The Ryan Lambie column: why 2008 is the year of the download

Is 2008 is the year that downloading games (legally) came of age...?

Braid: a downloadable beauty

Some people may argue that 2008 will be remembered as the year of the big sequels. Sure, Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4 may have hogged the headlines, but 2008, in my opinion, will be year of the downloadable game. Already we’ve had the superlative Audiosurf, Lost Winds (possibly the only game that’s made any proper use of the Wiimote), Multiwinia, Bionic Commando: Rearmed and the sublime Braid.

Modern games have, in some cases, become bloated, over-long and over-reaching. It’s all too common for titles to spend years in production, only to emerge as yet another multi-million dollar disappointment – just look at Too Human, a game ten (count ’em) years in the making, that after months of steadily rising excitement and speculation finally emerged into the daylight with some decidedly lukewarm reviews to greet it.

The flipside, of course, is the latest Grand Theft Auto – with a budget of an estimated $100million, it was the video gaming equivalent of a summer blockbuster, and its pre-release hype was matched by rave reviews from all quarters, many boldly dubbing it ‘the game of the year.’

GTA IV was a fantastic game – not quite worthy of the rather hysterical 100% reviews it often received, but a remarkable achievement nonetheless. It’s interesting to compare it to XBLA’s Braid, the product of two people (programmer Jonathan Blow and artist David Hellman) and a budget of just $180,000 – a minisule amount of money when you consider that, according to IDC Videogame analyst Billy Pidgeon, current generation games can cost anywhere between $10 million and $40 million to make.

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If you haven’t played it, Braid is, at first glance, just another old-school platform game, and initially feels quaintly reminiscent of the Monty Mole series of flick-screen 8-bit classics. Then, as you delve a little deeper, you discover its ‘time control’ mechanic that soon becomes an integral part of solving the increasingly intricate puzzles on each level. We may have already seen a similar contrivance in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and even this year’s excellent Race Driver: GRID, but believe me, nowhere else has the ability to manipulate the course of events been used to better – or more original – effect. Despite its meagre budget, Braid even has beauty as well as brains – it looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous, with lush, leafy visuals and a soaring string-based score.

Braid may not have the sprawling, hyper-real city of Rockstar’s effort, but it does have one thing that many big budget games lack – personality. Thanks to its miniscule production crew, Braid feels like an intimate, lovingly crafted game, a game that speaks directly to its audience in a way that I thought I’d never see in a commercial game again.

And it isn’t just me that likes it – Braid has received the kind of reviews that poor old Free Radical could only dream of, even after spending two years and god knows how much on the stunningly mediocre Haze.

Braid is proof that games don’t have to be vast in scope to be innovative and captivating – as stunning as Rockstar’s effort is, GTA IV doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as Jason Blow’s hand painted levels and singularly touching storyline.

Thanks to the new possibilities that digital download services like XBLA open up for small production teams, games are no longer required by law to be sprawling affairs with a thousand-strong production crew, any more than all movies have to be three-hour James Cameron style epics.

Don’t misunderstand me – ‘big’ games are great too, and we need big games with mega budgets to show us just how awe-inspiring and epic games can be, and how far the boundaries of technology can be pushed – just as skyscrapers or cathedrals do.

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Sometimes though, the opposite can be just as enthralling – small things, beautifully crafted and full of intricate detail. In this respect, Braid is 2008’s Fabergé egg.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.