This has been great, but my, haven’t we been serious! All of us have been so busy weighing industry trendlets and esoteric points of game design that I almost fear we have come to resemble the chin-stroking, self-styled sophisticates that made the arts writer such a lampoonable stereotype in the first place.
Of course games raise serious questions. No need to shy from them. But amid all the intellectual theorizing, remember that most people play games simply to have fun. For some players, fun means an abstraction like Tetris. For others, fun means a story like Mass Effect. For some folks, fun means blowing stuff up. For others, it means grooming their virtual pet dog.
But what ties together all those experiences, what makes them all games, is that taste of fun, of glee, the unrepentant giggle and the unrepressed grin, that moment of the fist pump or the two arms extended in a self-generated halo of triumph.
Those are the moments we play for. And one of the great things about any good game is that you don’t have to “finish” the game (if it is even finishable) to experience them. The fact that most people don’t finish most games is irrelevant if they are enjoying the time that they are actually playing.
There are two guys who hang out at a bar near my house who are always playing Ms. Pac-Man. And they straight-up suck. Sometimes, they don’t even get to first intermission. I asked one of them why they keep pumping quarters into the machine, month after month. He said: “We don’t take it too seriously. We just like to play.”
Goals come and go—once you achieve one, there’s usually another sitting right out there—but the pleasure of seeking persists. One of the hit games we haven’t talked about is Pokemon, which remains fabulously popular with children. (The new Pokemon incarnations, Diamond and Pearl, are among the best-selling titles of 2007.) The franchise’s tag line has been “Gotta catch ‘em all!”—a reference to the hundreds of collectible monsters that have appeared through the series’ history.
Almost no one ever does catch them all. Does that mean that Pokemon is too long or too big? Does that mean Pokemon should include only a fraction of its monsters, so more people can “finish” the game. Of course not. As with so many things, the real pleasure in gaming is the journey, not merely reaching some kind of finish line.
Here are some of my personal moments in gaming this year that were especially enjoyable, thought-provoking, or both.
Becoming the first level 70 character on my server in World of Warcraft. After playing for 76 hours over less than five days, I became the first person on my copy of the game world to hit the new level cap after the introduction of the game’s expansion in January. It felt like a triumph at first but then a little anticlimactic (though it was necessary for the online journal I was writing), because I was literally alone at the top. It would be weeks before most of my guildmates reached the same plateau, and it helped me understand why games are best played with friends.
The Attack at Klogori. For pure adrenaline, nothing this year compared to my first solo battle against another player in Eve Online. So there I was, minding my own business, flying my Rupture-class cruiser in a low-security star system called Klogori. All of a sudden, a Thorax blastership flown by a pilot from the then-powerful RISE alliance appears on my heads-up display. His railguns rip into my shields as I fumble to launch my attack drones and target my autocannons. We circle one another, dodging the asteroids tumbling about, as my ship’s Nosferatu modules relentlessly suck away the energy stored in his ship’s batteries and add it to mine. Soon, he can no longer power his repair systems, and I blow the Thorax to high-tech splinters. And none too soon. A few more seconds and it would have been me waking up in a cloning station.
Mass Effect’s beach scene. Others may spill spoilers, but I can’t give away exactly what happens in the most powerful dramatic scene in the most story-driven game of the year. All I’ll say is that a hard choice in a video game usually means deciding between a rocket launcher and a machine gun. Mass Effect’s beach scene brings together choices of personal loyalty, the desire to serve the greater good, and plain old combat-oriented game mechanics.
Putting the band, or at least the team, back together. I’m really bad at most sports games, so I’ve never had a ton of fun with the Madden series, which practically requires several years of intense study to be able to play at a competent level. But I did enjoy assembling teams of past National Football League greats in All-Pro Football 2K8. As a fan of the 49ers teams of the 1980s, it was great to mess around with players like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. The game also reminded me of something Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks running back, once emphasized to me, which is that football is a team game. “You should be able to make a team and play together with your friends,” he said. “Like if you have 10 friends, you could all play different positions and be in 10 different houses and play together over the Internet. Or maybe you just have like five people, and you control the skill positions and the program controls the other guys.” Imagine a Rock Band-like football game where you could play Randy Moss and get open while your buddy plays Tom Brady, scrambles, and then delivers the ball. Now that’s a sports game that perhaps even the most multiplayer-phobic gamers could enjoy.
Why are these little anime guys making me crazy? My favorite portable game of the year was actually a remake of an old PlayStation game, Final Fantasy: Tactics, which recently arrived on the PSP. Tactics is great because it is another reminder that when it comes to puzzle-solving and strategy games, graphics usually don’t matter. What matters is depth of gameplay, in the sense of offering players multiple ways to achieve their goals. Final Fantasy: Tactics is both complicated and difficult. I hear there’s an end to the game out there somewhere, but I’m nowhere near it.
Making like Tarzan in God of War 2. The swing-like-an-ape sequence in God of War 2 is not very challenging, and it is certainly not one of the game’s many ingenious puzzles. But it is a cinematic scene that reinforced for me how fully formed the game is as a piece of modern interactive entertainment.
The Cringe Award. This is actually high praise, because the cringing doesn’t refer to the quality of the game. Rather, it refers to how well Konami’s PSP game Brooktown High evokes some of the elements of that social crucible known as high school. It is not meant seriously, but Brooktown High, which lets the player decide if they want to be a jock, a nerd, or a rebel in their pursuit of popularity and a hot prom date, comes as close as any game I’ve seen recently in turning the real world into a game experience. One of the most striking differences between games and other media is that most films or TV shows, for instance, are set in an approximation of the real world, while most games are set in some fantastic environment purposely detached from reality. Of course, as Bill Roper, chief executive of Flagship Studios, told me: “No one wants to play a game where they are a C.P.A. trying to figure out a deduction.” But perhaps games like The Sims and Brooktown High are early steps toward interactive soap operas or the kinds of in-game story lines that don’t require aliens and mutants and evil masterminds everywhere.
In all, I see little reason to be pessimistic or cynical about the future of gaming. This is a medium still in its infancy, and it will continue to grow in all sorts of directions. That is why the touchstone of gaming is still ambition. That means the ambition to find new ways to engage new audiences with new forms of entertainment. That means the ambition to explain and discuss games in an engaging way for the masses, not just the cognoscenti.
But most of all, it means the ambition to have fun, because that is what games are all about.