I’m No Longer Certain About the Glorious Future of Video Games

I know we’re here to talk about the year in video games. (Thanks so much for having me along, by the way.) But, Chris, it’s funny you bring up The Real World: San Francisco. I was just hitting adolescence when that show aired, and—blame it on my impressionable age, maybe—I remember it as the heyday of MTV, a reality-TV success when reality TV still felt like counterculture. My friends and I, camped out by the TV after school with pizza and cola, felt as if we were both watching and participating in the rise of something very important and very cool. (We girls thought Puck was the coolest, by the way.)

Of course, you know what happened from there. Reality TV became pap—which helps explain, Jamin, why I really do not want to be anyone from Jersey Shore.

Maybe this is a reach, but I think it’s appropriate to recall MTV’s glory days as we think about the year in games. For the past few years, as both a game journalist and fan of games, I’ve felt as if I was on the edge of something Very Important. This year, though, felt like such a flat line that I’m no longer certain about the glorious future of gaming.

When I look at the games of 2009, I see few titles that broke formula and none with memorable narratives. You could blame my pessimism on the fact that I’m primarily a reporter on the business of games, and month after month, the industry numbers were rarely good. The NPD Group compares each month to the same one the previous year, and by their metrics 2009 couldn’t beat 2008.

Key business elements that have carried us for the past two years have lost steam. The Wii seems to have reached critical mass, and the music genre (Rock Band, Guitar Hero, et al.) is quietly going the way of the fad. From my vantage, it seems as if the recession has made developers more cautious in trotting out novel, risky fare. Perhaps what I’m bridling against is the risk-aversion that I saw in so many 2009 games.

This year’s crop of games does deserve praise for technical virtuosity. Game designers are better than ever at game design. Graphics look unbelievable—and if the teasers I’ve seen can be relied on, just wait until the many titles that were held back (for more polish) for the first half of 2010 hit the scene. And you never know how Project Natal and Sony’s mysterious glow-wand will shake things up. But I’m getting out of order here. Must look back before we can look ahead, right?

Let’s get Modern Warfare 2 out of the way. I, too, was deeply affected by its single-player campaign. Although, Chris, I hope you’re not saying you liked the story itself, a pastiche of common military fiction tropes that, as an end-to-end narrative, is basically inscrutable. I’m fortunate not to have any idea what it feels like to be a soldier in the line of fire, so I don’t know whether Modern Warfare 2 is an accurate reflection of the front lines. I do know that the game made me think about what soldiers go through. A lot. And it made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t even finish it. Rather than explain, I’ll just point readers to Chris’ excellent Slate piece and say “me too.”

Another thing about Modern Warfare 2 that makes me uncomfortable: Of every game that’s launched in the past few years, this is the one that sells the most copies? This is the most-appealing escapism our industry has ever produced? Do the 6 million and some-odd Americans who bought this game in November alone think about Modern Warfare 2 the way Chris and I do? Do they care? Or do they see it simply as yet another numbered installment in a derivative military-shooter franchise? To be fair, it is that, too. But I don’t know, guys. If I had to choose a game that brought the medium to the masses—if I had to appoint an ambassador to represent “us”—it would not be ModernWarfare2.

Maybe it would be Flower, though. I kvetched quite a lot at the game’s launch because I thought the critical reception was too over-the-top—all this over-analytical, artsy-fartsy praise for something that’s simply a lovely, creative video game. I perhaps unfairly accused friends and colleagues of projecting onto Flower some desperate need to be validated as art. But maybe we need to be forceful if we’re going to have a say in choosing our ambassadors. Maybe we need to hype—or, dare I say, overhype—the games we think people really need to see.

Incidentally, Jamin, this is what I think you’re doing when you’re talking about the believability of Uncharted 2’s Nathan Drake. You were fascinated by an Indiana Jones knockoff who makes “clever” film-star wisecracks and doesn’t care that he’s killing tons of people? Really? But you also said that Flower—a game where magical flower petals punch down evil oil wells in a precious anti-industrialization allegory—made you get the sniffles, so perhaps you’re the sensitive type. Or maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.

Seriously, though, my favorite games of the year are New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Demon’s Souls, two games that couldn’t be more opposite. You both mentioned The Ballad of Gay Tony, and I will, too. I think that once again, Grand Theft Auto’s subtle charms have been overlooked in favor of its much-less-subtle traits. I did not get to “No Russian”—Modern Warfare 2’s terrorist level—in this entry, but I’m sure we will later. For now, I’ll simply say I disagree with you, Chris, and I’ll explain why soon.