most mesmerising Hershel Layton adventure yet.

A narratively unrelated but creatively influenced spin off from the Ace Attorney franchise Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (DS) features a ghostly protagonist with the ability to switch between the land of the living and of the dead. A fantastic combination of point and click mechanics, stunningly slick animation and oddball Japanese humour, this is a title brimming with charm and polish.

Atlus JRPG Radiant Historia (DS) combines the concepts of branching storyline paths, time travel and parallel universes in a nod to Chrono Trigger. Even in the crowded RPG market of the DS Radiant Historia stands out with a great amount of player freedom and is well worth an import to European markets.

The cell shaded watercolour painting PS2 adventure Okami was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful videogame adventures ever created. 5 years later the sequel Okamiden (DS) graces the DS with an equally sumptuous visual experience. With a plot centring on the children of the original game's characters and paint brush gameplay a natural fit for the stylus and touch screen, Okamiden is a welcome addition to a commercially underachieving series that deserves far more attention.

Even in the 3DS's relative adolescence the console has been graced with a puzzle title of originality, depth and alluring ingenuity in Pushmo (Pullbox outside of EU) (3DS), a game that really showcases the unique abilities of the console. Gameplay requires depth perception to pull block structures into the foreground creating new pathways of progression. With 250-plus levels and a level editor Pushmo is exactly the kind of time drainer the 3DS required at this point in its lifecycle.

So there we have it! Indelible evidence that 2011 was as prolific as it was resplendent in quality for the videogame industry.

Whether a Bastion of beauty or a brain teasing Blueprint, these are some of the 2011 titles that proved a big budget doesn't always equate to brilliance. And that some of gaming’s finest hours in 2011 were found in smaller, niche titles.

So if you find a drought in 2012's release schedule (However unlikely that looks right now), check some of these fantastic titles out.


Virtual Companions

Virtual Companions

Some of my favourite NPC videogame companions and what made them so memorable.

@matski53 http://gamewhelk.com/

Watch the latest trailers and gameplay demonstrations for Irrational Games hugely anticipated Bioshock Infinite (handy link here). What really stands out, besides the incredibly realised floating city, are the interactions between player protagonist Booker DeWitt and the young woman whom he is tasked with rescuing, Elizabeth. Intrinsically entangled within gameplay, narrative and numerous other facets of the universe, she feels such an organic presence within this interactive world: Watch as she jokes around with a Lincoln mask, shrinks behind a table when the mysterious songbird behemoth casts its gaze upon you and begs for you never to let it take her. As well as the way she deftly spins into cover and screams advice when the deranged citizens inevitably sour towards Booker's presence.

It is genuinely difficult to tell what is simply scripted behaviour and what is procedurally generated depending upon situational factors. No cutscene is forced upon the player detailing the relationship forming between Booker and Elizabeth, she simply becomes a natural extension of the gameplay experience.

Yet Elizabeth is an NPC (Non playable character), an AI controlled presence, neither an antagonist nor protagonist, but a deuteragonist, a virtual companion throughout the journey. Many of the most interesting characters created in videogames have not been player avatars but these virtual companions.

So what factors can help AI companion characters work? Is it the way in which they affect gameplay or narrative? Is it in their presentation, the strength of their visual design? Or the personality fostered throughout an experience? What are the essential ingredients that seamlessly blend a virtual companion into a virtual world and prevent them from becoming a jarring or juxtaposed presence? And what are some of the great examples of the most memorable videogame companions ever? Here are a few of mine.

Perhaps the most comparable to Elizabeth's presence is that of Alyx Vance in the Half life universe, although she is less in need of rescue and more in the habit of assisting you. A landmark in AI controlled virtual companions, her animations, facial expressions, communication and movements were astoundingly realistic for 2004 videogame standards and much like Elizabeth all of this occurs in real time, no cutscenes required. Alyx is interwoven into gameplay through combat and puzzle designs, opening doors and hacking terminals, her presence is essential for progression.

