Sweden is definitely an outstanding region to develop video games. It is home of masterpieces such as the Battlefield series, Just Cause, Wolfenstein: The New Order (btw one of my favourite games developed in one of my favourite cities: “Uppsala” – featuring several in-game easter eggs pointing to home), Minecraft, Mirror’s Edge, Need for Speed, and even the Goat Simulator. Looking at this giant list (and list of giants), I was pretty surprised how many games in my own shelf were actually developed by Swedish studios. While Sweden has a lot of different games to offer, one recommendation definitely took me into the Swedish mood: Year Walk. It was the snow scenery looking at the screenshots and the interesting name, which made me start the game, but it was the fascinating story, which kept me playing until I’ve heard and seen it all. It is the story about Daniel Svensson, who wants to know if his lover Stina will still love him in the future.
What would one suffer through to be able to see the future? What would we do to see if we would be wealthy, happy, and loved, or even if we would live? This game definitely is one which made me think and which taught me a lot. A Year Walk is a handcrafted and artistic game with wonderful music and atmospheric graphics telling a very special story: the story about Sweden’s ancient pagan ritual “Year Walk”, which was widespread in the beginning of the 19th century. This ritual should enable the walkers foreseeing the future and is described as a dangerous, challenging – even deadly – quest. Year walkers would lock themselves alone without food and drink into dark rooms on days such Midsummer’s Eve with one final spiritual destination: the church as place to see the future. On their way to the church they would encounter different supernatural mythical creatures and ghosts threatening the walker physically and spiritually. At the end the walker has the possibility to vision the future, but also finds the feared Church Grim. A very dark background comes with the Church Grim: when churches were built in medieval times often animals (sometimes even criminals) were buried alive under the church as guardians. But this is only one part of the Swedish folklores the game tells us about.The game takes the player onto the journey of such a Year Walk while encountering different creatures and elements from Swedish folklore. Another story told in the game is the story of the “Mylingen” (The Mylings). This in-game encounter was a especially dark one. According to the game Encyclopedia a common crime during the 19th century or earlier was infanticide: mothers murdering their babies by leaving them in the woods or drowning them, because there was no room for more mouths to feed. The game takes us to different encounters of such crimes. Blood stains. Dark mood. Gloomy music. Tiny dead bodies. We need to take them to the other side of the bridge.The mechanics of the adventure/puzzle game are simple. It is working with just a limited movement along the scenes, when arrows are visible (left, right, forward, backward) and eventually interacting with some game elements with the mouse as part of small puzzles. It is one of those games where you are better off with a small notebook (real one) next to the PC to solve the puzzles: remembering patterns, numbers, drawings. On-demand hints help the player. An in-game Encyclopedia tells the player everything about the Year Walk, and the different encountered creatures. All folklore elements are well researched and incorporated smartly into the game design. But this game is definitely not about the in-game interactions and the puzzles: it is the atmosphere and the stories that make this game to an unique and mystical experience.In general, the game feels more like a mixture of reading an old book about the Swedish folklores and watching an artistic dark movie than playing a video game. No wonder: the original script was written as a film script and later adapted to fit an interactive dark experience.
Attending the Croatian game development conference “Reboot Develop” was the perfect spot to play my game from Croatia. This choice was extremely easy. All Croatian voices immediately shouted: “SAM! SAM! SAM!”. But first, I would like to mention the incredible fast development of the Croatian games industry. With a high-class conference such as Reboot Develop – bringing star-developers such as Tim Schaefer, the Romeros, Cliff Bleszinski, or Patrice Désilets (testing the locally developed indie games) to a beach-side paradise conference, which still feels like a large (game) family meeting – Croatia has created its own game-dev paradise. The local developer community is extremely strong and supportive. One of the most interesting outcomes of this community is also their “book of achievements” – a hardback summary featuring games developed in Croatia. And even if Croteam with its hits such as “Serious Sam” or most lately also “The Talos Principles” is a strong and well-known studio, it is only one of many talented voices of this country.
