The love machine: thoughts on Simogo’s Sensational Christmas gift

Today, Simogo released The Sensational December Machine, an interactive short story about an inventor and her surprising new creation, which the studio describes as a Christmas gift “for our dear fans”. It’s about five minutes long, and it’s completely free – you can download it from >>here<< for Windows and Mac, and I recommend you do so before you read any further.

As we’ve come to expect from the studio, it’s quite lovely to look at: attractive hand-drawn 2D art and handwritten text is layered expertly to produce a convincing 3D effect, and the chiming soundtrack from Daniel Olsen subtly changes as you move through the story.

It’ll mean more to you if you’re familiar with Simogo’s work because it’s a continuation of ideas and themes explored in its last three games. There’s the dark, wintry setting of Year Walk, while the way it makes you feel part of the story by allowing you to move between the words is very Device 6. Its story, meanwhile, has the bittersweet tone of The Sailor’s Dream – it’s a rather sad tale, but one which ends on a quietly optimistic note.

Indeed, the tale seems to be a direct reaction to the critical performance of Simogo’s last game, which didn’t earn the widespread praise of its previous efforts. Witness the woman’s attempts to touch people’s hearts with her unorthodox new machine and the townsfolks’ confusion and rejection, mirroring the real world response to The Sailor’s Dream. This doesn’t come across as exasperated or bitter; instead, Simogo acknowledges that audiences have become conditioned to expect machines to perform a specific task. It’s essentially a metaphor for the creative endeavour to push the boundaries of what defines a game and what players are prepared to accept and respond to.

The gently melancholy story is tinged with a tiny hint of frustration that perhaps we’re not all as ready to have our conventions challenged as much as we would like to admit. But the very final line of The Sensational December Machine sees Simogo at peace with having put its collective heart and soul into making something, and that no matter the wider response, it will always have the pleasurable memories of its creation. It’s an empowering message to people working in any creative medium who might be struggling to find an audience: building something that touches your own heart can be as important in its own way as something that touches the hearts of others. I hope Simogo keeps trying to do both.

Games of 2014: The Sailor’s Dream

The Sailor’s Dream is my game of the year for mostly very personal reasons, which isn’t to say that it isn’t wonderful in its own right. It’s a moving story about the simultaneous sadness and exciting freedom of solitude, the yearning to escape and the irresistible pull of the unknown. How we all hope to find a place, or a person, to call home; how seemingly insignificant objects can hold important memories; how the past can either set us free or keep us prisoner; how time can both heal and widen emotional scars. Above all, it’s about love. That’s ultimately what it always comes back to. It’s about loss and it’s about regret, sure, but they’re by-products of that love.

It’s a Simogo game, so it goes without saying that it’s a handsome thing to look at, but the art here is secondary to the soundtrack, which even in its happiest moments has a wonderfully elegiac quality. Regular Simogo contributor Jonathan Eng’s songs are beautifully composed and sung in heartfelt fashion by Stephanie Hladowski. There’s something strangely cathartic about the way they’re presented: each day, you discover a bottle, and when you tap it a new song will automatically play, the lyrics emerging as it floats past the islands of this tiny archipelago. By uncorking it, you’re releasing a long-forgotten feeling, and by extension freeing the woman who literally bottled up her most intimate thoughts in musical form. You feel for her, and yet you also feel for the sad, weary old sailor whose on-the-hour radio broadcasts reveal a man broken up by regret, desperate to atone for his past mistakes.

For a variety of reasons, I was at a pretty low ebb when The Sailor’s Dream arrived. There may be a bittersweet taste to its narrative, but it felt like a ray of sunshine in my life, forcefully piercing the gloom. There’s something delightfully, defiantly unfashionable about the way it wears its heart on its sleeve, and I found a deep resonance in its emotional honesty. It’s a game that reminds you of the importance of holding on to the things that mean most to you in life. I hugged my wife and son a little harder and longer when they got home that day.