As the player in the Half Life series, Gordon Freeman, is essentially silent avatar for the player, Alyx is employed by Valve as a narrative tool with which to guide them through the experience. She provides background details on unseen events and the world around you, through casual (albeit one way) conversations, as well as subtle hints and tips to aid your progression. Her disposition is optimistic and cheerful regardless of their dire situation, yet she appears to have a more fragile side, buried away in order to cope with the bleakness of the world, but surfacing when desperately harrowing events unfold. The developers described Alyx's programming as more of a 'personality code' than a traditional 'AI code' (1), a fact that shines through.

A major plot point in Half Life 2 Episode 1, in which Alyx is near fatally wounded by a hunter wouldn't have proved anywhere near as affecting had Alyx not been so believable, so likeably implemented and so full of personality for an AI controlled presence.

Resident evil 4's Ashley Graham is much more of a damsel in distress. As Leon Kennedy you are tasked with retrieving and protecting her from a mysterious Spanish civilisation of lunatics and madmen. Antithetical to Alyx Vance's combat abilities however Ashley is unable to fend for herself, requiring constant protection. Through this need she manages to augmenting gameplay with her presence, as you must not only be wary of your own surroundings but hers as well, as she will often fall prey to traps.

Conversely to this Chris Redfield's AI controlled partner, Sheva Alomar in the sequel, Resident Evil 5, was, like Alyx, a much more capable ally. operating with the same skillset as the player, perfectly capable of fending for herself with guns and CQC, also playing an integral part in progression through her numerous interactions with Chris: They are required to heal each other, jump of each other to cross gaps and fight back to back holding back the infected hordes. This reliance upon her should have helped to develop a connection between the two characters. Sadly this is ruined by some notoriously flimsy AI, which will see Sheva needlessly eat through ammo at wasteful rates and often get caught admiring a pretty planting pot instead of healing an injured Chris, much more a thorn in the side than the 'personality coded' Alyx.

Farah in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time shoots arrows to assist the player during fights with sand creatures, as well as solving puzzles that would be otherwise to complex for the prince to solely complete. Aside from her gameplay interactions she also serves as a love interest, this connection strengthened by the quality of dialogue between the Immature spoilt prince and the wiser but downtrodden Farah as they both come to learn some personal truths. Hardly an Oscar quality narrative, but a great leap from the usual videogame cliched character quips, it helped greatly in the believability of the relationship.

Elika, Farah's equivalent in 2008's Prince of Persia re imagining had a deeper role to play in gameplay. She served an interesting mechanic by which the player could never die. Jump from a building, slip from a rope and she will apear, right on the precipice of death she catches you. An interesting solution to death within action adventure games. This built a reliance upon her and through this a connection. If only the dialogue and personality between the pair were as believable and heartfelt as those between their Sands of time counterparts.

The Uncharted series has a number of virtual AI companions and aspires toward creating some of the most realistic virtual characters in gaming, in both graphical quality and animation. However most of the exposition between characters is relegated to cutscenes giving the game a more Hollywood, film like feel. Whilst this may be the intention of designers Naughty Dog, the ingame conversations and gameplay in which you are required you to carry an injured character or fight alongside someone draws you into these relationship far more than a non interactive cutscene. Would these moments (link) not have been for more captivating had they been interactive, after all videogames are an interactive medium, why not play to its strengths?

It would be easy to understate the importance of the hand holding mechanic between Yorda and the horned boy in Team Ico's wonderful 2001 title ICO. It could be viewed primarily as just that, a gameplay mechanic, yet it was one of the first times in a videogame that such a simple and universally understood human connection had been made: Holding someone's hand and guiding them to safety. An idea that Peter Molyneux would later introduce into the Fable series, it provided a very effective connection that spoke a thousand words about two otherwise silent characters.

