[Editors Note: ‘AAA’ games are big, long, and not worth the money – so says Christopher Hyde in this lengthy critique of the mainstream commercial games industry. In one sense, it’s a very practical demonstration of the wealth of excellent games being produced outside the realm of ‘AAA’ games. It’s also an exhaustingly long list of excellent games that deserve critical attention, and hopefully this list of 99 free games 2009 can be a starting point for seeing the critical attention spread around a little more evenly.]

This past year will go down for me personally as the year in which my spending on videogames plummeted due to personal dissatisfaction with the costs in money and time demanded by most of the AAA products out there on the shelves. Now, I’ve been a games player since the arcade days of yore, and though I wouldn’t call myself hardcore I certainly have always lavished a good part of my attention span and cash onto the big industry players’ products. But after about spring of 2009, I more or less stopped purchasing AAA games entirely; while they still have their charms, I’ve mostly decided for now that most of what’s out there I don’t want to play at the price point they’re being sold for and I don’t want to spend tens of hours on stories that don’t generally deserve that sort of commitment.

To that end, I’ve since turned my eyes towards the burgeoning free games scene and to be honest what I’ve found is pretty darned spectacular. Creative talents all over the world are out there spinning out downloadable, browser, Flash and Unity games that you can while away enjoyable hours on without having it cost you one red cent. Now sure, you do need a computer as a platform and might also sometimes have to suffer through some ads to get to the games. And once in awhile you may even want to donate a few bucks to a budding game designer who has put his or her sweat equity out there for you to play at no cost. But otherwise, the sheer number and quality of the games available for nothing is a simple testament to just how broad and active the development community outside the corporate AAA space really is at present. This is a very, very good thing—for games, for players and ultimately for your very own wallet.

The following is a list of 99 free games (in no particular order) that I’ve enjoyed this calendar year, nearly all of which have been released in 2009 or very late in 2008. So why don’t you take a break from funding corporate overlords and see just what a feast there is out there in the wide world below the big ticket level—all you can lose, really, is just a little bit of time.

1. Fig. 8

Now here’s something you don’t see every day: a lovely riding-a-bike-thru-a-technical-drawing game and it’s got a sweet soundtrack to go with it as well. Fig. 8 apparently got its start as an art exhibit by one of the designers and that sort of aesthetic pervades its philosophical approach. Turning takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of it you’re sure to find from Intuition Games’ an enticing offering.

2. Minotaur China Shop

You know how you’ve always wanted a game where you play a clumsy mythical beast in a glass shop that occasionally flies into a rage and smashes things to pieces? Well, your wait is over—so head out to Flashbang Studios and get a taste of the rubbery and imprecise control scheme that fits the hybrid lead character here just oh so well.

3. Guardian Rock

A colorful and engaging block puzzler that is probably not going to be the most innovative thing that you try this year but that still manages a take on classic gameplay that’s well worth what you’re going to lay out for it. With a design sense that echoes age old Nintendo while smoothing out some rougher edges and a relaxed approach that will keep you guessing, Guardian Rock makes for a brisk and fun little item for your gaming calendar.

4. Judith

Really not a whole lot of game here, but a very interesting experiment in lo-fi 3D tale telling nonetheless. Judith is apparently loosely based on/inspired by the Bartok opera “Duke’s Bluebeard Castle”, an intellectual bonafide that alone sets it right high in the rarefied air of the indie art game. It’s very much more an exploration of story and character than anything else, and though flawed in some ways—the issue of player control, especially—the end result is thoughtful and pertinent.

5. Boxgame

A mind bending puzzle platformer by Sophie Houlden which is not at all recommended if you’ve got a headache. Rotate a mazelike cube that your androgynous avatar stands on and navigate to the exit. A greyscale venture that demonstrates a nice use of the (now free in itself) Unity 3d platform for game makers.

6. Evidence of Everything Exploding

Jason Nelson’s art game for browsers takes cue from dada and surrealism as your arrow avatar navigates its way through mazes backed with historic documents such as pizza box patents and art flyers. The best intellectual deconstructivist flash game I’ve played this year.

7. Harmony

It’s back to the nineties in Harmony, a Doom tribute game that took its creator a stunning 8 years to complete. All that time has paid off in an outing that’ll have you flashing back to playing FPS’es like Wolfenstein and Hexen on your Pentium 90. The difficulty bar has been set way hard here and the game includes those outdated tropes such as key/door combo-ing and endless map wandering—but a lot of that stuff is half the nostalgic fun.

8. Aubergine Sky

Experimental game about an evening walk. No arrow keys, no button pushing, no mouse clicking. It’s very calming for a change, given that games are so often frenetic and sort of stressful. Some neat ideas here.

9. Downhill Bowling

This one plays just like it’s named—arcadey and enjoyable, in a we’re-not-taking-this-too-seriously fashion. Just the thing to while away and idle quarter of an hour or so, rolling down hills and knocking down pins in the Unity engine.

10. Today I Die

Daniel Benmergui’s playful rumination on games and language isn’t perfect, but it forges ahead and treads where few games have gone before. Anytime that this developer puts up something for nothing you should run right over and check it out, and this time is certainly no exception to that general rule.

11. Miami Shark

You are a shark. A shark that leaps from the water and eats planes. This should be pretty much all that you need to know.

12. Parasite

This sweet 2d platformer oozes charm even as you play as its evil protagonist. Developer Nitrome is a prime mover in the free games environment, consistently churning out candy colored puzzle games and 2d gaming done right on a regular basis.

13. Gravity Bone

Two level, fifteen minute adventure game built on id’s Quake engine that’s way more fun that the endless trudging many longform games make you suffer through. Gravity Bone left me wanting more, just like the old circus/vaudeville adage says entertainment is supposed to do.

14. Post I.T. Shooter

If you were to argue that there’s not a lot of good gameplay in this Petri Purho toss off, I sure wouldn’t disagree. There’s not much in the way of actual play involved at all, to be honest. But dang, it’s just so pretty. And it sounds so nice.

15. Don’t Look Back

A super minimalist shooter with myth based storyline from brilliant indie game designer Terry Cavanaugh. Many of the games on this list seem to be about paring back the excesses inherent in the big budget games developed by huge teams and replacing their overdone graphics with simple gameplay presented in a straightforward, lo-fi manner. Don’t Look Back does this all stylishly and with the sort of constant checkpointing tht allows even less skilled players (hello, self!) to enjoy the adventure.

16. Silent Conversation

Gregory Weir’s jumping on text outing intersects videogames and reading in a thought provoking way. There certainly aren’t too many games that frontload poetry the way this one does, and that by itself makes the game one that warrants a closer bit of inspection.

17. Saut

Created for Game Jolt’s minimal compo in the fall, Saut is a one-button platformer that utilizes only the spacebar for jumping as a control scheme. Given that I personally consider the constant learning curve of ridiculous button presses to be one of the scourges of modern videogames, any countertrend towards lessening that is OK by me. Since Saut also piles on some nicely shadowed graphics and a zippy jazz rock score, it stands as a great example of just how successful a bare bones effort can be.

18. You Only Live Once

Be real careful at the start in this seemingly unassuming platformer. You have been warned, because if you botch things early on you may well find further progress somewhat difficult. Conceptually, though, this game should be considered a real triumph.

19. Saira

While only the first six-level demo of this 2D puzzle platformer is available as a freebie, that’s plenty when it comes to anything made by Nifflas—who has previously made the brilliant Knytt and Within a Dark Forest. This one is even a bit more polished than those previous efforts, and it ramps up the mechanics to create an interesting and enticing world that might have you laying out some cash for the full package.

20. Spelunky

Derek Yu’s latest is a procedural platforming roguelike that it’s very possible you may see pop up as the dark horse choice on some end of the year best of lists. It’s polished, addictive, frustrating, and almost endlessly surprising, and unlike so many freebies it has almost no great flaws. A must play for anyone interested in the form.

21. Closure

Extremely inventive black and white puzzle platformer with a totally unique style. One of the very best games on this entire list—there’s really nothing quite like it out there and I think that both developer Tyler Glaiel and lead artist Jon Schubbe are talents to keep an eye on.

22. Jetpack Basketball

From the mind of Messhoff comes this insanely beautiful looking and sounding pickup hoops game for one or two players. Just like on the playground you compete to be the first to score 11 baskets, and though it’s slightly unfortunate that you can’t swipe the ball from your opponent there’s enough going on visually that this isn’t a huge flaw.

23. Minecraft

This game is eventually getting some sort of release that you’ll need to pay for, but testing it out and just playing around in the blocky sandbox simply needs a java enabled browser. What’s most fascinating is the lively community that’s growing up around Minecraft, as users create all sorts of assets and areas for others to utilize and explore—one build goes so far as to render the Reichstag in all its pixelated glory.

24. Shy Dwarf

Cute and stylish quickie platformer by one of the Machinarium developers, which though a bit slight overall has a rare and tasty look that sets it apart from the free platformer pack.

25. Devil’s Tuning Fork

Fascinating outing here from a student team at DePaul University, wherein you play first person as a comatose child that can only navigate via sound wave. Eerie dreamscape environments create a unique world that’s very much unlike anything I’ve ever seen and the sonic gameplay mechanic is the sort of innovative work you hope to see from budding designers.