Playing Croteam’s Serious Sam – The First Encounter was simply wonderful. The game is so basic. So wonderful basic. The entire gameplay is narrowed down to shooting enemies and a crazy sense of humour. No senseless and compulsive collecting, no complex storyline (basically only: aliens, future, Egypt), no epic rewards: you can fully concentrate on shooting monsters and saving the world. Short: “Being a hero by creating an alien massacre”. The main game elements are clear: an absurd hero, a variety of ridiculous weapons, and the memorable maniac monsters running while screaming in very .. foreign tongues. You face evil alien frogs, beheaded-rocketeers, beheaded-bombers, beheaded-kamikazes, beheaded-[enter-evil-alien-name-here], crazy werebulls, different forms of mechs, and basically a lot of different not-so-intelligent but fast and aggressive mixtures of mammals, arachnids, machines, bones, and weapons. The most fun and also stressful part are definitely the ridiculous mass-enemy-waves: it feels like thousands (at least!!) different enemies are running towards you, which make the game always to a fast-paced and highly stressful but wonderful high-adrenaline action.The 3D game engine was for this time a wonderful piece of work. The created scenery, the amazing light effects, the environments full of rich details let players immersive in the alien-Egypt-world. Thanks to the high-performance engine it is possible that literally hundreds of werewulls, alien frogs, and beheaded creatures would run (and shout) at you. The game engine was recently made open-source: https://github.com/Croteam-official/Serious-EngineIn my opinion, definitely one of the most important parts of this game is its multi-player mode: a cooperative kill-fest! Playing this game was really a wonderful and also a very nostalgic experience to me. It is great to be reminded how you can create such a wonderful gameplay with a straight-forward and clear game design and a maniac sense of humour. (BTW this really motivated me to work further on my game – thx Croteam 😉 )
While doing some research on games from Belgium I found some interesting gaming experiences. The Graveyard (Tale of Tales), for instance, tells the story of an elderly woman walking around the cemetery, sitting down on a bench, and listening to a (somehow weird) Belgian song. Reading about this game made me immediately download the demo and play it. (You should definitely also take these 10 minutes and check out the free demo.) Even though this “game” (experience) is extremely short and content and interactions are very limited, it would affect one more than expected. Not only me. For example, it also was an inspiration for the peaceful village in Uncharted 2 [R].
Another game I found was Battle for Donetsk (Play now – Webplayer), “a war game with an anti-war message”; to create awareness of a conflict between Donetsk People’s Republic and the Ukrainian government. You can’t win this game by playing it, because regardless of your performance the victims always are civilians. You can only win by refusing to play the game of war.
So Belgium is full of alternative and interesting gaming experiences. However, the Belgium voices were pretty loud and clear about THEIR game of Belgium: The Divinity series. The Divinity universe definitely is a piece of gaming history. So I already got nervous when starting Divine Divinity – an action roleplaying game with more than 30 hours of main story. Since I usually have this urge to finish the story (and all quests, collect all mushrooms, and find EVERYTHING) – starting this game could be the downfall for my year project. So I decided to keep the first run very short and keep this game (and also this post) a constantly growing experience over the year.
The graphics and gameplay remind a bit of Diablo but with more focus on roleplaying mechanics. You start the game by choosing your character. You can choose between warrior, mage, or survivor (male or female). I’ve picked the least-naked female character, the witch. You would start the game by waking up in the house of a stranger without any clue what has happened to you. Piece after piece the healer, who has found you dying, tells you the background story. The leader of this town full of healers has gone crazy and you should find a way to help him.The main story leads the player to the cellar of the healer’s house. However, half an hour later I find myself again searching herbs and mushrooms for a mini-quest. Some inhabitants of this village already hate me, some gave me weird quests, some I have robbed (You can decide wether to play good or evil.). There are tons of objects to find, books to read, items to steal, objects to craft, people to talk to. So let me tell you more about this game time after time.