Yorda is fragile, seemingly weak and frail with only you to help her escape from the strange shadow beings intent on holding her hostage. Her cell shaded floaty aesthetic quality isn't quite in sync with the visual design of the rest of the world, leaving you unsure as to whether she was even real, or simply the young boys dream, a creation of his own mind in dealing with the fact that he himself is being held captive and sacrificed.

What makes her such a wonderful virtual companion is that she successfully evokes a basic human instinct, the need to care for others, to help the vulnerable and the need to connect physically, even if it simply through the touching of hands. She remains one of the most interesting and yet mysterious of any virtual companion. Much more engrossing than many attempts toward realism, which all to often fall prey to the uncanny valley.

Jade from Michael Ancel's much under appreciated 2003 title Beyond Good and Evil is a rare example of a female protagonist with male companions - the anthropomorphic hog Uncle Pey'j and ex secret agent, Double H. Again examples of AI characters woven into puzzle and combat gameplay whilst playing major narrative roles as well, fostering a greater connection than a purely gameplay or purely narrative character would.

Sometimes games focus upon a group of NPC characters. Take for example Mass effect 2, the core narrative of which is centred around assembling a team and developing personal relationships with that group. Your level of interaction with these NPC's is made all the more significant through the knowledge that the strength of your bonds could be the determining factor in whether a character lives or dies.

Experiences such as Left 4 Dead, Brothers in Arms or Gears of War create gameplay scenarios that require the player to depend upon AI companions for their own survival, they cannot be easily survived without NPC assistance. Gears of War's revive system demonstrates this gameplay dependence upon AI team mates. So whilst Cole and Baird may be slightly braindead muscle monkeys, you still must depend upon them to revive you when injured: Much like the mechanic in Resident Evil 5 of Sheva and Chris healing each other but without the fumbled AI.

Bungie went to great efforts characterising each member of Halo Reach's Noble team. Yet it is hard to form any sort of attachment to these characters when they serve as little more than window dressing to the cutscenes. They lack any real effect on gameplay and it is rare that you will actually see any of them make a kill. Were you as touched by the death of a noble team member than you were by the death of a Mass Effect 2 teamate?

Cannon fodder, with its simplistic graphics and sound gave endearingly quirky characterisations to your companions simply through some wittily imaginative naming: Remember Jools, Jops, Windy, Softy, Browny, Norm, Jeeves, Goofy, Donald and Pervy?

Some ensemble casts grant the player a level of control over teamates actions: In Final Fantasy 12 the player has some element of control over their companions actions during gameplay through the gambit system. A system that dictates specific programmable behaviours to occur when certain criteria are met. For example when a players health dips below a certain level a group member can be assigned to automatically heal that player. Whilst it is you the player that has an element of control over these interactions, this is again an example of a team based scenario in which a reliance upon team mates is required and enforced throughout gameplay, playing to the strengths of the medium.

Assassins Creed: Brotherhood's introduction of the Assassins guild provides companions that you never meet face to face. Yet if you should desire you have the ability to train them and build their skills. This integrates with gameplay as with one subtle raising of a fist Ezio can summon these apprentices from thin air to aid in combat. They may be controlled by an AI, but the level of skill and success they have is dictated by how you the player have invested in them.

some videogame counterparts are more physically linked to their protagonist. Midna from Twilight princess for example rides atop Wolf Link and Issun clutches to Okami Amaterasu's fur.

Both Navi and Midna from the Legend of Zelda series serve practically the same gameplay purpose as companions. Both help Link navigate environments, target enemies and provide guidance for the player. Again another example of the developer communicating with the player throughout the experience using a virtual companion as guiding voice. Yet Midna is a much more engaging character. But why?

Navi suffered from very limited dialogue, leading to loops of repeated and increasingly annoying "Hey, Listen!" shouts. Midna as a character proved much more difficult to decipher, coy in her true motives and much more of an enigma. This helped develop intruige and hence a much more interesting companion character. Midna also has a much more intriguing visual design as well, suggestive of a more complex backstory and personality than a light bulb with insect wings. Midna progressively becomes involved within the story and how events unfolded, whereas Navi was simply a presence created to serve a gameplay purpose.