26. Bunni Game

A pick up ‘n play island strategy game that’s way deeper and more engaging than it looks at first glance. The flat graphics belie that at base this is actually a fairly comprehensive strategy game, and something that for a freebie offers a surprising amount of thoughtful gameplay.

27. Tower of Heaven

This super minimal, rule changing platformer was a bit more challenging than I can generally hack, but twitch skilled gameplayers should really love it. An excellent effort and a solid design.

28. Below the House

Anna Anthropy’s cavern game for Ludum Dare 15. I’ll play anything she makes—even if they’re often too much for me to handle—and while this does not have the level of polish of many of her other projects as always there’s a thoughful bit of consideration behind all of her design choices.

29. Tasty Static

This one’s a new clone of some old PC game called Sky Roads that I’ve never played but that I’m sure has a great following out there. I’ll admit that I am pretty terrible for the most part at this one, but it’s really sharp looking overall and I even had fun while I died many, many times.

30. Star Guard

There’s nine levels of 2D platformy shooter retrominimalism in this spiffy little number, and it all brims with a flair and verve that’s lacking in many commercial ventures. Additionally, for a game with very little graphic power it succeeds quite well in creating a sense of dank ambience to its surroundings. Mega-twitch gamers may find it a bit too forgiving, but it’s right in the sweet spot for others.

31. Continuity

Ragtime Games’ Flash student project is a mindbender of a game, utilizing the arrangement of sliding tiles to solve the seemingly ubiquitous videogame key/door puzzle combo. From the looks of this one it would seem ultimately destined for the mobile phone environment, where it certainly will put to shame much of the shovelware clogging up that particular platform.

32. Pizza City

Browser based, floaty driving game sort of in the Crazy Taxi mode as you bust ass around the city missing pedestrians and delivering ‘za. Developer Pixeljam—who are also responsible for Mountain Maniac lower down in this list—have shown themselves to be among the best free developers active today in bringing classic styled but updated videogames to a browser near you.

33. Turn Based Battle

A truly great JRPG parody that hilariously eviscerates the corpse of an utterly warmed over old genre. This is much, much better than actually playing your typical JRPG.

34. Johnny Two-Shoes

Solid browser game that combines a bit of management with top down driving as you build your heist team and try to make enough cash to retire. The interesting mechanics combine in a well thought out manner that entices the player to keep at it.

35. Walkie Tonky

Though a bit rough around the edges, this platformer’s cool graphics and friendly gameplay make it worth taking a shot on. The art style is really polished and stylized, bringing a fresh graphical take to the genre.

36. Jumpman

This one is fantastic, a lo-fi old school platformer that’s loaded with inventiveness and creativity. Most games that are difficult in this manner I just find plain annoying, but this particular outing is so special that I just kept trying.

37. This Is the Only Level

As the title says, there’s really only one level. But what’s utterly brilliant here is how the rules change each time so that guiding your immobile elephant to safety stays fresh every time and forces you to constantly and carefully consider the set of rules under which you are operating. John Cooney’s absolutely genius Flash game is the sort of thing that makes it worthwhile to play games, and is easily one of the ten best games I played this year.

38. 78641

78641 is a totally and completely insane, hysterical and sometimes crude RPG that is so much more fun to mess around in than those 75 hour grindfests I stopped playing some time back. I really have zero idea just what the heck is going on in the heads of these developers, but that’s a good thing. You can have your elves and orcs, I’ll stick with this.

39. Canabalt

This one-button control scheme game has you dodging objects, running rooftops and scaring pigeons. Simple and sharp, with a great soundtrack. Resets also randomize, so you don’t ever quite know what’s coming. Excellent.

40. Where Is My Heart

This odd little platformer splits the screen into multiple panels and forces you to use combinations of your characters to suss out what needs to be done. Unpolished, but a promising start for developer Bernie Schulenburg.

41. Clockwords

A cartoony word game ostensibly set in Victorian London, this game tests both mental alacrity and typing skill as you attempt to form words to destroy spiders out to steal some sort of secrets. Letters that appear at the bottom of the screen open new cells if you use them all, and as things speed up it all gets pretty frenzied. Nicely put together.

42. Beacon

An atmospheric little platformer made for Ludum Dare 15 where you need to follow a lit beacon to navigate thru some blackened caverns or you fall into the endless darkness. Dev ChevyRav really did yeoman’s work with this little 48 hour gem—I’d love to see what he can do with more time to play with.

43. Scary Girl

This toylike action/puzzle/platformer is very pretty—in a sort of J. Otto Seibold/Henry Selick kind of way—and though there are some definite gameplay issues that many carped about upon its release, I personally found it engaging enough to put up with those flaws.

44. Use Boxmen

Awesomely animated 2d platformer by Greg Sergeant lets you multiply your character into doppelgangers that copy your actions to work your way through its 13 levels. Starts out deceptively simple before accelerating into a mind numbing difficulty.

45. Headspin: Storybook

This mirror puzzle visual alacrity game by developers State of Games is really just a wonder of gorgeous Flash animation. A casual change of pace from the hardcore gaming grind, the game is both beautiful and strangely addictive.

46. Nevermore 3

A Flash based adventure game that has some of the most unique art of any freebie I played this year. A wonderful attention to detail in the sound design also boosts this entrancing effort above the norm.

47. Mind Wall

Here’s a simple idea put to good solid use: chop holes in a colorful block wall so you can fit your own blocks through it. Not much more to it than that, and in this case that’s OK as the handful of levels offer a progressive challenge. The whole effort seems a little prototype-ish, but really: what do you want for nothin’?

48. Portal—The Flash Version

A great idea that should be done more often, this one deconstructs Valve’s well known AAA entry into a 2d flash game. The videogame remake reductionism genre seems to me to be ripe for lots of further exploration—with big time corporate games headed down the path of ever finer graphical detail, we’ll hopefully be looking more and more for independent devs to outline the underlying mechanics and structures that are really what make these things work.

49. Pyroblossom

Six levels of frenetic and pretty shoot-em-up style madness here in this Flash based outing. Play as pilot Red Rage taking on advancing and colorful hordes of planes and choppers and resort to the psycho mode when things get to be a bit much for you. Captivating.

50. Ergon/Logos

Another one from the Experimental Gameplay Projects minimalist competition, this one is like a browser based Flash version of futurist Paul Marinetti’s typographic experiments. If there was more interactive fiction that combined that sort of thing with an odd soundtrack that sounds like a Balinese gamelan band gone haywire, I’d be much less likely to flee in terror when I see that phrase come up.

51/52. WakerWoosh

A pair of prototypes from the ever interesting Singapore/MIT GAMBIT Game Lab designed to explain physics concepts to middle schoolers. One uses a narrative to get its points across, but the other is entirely abstract in nature. As you might expect, the gameplay is fairly simple, but these are efforts that might actually convince me that “edutainment” might have some use after all.

53. The Thing With 40 Eyes Girl

Ron Carmel of 2dBoy’s entry for the EGP minimal games compo, The Thing With 40 Eyes Girl is a Michael Jackson tribute involving flashing blocks you try to follow with mouseplay. It’s pretty disposably entertaining for a couple of playthroughs, but also a bit hard to follow at times. But for quickie minimalism with a beat, it’s just fine and dandy.

54. Upgrade Complete!

Do you ever get sick of the videogame trope that requires you to buy and add more equipment for your character to beat enemies and advance through its space? Well then, howzabout a metagame that pokes fun at that annoyance and requires you to buy everything—and I do mean everything—to reach the final screen? Antony’s wonderful tossed off commentary on the often pointless side of gaming speaks volumes about the pastime that we all lavish so much time on.

55. The Mushroom Engine

An experimental Mario-type platformer that starts with the conceit of beginning at the end screen and progressing—or is it regressing?—from there. You need to un-collect coins and un-kill enemies to finish. Reversing the arrow of time forces you to rethink the way you approach some standard game situations.

56. Effing Hail

Meteorological time wasting in this little Flash game by Intuition Games where your one mouse button goal is to make bigger and bigger hailstones to crash into planes and buildings and the like. I’ll echo the commenters’ notion that a sandbox mode would welcome, but even the time limited levels have enough entertainment value to keep one occupied for a time.

57. Iji

Am I cheating on this one since it mostly came out in 2008 even though version 1.5 dropped in July of ’09? You bet your ass I am, because far too few people played Swedish developer Daniel Remar’s lightly philosophical platform shooter last year. The mechanics are fairly standard 3rd person platform shooting and the story a typical alien invasion thing, and yet…Remar’s subtle and humorous ways of making you question the way you’re playing will have you wondering just who is the enemy here. Don’t miss.

58. Demolition CityDemolition City 2

Fun physics based demolition games that raise the question: why isn’t there a AAA sim or at least PSN/Xbox live game that uses this idea? You can’t tell me that a console version of a game where you roleplay as a dynamite setting team that brings down buildings could possibly lose money. In any case, both of these are ideal little while-away-the-time outings that keep the player into the action with a steadily ramped up challenge utilizing a drop dead simple mechanic.

59. Rabbit Wants Cake

Wind up rabbit seeks tasty cake in record/playback button puzzle venture that requires you to record your actions with the arrow keys before hitting play to see if you’ve properly guided your mechanical lagomorph to over to the yummy dessert. In normal mode you can also adjust your actions with sliders above the field of play—which admittedly sometimes feels more like editing than gameplay. But the bunny is so happy when he gets his cake, so that makes it all worth it.