Asking for a game from Czech Republic I was overwhelmed by the number of games people recommended. Games like DayZ, Samorost, or Mafia were named a couple of times. Since Mafia is one of my favourite games (a game with an *incredibly* amazing soundtrack) I was EXTREMELY tempted to just play it again. However, there was one game, which was named more often than others: Machinarium. Since it was already a long time on my Steam wishlist, and the game was part of the Steam sale this was a great opportunity to finally play this game as my game from Czech Republic.
Starting the game I was shortly irritated by the headline “Flash Game”. Is this a new nostalgic studio or publisher? I definitely was more surprised to play a game developed in Adobe Flash than I was when playing a game in a DOS virtual machine during this year project. Back to the story: you would start the game as a broken robot on a junkyard. First tasks: find your missing pieces (body, arms, legs) and get an idea what’s going on. How to find your parts makes the game’s purpose already pretty clear – this game is a tricky puzzle game, with an interesting point-and-click adventure design, and an extremely cute story. The robot’s name is Josef. Compared to robots like Daleks, Mr. Handy, the Terminator, or Bender, Josef is pretty much skill-free. Josef’s only skills are to walk, to resize himself, and to eat items (or small robo-dogs) to collect them in an inventory.The first thing one would notice is the interesting art style. The graphics are hand-drawn and remind of steampunk worlds. The focus is definitely more on the puzzle elements (finding correct combinations) than on the point-and-click elements. All elements of the game – the story, the art, the puzzles, and the characters – are created in a detailed and inspiring way. The story is told without any words, but with small comics/dialogues drawn in speaking bubbles.For me, playing this game was a nostalgic experience (most probably because of this mixture of point-and-click adventure, the art style, and .. Flash as technology). Sometimes it felt like I am reading a wonderfully drawn children’s book. Small Josef trying to find out what has happened to him, fighting his arch-enemies – the villains, a trying to save the world. A very relaxing, but due to the puzzle elements, still challenging experience. This was probably the best game to relax and calm down after playing This War of Mine.
Many people recommended different games from Poland. Most (all) of them mentioned different parts of the famous series The Witcher. I already player The Witcher, and I would totally agree. However, one game – which I haven’t played yet – I heard a lot as well was “This War of Mine”. Reading about the background story of the game already touched me. The game is inspired by wars and sieges such as the Siege of Sarajevo (1992 – 1996), when Sarajevo was besieged for more than 3 years. More than 5000 civilians were killed during this period. This War of Mine tells the dark story of war – not from the perspective of the glorious war-hero or the fighting soldier, but from the perspective of the victims: civilians trying to survive in such a raw and dark period.
You would start the game in a small shelter with three characters – Katia, Bruno, and Pavel – all of them with a different background story. The only goal is to survive. The resources such as water, food, or time for sleeping are extremely limited. It is cold, and in times of war you never know if you should open the door when someone knocks. The characters have to build objects to create different resources and try to survive day by day. At night one of them is able to scavenge the nearby places, such as an old fuel station or an empty villa to find food and material.When encountering other characters in this game, you never know if this is someone who would help you, or one of the characters trying to rob and/or kill you. You start becoming very suspicious about everyone and everything. Together with its dark atmosphere, this setup makes the entire game much darker. You would meet people sitting in front of graves. While you would be afraid of this person trying to rob you, he would answer sadly “Don’t worry – I’m just taking care of a friend”. Things, which are usually normal – like helping the neighbor and her baby – suddenly become a process of weighting between risk and value. And at some point you also have to decide whether you want to rob an old couple, which would be their certain death, in order to survive just one more day. And it is not only the situation outside your shelter, which is the worst part. All this anger, the fear, the war also break the characters inside this shelter at some point. After taking the food from the old couple, all characters in the house became depressed for several days. This choice broke them even though it was the only way to let them live.This game made me really think a lot. Would you steal the last food from others to survive? Would you let your neighbor die just because you are too afraid of a trap? Would you rob an old couple to be able to have food for you and your friends for one more day? Bruno died. Katia got extremely depressed and shortly died after him. Pavel left our shelter and was shot the next morning. This war definitely did not only break my characters. Another screen for the Hall of Pain. Playing this game was not fun, but definitely an important experience.
