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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Games of 2011: StreetPass Quest

World of Walkcraft.

If golf is a good walk spoiled, StreetPass Quest might be the exact opposite. It's a good walk enhanced: a simple amble across town rendered tactical, speculative and even quietly thrilling. "Gather heroes, fight ghosts and collect hats," says the blurb that introduces the 3DS' unlikely killer app. Sold. As far as I'm concerned, that's pretty much the entire appeal of modern video games boiled down into a single sentence.

On some level, of course, it's all just a smart piece of strategizing. Paul Auster once said that if you wander around with a pencil and paper in your pocket all the time, there's a chance that, one day, you'll actually use them, and Nintendo clearly thinks the same is true for a handheld console - although, happily, there's a reduced chance that anybody will have to slog through The Book of Illusions as a result.

Nintendo might be onto something, too. Because of StreetPass Quest, I've been taking my 3DS everywhere with me for the last nine months. It's a large part of why I came to love the weird little device even before Super Mario 3D Land turned up and gave us all a much more legitimate reason to.

StreetPass Quest has gradually taught me the racing line of my own neighbourhood.

If you haven't played StreetPass Quest, the basics are pretty simple. At heart, the game's a rudimentary and entirely rigid dungeon crawler in which you work your way through a series of different rooms, battling monsters and unlocking treasure chests, all of which contain hats for your Mii. The twist is that you need to harvest adventurers to do the actual fighting for you, and you do this either by collecting other people's Miis via StreetPass - the exchange system that allows 3DS owners to passively trade data in public - or, if you happen to live in the sticks or are surrounded by the Amish, by buying them with the coins you earn with the console's on-board pedometer.

Each time you encounter the same Mii on your travels, they'll level up when they next appear within your game. This is handy, because StreetPass Quest is astonishingly grindy. Not only do most low-level heroes inflict only the tiniest amount of damage on the enemies they come across before sloping off with fatigue, you'll have to play through the entire suite of dungeons multiple times if you're going to collect all the hats on offer. And you are going to collect all the hats on offer, okay?

It's around this point that I should probably admit that, when you get down to it, StreetPass Quest is a pretty terrible RPG most of the time. Levelling's taken out of your hands, the environments are fiercely repetitive, and your sole choices amount to whether to use a melee attack or magic when laying into the next monster. Sure, the colour-coded adventurers, each with their own powers, bring a surprising tactical depth to your decision at times, but you're hardly looking at Nintendo's answer to Dark Souls, or even HeroQuest.

The more you play, though, the more you'll start to realise that the RPG isn't actually the main event. Rather, each tiny sliver of the RPG you're given is your reward for successfully playing the true StreetPass Quest - and that turns out to be a game about carrying your 3DS around wherever you go, changing your walking habits so that even the shortest stroll takes you past as many shopping malls and densely populated areas as possible, and maximising every single chance you can get for that little green light on your 3DS - Gatsby would understand - to start glowing. It's like fishing, really, or dowsing. Or Pokémon.

Hat envy is experiencing something of an epidemic at the moment.

It's also a reminder, should you need one, that StreetPass is probably the most Nintendoish element of the 3DS, a device which, with its gimmicky lenticular screen and horrible battery life, isn't exactly drowning in the kind of Gunpei Yokoi-style leftfield thinking that brought us the Gameboy or the original DS. The console's a bit of a cludge, perhaps, but at least its sharing aspects are brilliant. StreetPass enlivens titles like Mario and Street Fighter with regular tiny bursts of new content, and, even outside of other games, it seems wonderfully in line with its creator's playful ethos. Everyone's a generous stranger in the world of StreetPass, and everywhere you go is a place that something weird and sweet and modestly rewarding could happen. It's nice to have a game that is always playing by itself in the background. It's nice to have a game that makes you wait for things - a rarity in the current landscape.

So, slight as it is, StreetPass Quest is my game of 2011. Looking back, it's also been a game about 2011: an accidental diary of the places I've been to and the people I've met there, written in all the faces that are lined up in Mii Plaza. So there are the cluster of ludic geniuses I met at the Develop Conference in Summer, there are the bearded programmers from that studio visit in Autumn, and over there is fellow Eurogamer contributor Will Porter, collected during a drink we had in Brighton a few weeks' back. (Not sure the Kirby beret really suits you, Will.)

If you love games, you'll already know that they're more than the mere distraction they're often made out to be. At their best - when you're gathering heroes, fighting ghosts and collecting hats, let's say - they can occasionally break through the technology barrier completely and become a genuine companion.

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