60. Warfare 1944

Sure, OK, war is not a game. But this resource management WWII RTS that allows you to play as Allies or as Axis really delivers the goods for a freebie. Challenging, well made and downright f-u-n.

61. Puzzle Bloom

A stylish puzzle game for the Unity web player that was made by students at DADIU in a single month, which makes the outcome especially impressive. The puzzles are well constructed and the whole outing has a really heartfelt manner to it that renders it likeable and engaging. Can’t wait to see what these people go onto in the future.

62. Nice Cave!

A Ludum Dare cavern entry that sports excellent blocky graphics and seems to be a bit of a Doom/key collectfest parody. I loved the amusing dialog and the style in general—but I’ll admit that just like most FPS key hunting games, it made me a little motion sick and I eventually ended up running around yelling “where is the $#!?#%$@! orange key???”. Still fun.

63. The Walls Are Not Cheese

Created for the “Caverns” compo at Ludum Dare, this awesomely named little number distills its gameplay down to some of the most basic structural elements that mark the essence of the medium. Play as a colored square, battling other differently colored squares in a mysterious land below the earth!

64. Let’s Jump!

Flixel based platformer in which you jump from a plane and attempt to make it to the ground while avoiding all sorts of winged foes trying to do you in. The controls are wonky and a little tough to get a handle on, but the pure platformy goodness makes it worth a whirl.

65. Alchemia

Odd point and click platformer from Springtail Studios has interesting graphical style and a sonic landscape that combines minimal low key music with incidental sounds to great effect. Mainly about setting with not a lot to the dialogue, it’s a pretty to look at puzzler that’s intriguing for the time it takes.

66. Run, Elephant, Run

Yet another creation from the seemingly limitless mind of jmtb02 (aka John Cooney), this one is a bit more straight ahead than his meta-games (Achievement Unlocked, This Is the Only Level) but packs an entertaining wallop nonetheless. Get the ubiquitous elephant cross country to win in another lovingly crafted entry from one of today’s best Flash game designers.

67. Left 4k Dead

This one’s a true reductio ad absurdum that boils down a Valve classic even further than Hen Mazolski and Ido Tal’s Flash Portal does. The zombie shoot ’em up is taken and crammed into a puny 4 kb, and though that limitation means it’s not always that faithful an adaptation it remains an attention grabbing outing even so.

68. Primrose

The free version of Jason Rohrer’s tile and grid puzzler for the iPhone seems ridiculously simple at first but becomes more and more addictive and complex as time goes on. What I like most about this one is the lack of time limit in placing your colored tiles—it gives a leisurely and casual feel to a type of game that is generally more frenetic and stressful.

69. Fat Slice

An excellent diminutive Flash puzzler where you slice down shapes with your mouse without running into the bouncing ball inside it. The 16 or so levels available make for a nice quick lunchtime spin through.

70. I Love Traffic

Test your timing and wreak havoc on the roads in this auto mayhem crashfest. It’s really as simple as that, and there are sure times that we all just need some basic arcadey action from this pastime.

71. Icebreaker

A physics based browser game from Nitrome, Icebreaker utilizes a drag-your-mouse-to-cut mechanic which you then use to free Vikings from ice in an escalating series of challenges. A fairly straight ahead brainteaser but performed well—though I could have lived without the slight pseudo steel band/reggae soundtrack.

72. Ore no Ryomi 2

Along with the “deconstructed games” model evinced by things like Flash and ASCII Portal, another freeware trend that I’d like to see more of is something like this—a sequel to an older game whose development seems to have halted. (Hopefully someone out there is working on a freeware SSX or Rayman platformer). The game in question here is a Japanese restaurant/business sim for Playstation that never got a domestic release. While Vertigo’s graphics for this are pretty crude, the gameplay mechanic is action packed and engaging as you manage customers in a food service sim.

73. Chessmine + Chessmine II

While dev Event Cascade claims not to even like his own games, from this corner a repurposing of chess into a puzzle game that uses the set of rules you’ve already internalized for the historic game is quite damned brilliant. Though these efforts are short and a bit scattered, there’s enough of a nugget of genius herein to make you wish he’d buckle down and give these games the attention they would seem to deserve.

74. Money Seize

The concept of this platformer breaks little new ground—your money grubbing character needs to collect coins while avoiding creatures that kill him when touched—but the execution is spot on enough to make the endeavor a blast. It’s slightly unforgiving since a single mishap in a level will result in a coin spewing death, but the game’s verve and humor will keep you reloading time after time.

75. Time Fcuk

Edmund McMillen’s existential dystopian platformer is a thoughtful puzzlefest that has you playing as a robot able to manipulate dimensions who is also trapped in time and constantly texts you from the past/future (?).The difficulty ramps up a bit abruptly at times, but TF’s a good solid freebie with a unique mise-en-scene. Add in the fact that the game allows for user generated content and you’ve got yourself a real winner.

76. The Company of Myself

Eli Polinen’s clever platformer stars a lonely soul who states in an opening allegory that “I used to find joy in the company of others. Now I have only the company of myself”. To that end, this hermit must navigate the world and overcome its obstacles by duplicating his own self, using the shadow runs that result to bootstrap himself past whatever comes his way. Clearly inspired by Braid, this quality piece nonetheless has its own charms—thoughtful puzzles, a fitting piano score and touching narrative among them.

77. How To Raise a Dragon

Greg Weir’s lo-fi dragon raising RPG pares the genre down to the sparest elements possible but also brings his digital storytelling skills to the forefront. As the titular character, the choices you make through the tale’s four chapters vary the narrative in different ways with everything unfolding with an affective and amusing air. Another success from a game designer whose every outing seemingly moves the medium forward.

78. Cursor Chaos

Ninjadoodle’s pure, unadulterated arcade reflex challenge is made up of 42 rapid fire levels for the player as you race through attempting to garner the fastest time. The essence of a good, solid pickup and play lunchtime game.

79. Plants vs Zombies Flash Version

Now this here, THIS is like giving out free samples of crack to schoolkids. Popcap’s evil genius surfaces again as the Flash version of their brilliantly balanced tower defense game draws you and leaves you needing more when you get cut off. We’ll see if you have the willpower to resist the purchase version after you play through the 14 levels the company is giving away here.

80. Runman; Race Around the World

Tom Sennett and Matt Thorson’s candy colored platformer is a wonder to behold, a no holds barred excursion into sidescrolling excitement. A simple, childlike art style and brilliant old Americana tune soundtrack backstop gameplay that allows any entrant to pick up and play but still gives the hardcore a means to prove their twitchworthiness. Spectacular.

81. Sowlar

An Indiecade finalist that came out of a Digipen team’s assignment to create an ASCII style game, Sowlar is a casualesque farming sim that hearkens back to the earlier days of computer games with its stripped down aesthetic. While Sowlar doesn’t do anything remarkably unique, the attention paid to details like ease of use and interface design make this a fine take on the Harvest Moon style genre.

82. William and Sly

In many ways, the basic platformer is really my most favorite type of videogame, and this one is a heartfelt and eminently playable piece about a man and his fox. It’s all a bit twee, but its evergreen montane setting is note perfect and the attention paid to the sound design aids greatly in making the surroundings work.

83. Crush the Castle

A browser based trebuchet game that reminds me a fair bit of Demolition City, in that the levels are based on figuring out the physics of knocking down structures. Developer Armor Games also allows players to build and upload their own castles, adding some user created fun into the mix.

84. Protonaut

A really unique chemistry based physics platformer that has you collecting gases while avoiding bonds and metals. The faux mouth harp soundtrack thing sure gets pretty old right quick (though it is mute-able), but the game itself is fresh and fun in its own little way.

85. Finwick

Pure platforming goodness here from developer Jackson Lewis as he gives away the first 26 levels of this leisurely paced mail delivering game. High quality art spruces up the somewhat warmed over gameplay mechanics and helps make this intro to the game well worth taking a shot on.

86. Small Worlds

David Shute’s entry into Casual Gameplay Competition #6 is an enthralling 15 minute minimal exploration game featuring beautifully blocky graphics, well paced wayfinding that draws you in and a fitting background soundtrack. The ending is a little problematic to my mind, but the rest features some of the most tempting exploration that I found in any game during this calendar year.

87. Gretel and Hansel

A fine example of interpreting public domain works into videogame form, this one takes the classic Grimm fairy tale and weaves it into a nice point and click adventure. The experience of the world is conveyed beautifully with foreboding, oboe-dominated music backstopping some lovely drab palletted artwork that echoes early cut-out animation in style. Altogether a great and interesting little package from developer Makopudding.

88. Calligraphic

A light little platformer by Mateusz Skutnick where you are a lexagraphic avatar working your way through the usual jumping puzzles to get to the exit without dying. The main attraction here is the substitution of a word-as-the-thing-in-itself in representing the sorts of objects you are used to encountering in this type of venture.

89. Super Karoshi

Episode 5 in Jesse Venbrux’ suicide series again has you acting as a salaryman out to impale himself on spikes thru 60 levels of business office hell. The design here strikes me as looking at games at much the same way as Cooney’s This Is the Only Level—there’s a constant assessment of the rules involved to pass a particular stage, and only sizing up the situation will allow you to die and move on. This is, of course, itself a complete and total subversion of the normal approach to advancing in videogames—that alone recommends this one.