Issun, the ant sized travelling artist who hitches a ride upon Ameterasu Okami's back throughout her journeys. Like the presence of Alyx Vance both Midna and Issun provide a narrating voice to otherwise silent protagonists throughout each experience and a guide for the player, channelling the voice of the developer.

Wheatly, a personality core companion throughout Portal 2 served a very much narrative focused position, only interacting in basic gameplay elements. But what if his presence had been incorporated with the gameplay portions of the experience?What if he had provided hints after a certain number of failures in the puzzle rooms ? Could that have made his character all the more engaging, above his already superbly written dialogue?

The presence of animal companions in videogames may not be quite as extensive as their human counterparts. Yet in many ways it seems possibly easier to make a furry friend more believable than a human one within a virtual world: As a species we have a keen eye for spotting the most minutely detailed oddities and peculiarities in facial movements or general behaviours of our own, hence the uncanny valley that many human AI characters fall into. A perceptiveness that we don't quite have for other species.

Observe the trailer for team ICO's next title- The Last Guardian. The fluidity and elegance with which the bird/dog/cat/platypus creature moves is remarkably realistic. Partly because this is an imaginary creature and we therefore have no pre conceived notions as to how the creature should move, allowing it to seem all the more belivable.

The indicated quality of The Last Guardian creature is no surprise when you consider team ICO's past work with Agro, the Wanderers companion horse from Shadow of the colossus. A graceful beast, initially the player would have been inclined to control him much like they would other videogame horses; rigidly commanding and steering Epona. What becomes apparent over time is that you do not directly control Agro, instead you simply call him and control the reigns. Agro has an AI programmed independently of the player, as you sprint along a cliffs edge she will guide you to safety, she will run away when confronted with a collossus beast, and yet always return upon your call to help you. never has an animal been animated so realistically, albeit with low resolution textures, but beautiful fluidity of animation.

Contrary to these creations the dog in the Fable series behaves less like a natural dog and more like a metal detector with furry clothes, spending most of its time rooting out buried treasure. It feels less natural and more like it serves a gameplay mechanic, finding treasure. Likewise the Horse in Red Dead redemption was merely a good statistic, the only developed attachment to which could be its speed, stamina and strength. Could the inclusion of your own personal horse that you had to care for and moulded have been a positive one within Red Dead Redemption?

Dog from the Half Life series could possibly be the most peculiar animal companion of any. A mechanical bipedal creature with the loyal obedient personality of a pet dog. Yet in the same vein as the creature from the last guardian the fact that he has no real world counterpart lends his movements a believability seeming as wonderfully expressive as his owner Alyx Vance.

The creature pet in black and white was an interesting if slightly failed experiment. Troubled by problematic AI much like Sheva these creatures became a little hard to control and were consequently detrimental to progression resulting in more of an annoyance than an engaging presence.

Dogmeat in the Fallout series serves a similar purpose to that of the dog in the fable series. Taking part in combat and exploration, yet feeling slightly more mechanical than the wonderfully animated Agro or even the robotic Half Life 2 Dog.

Perhaps it is not an animal, nor even a human or group of companion characters that have fostered the greatest attachment of any videogame companions from players. But an object, a silent being, unassuming in its nature, unconditional in its love for you. Even when you betray this compassion and burn it alive.

Heartbreaking, you monster.

So what is it that makes some of these characters so special, so believable and so intrinsically linked to the memory of a game?