France is a leading country in the video games industry and known for developing MANY excellent video games. So I was actually pretty worried that I would have to decide among an entire list of French games. But when I asked my French friends what game I should play they all answered immediately “Alone in the Dark“. I found a version (also for Mac) on www.gog.com for 5$. Alone in the Dark was released in 1992 and is considered as a breakthrough title because of the innovative use of 3D-graphics and as the first survival horror game. It is named on several “games-you-have-to-play-before-you-die”-lists and if not – it definitely should be.
In the beginning you would choose your protagonist: Emily or Edward Carnby. I chose to play Emily. The first minutes of the game feel like a detective story. The story takes place in 1924. Emily’s uncle Jeremy hanged himself and she wants to go to his “creaking old mansion” (named Derceto) to eventually find a note explaining his decision. Some hints already lead to suspect a hidden drawer in the piano where she hopes to find the suicide note. Then the game starts with an intro. Polygon-Emily enters the mansion (whoops – the door closes as if by an invisible hand) and walks up (and up and up) the stairs to the attic. First, looking at the graphics and hearing the story I expected some kind of point-and-click detective adventure. BUT as soon as the actual game begins, there is no clicking or any mouse interaction at all and it is clear- this game is different. The controls are pretty unusual, the cameras are fixed with dramatic angle-changes, and the gameplay is not entirely clear. So you would move her polygon-body through the room until the music (great music) changes and a dinosaur/bird-thing would jump into the room from the window. Emily dies and a random zombie drags her to her grave. The game ends with an extremely cool outro-scene and the typical “Game Over” message.Lucky me saw this pretty cool outro-scene many more times. This was most probably one of the shortest game experiences I had. Ever. And this would happen again. And again. (And again.) So this is how it feels if stories from H.P. Lovecraft meet DOS game: horrifying frustrating. Survival game mode = save the game every minute. After getting used to the controls and finally also discovering the “fighting” mode and how to use weapons, I was able to concentrate on the story, the atmosphere, and the puzzles. Entering room after room (saving and saving) you would immerse more and more into this polygon-world. And even though we are probably already extremely used to fancy and realistic 3D graphics, the 3D art in this game was the aspect I appreciated the most. One can feel all the effort and care the developers put into this game, developing the innovative 3D technique in an atmospheric and engaging setting.
When I asked a guy from Hungary what I should play, his first idea was the Rubik’s Cube. Since it would most probably take me 43 252 003 274 489 856 000 combinations to solve it and write my story to the game I’ve decided to go for the second choice. The video game several Hungarians mentioned immediately was Imperium Galactica II. I was pretty excited when the question was raised: “Can it be more than 10 years old?”. THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I AM LOOKING FOR. But it was actually pretty hard to find the original version at gog.com or similar websites promoting old games. I was therefore all the more surprised that there is a neat version for the iPad (4€) available.
Wow. Playing Imperium Galactica II took me back, reviving the RTS trend of 2000. One of my favourite games was always Command & Conquer: Red Alert, so I was already pretty excited to play a rather old RTS game. Compared to many other RTS games, Imperium Galactica II comes with a nice story. The gameplay graphics (such as the starmap) remind of this very very old universe maps. However, in contrast to this, the cutscenes look extremely fancy and make the story alive.Playing the campaign, you would choose between three races, with different skill sets. So it’s up to you to play with militaristic skills and strategies (brute force), diplomacy, or trading. It took me a while to get used to the controls, however, playing a RTS on a mobile device is still not the thing one is used to. First, I really had issues getting used to the game principles and the controls. Even though the game provides a nice video tutorial, the in-game tutorials of games are really appreciated. After a short time of frustration, however, it really gives you this feeling of playing one of these old, but futuristic RTS games. You could just play for hours and hours. Constantly new messages with new missions and encounters are waiting. These missions come with an interesting story by the way (a stolen virus will be spread at one of your planets…). After a short period of frustration, the excitement is overwhelming and I am definitely happy to have this game in my game collection on my iPad for traveling.