90. How My Grandfather Won the War

The beautiful cardboard cutout look and low key, two chord music belie just how tricky this “casual” game really is. Piloting a plane that can spew paint which turns treacherous ground to blue sky, you’ll try to maneuver your craft through some of the most original videogame environments you’re likely to see this year. Unfortunately, you’ll also die. A lot.

91. Neverdaunt 8-bit

Now in beta, this amazing indie MMORPG has some issues but transcends with style and approach. Traipse around a boxy pixelated world building things and swordfighting with others, earning tokens by building out cells and learning how to perform actions like megajumping. It’s all a bit confusing and not a little buggy (though it is a beta, so this is to be expected), but even simply signing up just to take a stroll around the fantastically imagined world is well worth the cost in time.

92. Turba

While chances are this’ll eventually be some sort of paid game, this entrant into a 2Bee games contest packs enough musical block puzzling in it to warrant a mention here. The gameplay involves selecting colored blocks to the dulcet tones of whatever music you choose and eliminating them before the screen fills up. Other obstacles are thrown at you along the way, and the end result is a nice puzzler to while away the time.

93. Underworld Trip

Extremely lo-fi platform browser trip to the Land of the Dead by Japan’s Nekogames. The absurdly crude graphics end up quite charming and the game’s funeral soundtrack adds the right touch of background for your stint in the land below the earth.

94. Little Wheel

A nice ten minute adventure game with a slick look to it. Very well executed and with a sense of honest simplicity that infuses the whole venture.

95. Umbrella Adventure

From HiVE, creators of the excellent free time management game Waxy’s Sushi Party now comes this gigantic and beautifully hand drawn platformer. There are some gameplay issues—for one, I don’t really want to engage in the sort of endless collectathon that got tiresome in platformers years ago—but the quality of art style and amount of free content on display here make it a game deserving of perusal.

96. Mountain Maniac

Here’s a nice, relaxing retro flash game that acts largely as a sort of pixellated quincunx board. Your lumberjack avatar hammers out big rocks that then course down the side of a mountain pachinko-style, pancaking everything in its path. Players who want everything to be skill based may object to the general amount of luck involved in the outcome, but gamers willing to give a little control over to chance should find the destructive gameplay a diversionary enjoyment.

97. Balbodro

Indonesian dev Yohanes Suyanto brings us this well crafted ball-drop game, a casual pleasure in which you draw boxes with your mouse causing colored balls to drop on squares of the same hue. Surprisingly habit-forming for such a simple concept, the maker’s creatively minimal score also helps to make Balbodro a chromatic pleasure.

98. A Mazing Monk

Though it’s a pretty short venture, A Mazing Monk displays great thought and high quality animations throughout its short stint. Created by students at DADIU and a 2010 IGF Student entrant, the game is a smart puzzler in which you seek enlightenment by rotating a Rubik’s cube-esque platform around to avoid obstacles and seek an exit.

99. The Black Forest

Pixelated’s December 2009 experimental episodic game is an attempt to put together 4 weeks of games with differing mechanics to—in the developer’s words—“create emotional experiences that are more personal and different from the ones traditional game design has to offer”. It’s happily tutorial-less, and though as I write this only the first two exploratory worlds have been released there’s enough even there to allow for inclusion on this list.

If you liked the 99 games on the list above, here’s a whole bunch of other spots that you should check out to keep up with what’s coming for free:

December Supplemental

December 23rd, 2009 | Posted by Ben Abraham in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on December Supplemental)

Due to holidays, travel and work commitments, I haven’t been present for much of the online goings-on of the past week or so. In lieu of a proper TWIVGB last week, here’s a mid-week supplemental edition with the caveat that I haven’t read or even necessarily checked to see that they’re all in English. We are in the collective hands of anyone and everyone who has emailed, twittered and sent in links over the past two weeks.

Gerard Delaney points out an excellent post over at BitMob, about Storytelling.

David Carlton recommends: Dan C’s post “Game Design as Government”.

Lyndon Warren suggests this opinion piece by Christian Ward of The Escapist is worth reading: it’s called “Going Gold – practicalities makes perfect”.

In the emails, Aaron Sexton lets us know that he’s written something about Modern Warfare 2. Brian Longtin is also writing about MW2, calling it the ‘Most Right-Wing Game of the Decade’.

Mike Hanus has started a blog and wants you to know about it: “Cue Explosion”. Grayson Davis has done the same, with ‘Beeps and Boops’.

Jason Killingsworth dropped us a line to let us know that Paste Magazine is now running a gaming column called “Start Press” the first entry being “Hey Mr. DJ” about DJ Hero. I played DJ Hero while on my coastal holiday. I think it’s telling that we gave up and went back to Guitar Hero 3, but Killingsworth might disagree.

Jun Shen Chia responds to Trenk Polack’s ‘Ode to Far Cry 2’ and my own epic novel ‘Permanent Death’, by looking at all the things worth criticising about Far Cry 2.

With readers like ours, we’re in safe hands.

A reminder that for all TWIVGB posts (except for last week, which was an accident) on Critical Distance comments are turned off by default to encourage discussion on the original entries, and we can always be reached via the contact page.

So called ‘real life’ reasserts it’s dominance again this week, forcing my hand into writing TWIVGB a little earlier than I usually do. Apologies if I miss anything particularly noteworthy from the week, and you can always get in touch to let me know about the more egregious omissions.

Reader and contributor Eric Swain does a fantastic job of sending me links, this week being no exception. In the week before last, Daniel Bullard-Bates writing for the criminally underrated ‘Press Pause to Reflect’ blog discusses Mitch Krpata’s own piece on the minimalism of Uncharted 2 which we linked in TWIVGB a few weeks gone. Bullard-Bates expands on Krpata’s thesis and looks at other games that do (or don’t) ascribe to a similar minimalist game design aesthetic.

The Borderhouse blog continues steaming ahead, and I was pointed towards an excellent post about ‘character versus gameplay’. Relating an anecdote where a player picked a character they identified with only to be frustrated by the unique rules applicable, the author discussed the void between character and gameplay:

[The in game character] may have represented her in the way she would like to be perceived, but [that character’s] rules/style didn’t represent her as a player.  This disconnect may have lead her to have a poor experience with the game because the game didn’t reward her for how she likes to play.

Charles J Pratt writes about ‘The Jungle of the Real’ and the blurry, contested line that separates the ‘real’ from the ‘fictional’ in a game.

There is a way in which part of every game is real. Perhaps rules are arbitrary, but what’s more important is that the consequences of those rules are not. When we play a game we pretend that we have certain constraints on our behavior, but the actions we take and the decisions we make as a result of those constraints are not pretense. Instead they are the explorations of the logical space of possibility that’s generated by the arbitrary rules we’ve adopted.

Denis Farr continues his obsession with Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origins, turning the spotlight of his personal blog’s series on LGBT characters onto Zevran. Looks like no one will be winning the TWIVGB pool this week.

After a protracted absence, The Runner finishes its lengthy jog. For our more recent readers, The Runner is a first-person account of Mirrors Edge that blends image, story and game critique together into one big delicious mix.

LB Jeffries wrote a piece at the Moving Pixels blog about the novels of Philip. K. Dick and what they can tell us about our relationship with videogames.

Richard Clark at Christ and Pop Culture writes about the 2009 that was and ‘How gaming changed us’ – essentially, it’s one person’s picks of some of the trends that have cropped up time and again this year.

Conversation across the blogspohere is a wonderful thing so here’s Eric Swain responding to Danc of Lost Garden’s post we linked to last week. Dem’s fightin’ words!

Finally, Matthew Burns-nee-Wasteland seems to have taken up Duncan Fyfe’s mantle for unconventional, non-essay style criticism, this week explicating an all too believable situation from a game developers point of view in ‘Soft Body Dynamics‘.

I’ll be out of town next week so if we don’t see you before, have a merry festive season and a great new year.

A reminder that for all TWIVGB posts on Critical Distance comments are turned off by default to encourage discussion on the original entries, and we can always be reached via the contact page.

December 6th

December 6th, 2009 | Posted by Ben Abraham in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on December 6th)

Time again for another instalment of This Week In Videogame Blogging – but first a quick preface. I want to apologise to all the people who have emailed links over the past few months with and suggestions to pieces of critical writing. Most of the time I haven’t responded, but I do get them and I appreciate all of them. So if I didn’t include yours in a weekly roundup it’s probably because I didn’t think it was quite appropriate, but please don’t let that discourage you from sending them in the future – even links to your own writing and criticism – as I rely on a whole network of people for most of the new discoveries I make.

Onwards, to this week’s worth reading articles: David Wildgoose of Kotaku Australia uses a Gamasutra interview with a trio of the games industry’s leading comedy writers to spin off into a discussion of how and why some games manage to pull off humor while so many others fail.

From Critical Distance editor David Carlton comes this winning trifecta of recommendations: The first, of a vintage slightly older than this week, is by Terri of Geek Feminism who discusses the always interesting issue of ‘Casual versus Hardcore’. The second, by Danc of Lost Garden, concerns ‘Three false constraints’ that bound the current discussion of the future direction of videogames. He notes that,

…single player game mechanics may never become a populist technique for saying meaningful things about the human condition.

Third and finally, Carlton recommended this strange videogame oddity – someone has written the equivalent of a small novel about their time spent playing Far Cry 2 in an ‘ironmode’ style. Why would anyone ever do such a thing?