Some augment existing, or are integrated as a vital component of gameplay. Whether a hindrance - Ashley, Yorda and Sheva and the Black and White creature AI - a help, Elika, Alyx, The Assassins guild, Midna or Agro - or even both as Elizabeth looks to be in Bioshock Infinite. These relationships may be artificial, manufactured through the very code that dictates character movement and behaviour, no matter how realistic it seems. But they can add depth, challenge, assistance and immersion to many gaming experiences. ICO would have been a simple puzzle platformer without Yorda. Where would Gordan Freeman be without Alyx Vance's remarkably realistic guidance and Dog to save the day every now and then, Marcus without Delta squad, Link without Midna and Navi, Okami without Issun? They remain guiding presences, a way for the developer to communicate with the player throughout an experience and maybe shout "HEY, LISTEN" an irritating number of times.

Most of all they have the ability to make an experience within a videogame world all the more engrossing through their presence. It certainly looks like Bioshock Infinite will be a richer experience thanks to Elizabeth and The Last Guardian looks to foster a companionship between the boy and his pet thingymajig rivalling that of Wanderer and Agro. And I think everyone would agree we would all be a little worse of without the unconditional love of a companion cube every now and then.

What are some of your virtual companions? Sound off in the comments!



(1) http://www.1up.com/features/half-life-2-aftermath


Barriers to Entry

Barrier to Entry

@matski53 For more articles like this head on over to my blog - http://gamewhelk.com/

Shining a light on how motion controls break down barriers, whilst inadvertently creating others. And why gamers shouldn’t sneer at alternative control options.

I recently handed my 360 controller to my Grandad, I never got it back.

He had questioned me “What are these things you play, do you get high scores?” Clearly he had some vague memory of space invaders or an old arcade points based game, but no knowledge of any subsequent advancements in Videogame technology.

My Grandad enjoys Western movies I thought; maybe Red Dead Redemptionwould be a good starting point to introduce him into the world of modern Videogames. It is centred around classic Western themes of technology encroaching upon the old ways of life, morality, redemption and the struggle for survival in the barren lawless dust ball that was the southern American frontier circa 1911. Maybe he would come to think of John Marsten as some kind of Eastwood type protagonist I pondered. “Look Grandad, instead of passively observing a western you can now take part in an interactive one!” I handed him the controller.

Nothing happened for a while. I looked at him, watched his eyes, he wasn’t looking at the screen, he was staring at the controller. He twirled it in his hand, sizing it up. “Come on granddad, just press the green button to run” He thumbed the big shiny green button in the centre of the controller. “No Grandad not that green button, that’s the home menu button, press then one with an A on it”

A strange expression crumpled his face, a triumvirate of bemusement, bewilderment and bafflement. He was attempting to comprehend this alien piece of technology before him. Fear and apprehension contorted his face, his eyes clouded with worry and confusion. Cautiously, tentatively, he slowly squeezed the right trigger.

Marsten raised his pistol and fired off a round shooting a passing civilian.

Startled he sprung from his chair, cast my controller into the fireplace, held aloft a crucifix and began dowsing the room with holy water. “What is this black magic!? This evil tool of bodily contortion. BE GONE VILE DEMON, SICK PUPETEER OF PEOPLE, LEAVE THIS HOUSE AND NEVER AGAIN RETURN!!”

Imagine if I had given him Demon Souls.

No entry for you Grandad, silly NOOB!

OKAY, so that might have been a slightly exaggerated embellishment of a true story, I actually got my controller back unscathed. But the point remains that my Grandad had shown a passing interest in Videogames, he was actually impressed by the look of Red Dead Redemption and appeared to be genuinely intrigued by my description of its narrative themes. Yet his unfamiliarity with the controller posed a barrier between him and a gaming experience that he most probably would have enjoyed, one that could have changed his perception of the medium.

I am sure many gamers have encountered the same paradigm; unsuccessfully attempting to guide a non-gamer by yelling out button instructions: “Square to kick, no not circle! Does that look like a square, are you stupid! PRESS SQUARE YOU IDIOT, SQUARE!! Ohhh nooo you dead.” Videogames can look like a pretty silly hobby to the outsider when Commander Sheppard spends 5 minutes running into a wall.

