Introducing Slate’s First-Ever Discussion of the Year in Video Games.

Dear N’Gai, Seth, and Stephen,

Welcome to Slate’s first-ever Gaming Club, which I hope will become an annual tradition: a spoiler-laden end-of-year discussion of the year in video games. And what a year! If we were holding this e-mail exchange at the end of 2006, I’m pretty sure that the only thing we’d have to discuss would be whether Wii Sports is a better game than Gears of War. But 2007 has presented gamers with a ridiculous bounty. The only downside is that I’ve barely had a chance to digest all of the great stuff out there—including Mass Effect, Super Mario Galaxy, and Valve’s The Orange Box anthology, which includes Portal, an almost-perfect little gem of a game.

I detect two big themes for the year in games 2007. The first is that this was the best year ever for video games, that never in the past 35 years has there been such an abundance of worthy titles. (Hey, game studios, wanna think about releasing some of those during the first half of 2008?) The second is a lingering sense of frustration that games aren’t even better, now that the medium (and many of its players) approaches middle age. I share both of these sentiments.

Jonathan Blow’s keynote lecture at last month’s Montreal Game Summit is the most recent crystallization of the second theme. Everyone who’s interested in games should download it from his blog and spend an hour listening to it. Over the past few decades, games have become “a lot bigger,” Blow acknowledges, “but they haven’t really grown. They haven’t kept pace with me.” Blow opens his lecture with a quote from Daniel Radosh’s similarly themed New York Times op-ed on the disappointment of Halo 3: “Like cinema, games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance. They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual life.” (Disclosure: I’m a staff editor for the op-ed page of the Times.) Seth, as a World of Warcraft fan, what did you think of Blow’s comparison of that game to smoking and fast food—practices that aren’t just empty but dangerous?

As the most occasional critic in the Club, I wish I had the three weeks left in 2007 to spend more time with a few games before declaring my Game of the Year. In particular, I wish I could play Mass Effect for a bit longer—as a fan of other BioWare games, like Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, I found the game dazzling and disappointing, in roughly equal measures, after spending only a few hours with it. But the hour is now, and I don’t think I’m going to change my mind before Dec. 31 anyway: BioShock is not just the best game I played in 2007. I think it’s the best game I’ve ever played.

If there is someone out there reading this who has never played video games or who used to play them and is wondering how best to rediscover the habit: Go buy an Xbox 360 and BioShock. It may very well be the first video game that succeeds as a coherent work of art, with a discernible theme that emerges over the course of many, many hours of play.

BioShock is a game about the illusion of choice and about the flawed dream of freedom—both in society at large and the medium of video games. [Update, Dec. 10:If you missed my implicit pledge, in describing this exchange as “spoiler-laden,” to follow in the Movie Club’s long tradition of fully discussing the plots of the year’s best works—well, stop reading now.] You, the player, are a slave to game designer Ken Levine, which is made clear in the game’s “big reveal” moment, when Andrew Ryan lets his brainwashed son murder him, in the vain hope of proving a philosophical point. (“A man chooses. A slave obeys.”)

BioShock is not perfect. But the fact that it is a game about the illusion of choice in video games—wrapped around a larger and less provocative rebuttal of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and her philosophy of objectivism—is why I think critics (including Jonathan Blow during his Montreal lecture) are missing the point when they complain that it doesn’t matter in the long run whether you kill the Little Sisters or save them. Who cares? The whole point of the game is that you have no choice, so why fixate on the meaninglessness of a particular false choice? It was more disappointing to me that the game adhered to the “You Can Choose!” convention of having two endings, one for “good” players and one for “evil” players. The final scene, which I admittedly enjoyed upon completing the game, was one of the few places where BioShock chickened out.

But there are so many things to love about the game: its enchanting soundtrack of perfectly selected American standards (beginning with “Beyond the Sea” as we are first introduced to Rapture, the underwater dystopia where the game takes place); the fascinating characters of Ryan and Sander Cohen; the fully realized world of Rapture, with its propagandistic banners and statues and 1950s newsreels (a universe so gorgeous that, fairly early on in the game, I found myself a little bit saddened that the only thing to do was, as in so many games, kill zombies); and the mere fact that someone sat down and made a game—a game that sold!—that attempts to advance an intellectual argument.

I could go on, and I expect I will, later this week. But I’ll leave you with the words of game designer Clint Hocking, who wrote on his Click Nothing blog that “BioShock is not our Citizen Kane. But it does—more than any game I have ever played—show us how close we are to achieving that milestone. BioShock reaches for it, and slips. But we leave our deepest footprints when we pick ourselves up from a fall.”

Stephen, over to you. What’s your Game of the Year?