Fishing, puzzles and music: videogames of 2013

Ridiculous Fishing, one of many memorable games of 2013. Vlambeer

I love writing and reading Games Of The Year posts. It’s so nice to just once every year be given the liberty to think back on the games you played, not forward to the games you might play in the future. Such lists should never be read as objectively ranked, even if that is how they are presented.

Obviously, there is no objective “best” anything of any one period of time, but there are lots of games from the past 12 months worth reflecting on. Here are three games I want to see remembered this year.

Ridiculous Fishing

Dutch indie game developers Vlambeer have had quite the streak of bad luck. In addition to stolen hardware and illnesses, one after another of their anticipated games have been cloned by a lurking second party.

It’s a predicament many smaller developer teams face: lacking the marketing budget of the big publishers, they build large social media presences and talk openly about games they are developing to build a grassroots anticipation. However, once that groundswell builds, they then find themselves with a well-known game idea still months away from release, and are defenceless against someone with a lot more money coming in, duplicating their idea, and getting it out first.

This is precisely what happened with Ridiculous Fishing, a game that nearly never graced us with its presence. After Vlambeer released the browser-based Radical Fishing to much success in 2010, the Dutch developers teamed up with US indie developers Zach Gage and Greg Wohlwend and began work on a more polished sequel to be released on the iPhone.

But before work finished on the game, a company that shall remain unnamed released an iPhone game that shall also remain unnamed and was an almost identical copy to Ridiculous Fishing (with a different visual aesthetic). Larger audiences who had never heard of the underground developers or their browser-based game would thing this clone game was the original and, when Ridiculous Fishing eventually came out, it would be seen as the imitation.

The game itself is a simple but intoxicating arcade game with three acts.

Act One: A fisher in his boat, you drop your line into the sea. Tilt the phone left and right to avoid fish and get as deep as you possibly can.

Act Two: Once you eventually and inevitably fail Act One, bump into a fish and begin to reel the line in. Now you must hit as many fish as possible, accumulating dozens of them on the end of the line.

Act Three: Once the line returns to the surface, the fish are flung high into the air and must be blasted with the fisherman’s firearm for cash that can be spent on longer fishing lines, better weapons, and other upgrades.

It’s a hypnotic rhythm in itself, but the upgrades also add a sense of exploration. The deeper you go, the more exotic fish you will find. The more fish you capture, the higher you will fling them, and the more celestial bodies you will see. The game constantly swings from seeing how low you can go to how high. Decorating it all is a distinct and eye-catching visual style of thick borders and slanted lines and diamond fish.

The cloning saga almost destroyed Vlambeer, sapping the company’s motivation. But for anyone on the outside who has followed Vlambeer and their various incredible games, it was clear this wouldn’t be the end. The company’s ideas might be easily cloned, but the feel of its games is something only Vlambeer can achieve.

There is a crunchiness to the interactions in its games, a satisfying meatiness to every button press. And, sure enough, when Ridiculous Fishing finally did come out earlier this year, it far surpassed its cloner on its own merit. It was the kind of game only Vlambeer could make, and it gave the company the success it well deserved.

Stickets

Melbourne-based game designer Harry Lee has made a bit of a splash on the local scene over the past couple of years. His minimal but ingenious games such as Impasse and Midas have turned heads, their deceptively simple presentation hiding oceans of clever design. He’s been central for a range of local groups and events, such as Melbourne’s Glitchmark videogame community meetings and, perhaps most importantly, as co-director of Melbourne’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival. Oh, and he is 20-years-old.

Stickets is Lee’s two-man studio Wanderland’s first commercial release.

Like all Lee’s games, it at first seems deceptively simple: Place L-shaped tiles, each constructed from three different coloured squares, on a grid. When three squares of the same colour are touching, tap that group to make those squares disappear. The goal is to place as many L-shaped tiles as you possibly can.

It’s slow, deliberate, and meditative. You have all the time in the world to choose where to place the next tile, and where you might need to place the one after that. It’s a game about thinking and planning, not about rash decisions or reflexes.

Underlying it all is subtle but ingenious sound design. Each position on the grid makes a different sound when tapped. Move a three-square tile over the grid, and chords are strummed. I’ve spent many minutes just playing with the Stickets board like some kind of abstract instrument.

Despite Lee’s youth, Stickets has the feel of a confident designer that knows exactly what they are doing. It’s a wonderful achievement from someone who is going to be a defining character in Australian videogames in the coming years.

UN EP

Music and videogames have a long, intimate relationship, as musician/games critic Kirk Hamilton and musician/game designer David Kanaga have both pointed out. It’s no coincidence that we talk about both music and games as things that are “played”.

The past few years have seen no shortage of music-based games, not least Proteus, created by US-based David Kanaga and UK-based Ed Key, where the soundscape and the landscape are symbiotically connected. It’s a space ripe with experimentation as developers pick apart and stitch together the feel of games and the rhythm of music.

One music game from this year that has passed with tragically little fanfare is Ian Snyder’s UN EP. Created as part of videogames culture site Unwinnable’s Playable series that teams up developers with writers to create games and writing about said games side-by-side, UN EP is somewhere between a child’s toy and a musician’s scrapbook. Various “worlds” offer unique combinations of visuals and audio, tied to the click or movement of the mouse.

There are no goals; there is no “point” beyond the simple pleasure of playing with the game to make wonderful sounds and sights splash before your ears and eyes. But the experience is magical and memorable, and I find myself returning to each of UN EP’s worlds again and again just touch and hear them.