Dan Bruno this week has an alternative take on genre, positing that “a video game genre elucidates how and where a gamer’s skills will transfer between similar titles.” An interesting way of looking at it.

Let’s get a pool going – when will the next TWIVGB without a post about Dragon Age: Origins be? Not this week, as Denis Farr in his Gay Gamer column writes about “Romancing Zevran” in a discussion of the romantic options for gay male characters in Dragon Age: Origins.

Jim Rossignol pointed out this week that Zombies are getting a bit passé as generic ‘guilt free’ videogame enemies. His half-serious suggestion is that Giant Robots could be the next big thing, but my money is on Aliens coming back into fashion. Maybe we could get a second pool going?

If you’ll recall, last week I mentioned that the new blog Borderhouse was one to watch. For those of us watching they certainly haven’t disappointed coming up with a plethora of interesting things to read this week. Here’s one, taking a look at the phenomena of the platemail bikini, but there’s a bunch more also worth taking a look at.

Cary at the ‘Play Like A Girl’ blog saw a rather questionable advertisement by Sony for Uncharted 2 and was justifiably annoyed with it. She says,

…no, this is not the most horrible commercial in the world but it is an enforcement of some very strong and very persistent stereotypes. All I’m saying is, life’s good outside of the mold.

Dan Kline writes about replayability, and how most definitions of ‘game’ don’t come close to mentioning that a game must be “replayable” and yet he rightly notes that many people consider it an important part of what makes a good game. A lot of food for thought in here.

In Andrew Vanden Bossche’s latest Game, Set, Watch column he writes about what makes Faith form Mirrors Edge a memorable character.

Have a look at this; Trent Polack has imagined transcribed a conversation from the early days of film. It’s well served by its brevity, and I initially thought it was some sort of parody. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Michael Abbott has been playing Assassin’s Creed II this week and he wonders about dialect and language, specifically;

When Shakespeare says we’re in Milan, what does that mean? Are we all, audience included, now Milanese too?

I have no problem with reading subtitles and foreign language films, in fact often preferring them, and I’ll take authentic performances over dubbing any day.

Lastly, lots of people and outlets are doing or have end-of-decade lists, and Mitch Krpata is doing the same.

Ten Years of Penny ArcadeCompiling a tribute compilation of the past ten years of Penny Arcade is not an exact science. My first impulse was to organize everything by chronological order, but because so many of the comics are topical that format rapidly falls apart. How many people are still going to get a Tribes gag? What about the 7th or 8th one? Does John Romero even make games anymore? Penny Arcade is a work based in the events of the day, more time capsule than timeless. It’s a bit like the comic’s name itself, a dated reference to a bygone form of gaming. There’s a Roy Orbison song about the penny arcades from the 1950’s where he sings about all the lights and music going on around you. He describes going to one like having a dream, like being “lost in a sea of glass and tin”. The web comic Penny Arcade sticks with that theme by offering its own enormous library of different styles, topics, and characters.

In terms of plotlines, there aren’t any. Sometimes Gabe & Tycho live in a house together, sometimes they have kids, and sometimes they aren’t even in the comic. The two characters read like the descriptions from Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of Gamers. Gabe is the Killer/Achiever while Tycho is the Wizard/Socializer. At E3 in 2003 Tycho is obsessing over game design ideas while Gabe gets ready to attack the Bungie booth for Halo 2’s sins. Gabe’s love of awful word puns is only matched by Tycho’s wordy sense of humor. Like Bartle’s argument that a solid multiplayer game must have all four archetypes to be successful, the comic’s coherence comes from the interplay between the two. Gabe is willing to make anything competitive, even a game like Crayon Physics. Tycho’s immense knowledge of all things fantasy leaves him with his own neurotic tendencies, like correcting the notion that Warhammer is ripping off Warcraft. These are the archetypes of people who play video games. Whether it’s explaining a game’s story or barking on Xbox Live for someone to bring it, these are roles that all of us have assumed at one point or another.

Part of what makes their character work is also the tiny dashes of personality that go into each one. These aren’t just cookie cutter stereotypes, they are fleshed out with the personal details of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins. Gabe’s numerous Kenny Rogers fantasies or Tycho’s father-son bonding are just a few examples of the quirks that embellish their stories. In the podcasts they explain that they’ve always thought of them as characters, extensions of themselves rather than representations. They look completely different from their creators and act in ways they never could in real life. It’s that unique relationship that makes Gabe & Tycho apt for a video game comic because they are their creator’s avatars. They are projecting themselves into the roles in that same fashion everyone does while playing a game or role playing in a live gathering.

This notion of Gabe and Tycho being extensions of Holkins and Krahulik plays out in their depiction of games. There is a distinct division between the comics where they depict their characters in the game and where they are depicting the game’s characters. There is always that theme of projection into an identity, only this time with hilarious results. The hellish repetition of Phantasy Star Online is only made worse when Gabe sternly reminds Tycho that they can’t quit because they’re almost Level 26. Another example where they’re both inside the game is Gabe playing with the face feature in Tiger Woods just to freak Tycho out. An awkward feature where in-game advertising is based on what you’ve been searching leads to a bizarre disparity between their billboards. A great strip on the three types of Halo 2 players maintains the multi-colored look of Master Chief. I’m not trying to claim any kind of uniformity, just that their comics are constantly playing with becoming someone in a virtual world. A rip on Splinter Cell has everyone drawn as their avatars appear in the game, same as their World of Warcraft comics. Identity and role play in these games is something you phase in and out of.

Strips where they embellish the characters of the game’s themselves often poke at the surrealistic issues of trying to stay in-character in these games as well. The notion of shopping while zombie shooting in Resident Evil 4 is adjusted to have a slightly more realistic response. The grinding idiocy of a badly translated JRPG like Grandia III culminates in telling the happy-sunshine-flower-healer that you hope she dies on the second disc. Struggling with Yorda’s A.I. in ICO or Final Fantasy Tactics Advance’s insane Judge system are all written from the perspective of characters trying to realistically engage with these game’s scenarios. The long elevator trips in Mass Effect are questioned while the NPC’s offering you DLC-only quests in Dragon Age bring out the hilarity of someone trying to stay in-character in a video game. Even the reality of being a henchmen in a game like Ninja Gaiden or two colossi from Shadow of the Colossus chatting about their glowing weak points flesh out these perspectives. The joke being, if we’re all losing ourselves in these simulations, how much of this are we just blindly accepting? My personal favorite is still their take on Professor Layton. Tycho sums the game up pretty well when he complains, “Nobody in this Goddamn game will help me unless I do their fucking math homework.”

What makes Penny Arcade’s work impressive is also their relative financial immunity from the industry. A Seattle Times article explains that after a few months of working independently a business manager named Robert Khoo offered to help them get organized. They were able to subsist solely on advertising and merchandise after that point, something made even more remarkable because they are actually picky about what ads they will run. Despite hosting ads for the Prince of Persia sequel, they were disappointed by the final product. They now insist on playing some version of a game before hosting advertising. Events like PAX, book collections, and merchandise all help them keep things going. In an essay in their first collection of comics Attack of the Bacon Robots! Holkins explains, “Readers will take care of you. I’m speaking from personal experience. They won’t rest; they’ll invent a way to do it. And if you aren’t meeting them halfway, your archives open, if you are not inviting a person into your work, I’m prepared to say that you aren’t making Webcomics.”

What this situation creates are two people with a very large soap box who are willing to call people out on their bullshit. After reading middling reviews of Donkey Konga 2 back in 2005, one of the early rhythm games, Tycho writes, “I’ll tell you that I’m tired of hearing every person who reviews the fucking game tell me what kinds of music they don’t like. I don’t give a flying fuck what kind of music you listen to. What I want to know is if these new songs provide interesting, original rhythms I can play solo or with my friends when they come over.” When Gabe gets angry about the harsher reviews of Assassin’s Creed he comments, “I don’t read game reviews. I honestly don’t see any reason to. It’s not hard to rent a game and see for yourself if it’s any good. I don’t know why I should care what number someone I don’t know and will never meet has attached to the latest game.” They also aren’t particularly sympathetic to the pangs of print media’s demise. Or even most people’s reactions to print magazines today. When Tycho writes a few paragraphs describing what a game is like, he does so with the understanding that your own opinion is perfectly valid. In 2007 he explains, “If I had to state the difference between our approach and others, it’s that we seem to understand that we are simply expressing an opinion. The age of the psychic reviewer shaman is over. You should never allow a meaningless, arbitrary integer promulgated by an arbitrary voice who came to power arbitrarily make decisions for you.”

They’ve also picked their fair share of fights with people outside of the gaming scene. When Wiley from Non-Sequitur criticized web media Gabe doesn’t hesitate to tear into him for being old and not understanding technology. Their feud with Scott McCloud’s vision of web comics is epic and spans years. When it sparked up again four years later in 2005 over a documentary Tycho wrote, “Every time I see some book or video purporting to represent “our scene” it’s a Goddamn cavalcade of Scott McCloud acolytes singing one Goddamn note. Scott McCloud’s great contribution? He championed a bold new high-tech way for artists to be poor…Everyone has always been able to make “challenging” incoherent art that no-one cared about. And now, with the Internet, more people can not care about it than ever.” Their exchanges with Jack Thompson started off innocuously enough but after his challenge to name one good thing that video games have done, Penny Arcade countered with the Child’s Play charity and it’s enormous contribution to children’s hospitals. Thompson responded with his usual crazed antics. After Penny Arcade wrote a sharp satire of the media blaming video games for a crazed teen’s violent outburst, it led to a touching e-mail from the kid’s step-mother explaining that he was always a “lying sociopathic asshole”. Other moments, like the Todd Goldman fiasco, shows their willingness to engage in the only justice that really exists on the internet: spreading the word.