Games of 2014: Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart 8 was the most purely enjoyable game I played this year. It’s another reminder from Nintendo that refinement can be almost as exciting as revolution: yes, we’ve played Mario Kart before, but it’s never looked this good, never offered this level of spectacle, never charmed us quite so much with its dazzling attention to detail nor amused us so greatly with the animation of its competitors. It feels great, too, but we’ve come to expect that. Perhaps we shouldn’t take it for granted that Nintendo games control so beautifully, but whether you’re Shy Guy on a twitchy bike or Bowser on a quad with monster-truck wheels, every vehicle handles as it should.

The track design of its new courses is exemplary. Mount Wario is the obvious standout: if it ever comes up as a possible choice in an online game, you’ll always get at least a third of players voting for it. But then there’s the thumping, disco-themed Electrodrome, the cheerily sun-baked San Fran-inspired Toad Harbour, the stomach-flipping thrill of the sheer cascades in Shy Guy Falls. Dolphin Shoals might not be the finest Mario Kart track ever, but it has my all-time favourite Mario Kart moment: where you splash out into the sun and the muted underwater music segues effortlessly into a euphoric improvisational sax solo. Indeed, the music is glorious: happy, lively, brilliantly played tunes that perfectly fit the courses they soundtrack.

And Mario Kart TV was a masterstroke: its selective highlights package occasionally missed the best bits but so often framed the green shell hits, the joyous drift overtakes and the split-second victories with a strong eye for drama and humour. And the ability at any time to go into super-slo-mo was another sublime touch from a team that must surely have known its internet potential: little wonder the Luigi Death Stare became one of 2014’s few genuinely enjoyable memes.

Above all else, Mario Kart 8 is just rollicking good fun. It has no pretensions to high art; its aim (an honourable one, in my book) is simply to entertain its players as much as it possibly can. Mission accomplished.

Games of 2014: The Last of Us: Left Behind

It’s tempting to say Left Behind achieves as much with its storytelling in two hours as the main game does in 15, but I’m convinced that our earlier investment in Ellie has much to do with its emotional potency. It’s daring in ways The Last of Us’ story perhaps isn’t, but then it doesn’t have the burden of needing to justify a $60 outlay. With different expectations on its shoulders, Naughty Dog has a little more wiggle room, more space to experiment within, and it capitalises on that freedom quite brilliantly.

The campaign lays much of the groundwork, with mechanics subtly repurposed: you throw bricks for a bit of escapist vandalism rather than to distract clickers, and pull the trigger to shoot water guns instead of pistols and rifles. With the focus shifted away from combat for the most part (its occasional presence here is a timely reminder of the stakes we’re dealing with) Naughty Dog lets you mooch around at your own pace, packing its environments with more objects to examine and remark upon. Often you’re just pressing triangle to make Ellie talk, but when the dialogue is this good, who cares? It’s essentially an accelerated coming-of-age tale, played out in near real-time, and it’s heart-rending to see these two friends giggling like kids in a world that’s made them grow up before they were really ready to. I struggle to think of a game that has captured the nuances of teenage friendship quite as well – and as efficiently – as this does.

It culminates in a truly wonderful moment, where the capabilities of new technology are responsible for evoking the simpler pleasures of the old. What amounts to an extended quick-time event playing out over a static camera shot is somehow one of the most moving sequences I’ve ever encountered in a game. The disappointment when it subsequently reverts to type is hard to shake, but in its own way, the climactic violence earns its place in the story, too. We need to see how horrible the world has become to truly empathise with Ellie’s plight; to make those fleeting moments of calm – and of companionship – all the more precious.

Games of 2014: Pix The Cat

PastaGames’ blistering arcade game doesn’t quite have the longevity of, say, Pac-Man Championship Edition. There’s a point at which your skills will plateau, and when you’re up against an unyielding timer (with no way to top up the clock) you’ll end up with only tiny variations in your best scores.

Until then, however, you might well become obsessed. In truth, it’s the very design limitations that curb its lasting appeal that make Pix The Cat so giddily exhilarating in the first instance. It demands absolute focus at all times, forcing you to find the perfect racing line through its infinite spiral of mazes.

