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Papo & Yo
Power is usually a pretty literal concept in video games. You start off relatively weak, and as the game goes on, your abilities improve until you can take down the big bad guy who is threatening the world. Papo & Yo takes a different approach to exploring power dynamics by telling the story of a young boy’s relationship with his alcoholic father.
The metaphor is straightforward, but powerful. Quico’s ability to navigate platforming challenges and solve basic puzzles is both aided and hampered by his relationship to a hulking monster who flies into a blind rage when he eats poisonous frogs. What the game lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up in honesty. It’s not about “winning” or “beating” the game; it’s about learning to survive and grow within circumstances beyond your control. It’s about gaining the power to let go of loved lines, painful as that may be. Papo & Yo deals with issues few other games touch. It’s unflinching, candid, poignant, and it actively involves the player every step of the way. Very powerful stuff. Scott Juster
Max Payne 3
(Rockstar Games; US: 15 May 2012)
Max Payne 3
Nearly 10 years after our last glimpse of the tortured soul known as Max Payne, Max is back, heavier, more drug and alcohol addled, and just as grimly hard-boiled. While the game moves away from its nearly exclusive focus on bullet-time-style combat towards a more modern cover-based approach to its shooting, the tone and mood of Remedy’s classics are retained. The darkness of Max’s previous urban American landscapes have given way to his relocation to a sun drenched Brazil, but it is a place just as vile and corrupt as his home shores.
Max is still bad at protecting families, too, and this tale of a less-than-perfect redemption for Max manages to avoid retreading old ground by actually advancing and re-framing the franchise’s themes of failing those closest to us and the psychic battles that such failure leads a man like Max to only narrowly survive. G. Christopher Williams
Mark of the Ninja
At first Mark of the Ninja is obscure with regards to anything but the basics, but slowly your mind opens up to the game’s operations. The levels are filled with intricately disguised puzzles in the form of guards, traps, and buildings. In a brilliant move by Klei Entertainment, all the information needed to be a stealthy assassin is visually displayed on screen. Sound waves become expanding blue ripples, and cones of lights show the difference between seen and unseen. The player has to learn what is around every corner before entering because they are not a nigh unstoppable basdass, but a human being whose greatest shield is the shadows. You are no longer a man in black pajamas, but a stalker of the shadows, a true ninja.
Mark of the Ninja is a game of shadows. You hide in them. You live in them. The shadows are your safeguard but soon become the source of treachery. The player loves the shadows and uses them to hide from and strike at enemies unseen, but the longer that we become accustomed to them, the longer we lose sight of the light. You are the best ninja in the clan because of a mystical tattoo that grants you special abilities, but soon that same mark will cause madness and death. Mark of the Ninja presents all of this up front and yet its truth is veiled in shadows. Eric Swain
You are a pilgrim on a rite of passage leading towards spiritual enlightenment. You will meet other travelers on the road. And in the end, you will be sent back to begin anew. Such is the nature of thatgamecompany’s latest outing. There is no conflict, and there are no puzzles needing to be solved. Journey is about the journey. Each traveler you meet along the path is a real person met over PSN, and you are simply companions. Your avatar will continue on in an endless cycle. The moment-to-moment traveling coordinates with the visuals and music to create an emotional resonance within the player. The very steps of our avatar travelers mirror the emotional engagement of the players. Journey is crafted within a framework of sublime minimalism that is directed at the very soul of its subject.
From the first tentative steps across the dunes to the exhilarating slide down the sands to the dark depths of the undercity to the final ascent and walk into the light, Journey creates a primal connection with us. It is a vicarious ride upon the emotional spectrum of spiritual enlightenment. We don’t leave our chair, but our spirit is taken along for a ride. The details of who this character is is left unspoken, and we are left with only the raw emotional beats of the pilgrim’s story that we inhabit. We are left only feeling the journey without any filters. Eric Swain
The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead succeeds at so many things. It’s dialogue and characters are outstanding and stand without the “for a game” qualifier often appended to such statements. Characters and their actions feel authentic. Their emotions are relatable and understandable in the face of the danger, tense social dynamics, victories, and tragedies that they face. The game doesn’t hold anything back, as situations ranging from mercy killings to small talk are presented as interactive decisions. The game succeeds in conveying the sense that your choices as Lee (the game’s protagonist) truly matter. The catch is, sometimes they don’t.
The game careens towards a specific, unavoidable conclusion while still feeling deeply interactive. Everyone who plays it simultaneously embarks on an individual journey while also taking part in a collective experience. Ultimately, The Walking Dead succeeds because it’s more than a zombie killing game or a puzzle-solving adventure game; it’s a story about morality and human relationships, one whose emotional intensity could only be conveyed interactively. Scott Juster