Video game makers are rolling out their new titles — with a wide range of creativity and style — just in time for the holiday shopping season. Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen magazine, shares his list of video games you should keep your eye on:
Nintendoland: The marquee release for Nintendo's Wii U console, this title shows what Nintendo does well: pure family fun. I tried several of the mini-games within Nintendoland and was dazzled by their simplicity. In one, I simply had to play tag with four others and found myself laughing the entire time. The Wii U is also a referendum on Nintendo's future: Despite the dominance of the Wii, the emergence of iOS and Facebook games have chipped at Nintendo's core audience. If the Wii U sells poorly, the 100-year-old game maker may be on the ropes.
Machinarium: A "point and click" adventure game set in hand-drawn apocalypse about a little robot looking for his place in a lost world. Notes of the Tim Burton-produced animated feature 9.
The Unfinished Swan: The game opens with an amazing sequence: an entirely white space in which the player, a boy named Monroe, is chasing after a swan that has escaped a painting. You are equipped with a paint gun using the first-person perspective so the world can be painted black and thus show you where you need to go.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask: I loved these Japanese adventure games for their novel take on puzzles and adventure. Consider this Encyclopedia Brown for the modern age. Brain-twisting puzzles are merged with a carnivalesque city setting as you hunt to unravel the secrets of the town.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II: This will be one of the biggest games of the year as the past Black Ops generated more than $1 billion in sales. These games are the closest to the big-budget sheen of films like The Avengers, and in this sequel to the long-running franchise, you are various secret agents working behind the scenes from the Cold War to the near future. Also, you can ride a horse.
Assassin's Creed III: The previous versions of AC have paid close attention to historical detail in Crusades-era Jerusalem and then Renaissance Italy. ACIII takes place during the American Revolution as you play Connor Kenway, part English and part Native American, drawn into the conflict. The game also features several notable characters from the time period, including Benjamin Franklin, King George III and Samuel Adams.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you need a video game fix, the makers of video games are rolling out their new titles in time for the holiday season. It feels a little like when Hollywood releases a series of blockbusters, with all the hype and expectations, because video games are big business - not unlike the movies. It's a multibillion-dollar industry with a huge range of creativity and style.
To learn more about the video game landscape, we brought in Jamin Warren. He's the founder of Kill Screen magazine, and he offered us a list of video games to be looking for.
JAMIN WARREN: One of my first picks is "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" published by Activision. "Call of Duty" is a long-running first-person shooter franchise. And a couple of years ago they released something called "Modern Warfare" and that changed the franchise entirely. The new series, "Black Ops II," sort of about the sort of undercover operations of the U.S. military.
GREENE: Yeah. I think we actually have a little bit of sound. And we should say, I mean these days sounds of video games, I mean, it sounds to me like it's a movie trailer.
GREENE: Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS II")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are sending more foreign leaders and the fallout from this (unintelligible) could be catastrophic.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Understood. Section out. Empty shelves...
WARREN: I like the game for a couple of reasons. I've been a fan of the campaign style play of the game, which is sort of like the big budget to the movie sequences. But...
GREENE: Like you're in a movie that has a beginning and an end, so to speak.
WARREN: Exactly. Exactly. And you're kind of actually you're literally on a rail, which means that you're kind of going in a straight line and things show up in front of you. But, you know, I think the other thing, from a larger context, is that "Black Ops II" is one of these games that is building off discussions that we're having, as a country, about America's potential surveillance system. You know, it has, like, drones. There are a lot of things that are in that game that are reflective of current military technology, and I find that very interesting from a cultural perspective.
GREENE: There is one game that caught my eye on the list that you sent us. It's called "Unfinished Swan." It seems very artsy and, you know, very experiential. It's about a boy chasing after a swan that escaped from a painting. What's going on here?
WARREN: So that was designed by a young man named Ian Dallas. He's a Yale graduate. He was a comedy writer for The Onion and Comedy Central, and he sort of left the TV writing world to pursue games, which was something that he loved. "Unfinished Swan" is one of the most visually interesting games I've seen, it's off of the PlayStation III, it's a downloadable title. But it's sort of uses the language of first person shooters - like a game like "Black Ops" - and subverts them and turns them into something different. So instead of shooting bullets, you're shooting little splatters of paint. And in each level you, sort of, use the splatters of paint to illuminate this world that it into you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM VIDEO GAME, "UNFINISHED SWAN")
GREENE: It really sound like a music score for a movie. I mean...
WARREN: Oh, yeah. It's like a fairy tale. The opening level starts with this big open white room and you just throw splatters of paint like your Jackson Pollock, just to uncover to see what's around you. You know, the developers talked about wanting to create this sense of wonder in players, and I think that that's a feeling that game developers don't use enough in terms of making people feel at awe in terms of what they're seeing, really making people sort of re-create that that sense of childhood delight. So this game is full of those types of experiences and I think that that's a very different way of thinking about games.
GREENE: Well, speaking of slightly more kid friendly, "Nintendoland" is all the talk heading into this holiday season. Let's get a little of the experience, get a little sound from "Nintendoland."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM VIDEO GAME, "NINTENDOLAND")
WARREN: "Nintendoland" is the marquee title for the Wii U. The Wii U. is Nintendo's follow-up to the Wii. It's sort of builds on some of the family focused playback at the Wii was able to establish. You know, I think the big thing about Nintendo is that they, sort of, lost a big chunk of their market to, you know, things like the iPad. And so what Nintendo is trying to do is say, like hey, look, we make games. We make games really, really well, and "Nintendoland" is a great example of that. So one of my favorites was a game called "Mario Chase." It's very, very simple. It's basically one person flees and the other four characters chase him. I think it just, sort of, represents Nintendo is really focused on pure play experiences and they're able to take things that may, on the surface, seem not very complex and really turn them into much richer social experiences.
GREENE: Let's just step back a minute, Jamin, if we can. I mean so many people these days are playing games, you know, downloading games on their iPhones and iPads. I mean it seems like that sort of a dangerous trend for some of the giants like Nintendo. I mean give us the lay of the land. When you're looking for this season, and is this really a big moment for these producers of video games?
WARREN: Oh, it absolutely is. Tripp Hawkins, who is the founder of Electronic Arts, which, you know, make some of the biggest titles that are out there, he's recently said that he thinks that the video console is dead. And I think this holiday season is a referendum on the future of games. Traditional video game retail sales have been down over the last two years. And that's not because fewer people are playing video games. It just means that they're no longer going to a place like Game Stop. There's so many places to play games now. So, you know, I think that the diversity of titles that are out there are able to meet all the demands in the way they games never have before. Not just in terms of, you know, sort of the visual look or the game play styles, but also, you know, in terms of how people live their lives. You know, for busy parents may be for those who are playing games, they're finally options for them that they don't have to dump 16, 20 hours into playing a, you know, big fantasy RPG. They can snap on their iPad and boot up an adventure game. So, we're finally starting to see games that are reflecting where people are at in their lives and not just the needs of video game companies.
GREENE: Jamin, happy playing this holiday season.
WARREN: Oh, thank you.
GREENE: Jamin Warren is founder of Kill Screen magazine. You can get a full list of his video game picks at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.