Like Rich Wine and Sharp Cheese, Some Games Just Go Well Together

I've noticed over the years that I enjoy playing games in pairs, coupling them like a fine wine and a dry, aged cheese. (Or a hoppy beer and a slice of spicy pizza, if you prefer.) I've got professional obligations now that I didn't have in the past, but all the same, I find that I tend to experience my gaming two games at a time.

It's vital, then, to choose a good pairing—a yin and a yang, a chocolate and a vanilla, a Cagney and a Lacey. Sometimes a great pairing happens by coincidence—two complimentary games are released right around the same time. Sometimes they are the result of careful planning. I thought it would be fun to look back at some memorable gaming pairings that I've enjoyed over the past few years, and to see what kinds of pairs you all are enjoying during this jam-packed holiday season.

Bioshock and Oblivion

In the mid-2000s, I took a few years off from gaming. It was during the period of time that the new generation of consoles was released, but I mostly missed it as it was happening. I didn't get an Xbox 360 when it was new. I never tried to play Kameo and try to tell myself that yes, this was what the next generation of gaming was going to look like.

By 2007, there were several games on the console that felt truly "Next Gen". The first two games I got, in the late summer of 2007, were The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Bioshock. In fact, it was Oblivion that finally convinced me to take the plunge and buy a 360. I spent the next month or so playing those two games nonstop.

What a dynamite pairing those two were! Oblivion gave me heady exploration with a hint of.. well, infinity. It was a game that was as exciting or as relaxing as I wanted it to be. Bioshock gave me a more tightly controlled experience, but one that was just open enough not to feel weirdly restrictive compared to Oblivion.

It was a special time, and a special pair of games. That same fall, there were other combinations, as well, including...

Half Life 2 and Mass Effect

Good gravy, will we ever see another Fall like the Fall of 2007? Actually, I'd argue that this current fall is its equal, at least in terms of quality. But 2007 had so many special things going for it—and among them, the release of Valve's Half-Life collection The Orange Box and the very first Mass Effect.

I binged on Mass Effect when it finally came out, but all of my downtime was spent playing Half-Life 2, a game which I had been wanting to play since the day it was first teased, but which I hadn't had a PC capable of running it since it had been released.

The combination of Mass Effect's cinematic story and Half-Life 2's breathless pacing and puzzles was damn near perfect. Soon I was tearing into my second playthrough of Mass Effect, just as I was finally finishing Half-Life 2 and moving on to its episodic content. Hopefully BioWare's next magnum opus will release alongside Half-Life 3. A guy can dream, right?

The Witcher 2 and L.A. Noire

This was an odd pairing from earlier this year, a combination that didn't quite sit right, though I thought it would. Here we have two semi-open games, two defined, interesting protagonists, two mysteries that need solving. But while Geralt's adventure in The Witcher 2 grabbed me from the start, I found that L.A. Noire made for a strange counterpoint.

Part of this is that when it came down to it, I didn't like L.A. Noire that much. But I didn't hate it or anything… I think that the bigger problem was the two games' incompatible pacing. The Witcher 2 is a long game, but not too long—it benefits from a strong sense of momentum and a story that doesn't encourage wandering. L.A. Noire, on the other hand, has some truly strange pacing—most of the game is spent watching, waiting, walking around… the odd new gameplay types combined with the large but empty city to create something blank and empty. Its cool, stark tone mixed about as well with the randy, colorful scatter of The Witcher 2 as tomato juice mixes with sushi. An interesting combination, but not one I'd necessarily recommend.

Skyrim and Saints Row: The Third

This has been the most recent pairing, obviously, and it's worked out pretty well. I was playing Saints Row for review, so I was focused mainly on the story missions. Skyrim on the other hand, as I mentioned earlier tonight, has been a game that I play simply to wander around.

The two games fit together surprisingly well—they're a real Yin and Yang. Saints Row is a adrenaline shot of goofy craziness, but it can be overwhelming. When I need a break, it's time to switch to Skyrim and walk up some mountain or other. Put it this way:

Sword and Sworcery and World of Goo

When I first got an iPad, I found myself inundated with games I wanted to play. These two were right at the top of the list, and quickly supplanted any other games (Sorry Gravity Hook! Apologies Monkey Island 2!). I'd play through one of Sword and Sworcery's chapters, listening to the soothing music while I guided my avatar through puzzle after strange puzzle. But at some point, I'd get stuck (most notably during the bit with the moon), and would kick over to 2D Boy's goo-based puzzler to play a quick couple of levels.

Once more, the games proved to be brilliantly complimentary, and I still find myself putting them together to this day. But as great as those two are, of all the recent gaming pairings I've enjoyed, I think that my favorite has been…

Arkham Asylum and Shadow Complex

I think this might be my favorite one. In August of 2009, I found myself in the possession of two games that would eventually become two of my favorite games of all time. Both were action/exploration games that featured Metroidvania-style backtracking and upgrading. Both used the Unreal engine. I played both on the Xbox 360.

But as similar as the two games are on paper, they're just different enough in practice to make for a phenomenal combination. Shadow Complex allows for more bite-sized exploration, and is presented in a 2-dimensional format that is less visually intense than Arkham Asylum's 3D adventure. Shadow Complex also has a much simpler story than Arkham Asylum, and none of the crazy twists and turns that made Rocksteady's first Batman game so much fun.

At times, it felt like I would take breaks from Arkham Asylum and use Shadow Complex to keep my mental Metroidvanina-muscles limber for when I returned. But when it comes down to it, those two games were simply great games—either one probably could have gone well with anything.

Of course, these are just a few recent pairings that I can remember. There are plenty more, and lots of classics from decades past that I haven't taken the time to detail. For now, I turn it over to you—what are some of your favorite games pairings from the past? What are some of the worst? Are you combining any games this holiday season?


You can contact Kirk Hamilton, the author of this post, at kirk@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.