The Two Games in 2009 that Affected Me Emotionally

Jamin, Mitch, and Leigh,

Welcome to the third annual edition of Slate’s year-end Gaming Club—this year with an all-new cast of some of the smartest and most interesting writers on video games (and me). I hope this turns out like The Real World: San Francisco, when the show, in its third season and with its third cast, became a national sensation. And that none of you turn out to be Puck.

With all the tributes being paid to the nameless decade that we are about to leave, I feel like 2009 is getting short shrift among games writers and bloggers. It’s been a pretty good year. There were a number of remarkable games that didn’t get celebrated the way they might have in 2006, 2007, or 2008. In another year, I’d still be playing Dragon Age: Origins nonstop instead of figuring out when I’m going to have the time to return to it.

Games like Wii Sports Resort, Dragon Age, and The Beatles: Rock Band—and maybe this group would include, had I had time to play through them, the new Grand Theft Auto episodes, The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony—make up an interesting category in this video-game generation: games that are well-made and fun to play but that aren’t lavished with praise because we’ve seen them before. (Does New Super Mario Bros. Wii belong in this group, too? Left 4 Dead 2?)

But rather than clear my throat on the year’s themes, I’ll jump right in and tell you what games really knocked my socks off. Despite my esteem for poor, underappreciated 2009, the list of games from this year that I’d hand over to nongamers to show them why I play is small. With the caveat that, as usual, I haven’t played everything, here are my favorite games from 2009:

1. Flower
2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
3. Uncharted 2
4. Batman: Arkham Asylum

I’m still playing through Assassin’s Creed 2, but I’m well into the game, and I can’t imagine that it belongs on this list. (Though perhaps its TV commercials alone merit an honorable mention for making it the only game, among pretty much all the games I have ever bought, that my wife wants to play.) I haven’t gotten to Brütal Legend yet, and I’m intrigued to think that I may disagree with the critical consensus that it was a disappointment—but maybe that’s because I’m still filled with visions of Psychonauts (instead of Brütal Legend) when I think about a new Tim Schafer game. I have yet to play Borderlands, which a friend tells me is his favorite game of the year and which one of our participants thinks belongs on a short list of Games of the Decade. I’m intrigued by Michael Abbott’s love affair with Little King’s Story, but guess what: I haven’t played it. I’m going to get to Demon’s Souls this week, but despite all the praise, I’m a little bit afraid of turning my life over to it.

And as short as that first list was, to be honest, there’s an even shorter list: the games that not only seduced me with their gameplay and their fiction but that also managed to affect me emotionally. They were:

1. Flower
2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

So yeah, those were my Games of the Year—a joyful $10 downloadable game for the PlayStation 3 that casts you as a series of petals floating in the wind and a gut-wrenching military blockbuster that’s raking in hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars and that, in one level, asks you to participate in the murder of civilians at an airport.

And really—no, seriously—I’m talking about Modern Warfare 2’s single-player campaign. So, I’m talking about two extremely short games that packed quite a wallop. I’d like to see more like them. Length in video games is extremely overrated. Do we praise novels for being 800 pages long instead of 350 pages? And the economic calculus isn’t objectionable, either: I live in New York, where a 90-minute movie can cost $12, and that’s if I go all by myself. I’m supposed to complain that it costs me $60 for a game that is five times that long?

Of course, emotion is overrated, too. On a rare night, Monday Night Football can affect me emotionally. That doesn’t make it art.

But all four of the games on my list—and especially the top two—were more than sport. They were ambitious works of fiction, though the fiction in Modern Warfare 2 is deeply flawed. (Modern Warfare 2’s ambition is partly why, for me, the biggest disappointment of 2009 was the response among many writers and bloggers to “No Russian,” the you’re-a-terrorist level. But I’m going to have to hold that thought for Round 2 of this exchange.)

More and more, I feel a divide between the games that most people play, whether on their mobile phones or with their relatives over the holidays, and the games that I am talking about when I talk about video games. I feel like a film critic who asks people what their favorite film of 2009 was and gets Monday Night Football in response. Monday Night Football is a cultural product that’s made with video cameras for the entertainment and enjoyment of video-watchers. That doesn’t make it a movie.

Likewise, the fact that my relatives played the heck out of the swordfighting and bowling games on Wii Sports Resort over Thanksgiving—and the Wii’s version of Scene It? Bright Lights! Big Screen! for that matter—doesn’t make those things video games. Or at least the kind of video games I’m talking about. One of these days, someone’s going to come up with a great word to distinguish Games That Are Sport and Games That Are Story. Or, to be more precise, because I’m not just talking about sport vs. story: Games That Are Play and Games That Are Art.

This medium is as nameless as the decade we’re leaving.

But what were your favorite games from 2009?