Bank holiday weekends are lovely occasions. Although the Internet never really sleep, most of the news mills grind to a halt over the long weekend, and there's a calm stillness in the air... unless you listen closely, of course. Strain your ears a little and you'll hear the various bleeps and bloops denoting gamers everywhere knocking titles off of their backlogs, sampling those new titles or Steam deal purchases that they've finally gotten around to playing, or diving back into old favourites.
Star Wars Day yesterday allowed for a little reflection on that last point. Since I first saw the original trilogy back when I was nine, that universe has become a place of comfort and escape, through multiple mediums. But as well as watching all six films each and every year, Star Wars has also given me a game that I frequently return to in the shape of Knights of the Old Republic. BioWare's magnificent RPG constantly vies with Grim Fandango for the accolade of my favourite game of all time, and it's down to the story, the characters, the manner in which I, as a player, am invited to have my own adventure in the Star Wars universe, and what an adventure it is.
Just as there are books and films that I make a point of reading and watching at least once every year, so too there are games that warrant the same treatment. Some of them have stories I've simply fallen in love with, there are those that get replayed simply because they're excellent fun and mechanically masterful, and then there are others that perhaps hold some personal significance for me.
It's gotten more difficult over the past few years, of course. To be honest, when you're playing everything that comes through your inbox, it's often hard to find the time to keep these annual traditions alive. But it's those games that have gained some sort of special significance that tend to be the ones we hold onto. Here are a handful of titles that I still manage to make time for, year in and year out without fail.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
There are have been many decent Star Wars games. In fact, a number of them have been really, really good. But, for me at least, none come close to the experience I had playing Knights of the Old Republic. Well, apart from TIE Fighter, maybe.
The story to KOTOR is one thing, but it's the characters that make it, and the freedom you're given to interact with them, go the extra distance for them if you wish, to comfort them and piss them off, and to delight in their personalities and idiosyncrasies. It help to be able to leverage the swathes of detailed lore that the Star Wars universe has to offer, but BioWare didn't make it too easy for themselves, travelling back several thousand years before the Battle of Yavin IV.
Like the best books, books with characters that leap off of the page and become part of you, KOTOR wraps you up in its universe and narrative. Then it goes the extra distance and makes you a part of it. Every year I like to go back to that. The twist no longer hits hard, but it's not about that any more. It's about Mission and Zaalbar and Bastila and Carth. And toasting meatbags with HK-47.
Captain America and the Avengers
It should really be Streets of Rage II here. But this isn't a list wholly determined by quality. My uncle used to be a Marvel fanatic, and that kind of passed down to me. I was always Iron Man, my friend Alex was usually the Cap, and we'd spend hours and hours going through this on the Mega Drive, time and time again. Side-scrolling brawlers were perfect games for shooting the shit, catching up, and hanging out without having to focus too much on the events onscreen.
Fast forward a couple of decades and they're still good for just that. I tend to crack it out for old friends, we grab a few beers, we catch up, and we hand it to Hydra.
Max Payne 2
Gaming doesn't often do love stories terribly well. That's because, for the most part, games often don't really do writing that well. For every pillar of fantastic game writing, there are several duds and a handful of solid-but-unspectacular scripts. Max Payne gave us a spot of pulp detective fiction. It was stylised in form and function and fiction. It was utterly compelling, and that dream sequence with the trail of blood is one of the most striking moments in my own personal gaming history as a player.
But it's Max Payne 2 that I play every year. Giving Max a foil. Giving him a sparring partner with just as many one liners and just as much (if not more) to lose. The frantic, balletic, bullet-time combat was better than ever, and this time there was immediate emotional heft. The dialogue zipped along at a machine gun clip, but there were moments of moody, brooding calm between the firefights. Remedy pushed the noir tone to breaking point, but it's masterfully done -- a ballistic ballad that never gets tired or old.
It has fourteen different endings. Fourteen!
More so than Final Fantasy VII or X or Legend II or Secret of Mana, this is the classic JRPG that I come back to each year. It tells one of the finest stories to ever grace our medium and it does it without cinematic graphics or voice actors. Instead we have 2D sprites and fairly minimalistic text to deliver an epic tale of time-travel and loss. Again, it's the characters that make this game, along with the side quests that flesh them out more and more. You go to the ends of the worlkd and back again, but your companions are always there, growing, learning, and adding more and more to your journey.
And now I have Frog's Theme stuck in my head.
Over the years, I've bought Deus Ex seven different times. Now that's commitment. But again, it's because it's so good and there are so many different approaches. I like to vary things up for year to year, changing playstyles so no consecutive runthrough is ever the same. Plus this one has some pretty damn rousing music as well.
Half-Life 2 is one of the best games of all time, but I don't feel the need to play it every year like I do with Deus Ex.
So that's just a few of the games I try to make time for every year on long weekends such as this. But how about yourselves, dear readers? Do you have comfort games that you come back to time and time again? Or titles that perhaps played an important role in your life that you play through every year? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.