After those first few head-spinning attempts, you’re no longer simply trying to pick up all the ducks before dropping them off in their nests for the maximum bonus. At the same time you’ll be mentally working out the optimal route while attempting to give yourself split-seconds longer in the maze by getting as many tiny speed boosts as possible from turning at just the right time. For a while, it’s basically a puzzle game conducted at a breathless clip; thereafter it’s all about refining your technique and relying on your twitch reflexes. Either way, whenever you accelerate all the way up to Fever Mode, your heart will begin to race as you attempt to control a character hurtling out of it.

Even when you’re struggling to beat your Arcade mode scores, you can always shift your attention to the puzzle-focused Laboratory levels, and the gorgeous Nostalgia mode, with its Thirties-era cartoon looks and elaborate stage designs. Pix The Cat looks, sounds and plays beautifully, and if it’s a short-term fling rather than a long-lasting relationship, then it’s still an affair to remember.

Games of 2014: Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

“It’s cute” is a pretty rubbish reason to like a game, but Treasure Tracker is so unrelentingly adorable that for once it’s an entirely valid one. Every little bit of it has character and personality, partly thanks to some of the most expressive animation ever seen in a Nintendo game. (Tip: zoom in when Toad is swimming, or Toadette is being pursued by a Mud Trooper.) There’s care and craft evident in every part of the game, from the idle animations to the menus: leave the title screen running for a bonus treat, or keep circling the analogue stick during play and watch what happens. It might even be Wii U’s best-looking game: it’s bright, sharp, gorgeously lit, and has some fine visual details we didn’t see in Super Mario 3D World.

Yes, the difficulty curve is a little shallow, and the level design is never quite as intricate as it could – perhaps should – have been. Though you’ll occasionally marvel at the way it all slots together, the route to the power star is often predictable. And yet at times I began to wonder if that’s such a problem. Easy games tend to get a rougher ride from the press, who might not always consider the audience at which this is aimed. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t feel disappointed that Treasure Tracker isn’t quite up there with EAD Tokyo’s best work (or that there should be more than one save file, and gyro controls should be optional). It’s more that we should acknowledge what a brilliantly constructed game this is for kids, big and small.

Besides, challenge is still there for those determined enough to seek it out: the very final surprise is a real test of skill and nerve, while speedrun times are strict enough to require a few attempts to beat. I’m hopeful that Nintendo might be working on a substantial pack of ultra-challenging stages as DLC, and Amiibo functionality is yet to be patched in, so there’s clearly more to come. But even now I’ve finished it, I still find myself returning on occasion: it’s just a lovely wee thing to look at and play with, and charming enough to warm the cynical heart of even the most jaded player.

Games of 2014: The Evil Within

Many of The Evil Within’s perceived weaknesses are the reasons why I enjoyed it so much. The limited field-of-vision was a common complaint, but for me the borders only added to the sense of panicky claustrophobia I felt during encounters. Plenty of players moaned that when aiming you can barely see anything of protagonist Sebastian Castellanos beyond his gun and outstretched hand, yet I can’t believe that’s anything but intentional: when you’re facing a lone foe it brings them that much closer, and in crowd-control situations it means you can’t see the entire group. Either way, it ratchets up the intensity because the result is that you feel more vulnerable. That’s quite the feat when you’re wielding a magnum or a crossbow that can fire explosive bolts. And yes, the plot is uneven, but then its disjointed nature means you never quite know what’s coming next, thus allowing director Shinji Mikami to keep surprising you.

Elsewhere, Mikami clearly hasn’t lost his knack of crafting a memorable set-piece, or conjuring some chilling imagery: there’s a masterful moment where you see spider-woman Laura creeping past a window in silhouette that sent a shiver down my spine. And the brilliant sound design – with special mention to Masafumi Takada’s disquieting score – makes it a truly unnerving journey, such that I found it hard to play for more than an hour or two at a time. True, it has its share of awkward moments, and it runs out of steam a little during the final act, but for me this was one of the year’s most underrated games, an exciting, relentless, thoroughly nasty slice of survival horror and a reminder that no one does videogame shotguns quite like Mikami. BOOM! SPLAT! Joy.