The fact is that people without the necessary skills and dexterity to successfully navigate the treacherous minefield of buttons, sticks and triggers constituting a modern day controller, simply cannot experience the rich and complex worlds that gamers champion as the great milestones of ‘core’ gaming experiences.

An illustration from an article on Gizmodo illustrating the evolving complexity of Videogame controllers. Look how big the Xbox controller is! That thing was a beast. (link)

Unlike my Grandad however I was born in 1989, and like most gamers grew up as part of a Videogame generation. Throughout childhood I developed a familiarity and adeptness with numerous controllers. From the NES to the Genesis, and the N64 to the Xbox, the first joystick to shoulder buttons, triggers and vibration, handling Videogame characters through a controller has become second nature to me, much like a second language. And it is increasingly common that children are exposed to Videogames at younger ages, developing these skills earlier and earlier.

But what of the older generations, or those that missed out on the medium during their youth? Those that do not understand it, but might wish too?

They remain rejected by the classic controller as we know it, uninvited to the party and deemed unworthy on account of their impudent lack of skill. I would not be so naive as to suggest that everyone in the world hides secret desires of becoming a gamer, but those that do face the impervious obstacle of the controller.

Consider other creative mediums. Music, Movies, Literature, Sculpture, Paintings etc. All of which can be universally appreciated by anyone so long as you have a working set of human senses. Yet not Videogames.

The arrival of Nintendo’s DS in 2004 and Wii in 2006 appeared to address this problem. Whether through the wise omniscient sage like perceptions of MR’s Miyamoto and Iwata, or simply by sheer luck Nintendo had stumbled across a potential solution to the off-putting complexity of the controller to the videogame outsider. Suddenly there appeared to be a control method that required no prior knowledge of button layouts, it would be intuitive for everybody, only demanding that you had working use of your limbs. We would all soon be spanking Epona around the planes of Hyrule, twirling the edges of Wario’s moustache and lobbing Pikmin about with the simple ease of a few intuitive arm movements. The future was indeed bright and full of unicorns and candyfloss, and we would all play happily ever after, gamers and non gamers hand in hand.

But fast forward to the present and very few successful core gaming experiences centred around full motion control implementation exist. Granted there are some examples; namely Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime 3 and Red Steel 2 (and judging by the early Skyward Sword reviews link is will soon join this list), yet they all utilise motion controls as a supplement to ordinary button inputs. Instead the shelves of GameStop and GameStation are littered with cheap waggle-ware, with poorly implemented motion controls. Microsoft and Sony’s recent forays into this arena with Kinect and Playstation Move have produced no better results so far either.

To their credit they are however the pioneers, the initial stepping stones toward breaking down that button filled barrier between the non-gamer and the medium of videogames. And whilst I might find Wii bowling about as substantial a gaming experience as a leaf of lettuce for lunch, my parents, girlfriend and everyone I know that isn’t a gamer finds motion controls to be a great deal more intuitive than a multi-buttoned controller. Much more so than me shouting button commands.

Looking back now it may have been slightly foolish to think that all core games could effectively incorporate motion controls. Videogame design has evolved hand in hand alongside the classic controller, and it takes a lot of a lot of time, money and resources for developers to start from scratch, designing new gameplay around such unexplored and unique control methods. Instead a situation has arisen in which it is easier to tack motion controls onto existing designs, instead of developing from the ground.

Consequently they may be lacking in great motion controlled core gaming experiences, but as consoles the DS and WII have succeeded in challenging perceptions of the industry from the casual observer, and for that they deserve praise.

You may look like a bit of a floppy sausage flailing your limbs around the living room, but motion controllers allow those that would otherwise has bolted at the sight of an ordinary controller to enter the world of gaming.

So don’t quickly dismiss Bioware’s inclusion of voice activated commands inMass Effect 3, the ability to play Bioshock Infinite with Playstation Move or any other implementation of alternative control options. These are experiments that have the potential to make such experiences more accessible to the non gamer.

