Top Five Game Mechanics of 2013

            Sometimes we get so caught up in the games themselves at the end of the year that we forget the little things in each one that made them so excellent.  So today, I’m going to highlight five specific mechanics in 2013 games that stood out to me. 

Thresh’s Dark Passage, League of Legends

            Thresh is a champion that, like Lee Sin, seems tailor made to be a giant Big Plays Engine.  The amount of times I saw a game won on the back of an unbelievable Thresh play from Madlife, Xpecial, or Edward in Season 3 is beyond human comprehension.

            The biggest catalyst for these is his W ability, “Dark Passage”, which throws a lantern onto the field that an ally can click to be pulled quickly to Thresh’s location.  This essentially gives all of Thresh’s allies the equivalent of a Lee Sin Safeguard; the lantern can be used to bail people out of tough situations as well as calling in unseen allies suddenly for a fight.

            From there, the dominos continued to fall and Thresh found his way into an overwhelming majority of pro matches, if only on the ban list. He found his way into my heart as well, and Dark Passage was the key to it, even if I had to spend the first two months of his existence constantly screaming for people to click the lantern in chat.  It was the Lightwell all over again.

            This is the kind of mechanic I love in MOBAs. It turns the game completely on its head and opens a huge amount of possibilities not just for Thresh himself, but for everyone on his team. It’s a great play-making enabler, synergizes well with the rest of Thresh’s kit, and feels great to use.

Coaching Mode, Dota 2

            While we’re on the subject of MOBAs, I want to highlight the best innovation for getting friends into the genre that I’ve ever seen.  Dota 2’s Coaching system is a brilliant way to let your friends watch and guide you through a game without the pressure of letting them down if you make mistakes.

            MOBAs are an inherently conflict-brewing genre. One player doing poorly weighs on all the others.  Playing with friends to learn the game often means screwing things up for them until you’re good enough to hold your own, and it was a huge barrier to entry to Dota 2 for many of my friends and myself.

            With Coaching, you can a friend’s undivided attention in a way that won’t end the friendship in the process.  Valve also went beyond that call by incorporating a huge amount of interface tools into the experience, giving the coach the ability to indicate all kinds of things to the player and see exactly what’s going on with the student’s cursor. The coach has full access to every aspect of the player’s experience and can guide them accordingly, which makes an enormous difference in such a demanding game and genre.

The Daily Challenge, Spelunky

            How do you manage to make something social out of a solitary game about delving into procedurally generated caverns with one life to live and a host of dangers to end it? How do you add permanence to something inherently mercurial, letting people have an anchor to latch onto in their social endeavors with the game?

            Spelunky’s answer is the Daily Challenge, a single randomly generated map that’s given to every single one of the game’s Steam or PSN players (thought different on each platform) that each player has only one shot at. The objective: get more money than everyone else you know, and while you’re at it, try to die later than they did, too. 

            On its own right, purely through the leaderboard integration of it all, it’s a fascinating and engaging social competition, with each player sharing stories of where they inevitably died and what it was that killed them. However, many people have taken it a step further, recording their runs or streaming them.

            It’s unreal how much fun it is to watch other people tackle a challenge that you did, each day presenting a new set of failures, successes, judgment calls and screw ups to watch. Spelunky was already a phenomenal game on the 360 last year, but the Daily Challenge has turned it into a community phenomenon.

Controlling Clones, The Swapper and Super Mario 3D World

            This mechanic gave me a ton of moments of Gestalt where I had the sudden realization of what it meant that I was controlling multiple equally significant people simultaneously. It was like one of those optical illusions that are two pictures at once; am I controlling the left Mario, or the right one?  I’m controlling both, of course, but my brain refused to process that. I like it when games make my eyes go crossed, and both of these titles that utilized this mechanic really put my head through its paces.

            The Swapper especially challenged the way that I looked at my identity as a player character within games by using this mechanic.  I could never look at things on a macro level of controlling everyone; I always had to focus my eyes on a single character, accept him as the “main” guy and then treat the others as henchmen.  When I needed to focus on another one, he became the “real” main character and all the others were graveyard stuffers. It was bizarre, as it’s an incredibly unrealistic way of looking at it, given that all of them are the main character, but it’s the only way my head could wrap around it.

            When it came to having to do it on the fly in action sequences in Super Mario 3D World, I was hopeless. My fleet of Marios was often a liability more than a help, and I sent many innocent Marios to their deaths in service of Mario Prime. Despite my incompetence, though, the mechanic was just as compelling, and always felt like it was making me work on my brain muscles a little.

Two Brothers, Two Halves, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

            This one’s gotten a hysterical amount of (well deserved) praise as a storytelling mechanic, so I’ll refrain from echoing what I’ve already said before on this blog about the genius of it as an evolution of the medium. But in a similar vein to the above mechanic of duplicate player characters, the need to do multiple different things at once between two characters as only a single player is really made me think about the controller differently.

            On top of that, the subtle ways in which the brothers interacted with things differently characterized the two halves in the controller in a unique way, and it made puzzle solving not just a matter of figuring things out, but also of getting your head screwed on properly enough to use the correct side of the controller at the correct time.

            Thankfully, the times that required me to actually use both sides to do something time sensitive were few and far between, and well executed when they came about. There was a lot of potential for frustration with this mechanic, but Starbreeze implemented it well and managed to keep it fresh for just the right amount of time.


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