Is 2008 Really the Best Year Ever for Video Games?

Dear N’Gai, Seth, and Stephen,

I’m honored to welcome you—three of the smartest video game writers in the country and in Blogistan—back for Slate’s second Gaming Club, the magazine’s now-annual look at the year in games. As someone who spent 2008 on hiatus from formal game criticism, I’m especially grateful to be invited back inside the sacristy. I hope to act as an engaged moderator of this year’s discussion, but I’m probably too much of a blowhard to pull that off and will instead end up posing as the Anton Ego of the Xbox.

Let me start off by picking a fight. Over at MTV’s Multiplayer, Stephen has already asserted that 2008 is the best year in gaming history, even better than 2007 (my pick for Best Year Evuh!!!) and 2001 (his other contender).

Really? I guess by the standard you establish—”a 12 month period that was more well-balanced with good games than any January to December stretch that had come before”—you might be right, but I think that’s the wrong standard. Were there any games this year that rank with Bioshock and Portal, my two favorite games from 2007? Both of those instantly ascended to the canon, the list of games that all gamers must at least be familiar with, even if they haven’t played them all—like Space Invaders and Zork and Super Mario Bros. and SimCity and Myst and Doom and Deus Ex and Halo and whatever else. Everyone knew this in December. There are no games like that this year. Something like Grand Theft Auto IV is an astonishing accomplishment, but I think it’s in a lower, if still very esteemed, tier. (Though I’m ready to be persuaded otherwise. And I’m not saying, yet, that GTA IV was the best game of 2008. I still haven’t rendered that judgment.) The greatest year in gaming history should have one or two revelatory titles, not an abundance (a welcome abundance, mind you) of Assassin’s Creeds—games that are very good but also flawed and unlikely to be added to the medium’s canon.

Put me down instead, then, with Sean Sands of Gamers With Jobs, who summed up the year a couple weeks ago as a disappointment: “I appreciate a fun game as much as the next guy, and this year has been positively choked with safe bets and easy playtime. I walk away from 2008 with some nice memories of time spent happily indulging my pastime, but few moments of gaming that challenged me on anything but a functional and mechanical level.”

While I agree wholeheartedly with that, I should add the caveat that I’m rendering an incomplete judgment. I’ve only nibbled Fallout 3 (“Mad Max: Beyond Oblivion”). I’m still playing Fable 2. I probably gave up on No More Heroes too quickly. I pretty much sampled Spore. I’ve only played the demos of Mirror’s Edge and Left 4 Dead. (Oh Valve, I promise to make that pilgrimage soon.) I haven’t touched LittleBigPlanet or World of Goo. (I’ll get there, I’ll get there.) Et cetera.

But I think I’ve tasted enough of these and other games to feel comfortable in my verdict. There were four games this year that grabbed me by the thumbs and never let go: Grand Theft Auto IV, Gears of War 2, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and Far Cry 2 (still grabbing me, at least). One of them is a failed masterpiece. One is exactly what it aims to be. One would merely be a pretty good PlayStation 2 game, but it’s also the fourth-best (maybe better!) Star Wars movie ever made. And one—and this is admittedly a midgame judgment—is an “open-world shooter” set in postcolonial Africa that has me crossing my fingers that it’s as good as it seems to be so far.

This is not necessarily my list of the year’s four best games, though it might be by the time this week is over. But all four of them created places that I enjoyed living in for long periods of time. As a gamer, I can take months to plow through a title that I would have completed in a week if I were reviewing it for publication. I need games that are more than a nice spot to spend a long weekend. I want to be able to move there.

Now, go ahead, berate me for liking The Force Unleashed. I can take it.

One thing I’ve been wondering: Is it a good sign or a bad sign for the medium that this year’s crop of games has produced such a wide divergence of opinion? Michael “the Brainy Gamer” Abbott thinks Fable 2 is perhaps “the most seductive game world ever created.” Chris Dahlen thinks Fallout 3 “balances—and sometimes betters—the approaches of other videogame masterpieces: the retro immersion of ‘BioShock,’ the paranoia of ‘Portal,’ the exploration of ‘Oblivion’ and the seamless storytelling of ‘Half-Life 2.’ ” The pseudonymous “Iroquois Pliskin” says GTA IV is “a classic, and stands head and shoulders above its previous iterations and nearly every other game released this year.”

Those are three more of the smartest people writing about games. They each think their Game of the Year is a new addition to the canon. Maybe they’re right. Or, more likely, this was a year of just-misses, which is why there’s an absence of consensus.

Some more questions:

Is the PlayStation 3 now a system that a serious gamer really should own? Put economic considerations aside, as I mean this not as a financial question but as a gaming one. With Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and LittleBigPlanet being released this year, am I missing crucial developments for the gaming connoisseur by abstaining from buying a third console?

Is the Wii a commercial success but a critical flop?

Should I have played Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist?

And what did we think of Braid?


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