Letter from America

I’m still a traditional fellow who believes real games come in boxes, resisting the inevitable transformation to an entirely digital distribution model at every hopeless step. But over this last summer there was no choice. The simple economics were thus: the big retail games were gash; the wee download games were great.

Slow-burning titles that had seemed appealing for quite some time— games like Fuel, Ghostbusters and Prototype — promised, at a distance, to put the defibrillators on the ashen chest of a particularly lifeless season. But when they turned up, they lacked vitality, focus, and passion. In sharp contrast were the small saviors of summer 2009: Battlefield 1943with its fast, fulfilling, pared-down to-the-heart-and-guts online shooting, everything you need and nothing you don’t, each session served up hot, quick and greasy by Electronic Arts’ short order cook; Shadow Complex, dubbed ‘Metroidvania’ by the two-dimensional refugees who adore its shoot-anywhere platform goodness, but also reminiscent of beauties like Flashback and Rolling Thunder, and just so exceptionally slick in presentation and execution it felt, unlike those 7/10 ultra-bores releasing at $60, as though it were made by people who really cared for the form; and then we also got Trials HD.

Oh, Trials. You wonderful, out-of-nowhere, thief of day, night and sleep, with your agreeable adherence to and reliance upon physics. Momentum, weight, balance, force, all tangible in your gloomy fire-lit warehouses filled with fantastical, swooping, looping courses of wood and iron, used and worn, like vintage roller coasters but filled with twisted comic danger — fire, falls and traps — as though Tim Burton were invited to produce an episode of the BBC’s Kick Start.
I once spent ten minutes explaining to someone just what exactly Trials was, so intoxicated was I by its fresh character, the possibilities thrown up by simple three-point control — accelerate, brake, balance — in a world built of smooth ascents and descents, governed by physics; challenges that spoke to a natural instinct about how things should move and react, instead of asking us to learn, as usual, what restrictions and allowable actions the game would impose. This same man, a homicide detective, used to distilling information, when later asked to describe the game to another friend in my company, said, rather more succinctly: “it’s a motorbike stunt game.” Well, okay. We were both right. I get a little carried away.

Though completely single-player, it could not be said to be a lone experience, interaction with friends being heavily encouraged through admirably well-integrated teeterboards, meters and markers, indicating each others’ performance in the most tantalizing ‘just got to make it farther than Bill’ way. So, although we were not convening in some high­ dollar blockbuster, or in fact meeting up at all, there was still plenty of reason to chat, tease, curse and vow as we fought the limits of our dexterity.

I still can’t abide a download-only approach, such as continues to be pushed by Microsoft and Sony, for full-size, retail-applicable games; I still want a real game that I can shelve, lend, sell, even just pick up and look at the back of. It makes me jittery, buying games that only exist on a hard drive. But the related model that allows polished, quality shareware to be distributed and supported, gems we’d otherwise never see outside a PC? Well, that saved summer, and I’m grateful. (With another round of long-time-coming hopefuls lined up at retail, let’s hope it doesn’t have to save winter too.)