Playing Video Games Is a Lot Like Going to the Gym

Why the long faces gentlemen?

You seem let down by gaming in 2008. Did games let you down?

Or did you let down gaming in 2008?

Where were you, Chris, when Fallout 3 needed you to play more than one-tenth of it? N’Gai, did you really do your part to give Resistance 2 a try? Meaning, did you play its eight-man cooperative mode, soldiering through some randomized battles with a specially trained squad of fellow players? Or did you just play the single-player mode and declare the game’s mediocrity then and there? And Chris, maybe I was wrong and GTA IV is a classic. You could have defended it if you’d played it through.

To nongamers, it may seem like I’m being unkind to Chris and N’Gai. But nongamers should recognize that Chris and N’Gai are typical gamers. I judge them no more harshly than I do the guy at Wal-Mart who just bought an Xbox for Gears of War 2 or the mom who finally tracked down Wii Fit.

Gamers abandon games—even games that they like—before finishing them. Gamers get angry at games—even games they like—for being repetitious or derivative or for falling short of being as good as it seems like they could be. That’s what you get when you, the gamer, indulge in a creative form that was created to convey satisfying-but-repeatable, controllable bits of action for a quarter per minute. This is the creative form that has somehow evolved into a medium of 25-hour, $60 collections of satisfying-but-repeatable, controllable bits of action without inventing many successful strategies for telling stories, figuring out how to develop characters, or turning into a more interesting way to spend an hour than listening to Beethoven or watching The Wire.

And you thought the people voting for the Grammys, the Oscars, and the Booker prize might have missed some of the glorious works in their fields?

Gaming people often lack the time, the money, and the patience to really get into a year’s worth of games. Playing lots of games can be pretty unpleasant, not unlike going to the gym a lot. You like what you get out of it, but you’ve got to put in a lot of work, much of it tedious.

There was, however, plenty of good gaming in 2008, for those of us who have structured our lives in a way that allows games to dominate our entertainment-consumption food pyramid. You just had to dedicate lots of time to get to it. You needed to get more than five hours into Fable II. You needed to reach the zero-gravity space combat parts of Dead Space. You needed to play all of Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, and 3 to appreciate the farewell those games were given by 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4. You needed to reach the last hour of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed’s dozen to play the level most worth talking about. You needed to dig deep enough into No More Heroes to find out how Goichi Suda, the self-styled leader of the Punk games movement, crafted the greatest fight scene in gaming this year—not the one in which you fight an old lady, but the one in which someone else does the fighting for you. To enjoy the first-person parkour game Mirror’s Edge you needed not to mind that the game might last “only” six hours (a complaint among many critics) and actually play it. You needed to put in the work to enjoy this stuff. Fun, right?

I didn’t find the year in gaming any more confusing or any more full of flawed gems than previous years, including 2007. Chris, might I remind you that 2007’s BioShock suffered a mood-killing shift from intellectual art-deco shooter to action movie in its final playable scene? Or that MTV’s own Rock Band had a few flaws that needed patches (and 2008’s Rock Band 2) to fix? Or that Portal’s … nah, Portal was just about perfect. Most other games in 2007, however, had their faults.

Taking up N’Gai’s request to name a game I had trouble articulating my reaction to, I choose Too Human. It’s a game I may have dismissed had I not known its back story. Yet is that a fair reason to care about it? Here’s a game that mixes The Matrix and Norse mythology and was gestating at development studio Silicon Knights in various stages for about a decade. Its lead creator, Denis Dyack, is a passionate spokesman for games as the “eighth artform” (the seventh was film, in case you didn’t know). Dyack’s personal and intellectual response to my question about why he hadn’t abandoned the game after all this time was among the most heartfelt, ambitious, and reasonable statements about improving the gaming medium that I heard all year.

But Too Human isn’t a great game. It has some good design, fun controls, and a whole lot of the previously mentioned tedium special to video games. It struggles to flesh out its characters even though it ends its story well.

Does context forgive execution? Does ambition justify imperfection? Had I not known Dyack or read a bunch of his interviews, I may have forgotten his game shortly after playing it in August, as I do so many other games. That wasn’t possible, though. That’s not how I consume my entertainment anymore. In this age, I know the creative back story of many of the games I play. The more revealing the game’s creators are—and Dyack is among the most revealing of his peers—the more I care about the games they make.

I just don’t know if all of that makes Too Human a game I can recommend, or if I simply would recommend that gamers learn more about the people who make their games.

So, did none of you play handheld games this year or what? No one’s talking about them.


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