Well I had a few other games I really wanted to give mention to this gen, but it’s hard to get around to them all given the 360 launched back in 2005…when I graduated High School. While I rail on plenty of games, including some that aren’t even out yet, I actually like A LOT of things this industry makes still. So to compact the rest of the games I enjoyed, I tried to ask myself what connects them all. Why do I tend to like the things I like?
Well after some self-analysis, I found that the games I leaned towards to the most all had one thing in common: high player agency. In order to have respect for a game, I very much expect it to respect me back in turn. Not as a viewer, or necessarily a god (though sometimes that’s fun), but simply an active participant that can and should be allowed to effect the world around them. It’s ok to let me poke and prod the systems in your game, make choices that mean I miss some of the content you’ve created, discover content through exploration rather than being spoon-fed it, and it’s ok for unexpected emergent stuff to happen.
These games are the heroes that preserved that sense of player agency:
Early into this gen, I was starting to see a decline in RTS titles, which doesn’t exactly have a happy ending here in 2013. Still, this game transfixed me in a way only the first Starcraft did, but through entirely different means. Instead of making a large base to gather resources for large numbers of troops, you managed a small base, collected resources by holding points on the map, and had a smaller number of more customizable troops. While it did involve more micro-management, it focused more on taking advantage of your environment, setting traps, make remote bases, bunker up in abandoned buildings, troop transport was actually super useful, and upgrades went beyond damage. There was just an extreme amount of depth, a huge array of options, and the possibilities are decided by me the commander.
I thought of putting up the main game, but let’s face it…the director’s cut fixes some big issues. No longer do bosses force you down the violent action path, but are designed in such a way that suits all major play styles from stealth to hacking. The visuals and AI improved, but the foundation is still solid. Apart from infrequent cutscenes, the game respects the control of your character, and the agency you have to express yourself in the game. Deus Ex as a series focused on providing the player consistent agency, and this game does a decent job continuing that tradition, while improving on basic mechanics.
Still no doubt in my mind this is my #1 game this gen. There are hitches, like the game having objective markers on as default, stealth and AI flubbing occasionally, and the story not being great…but the world is. While I love player choice in dialog to effect story, I love when the actions I take effect it even more, and Dishonored has that in spades with how many ways you can utilize your abilities. What’s absolutely incredible is how the level design handles all the possible ways you build and use your character, while offering an incredible diversity of non-linear paths. I’d even go so far as to say the level design is the best we’ve seen this gen. Other than giving you a basic objective, you are free to do what you want and how you want in that space to achieve it. It even had the decency to improve fundamental gameplay in its DLC.
I think there is a reason that only some people love Far Cry 2, and other people think it’s terrible. It’s just not designed as a “fun” game, but really to be a survival experience. Not survival in the cinematic action game sense, but in actual play. Everything in that world is there to hurt you, AI respawn and drive by hunting you…because the game doesn’t want you to feel safe. You have to maintain malaria throughout the game, beware of guns degrading over time, and utilize the environment to deal with foes that often outnumber you. In a sense, it’s the closest FPS to Dark Souls we’ve seen. All those parts people loved in Far Cry 3, the bases you chose how to infiltrate and take over, the better equipment you find and buy over time, and just the freedom that leads to all that cool emergent stuff…this game is ENTIRELY that, without all the scripted mission BS of 3.
One PC gaming journalist in his spare time makes a critically revered indie game in his first try…happens all the time right? Gunpoint is a title that very much represents one man’s design ambition, where you are given unique tools that let you infiltrate locations, manipulate AI, and traverse to get the information you need. Like Dishonored, you’re given a basic objective, provided the agency to achieve it how you see fit, and unlike most games doesn’t overstay its welcome at all.
Probably my favorite co-op game of this gen, despite not changing much extensively from the first title. It is another example of iteration that actually improves the experience, giving you not just more trap options, but more spells and weapons for your character, all of which have new interesting upgrades to change their use. Since the largest change in this was co-op, levels are designed with more options, you’ll start trying to combo traps and abilities with your friend, and there is just more to manage that heaps on the tension towards the later waves. The best part is there is no particular right way to do it. I have beaten multiple levels utilizing completely different traps, weapons, trinkets and spells. The game even lets you reset your character for no cost, so you can best tailor your abilities to a given map.
This is the game that advertised player choice in a narrative, and backed it up. Unlike Bioware’s bipolar color-coded nonsense, this game is happy to sit in the grey area of morality. While Geralt is an established character that is being adapted from novels, the games do a wonderful job with providing you agency. If I want to be able to heal myself during battle, I need to swig a potion ahead of time, and if I want to take out enemies faster I need to research about them…or hey I don't have to. One choice at the end of act 1 completely changes the next 1/3 or more of the game. Witcher 2 is more than happy to let you do what you want in the confines of the space, and isn't afraid to cut out content because you chose something else.
So many games put you into the position of a commander, or some hero destined to save the world…but no other game makes me feel the impact of loss in those situations like XCOM. My choices can doom whole countries, or just the individual troops named after my close friends. Every mission involves me carefully placing my troops to take out aliens, each turn could be the last for any one of them. Sometimes I need to run the risk of stunning an alien for later research, going after MELD, or securing innocents. Back in my base, I have to run the risks of what I choose to build and upgrade, and most of it always takes days to complete. “I am the decider” is what the game makes you feel as the player, even if it kills me…which it can if you don’t build those damn satellites.
Now I don’t want this last, Last Heroes post to be just about my favorite games. What titles do you think are the Last-Gen Heroes? Or to go off my topic, what games give you a strong sense of player agency? The PS4 is nigh, so now is your chance!