Waypoints: Anticipation’s Antidotes

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I haven’t been doing much gaming in recent weeks. Most evenings find me reviewing my game shelf and then turning to the internet, a good book, or even yard work to wrap up the day. I’ve been in a midsummer slump, and it’s not just due to a scarcity of new releases.

Truth be told, the real source of my gaming malaise is the weight of post-E3, pre-fall release anticipation. I’ve found it difficult to get excited about gaming when the year’s biggest releases are weeks or even months away. Last week, though, I found a perfect remedy for my lack of enthusiasm: PixelJunk Eden and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2.

I didn’t know what to expect from PixelJunk Eden, the new PlayStation Store release from Q Games, but the demo had me hooked after just five minutes. Swinging on a silken strand through the game’s lush two-dimensional landscape was exhilarating, and collecting pollen to grow strange and beautiful floral shapes had me captivated. I was spellbound.

Bizarre Creations’ Geometry Wars: RE 2, on the other had, was a known quantity. Or so I thought. I spent plenty of time with the initial Xbox Live Arcade Geometry Wars release back in 2005, and I certainly expected to see screens full of enemies and trance-inducing explosions of color. But here again I was surprised. The underlying action was more addictive than I remembered, and the new version’s additional game modes, enemies, and achievements conspired to draw me in completely. I spent three hours on my first evening with Retro Evolved 2, and its was the most fun I’d had with a game in weeks.

Eden and Retro Evolved 2 didn’t merely entertain. Like any great game, they reminded my why I love the medium, and reinvigorated my desire to play. That’s a lot to ask for a couple of downloadable console titles whose combined price was under $20. But they succeeded beautifully, in part because I approached them unburdened by the expectations that higher-budget titles create.

In terms of what we look for from games, entertainment is the lowest common denominator. We expect, at very least, enjoyable experiences that allow us to momentarily escape from the real world. Games like Eden and Retro Evolved 2 accomplish this task beautifully by bringing pure play to the forefront of the experience. Both games are essentially plotless. They rely on evocative, simple presentation coupled with smartly tuned gameplay. They’re wonderfully expressive, but highly abstract.

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High-budget releases, in contrast, usually present realistic, cinematic experiences. Modern AAA-titles often look and play more like interactive films than the videogames I grew up with, and as each year passes, the best of these titles reset the standards for their respective genres. Players are conditioned to expect new releases that are, as Cliff Bleszenski would say, “Bigger, better, and more badass.”

It’s tough to pull that off, though. Meeting the standard, let alone exceeding it, requires developers to overcome financial, technical, production, and design hurdles that they can’t always clear. Far too many games miss the mark trying to establish themselves as the next big thing. As Alone in the Dark recently demonstrated, a memorable, jaw-dropping, high-budget presentation can’t salvage basic control and design problems.

I love big-budget games. I love looking forward to them, playing them, and writing about them. But I grow weary of the cycle of anticipation and disappointment they seem destined to engender. And I get tired of the constant recycling of established themes and designs that accompany developers’ reaches for purported greatness.

Lower-cost, smaller-scale gaming surprises are the perfect antidote to the insanity of the AAA market. They show up untainted by expectations and provide unique, refreshing experiences. You don’t need to stray far from retail shelves to find brilliant games that represent an honest return to form. Eden and Retro Evolved 2 are the most recent Live Arcade and PlayStation Store standouts, but similar games exist for every platform, and especially the PC.

The fall release season is just around the corner, and I’m ready to sacrifice time, money, and sleep to get my hands on the high-profile games I’ve waited months or years to play. I know that many will fall short despite the incredible technology and massive expenditures that went into their creation. By the time January arrives, I’ll be tired of the hype, tired of disappointment, and tired of big-budget titles. Luckily, I’ll have Eden, Retro: Evolved 2, and their counterparts to remind me what I love about gaming.


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