Tracking through their commentary on gamer culture shows that they cast their net wide when mocking its curious tenants. The startling effects of playing System Shock 2 or the ridiculous size of the original Xbox Controller are all lampooned. The early days of online play were raw, brutal experiences where weapons weren’t automatically handed to you but instead had to be found on a map. This problem was fixed pretty quickly as people got off the dreaded dial-up, but the slur of ‘camping’ persisted well beyond its actual meaning. Before Warcraft III had even been out for a month online play already resembled “burly men raping you”. At first the comic only made a few stray gags about Everquest, but eventually World of Warcraft would change all that. There are over a dozen comics about that game, so I’ll just post this one about couples playing together to give the gist of their take on it.

Their lampooning of the console wars both back in the early days and this generation are all on par, as is their comic about the sad truth of the Wii’s promise of physical immersion. When the long lines were forming for the PS3, they didn’t hesitate to point out that the Xbox360 was still available with far more games – not that the Xbox gets left off the hook, they’ve been mocking the juvenile behavior and even downright creepiness of Xbox Live for years. And let’s not forget the empty wasteland that is Playstation Home

Helping all of this commentary stay varied are the numerous series and side-stories in the strip. One of the longest running characters, Fruit Fucker, has done everything from defeat zombies to star in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Tycho’s niece Annarchy has had her own series along with cameos in their games as an NPC and summon attack. One of my personal favorites is the Div X, an outdated and drunk piece of technology that was obsolete before they even started posting him in strips. Krahulik explains in the footnote in Bacon Robots that Div “represents the hypermasculine impulse we strive to repress.” There’s a lot of Div comics to pick from, but this one always gets a laugh out of me. 2009 saw the release of two major side-stories, the Lookouts and the grim techno-noir Automata. Both stories are only a couple of strips long, telling their stories in just the right amount to make you interested in more if it ever comes up. The Cardboard Tube Samurai, which began from one humble comic into having a Tekken appearance, continues to produce short poetic stories. There’s also a lot of weird crap that doesn’t really fit into any category. Did Twisp & Catsby ever make that much sense? Penny Arcade’s willingness to indulge its own whims is often present, like the insistence on dragging the zombie gag out for years…and years.

Their side-projects are all impressive as well. After years of tearing into video game magazines they were sharp enough to brace themselves for the payback that would come when their own game came out. On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness is interesting because as a game, it doesn’t fall into the classic mistake of trying too hard. They could have easily tried to create something ridiculous and unworkable to prove that they know everything about games. Instead, it’s a solid time-based action RPG that lets you appear in a Penny Arcade strip with Tycho and Gabe. After seeing the game’s reviews Gabe acknowledges that liking Penny Arcade is a love it or hate it proposition. He writes, “We’re really just lucky that enough people enjoy fruit fuckers and deep crows to let us make a living off this.” Other projects like the amazing charity Child’s Play have collected over 5 million dollars in donations and toys for children’s hospitals. They’ve even recently begun a Scholarship Program. The PAX Conventions have gone on long enough to spawn their own DVD documentaries and soundtracks. They are both testaments to the enormous fanbase of Penny Arcade and their willingness to be more than just fans. In a comic about supporting a landmark game like Braid Tycho writes, “The reality is that we can create the kind of culture we want…We can be the people who find and nurture truly original ideas when they emerge, or we can lament the sorry state of the medium. We can be consumers, or we can be curators.” That’s something Penny Arcade has always taken to heart in their charity and convention work. They don’t just talk about gaming culture, they actively try to shape it.

Critical reaction to the group has been both positive and negative over the years from more than just burned developers and journalists. Penny Arcade often comes across as a stereotype of gamers because they were the ones who helped shape the stereotype in the first place. The early years had their fair share of gay jokes that left a lot of people who loved games ostracized. Yet a spirit of inclusiveness that PixelVixen 707 praised them for has always led to improvements. Karen Healey writes at Cerise Magazine, “Ethically and aesthetically, Penny Arcade has improved considerably over its many years. The gay jokes disappear, and the humour remains, a pointed reminder that homophobia is not necessary for hilarity. Tycho’s niece Annarchy appears; a girl who games, but who doesn’t slot into any stereotypical Girl Gamer category. And just when I think that they have gone one fruit-fucking joke too far, they pull out something like this Gary Gygax Tribute. It’s perfect; absurd, sincere, and touching.”

Last, but not least, are the things that Penny Arcade created which really are timeless. Like the secret behind Andrew Ryan’s golf swing, Gabe’s declaration that there is a statute of limitations on spoilers is something people are still claiming today. Probably the comic’s greatest meme is still John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which accurately describes pretty much everyone on the internet. And then there are the more honest, touching moments. Krahulik’s worries about anxiety medication are addressed in a comic. He discusses it openly in a later post. In a podcast he comments on the hundreds of e-mails he got from readers with similar issues that were comforted in knowing they were not alone. Being willing to really put themselves in their comic personas has always been the thing that kept the series engaging. But to go so far as to propose online? That’s a degree of openness not many could manage on the internet.

There are so many things you can talk about with this series. The amazing improvements Krahulik’s artwork has made in ten years and the creative opportunities Holkins has seized on for great side-stories shows they are both capable of consistent adaptation. It’s a good thing too, because processing the enormous amount of information that comes with being a video game critic is no easy task. There are the games that must be played, the online matches that need to be experienced, and the constant flow of blog chatter that must be filtered through. Penny Arcade is a constant barrage of new ideas and commentary because gaming culture itself is this way. As Roy Orbison sang about visiting the now faded penny arcades of yesterday, “Hey step up and play each machine seemed to say, as I walked round and round the penny arcade…And the music played at the penny arcade, yes it played and it played, played all the time!”

[Updated: December 4, 2009 various corrections]

November 29th

November 29th, 2009 | Posted by Ben Abraham in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on November 29th)

What with new games to play, steam sales to snap up bargains from, and the never-ending deluge of solid games criticism it’s been a tough week to stay on top of it all. As always, please consider sending links to the Critical Distance twitter account.

Quintin Smith is a games journalist type, and here’s part 2 and part 3 of his advice to future games journalist types, “What not to say”.

Paul Bauman writing on his destructoid blog says that “gaming…appears to be entering the awkward, slowly evolutionary, “teenage” phase of its development“. It’s an interesting point he raises about the emerging bifurcation in game development, and argues that the indie game scene’s rise has contributed to,

…some very productive and encouraging moments of critical dissonance where expectations developed in one arena have been brought to bear upon the other.

This is something I had never really thought about before. For example – it makes sense to me that I’d bring the lessons and expectations about games I’ve gleaned from The Passage, World of Goo, et al. to bear on any reading and analysis of, say, Gears of War. But there are a lot of people who’d balk at the idea, I’m sure, and that’s kind of interesting in itself.

Steve Gaynor wrote this week about whether games should bother trying to get out of the ‘cultural ghetto’, saying,

And then I start to wonder, seriously, why do we care if the world at large cares about us? Why do we need the cultural legitimacy merit badge? And I start to wonder if it’s not all just insecurity on our part. And if maybe we’re not seeing the value and beauty of the space we’re in because we’re too busy looking over the fence at Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles.

Emily Short writes about HBO’s efforts at telling a story through interactive media in HBO Imagine. The takeaway:

…my real point is this: interactive storytelling — even when it’s not meant to be a game — still needs a game designer. It needs someone who will think about what the reader/player is supposed to do, and what that action means, and how it contributes to the story being told.

Two pieces this week from Michael Clarkson on Dragon Age: Origins, the first an examination of the segregation tactics employed by the games numerous races and cultures, the second about social rigidity in the game and how the game’s story says one thing and the game’s mechanics say another:

To varying degrees this kind of social rigidity appears in almost every social group in the game (except the elves). Through its dialogue and plot, Dragon Age: Origins repudiates these systems, but in its mechanics it supports them.

Gamasutra’s editor-at-large, Chris Remo, goes ‘Looking for Meaning in Games’.

Trent Polack writes about why Far Cry 2 is his game of the decade, and as any that know me will attest, I can’t disagree.

Please excuse the auto-fellatio of linking to something from myself, but I noticed a few people seem to have found it interesting so that’s good enough for TWIVGB – here’s a lengthy treatise on all the things I could find to criticise about Left 4 Dead 2 from my personal blog. The fact that so many are trifling issues speaks volumes.

David Carlton writes a big essay about his experience with Burnout Paradise.

And lastly for the week, I wanted to point readers to a brand new group videogame blog called The Borderhouse. If its roster of writers is anything to go by, it should be quite the one to watch.

Help fly Ben to GDC!

November 23rd, 2009 | Posted by David Carlton in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Help fly Ben to GDC!)

