So I guess my brain’s been in a weird list-centric mode recently, as this is my second one this month. Apologies to those of you who are weary of the format (God knows there are enough of them on the good ol’ interwebs): sometimes ideas just lend themselves to little numbered bullets. Anyway, enough of my prolixity.
Sometimes, in any genre, there are supergroups. When two or more accomplished and beloved creators team up to weave an otherworldly tapestry of pure delight, integrating their work together seamlessly and elevating their art to new levels in the process… or that’s the goal / expectation caused by rabid hype, anyway. Actual mileage varies quite a bit: for every Cream or Good Omens there are a baker’s dozen of disasters where the artists in question never really click together, or all the different elements just don’t fall in place correctly. Examples in the gaming world might be Crono Cross on the good end, and Brutal Legend on the not so good. So, I realize going into this that collaborations between high profile (or really any) artists can be fickle things, and the end product might not always be what people had in mind. Nevertheless, a man can dream, and so these are my top 5 pie-in-the-sky fantasy team-ups in the gaming world.
5. Valve + Irrational Games: Between these two developers we’ve seen some of the greatest single-player FPS experiences of this or any generation. Half Life. System Shock. Portal. BioShock. Not only do these games present something original and innovative in their gameplay far beyond that of the usual run-and-gun, but they also raise the bar for immersive and just plain good storytelling. They also make you think more (or at least, on a more abstract level) than the average shooter, whether you’re setting up elaborate Rube Goldberg-style traps in BioShock or figuring out a particularly difficult momentum-based puzzle in Portal. Outside of some slight RPG inclinations on the Irrational side, the two companies seem to have their goals in the same places, and they consistently achieve them year after year. For this reason, I think they’d work well together.
4. Tim Schafer + Golden Age Rare: Okay, so not only is this one impossible given that Rare’s time in the sun has passed, but I’m suggesting a legendary Tim Schafer team up after dismissing Brutal Legend? What can I say: I believe in second chances, and Rare in its heyday (which I’m defining as roughly Donkey Kong Country through Banjo Tooie) could do no wrong in my young eyes. Pumping out excellent, expansive, and comedic platformers like clockwork, they sparked a renaissance on the aging SNES, and almost single-handedly justified the purchase of an N64 console. Playing through Psychonauts is somewhat reminiscent of games like Banjo Kazooie and DK64 due to it’s rock solid platforming and irreverent humor, but it has even better presentation, playing like a lost Saturday Morning cartoon classic. Neither Schafer nor Golden Age Rare limited themselves to one genre, of course, lending their considerable talents to adventure games, shooters, racers, etc., but it’s the common bond they share in this matchup, and where they truly shine.
3. George R.R. Martin + Bioware: Perhaps the predominant name in fantasy literature today (if you somehow haven’t heard of him yet, HBO will ensure that you do soon), and arguably the leader in storytelling in the gaming world. They even have similar tale-weaving techniques, fleshing out a wide variety of characters, dealing with more gritty material than the usual scifi / fantasy norm, and working in a fairly episodic (but also epic) form. Hell, Dragon Age: Origins was directly inspired by Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, and wears this influence on its sleeve. Bioware has a fantastic team of scene and character writers working on material familiar to Martin – the man himself helming the story development of one of these games sounds like a recipe for success.
2. Masahiro Sakurai + Arc System Works: Let’s face it: Yes, the Super Smash Brothers titles are some of the most entertaining and unorthodox fighting games ever to grace the genre, but they are also woefully unbalanced and chock full of exploitable glitches. This is in part due to the difficulties raised by a physics based system and the strange Smash Bros. damage modifier, but it’s also because the folks at Nintendo are aiming towards a casual audience. Arc Sys, on the other hand, creates some of the most original and fun character designs found in a 2D fighting game, and does so while serving its competitive community first and foremost. Yes, their latest BlazBlue franchise is more casual-friendly with its slower speed and Easy Specials, but it never oversimplifies things at the sacrifice of upper end play. It’s a top-down model that makes more sense to me – develop for the harder-to-please competitive community first, and then include things that allow the newbie to join in and learn, having fun at an introductory level as well. ArcSys is a slave to the arcade scene, watching the strategies that dominate and tweaking their power in future installments to ensure the continued growth and balance of the gameplay. Combine the pure, unadulterated fun-in-a-bottle feel of Smash with the unparalleled devotion to balance and competition that ArcSys delivers, and you’d have a fighter like no other.
1. Shpongle + The Team Behind Rez: Perhaps a strange one for #1 pick, but I’m standing by it. It’s no secret that I love synesthetic games, and Rez is one of the best (though the team behind the Bit.Trip games would be almost as good), and unmatched in its enthusiasm to draw the player into the experience in cool and strange ways. The trance vibrator should stand as evidence to this. All wired up, your game interactions are translated musically, and you feel the musical beats physically. Combined with the trippy, abstract visuals, it’s a feeling that stimulates some primal pleasure center of your brain. It’s awesome. Enter Shpongle, kings of psybient music. It’s electronic / trance that’s incredibly layered and complex, not to mention bizarre as hell. It makes no attempt to conceal its hallucinogenic inspirations, rather striving to be a sort of sonic representation of such experiences. What better soundtrack for a game that hopes to evoke synesthesia than that of a band that’s been doing this on a purely musical level for years? Such a pairing would be fascinating to me because I wouldn’t be able to wait to see what the two teams would come up with a common mindbending goal in mind. But even samples from Shpongle’s back catalogue would trounce the electronic examples found in Rez. Imagining such a game set to beats from a song like Dorset Perception or Nothing is Something Worth Doing makes me happy on a deep, deep level.
So those are my picks. Agree? Disagree? Have any fantasy match-ups of your own? I would love to hear ‘em – drop a line in the comments.