Feist – I’m a small, small thing in an evil, evil world.
The firstgame recommended by some guys from Switzerland was Feist. I was also pointed to the Steam Curator-List “Swiss Games”. Feist isa indie game developed by the Zurich studio Bits & Beasts. Looking at the website, this game won about 1000 awards. So I was also very excited to download the game. I was even more excited to see an offer at HumbleBundle for 7$.
At first glance the graphics and atmosphere of the game look very similar to Limbo. But I’ve loved Limbo, so – good for me. You start the game as .. a box. I didn’t see this coming, but ok. So I would make my way through the game as a box. After introducing the controls, and making the box swing, you get the idea that something might be inside the box. When I finally managed to destroy the box, I was super-excited to see this amazing small, fluffy creature, which somehow reminded me of this Austrian book for children “Swabidu”.What immediately catches the attention is the intense and atmospheric background music. Also the graphics are very artistic and would give the game a very special ambience.The first level is very smooth and gives a nice introduction to get used to the controls. And then.. the game already starts with its first tricky puzzles. And pretty soon it gets depressing. Your enemies are very uncomfortable and fast, and the puzzles definitely not easy. From this point you wouldn’t relate Feist to Limbo anymore. So suddenly the game principle is clear: fail to succeed. You have to learn from your failures. And you will fail a lot. This is actually a mechanic not a lot of AAA games would dare to use anymore. Early games, such as Zelda – Ocarina of Time were constantly challenging players with tricky puzzles and forcing players to actually restart levels several times (or look for level guides in the web – which was very slow back then). New games often give players hints really soon (if the player fails too often) in order not to frustrate them and lose their attention. Replaying Zelda on the Nintendo DS, for instance, was a shocking experience. They’ve included this “stone of wisdom”, which would give players hints to the solution – in form of video clips showing how to solve the puzzles.So in Feist, you are living through this tiny, fluffy, hairy creature, which gets pushed around by all the other creatures in the forest and is either trapped or on the run. Your weapons are ridiculous powerless sticks and cones – your enemies giant thorny mosquitos, caterpillars, and moles (?). Often you would just run. Sometimes you would hide or look for ways out. And this game design works. I’ve definitely enjoyed playing Feist and would recommend it to everyone with a free evening, but don’t expect it to be stressless.
Limbo, developed by the Danish studio Playdead, was one of the first games suggested I got from several Danish friends. Until then I was not even aware that Limbo, this well-known title, was actually made in Denmark.
I’ve already played Limbo before starting this list. However, Limbo was one of the games which immediately fascinated and inspired me. That’s why I’ve decided to add it to the list and just play it again.Limbo is a very dark game. The entire environment, the character, the music, and the sounds create a very dark and gloomy atmosphere. You start as a boy lying on the ground in a dark forest. Neither the story, nor the controls are explained to the player. You would start this game alone and disoriented, without a clear goal or a sense of control.After making the first few steps the game makes you aware of its game mechanics by letting you die. The main game mechanics are small puzzles, overcome different traps, and a precise timing. The main and unique elements of this game are definitely the dying animations. The game design requires the player actually to die at some points to understand how to solve the puzzle. However, just because of the variety of all the different dying animations at specific points one could spend hours just trying to find the most creative ways to let him die.To the gloomy atmosphere, different and new kind of traps, and the constant dramatic sound of your footsteps keep the game exciting. In the second part of the game, the environment changes from the forest to a machinery environment. The puzzles become more challenging and additionally include smart physics elements.This game was an amazing and intense experience with a surprisingly satisfying ending.