The ultimate non-gamers’ game

Video game awards tend to feature the triple A titles that get a mainstream crowd foaming at the mouth and beating their chest in excitement. Television channels like Spike TV have hyped up the medium and what’s expected from the ceremonies to be a glamorous affair mostly filled with traditional gamers and the odd B list celebrity who “remembers playing that Mario thing” with a relative. But this year saw the start of something very interesting by the people who organise Nottingham’s annual GameCity festival. The aptly named GameCity Prize 2011 gathered not the hardcore but the extremely casual and even non-gamers to award what they felt was the best game of the year.

The group included actors, comedians and politicians and were given the Summer to play through seven unique titles that GameCity hoped would start conversations about where video games are today and what they mean to the players. As you would expect, the nominees are all cult classics in their own rights and included: Child of Eden, ilomilo, Limbo, Minecraft, Pokemon Black, Portal 2 and Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP. A formidable list if ever I saw one and to me, there are two titles that stand out because of what they’ve done for the industry. They are Portal 2 and Minecraft. Now, for full disclosure, I haven’t played Minecraft but am fully aware of its impact and the unfaltering love of its players. Personally, I wouldn’t call it a video game in the traditional sense and instead would say it’s more if a fantasy toy box, a modern day Lego if you will. And while I would have preferred to see Portal 2 crowned king, it was Minecraft that picked up the award.

So does the fact that Minecraft isn’t as much of a game as the others (there are very strong arguments for and against and to play devil’s advocate, I’m going against it) mean that the awards are a bit of a farce? No. The fact that GameCity got a group on non-gamers talking and playing games is already a huge leap in the right direction and all the games in the list are the perfect examples of what makes the industry great. Minecraft may not be a ‘game’ in my eyes compared to, say, Limbo, doesn’t mean that’s not to say its influences will be felt in more traditional games in the future. And like it or not, the folks that nominated it the best game of the past year are the kinds of people publishers are desperately trying to figure out how to attract. From Minecraft you can jump to Angry Birds and from there onto the slightly dubious world of Facebook gaming. All three areas are huge and have companies like EA altering long term strategies for. They’ve even favoured such areas over the 3DS in the past.

Back to the point, the awards are an interesting if not altered view of video games and one that should arguably be taken a little more seriously than the aforementioned glitzy shindigs normally promoted. What would be even better is if there were two parts, one with non-gamers and one with a mix of hardcore enthusiasts. Two winners would be announced and how close they were to each other would be an even more interesting conversation.

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Valve’s single-player plus ideas

When game journalist Geoff Keighley released his iPad app dissecting one of Valve’s latest and greatest games, Portal 2, fans of the publisher couldn’t be more pleased at the hidden details within. That is until they happened upon one particular quote from Keighley: Portal 2 will probably be Valve’s last game with an isolated single-player experience. What this all means is something Newell is still trying to figure out.” He was given this impression after speaking with Valve top dog Gabe Newell and project manager Erik Johnson. Naturally, it caused upset and great concern among gamers as Valve are one of the few publishers who truly understands the importance of good narrative in games and the necessity for both off and online play.

But fear not, the comment doesn’t mean what everyone thought it did. It was misinterpreted as the end of the single-player game from Valve but in a recent interview with a high schooler, Newell felt the situation needed clarifying (via Kotaku). He said that Valve is still fully behind solo games and Portal 2 is a good example of just how far they’ve come over the years. However, this is the age of web 2.0 where everyone and everything is connected to one another and the inclusion of this in games can only increase their value to consumers. At the moment, Valve is a market leader in the various experiences they offer but Newell feels they’re missing the social aspect like Facebook and Twitter. He said “Every gamer has instant messaging, every gamer has a Facebook account. If you pretend that that doesn’t exist, you’re ignoring the problems that you’re taking on. It’s single-player plus, not ‘no more single-player.”

Plus what exactly is the big question now. If it is just a better connection to social network sites, those who enjoy detailing their days on micro-blogging sites are probably already well versed in the practice. More and more games have some link to Twitter especially and Facebook is increasingly being treated as a viable way to deliver news. Capy Games’ Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP allows players to tweet almost everything they do or see, potentially spamming said users timeline. It is however a neat marketing initiative as it places a hash-tag referencing the game at the end of tweets. Clever yes put it could be viewed as annoying too. Just last week, BioWare announced the delay of Mass Effect 3 on its Facebook page rather than the usual avenues for such an statement. That does of course then reach a lot more than the hardcore audience who actively visit game websites.

It would be interesting to see if Valve could take the idea of social connectivity in a new direction and not just let people tell their friends what Valve game they’re playing or where they are in it. With such ingenious writing in both Portal games there’s lots of ways these sites could provide a continuation of story lines or even a little more background to them. When the voice over from Cave Johnson in Portal 2 said (SPOILER) “Black Mesa can kiss my ass,” there were gasps-a-plenty. Imagine then if more stuff like that appeared on random Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Speaking of the inter-twining of Half-Life and Portal, Newell was also asked about whether a direct crossover would ever happen: “When you’re thinking about games, you sort of want to think about how characters collide,” he said. “In their current forms, Chell and Gordon are very similar characters. In terms of the phenomenology of their experiences. … In terms of having these people coexist at same time and same place, that’s … part of the reason Portal and Half-Life are in the same universe.” So it was definitely deliberate. Who knows what we’ll see in Half-Life 3