Games of 2014: Jazzpunk

Sweeping generalisation time: games aren’t funny. Some are, sure, but that comedy is almost always passive, a character delivering a scripted one-liner or a witticism to you, the audience. Jazzpunk boldly takes a different approach, making you an active participant in its punchlines. Most interactions in the game prompt a surprise of some form, though often it’s the surreal nature of the scenario that jabs at your funny bone. Either way, it can’t fail to make you laugh, whether you’re squirting liquid cheese at the jowls of an old man, playing a wedding-themed FPS or ridding a vase shop of a flea infestation and smashing all its wares in the process.

It’s hard to see many other games following its lead, because comedy by its very nature is inefficient: any core game mechanic produces a specific outcome, and thus that vital element of surprise is lost. Jazzpunk thrives on its ability to deliver unique responses to similar interactions. It subverts expectations at just about every turn.

Not every gag hits home, of course, but it doesn’t just throw joke after joke at the screen in the hope that the odd one will hit. They’re carefully, intelligently spaced, each given room to breathe – even with the player often in control of the timing. It’s a bona fide original, and a stylish, smartly crafted one at that; it may be inefficient, but it’s never undisciplined.

Games of 2014: Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails

Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails is a bundle of contradictions. At times, you’ll wonder if you’ve discovered a lost 16-bit Treasure classic, but it couldn’t really have existed until now, until Wii U. It’s both familiar and different, old-fashioned in the best way yet enchantingly new. It borrows elements from the likes of Bangai-O, Bionic Commando and Kuru Kuru Kururin (among others) and yet it doesn’t quite feel like anything else you’ve played.

It’s a game built around two displays. On the TV, the titular cat alerts you to the position of the space kittens you’re asked to rescue on each stage, while you manoeuvre his friend on the GamePad, grinding and jumping, dodging spikes and shooting enemies. At first, Buddy’s jump (which was apparently refined over the course of a year) feels slightly inelegant, but soon reveals itself to be incredibly flexible, allowing you to slingshot around objects and hazards and therefore getting you to your destination that much quicker. That’s essential when you’re chasing a kitten that floats away whenever you get near, and it’s also useful when you need to beat a retreat from larger opponents. And then there’s the double-jump that turns you into a deadly fireball. With enough practice, you’ll breeze through levels you initially struggled with, and it’s gratifying to feel your skills developing.

During those early stages you might occasionally wonder if it’s just a little too much effort to master something so unorthodox, even if – crucially – defeat always feels like your own fault. But it’s like taming a cat: you merely have to persevere. And, once the hissing and scratching has abated and you understand exactly how to handle it, your relationship will be a happy and rewarding one.

Games of 2014: D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die

The games industry needs more Hidetaka Suehiros. This eccentric Kinect-powered detective thriller is further evidence of a singular voice that deserves to be heard by more players. Not that D4 was ever likely to bring SWERY’s brand of weird to a wider audience. It was on a hiding to nothing from the start, really: it’s a game that might have thrived on PC or PS4, but on Xbox One it feels out of place, built for a piece of hardware its maker has quietly shuffled offstage. You can still play it with a controller, but its interface has been designed around Kinect. Microsoft all but buried it, releasing it the day after it was announced at the Tokyo Games Show. With few pre-launch reviews and zero fanfare, it understandably struggled for traction.

Pity, as it’s enormously entertaining. It has much in common with Deadly Premonition – comically exaggerated animation, offbeat dialogue, a fascination with mundane detail – but it’s much more polished. As a result it loses some of that ramshackle charm, but it compensates with the energetic invention and slapstick comedy of its quick-time action sequences. With Kinect, you’re cast as both puppeteer and stuntman: the point-and-grab interface works well, voice functionality is immaculate, and it’s forgiving of clumsy attempts to mimic the gesture commands, seemingly rewarding you for effort.

D4 needed decent sales to earn a second season. The knowledge that its silly cliffhanger climax will probably never be resolved lends it a strange poignancy: a bittersweet end to a magnificently odd drama. I’ve played games this year that are already fading from memory; it says much about D4 that I remember it as if I finished it yesterday.