Or maybe progress will halt and we will all be left waggling our phallic wands around the living room in search of Elbits. Who knows?

If motion controls can eventually accomplish anything though, it will be the breaking down of these barriers through the development and implementation of new control methods, that are far more intuitive to the non-gamer. Breaking down that generational gap that lead to the misunderstanding between my Grandad and me.

There is however a different problem with removing the classic controller from the equation. In doing this the element of skill that comes with a lifetime of accumulated controller expertise is lost. If everyone could control Call of Dutywith their minds then the playing field is levelled, and the sport-like competitive aspect of skill associated with controller dexterity would be lost. It is little surprise then that many core gamers have a rather dismissive attitude toward casual motion controlled gaming. It at once breaks down barriers for non-gamers, whilst also creating barriers of hostile non-acceptance from gamers who feel the skill of their favourite pastime is being lost.

It takes an undeniable level of ability to execute Zangiefs' Spinning Pile Driver flawlessly (watch this guy - link).

This hostility from the core gaming community over casual motion controlled games was evident after Microsoft’s press conference at this years E3. Where Many journalists were off put by the focus on Kinect controlled games.

It is all well and good for us children of the Videogame generations though, we piffle at the task of organising a Zerg rush through an assortment of mouse clicks and keyboard shortcuts with all the flexibility and skill of Catherine Zeta Jones navigating a laser maze. But the level of skill required for what many would call a proper hardcore gaming experience is a barrier to anyone that may have ever developed a passing interest in the medium. So don’t knock the Wii, Playstation Move or Kinect. Embrace them for what they are; attempts to widen the market, increase the exposure and acceptance of games as a form of entertainment, and maybe serve as a portal through which your Grandad can enjoy the adventures of John Marston sometime in the future. But by the same metric do not dismiss the skills and reflexes that have proved so integral to the evolution of gaming so far. These are genuine skills and as such should not be lost to inadequate waggling.

And buy your Grandad a DS and Dr Kawashima's Brain Training for Christmas. He won’t throw that on his fire or attempt to exorcise it.


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Downloading the Future

Downloading the Future


For more articles like this visit my blog - http://gamewhelk.com/

Once upon a time the acquisition of a new videogame was a relatively standardised affair for the gamer. You scurried along to your local gaming retailer with a giddy sense of anticipation. Upon arrival you zoned in on your platform of choice and began scanning the displays like a terminator; your eyes trained with all the superior peripheral vision and focus that comes with countless hours of FPS gameplay. Syphoning through the shovelware and crappy second rate sequels you finally fixate upon it. That sacred copy of Custer’s Revenge/Zelda:Wand of Gamelon/Pippa Funnels ranch rescue. Whatever floats your boat. After a purchase at the till you galloped on home for a nice warm slice of interactive nerd pie.

Nice and simple.

Nowadays the affair is a much more convoluted process as a variety of newer distribution options present themselves through the rise of the internet. Services such as Xbox live, Playstation Network, Steam, Origin and Onlive remove the middlemen of retailers and disks in favour of downloading content through the internet straight to your machine.

So where does the future of videogame distribution lie? And which, if any, of these services will ultimately prevail as the dominant method by which we receive our beloved bundles of pixels and polygons?

The first form of online console service came as early as the Atari 2600’s Gameline. A service utilising modem transmission technology, allowing users to download full games through their telephone line connections to an atari cartridge. Although pioneering in its vision gameline ultimately became another forgotten casualty of the 1983 videogame crash.

More recently games console manufacturers have developed persistent online services. First initiated by Sega's Dreamcast, although most widely popularised through Microsoft’s Xbox live, Sony’s Playstation Network (PSN) and Nintendo’s virtual console/eShops in the current generation of consoles.

Xbox live was first made available in 2002 through the original Xbox and currently has around 35 million registered users through Xbox 360 Playstation Network has now accumulated 77 million registered accounts since its launch in 2006 through both the PS3 and PSP.