Ben Abraham, the editor-in-chief of Critical Distance, has been prolific through the video game blogosphere for the last couple of years, through his individual work, his discussions in others’ blogs and fora, and his work here on Critical Distance highlighting others’ writings.  Because of this, his absence at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year was sorely felt: it’s the center of in-person discussion of the art of game design, and I’m quite sure that Ben would have dug up discussions and perspectives that I completely missed.

So Michael Abbott and I decided that we wanted to do something about this, and have drafted Ben to serve as a sort of roving correspondent at GDC.  Ben has graciously agreed; in a further happy coincidence, Gamasutra is kindly providing an all-access pass for Ben at GDC 2010 as part of the agreement that allows them to republish Ben’s This Week in Videogame Blogging posts.

That gets the single largest expense out of the way; there are others, however, most notably the plane flight from Australia to the United States.  Which is where you, Critical Distance’s readers, come in.  We need to raise $1100 dollars to pay for that plane flight; if you’ve gotten something out of Ben’s writings here or elsewhere, if you’re as curious as I am to see what he’ll produce after a trip to GDC, please chip in (perhaps the cost of the last video game you bought, but any amount is welcome) and help bring that about.

You can do that by clicking on the widget below.  It’s a bit flaky, so you may not see your contribution show up immediately; I assure you that all contributions are being recorded, and I’ll make sure to e-mail you to confirm your donation.

On behalf of the staff of Critical Distance, I thank you in advance for your support.

November 22

November 22nd, 2009 | Posted by Ben Abraham in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on November 22)

"Remember, non-Français"In the middle of the torrent of newly released games, Andrew Smale, aka gatmog, writes instead about the six-month old game Prototype in a post titled, “Prototype: With Great Power Comes No Responsibility”. His thesis – that “Prototype is advertised as a “superhero” video game. But Alex Mercer is no hero. He isn’t even an anti-hero. He is a plague on humanity.”

Clint Hocking writes “On Auteurship in Games” in response to a NY Times article discussing games as an art form and the rise of the indie auteur. Hocking critiques the article’s conflation of the issues of authorship and the medium’s status as an art form. Auteur theory has, I know, been discussed by others before, most notably to my mind by Mitch Krpata.

Matthew Armstrong writes as SnakeLinkSonic, and this week he writes about ‘sexual sadism’, continuing to reprise an older series of his posts on videogames as art.

GIBiz’s Matt Martin reports on research that finds ‘Marketing influences game revenue three times more than high scores’, and noting that, “the research came to the same conclusion; marketing is more important than game quality.” That’s a little bit depressing for game critics everywhere, but also for game developers themselves, as the original article notes.

Lyndon Warren takes a look at Dragon Age’s generic fantasy setting and takes a detour through contemporary fantasy writing trends, coming up with some interesting parallels.

Freed from the burden of creating interesting creatures or metaphysical systems of magic recent fantasy writers have instead decided to reflect on the complexity of the real world. …Which is what Dragon Age does, the world of Ferelden isn’t anything you haven’t seen before but its people and themes are. At least for a videogame they’re pretty original.

One of our readers sent this link in and its well worth sharing with you here – it’s the classic arcade game Outrun and the author’s thesis is that it was not so much a racing game as one about the whole driving experience.

Out Run is about driving, not racing. It is not about tense competition or white-knuckle action, though it does demand skill and precision. It is not about compiling good lap times or practicing the best line on a sequence of curves. What it is about, as the Wikipedia article so deftly puts it, is “luxury and relaxation.”

Never let it be said that there’s nothing to learn from older games.

One of the newer games criticism blogs around, featured on TWIVGB before, is Nicholas Shurson’s Form8 blog. His piece on BraidPlay for absolution’ made its way to me through two different channels this week, so does that make it doubly worth reading? You tell me.

Matthew Kaplan has been busy this week, soliciting comments from various game critic types about the Modern Warfare 2 ‘No Russian’ level, and I have myself a little bit to say in part one, alongside a number of humblingly intelligent comments. There’s also a part two, featuring yet more. And if that’s not enough people saying things about ‘No Russian’ for you, here’s a sort of mini-compilation of mainstream critical responses to MW2 in the UK, courtesy of the Guardian newspaper.

I mentioned and linked to Tom Chick’s piece on the level in question last week, but here are two more online game-criticism giants with things to say about ‘No Russian’. First, Tom Bissell at CrispyGamer says this:

I have now played through “No Russian” several times and behaved differently each run through it. My skepticism, I believe, was warranted. About the best one can say about “No Russian” is that it is morally confused and dramatically lazy. Yes, of course, it is affecting and provocative — but so is purposefully stomping on someone’s big toe. This is essentially what “No Russian” does when it desperately needs to do much, much more.

For the record, Kieron Gillen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun agrees, saying simply “It’s bullshit, isn’t it?” Not content to just leave it at that however, Gillen goes on to explain why – because essentially “Anyone else who tries it will be living in their diseased shadow”. I’m not personally content to leave that as the final word about Modern Warfare 2, as it were, so here’s Suki’s piece on the least examined aspect of MW2 – that the game is a chicken killing coup. That’s much better.

Kat Bailey’s Retronauts blog on 1Up talks about the omission of Princess Peach as a playable character in New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii. The reason is that she’s once again the object of rescue, and the result is there remains no playable female character.

Shigeru Miyamoto’s official explanation for leaving her out of NSMB Wii is that it’s difficult to animate her dress. Apparently, her skirts require special processing and progamming, so she’s once again been captured by Bowser Jr. and the attendant Koopalings. Funny that — as she’s demonstrated time and again throughout her various appearances, Peach is more than capable of crushing Bowser and all of his attendant children by herself. Maybe the rumors are true and she simply enjoys being kidnapped.

Sorry Shiggy, you’re not fooling anyone.

Melinda Bardon writes about how Dragon Age: Origins actually changes the players experience if they play as a female character, unlike many other RPG’s which often simply slap a female skin on an otherwise male role. Bardon says,

In Dragon Age, however, I have already been questioned by my subordinate party member, Sten, twice as to my abilities to lead a group of warriors as a woman. I’ve also been subject to comments from NPC characters in passing, expressing surprise that the Gray Wardens allowed women into the sect.

Matthew Burns née-Wasteland wrote a highly readable piece on the compulsion to compare games to ‘Citizen Kane’ and the inferiority complex he sees it as reflecting in the gamer community.

This inferiority complex runs so deeply in the gamer mindset that we will often swear up and down it does not exist while we continue unbridled our wildly passive-aggressive approach towards the artistic establishment, equal parts brash and defensive, trying to look older and more experienced than our years: the hallmark of youthful insecurity.

I wonder if a stronger critical community, akin to institutionalised film reviewers and critics, would go a way toward curtailing this tendency?

Gamasutra this week featured an interview with Susan O’Connor of Gears of War/Far Cry 2/Bioshock writing fame and I’ll leave you with a link to Hardcasual’s piece on how 4 members of staff of EBGames survived the release of Left 4 Dead 2 through “teamwork and Molotov cocktails”.

A reminder that for all TWIVGB posts on Critical Distance comments are turned off by default to encourage discussion on the original entries, and we can always be reached via the contact page.

November 15th

November 15th, 2009 | Posted by Ben Abraham in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on November 15th)

Early attempts to faithfully render the Space Opera unto the Bayeux tapestry were Minimally Affecting.Every week these posts seem to get longer and longer, so I’m going to endeavour to limit the links contained in This Week In Videogame Blogging to truly “the best of the best of the best, sir!” I hope it’s of some use.

In the week to November 15th, Cary from the Play Like a Girl blog wrote about female avatar design and asserted that better design could have pay-offs for the number of women interested in videogames.

…if more developers followed in Valve’s footsteps and made “normal” female avatars it would do wonders for getting women interested in gaming but in order to do that the industry would have to let go of a pretty deep-seeded sense of normalcy: that women are only exciting and enticing when they’re practically nude.

Mike Schiller wrote about Band Hero’s ridiculous disbursement of achievements, and it’s giving away of over half its gamerscore just for finding ‘secret notes’. Achievement points ahoy!

Quintin Smith wrote on his blog about ‘Games Journalism: What Not To Say” and his five points are all good, practical things, and I can see their inherent usefulness for anyone considering or currently writing about videogames. Smith also picked apart the differences between two indie MMO games – Eskil Steenberg’s Love and something called Neverdaunt. Yeah, I’d never heard of it either, but Quintin quite liked it.

My friend Eric Swain linked me to this – a piece on Gamasutra about ‘Why major publishers need an indie arm’. Good to see the indie revolution coming from all sides.

The Onion picked apart Modern Warfare 3 (THREE) and its realistic depiction of army life. I’ll just say that it’s really lifelike.

Tristan Kalogeropoulos argues that spoiler warnings are inhibiting videogame discussion, and I can certainly see his point.

It’s amazing what content revelations gamers will get their proverbial knickers in a twist over… perhaps it is because most games are more akin to fairground haunted house rides, filled to the brim with jumps and tons of tacky fun, but little in the way of substantive story. Revealing elements of gameplay lays out on the table the only things that these games have going for them. Daft novelties.

Elliot Maximillian Pinkus writes for the MIT Gambit Lab, in a piece called the ‘Confessions of an Impatient Cheater’, noting that

Braid requires 100% mastery just to progress to the ending. If the player wants to see the mind-blowing twist at the end, they are supposed to just tough it out….But what if the player isn’t as affected by fiero, if it isn’t their personal “ultimate Game Emotion”? What if their biggest emotional reward is curiosity or relaxation or excitement?

