Game of the Year Edition

My favorite type of videogame is the platformer. If you don’t play many games, you’re giving me a blank stare right now, and if you do play games, my guess is you’re probably looking at me a bit funny. Platformers are the traditional side-scrolling games, which have you jumping from platform to platform, think Super Mario or Donkey Kong, and the form hasn’t evolved terribly much since then. Being a fan of platformers is weird, like you’ve fallen in love with something that isn’t really mainstream, but isn’t really indie cool either. It’s just there, with its weird, anachronistic ways. Things like #gamergate raged around the gaming community and forced a rift between those who are trying to change gaming to be more inclusive and those who wish it to stay the same, but platformers feel like the annoying kid brother who isn’t invited to the debate, maybe doesn’t even know that the war is going on at all.

But if platformers have a second-class seat in gaming culture, they have a first-class seat in my world because they are ultimately about one thing: mastery. The best platformers are ones that require the player to painstakingly become masters of a particular world and body, to understand the physics of what happens when you jump, bounce, and kick, and then to master that on elaborate obstacle courses. A platformer played well is a carefully crafted performance, a nonstop forward movement orchestrated by the practiced dance of fingers and buttons. I think this magic is built somewhere deep within me, because I realized that the feeling I get when executing perfectly is similarly to the way I feel in a really well-done ski race: both require quick footed mastery with a careful attention to (if not memorization of) the obstacle course set for you.

A few years ago I started a particularly difficult medication, and it was games that gave me a sense of forward motion: no matter how many times I fumbled and fell down the same pits, if I just kept trying, eventually I could string together the acrobatics necessary to make it through a section, a level, a world. There’s a feeling of accomplishment I got used to in life, like a regular dopamine hit I could count on; but when you're too sick to really think clearly, when standing up sends a wave of nausea over your head, that feeling is in scarce supply. The satisfaction of completion, completion of sections, levels, worlds, was at least some sense that this day, week, month was different than last. Looking back, all those months blur together, the memories of the games don't necessarily last that long, but I remember the satisfaction. Platformers were one of the few sources that kept me feeling like I could do things, even when I clearly couldn’t. In other games, your antagonist is the other team, player, or creature, but in platformers, your antagonist is the world itself. Struggling to get through each of its carefully laid traps requires a cunning and desire for forward motion.

Yet forward motion requires that the player slowly climb out of one pit and fall into the next, so this year was different than the last. I played many great platformers this year: Rayman Origins, where the quality of movement is frenetic and bouncy, Rayman bounces further than you could possibly expect, glides more aggressively than ought to be possible, and has the most perfect wall jump (and wall run) you could ask of any platformer. Little Big Planet was less twitchy, and the movement quality was a bit more sluggish and heavy, but the game required a kind of cleverness rarely demanded by platformers. Castle of Illusion and Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D were also favorites, one with its fantastical world and the other with its hand-sweating difficulty. But if I had to pick a GOTY (Game of the Year), forward motion requires something different: Tearaway seems to me a new kind of platformer, a game that evolves the spirit of platformers in a new way. Where platformers are all about achievement and completion, Tearaway introduces creation as a gameplay experience. Sure, you can go for completionism: some of the levels are beautiful explorations of movement, bouncing off drums or running from attacking monsters; and I played every level several times and carefully scoured each cranny until I had collected 100% of the items. But you cannot play this game without creating: a squirrel’s crown, decorating an elk, accessorizing your own face. None of it is serious or overbearing, but it is creation nonetheless.

In my review on Pinterest I wrote, “the really magical thing about this game is the way it infuses your experience with everyday creativity, the kind we used to have as kids decorating binders and such.” There’s something remarkable about seeing snowflakes of your own design falling from the virtual skies, even if they were haphazardly created with the Playstation Vita’s touchscreen. Like decorating a binder, these simplistic tools streamline the act down to its bare essentials: mastery is second to the actual act of creating. Somehow, the way the game uses your creations and the aesthetic they’ve built favors any sad little thing you draw; it’s not about mastery, the important thing is the idea. This game is a celebration of creation, the way that each creation is about ideas, something that starts in your head and quietly manifests through your hands. That was a magic that I’d forgotten in my years clawing for the simple goal of forward movement, when just getting out of bed was an accomplishment and the manipulation of the world around me was too far from the realm of possibility.

Tearaway instilled in me not just a desire to complete, but actually a desire to make. This game is about childlike creation, free of judgment or pressure or even expectation, just the joy of creating. But that feeling of accomplishment that games give me can come from multiple places: the mastery of the beautifully executed, but also the expression afforded by creation. While mastery requires you to ask questions of the world and how it works, creation requires you to ask questions of yourself.