Each service offers various forms of downloadable games from smaller arcade titles, to classics from previous console generations, as well as platforms for online multiplayer gameplay. Live and PSN now offer an ability to download full current generation titles, made available some time post retail release. Recently breaking with this mould Mass Effect 2 became the first title made available through PSN day in date alongside its retail release on PS3. In some ways only just matching a service that was available way back on the Atari 2600.

Whilst current online console services are only just now taking baby steps towards providing day one full downloadable titles, another form of online service has been the proving ground of the downloadable game sales business.

Valve’s Steam, EA’s Origin, Gamestop’s Impulse, Direct2Drive and Gamersgate are all examples of digital distribution platforms. They offer full downloadable titles and demos alongside a platform for multiplayer gameplay and social interaction, much like online console services.

Released in 2002 Steam has 1,300 available titles and the largest userbase of any digital distribution platform with 35 million active users. Direct2Drive was launched in 2004, acquired by Gamefly in May 2011, and now offers over 3,000 titles. EA’s Origin platform is a revision of the EA store and EA download manager. Opened in June 2011 it has already accumulated 3.9 million registered users as of September 2011 . Impulse was created by Stardock in June 2008 and was recently purchased by Gamestop in March 2011 seeing the retailer diversify into the online digital download market.

Whilst these services remove the need for cyclical console upgrades they still rely upon a computer or hardware of some form with sufficient technical specifications for the latest games. Only the need to purchase a hardcopy of a title is removed through digital distribution platforms.

Pushing the most technological boundaries currently available are the cloud based streaming services, the most prevalent of which is Onlive. Launched in June 2010 Onlive provides a cloud based service through which game content is run on a company server distant from the players location. Controller inputs are streamed to the server where all computation is carried out and the resulting visual output is streamed back through the internet and displayed on the screen.

Whilst Onlive is currently the most publicised streaming service several competitors exist utilising very similar technology such as David Perry's Gaika and the 3D application orientated OTOY.

Highly ambitious, these services seem to present the next logical evolution of content distribution: Removing the need for costly hardware upgrades, disk based media and even data downloads.

With cloud based streaming services the potential arises for the most graphically complex and computationally taxing of games to be streamed to any modest hardware, including low spec laptops, tablets and even smartphones. The implication being that in less than 2 decades we have advanced from the ability to play monochrome snake on our phones to Crysis in all its complex graphical splendour .

Currently though access to these service is limited by proximity to a company server, and the quality of your experience is directly proportional to the quality of your internet connection. These are problems that will be solved with time as increased broadband speeds and true 4G internet are adopted and become a standard.

The quantity and quality of content available on streaming services is as of yet severely limited in comparison to online console services and digital distribution platforms. Alongside this neither cloud streaming nor digital distribution platforms have access to the console exclusive titles that provide some of the largest incentives for gamers to purchase consoles. There is as of yet no way to download the latest adventures of Mario, Master chief or Kratos upon release. Still though these digital platforms do offer third party titles day one of release and potentially at a reduced price thanks to the removal of retailer costs.

Large retailers like Gamestop continue to incentivise custom through their trade in services. And many people are simply uncomfortable not own a hard copy of the game and only a downloaded version or a pass with to access the game. We are after all creatures of habit and many of us simply are not comfortable with the lack of tangibility from internet based distribution, especially in light of recent hacking issues with PSN and other services.

The most likely future scenario seems to involve a marketplace splintered between these various distribution methods for a period, whilst faster broadband speeds and true 4G become a standard. Therefore facilitating a transition away from the current widely used retail purchase and digital download methods and a move toward cloud based streaming and the logical benefits it offers. How long this transition will take is unclear, dependant upon streaming uptake rates which themselves are dependant upon content and service quality. All that is certain is that videogames are a technology driven medium and content distribution will continue to change alongside technological advancement.

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