Well then we would cheat, naturally. Or stop playing the game, which is what I did.

Dan Bruno comes in from the cold after a long absence to write about the Wii remake of A Boy and his Blob.

Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer released a podcast this week featuring Brenda Brathwaite and John Sharp. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but I hear good things from people who have.

Anthony Burch, author of Destructiod’s ‘Rev Rant’ goes on about Modern Warfare 2 and narrative, gameplay conflict. This was the first thing I saw of the ‘No Russian’ level this week, but it was by no means the last. In this spoiler-filled video (oh the irony! I’m using a spoiler tag after linking to the above article about how spoiler warnings are impeding criticism!) I think Burch is reaching for the excellent term ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’.

Trenk Polack elaborates on the his own response and feelings towards the ‘No Russian’ level, examining it within the wider context of the game’s plot and it failed to achieve the desired response from him.

For “No Russian” to work, I have to buy into the premise fully. I have to know that what I’m doing is vile but necessary. I have to have Vic Mackey’s conviction that what I’m doing is the right thing to do, as hard as it is. Being only the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2, though, “No Russian” does not have the luxury of my trust or belief in its world.

Matthew Kaplan had a vastly different take on the level, arguing that it ‘succeeded beautifully’. Meanwhile, Charlie Brooker writing for The UK’s Guardian newspaper asserts that, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the Citizen Kane of repeatedly shooting people in the face.” Those memes – they sure do get around.

Decidedly in the negative camp when it comes to reactions to the “No Russian” level is Tom Chick, and his lengthy and thoughtful response is best served by directly quoting from the source:

When the previous Calls of Duty presented disturbing scenes — bringing down a building full of German soldiers, taking out insurgents from the cool quiet of an AC-130 gunship, presenting the point of view of an executed politician, nuking an entire city — they earned it. They were even, dare I say?, subtle. But this is just flat-out mercenary shock value, trawling for comments from guys like me on blogs and the sort of publicity that partly made Grand Theft Auto what it is today.

And last for This Week In Videogame Blogging, Krystian Majewski has finished his epic (yes, epic) trilogy listing all of the interface design flaws of Mass Effect (which, coincidentally I’m replaying on PC at the moment). Just about everything Majewski says I find myself nodding along with and going “Yeah, it would have been awesome if…”, which is a sure sign that he’s on to something. The tagline for the first post in his series is “In a world of bad design choices and poor execution, there was one game that ruled them all…” It’s quite telling. It’s also my pick for must read of the week, and you can start at the beginning of the trilogy here.

A reminder that for all TWIVGB posts on Critical Distance comments are turned off by default to encourage discussion on the original entries, and we can always be reached via the contact page.

ClapethtrapethThis Week In Videogame Blogging would like to acknowledge the useful contribution of everyone who’s been sending links to the critical distance twitter account. It’s been very helpful so please keep ‘em coming!

By the time I’d written last weeks post, a storm was already brewing regarding a certain Modern Warfare 2 viral PSA style video and its use of the acronym ‘F.A.G.S’. Denis Farr explains why, as a gay person himself, the tacit acceptance of the Xbox Live culture of homophobic insults is not a thing that can simply be laughed off. Michael Abbott also wrote about the ad from the perspective of a father and a teacher, talking about how if we want this kind of attitude to change, we need to start teaching kids why it’s not okay. Matthew Kaplan also came up with a great discussion piece on the video as a response to Abbott’s post in which he examines the current marketing attitude of playing up to the current social climate of cynicism and self-centredness. Kaplan says,

[Abbott] mentions how insensitivity is in and empathy is out in our culture, and I think this is true to a certain extent… among conservatives. I don’t mean to turn a discussion about video games into a political rant, but to be honest the word “conservatism” isn’t merely political these days. Conservatism in our society has now taken on the form of the man or woman who is self-serving, immediate surroundings first and thinking outside the box a distant second.

Deirdra Kiai also discussed the trend toward offensive marketing, a trend which sees that “if anyone’s in the least bit outraged by what one has to say, it’s become some kind of a badge of honour.” Infinity Ward in the end pulled the offending video, but the damage was done and the attention garnered by Infinity Ward’s “edgy” video probably resulted in a net gain for the company. But I’m speculating now.

Slightly overshadowed by the latest video has been the earlier leaked footage of a level featuring a player engaging in in-game terrorist activity. Richard Clark of the ‘Christ and Pop Culture’ blog writes about how the terrorist scenes made him second guess his choice of Christmas gifts. Clarke makes a similar argument to David Wildgoose of Kotaku Australia who also picked up on the terrorist level video, commenting on how he feels that the general response to it says much about the immaturity of the medium.

Activision says the mission “is designed to evoke the atrocities of terrorism.” Cinema has a rich history of taking viewers inside the minds of people who commit atrocities. As a more mature medium, we accept that films that portray serial killers, murderers, terrorists or just base thugs aren’t automatically promoting such activities but may in fact have something important to say about the human condition.

The prodigious Michael Clarkson writes about endings and The Lord of the Rings in ‘dénouement of the rings’. It’s an entry into Corvus’ Elrod’s September Blogs of the Round table and there are plenty of other great entries from September. You can check them all out here.

Hooray, my favourite grinning, cynical game blog is back! Indie Gaming Bingo, for our newer readers, is a blog dedicated to skewering trends in indie gaming and taking specific titles down a peg or two. This week Dustin Gunn played Indie Gaming Bingo with Tale of Tales’ ‘The Graveyard’.

Because as an Aussie I know how it feels to be under The Man’s thumb when it comes to gaming, consider this link a fist-bump of solidarity with New Zealand gamers. The situation is (or was) that Microsoft locked a number of them out of Xbox Live downloads a few months back, and Tracey Lien takes the time to explain the whole strange situation.

Jorge Albor explores the online world of League of Legends and its online culture in ‘The Blame Game’.

Not really one to link to reviews, this section nevertheless caught my attention in John Walker’s review of Dragon Age: Origins,

…these dwarves come with a history. The younger of the two is the only mentally handicapped character I can remember encountering in a game. He’s looked after by his father, and has a savant gift for enchanting weapons. Treat them as more than a shop, talk to them, and the details of their past emerge, along with a surprising ethical quandary.

I can’t think of any other game that has depicted a mentally handicapped character as anything other than a two dimensional crazy-person. Can you?

Michael Abbott (again) delivers a great treatise on what exactly pacing means in a videogame, placing it within the context of a discussion of Uncharted 2’s fantastic control of pacing.

Here’s a damn clever think-piece by Eskil Steenberg, talking about MMO’s, how people are often attracted to abuse, and whether Steenberg wants to go there with his game or not.

Chris Dahlen cooked up a Google Wave bot and it gave me a few chuckles this week. Dahlen compares Wave gaming to Twitter gaming noting that,

…the nice thing about bots in Wave, as opposed to Twitter, is that you can invite them in to specific waves. You only see them when you need them. Gaming on Twitter appears to have stalled because seeing other people’s posts and autoupdates is lethally annoying. But Wave is fertile ground for bots, and I see a lot of potential here.

Who knew that Google Wave had so much potential as a gaming platform? I wonder if I could somehow convert the old Chat bot that I wrote for my high school Software Design class into a wave. Dahlen elsewhere talks about ‘The most boring game of the year’ and wonders if that’s why no one else is really writing about Demon’s Souls that much.

Here’s a trio of good pieces; the first by Shamus Young who, writing for The Escapist, talks about Survival Horror. The second, an interesting post by the Aartform Games blog, asks “Are games art? I think they might be more like cooking” and Kris Graft interviews Valve’s writers about their creative process for Gamasutra. The last one is a quite lengthy and crammed full of interesting tidbits.

Mitch Krpata writes about ‘Your level best’, or the difference between pleasurable advancement and painful grinding as demonstrated by Borderlands. He notes,

Gearbox did such a good job of spacing out the rewards, and making sure that one is always visible around the corner, that it rarely falls into the trap of feeling like a simple grind. Sure, it’s like work, but payday is every day.

Sun B. Kim is an Indie Game developer from Korea, and in an extreme display of commitment to games criticism and discussion, is translating some parts of Critical Distance into Korean. Here’s the translation into Korean of Critical-Distance’s GTA IV Critical Compilation. Videogames make people do amazing things.

The pensive harpy blog investigates the online, free-to-play world of Wizard 101 this week. I’ve never played it but I was first intrigued by it when it was mentioned on one of the Videogames and Human Values Initiative’s podcasts, and then again on the Brainy Gamer Summer Confab podcast. Taken together, that’s now quite a case for what some might see as “just” a free-to-play Kids MMO.

This week, Lyndon Warren finishes his series on KOTOR 2 with a treatise on the character of Kreia, explaining how she problematises the ‘light side, dark side’ dichotomy of the Star Wars universe. In my pick for must read of the week. Warren says,

[Kreia’s] point is random acts of kindness don’t necessarily make the world a better place and even though the game is giving you light side points that doesn’t mean that what you did was right. She has proved that the force is fallible….

Something to think about, y’know?

A reminder that for all TWIVGB posts on Critical Distance comments are turned off by default to encourage discussion on the original entries, and we can always be reached via the contact page. We’ve also now completed the move over to our new webhost so please let us know if you encounter anything odd.