If someone else wants to be Puck, I can volunteer to be Kevin Powell. Or better yet, we could all cast ourselves in Jersey Shore (which I guarantee Ubisoft has in development). I would like to channel the spirit and flair of Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. Leigh, want to be J-WOWW? In a past life, I wrote for Pitchfork Media, that purveyor of all things delicate and indie. What I remember most was my difficulty with picking my favorite record of the year. There was the practical issue of revisiting every record and then the critical issue of selecting and ranking the best one. (Because I covered hip-hop, a minority interest on the site, my choices were mostly pointless and rarely broke into the top 10.) For Gaming Club this year, I endured the same painful exercise. I’ve found picking my favorite game to be harder than picking a favorite record. There’s the issue of tracking down every game I played— this Wikipedia list was immensely helpful, but I wish there was a Last.fm for Flash games to help me keep track of the legion of 15-minute hits that have disappeared into my consciousness. The genre question is also remarkably muddled. Perhaps it would be easier to evaluate video games along two axes: zombie and non-zombie. In any case, for the sake of the team, I’m drawing my line in the sand for 2009. Anyone who played Uncharted 2: Among Thieves assuredly experienced what I am dubbing “the Chapter 6 affair.” A few hours into the game, a very unfriendly military helicopter chases our wily, treasure-hunting protagonist Nathan Drake into a building where he ducks for cover. The helicopter fires missiles into the building’s foundation, sending the structure into collapse. Chairs are rolling, and paper is violently thrown through the air. The sequence is, how you say, Bruckheimer-esque. Chris, I’m sure you’d agree that there were several similar moments in Modern Warfare. (The snowmobile mission!) But back to Uncharted 2. As I played that collapsing-building section, I spotted one of the enemy soldiers as he dropped in through the ceiling. I dashed toward him, slid between his legs, and kicked him out of a shattered window as the building was falling. I’m not usually one for spectacle, but at that moment I screamed at my television. One of the most troubling tendencies of video-game makers is their overreliance on graphical fidelity. High resolution does not a game make, and I’m convinced that it’s a crutch that’s unnecessarily ballooned video-game budgets by focusing on player’s eyes rather than their brains and hearts. Uncharted 2 was the exception, a case when the spectacular abets the narrative. So, kudos to developer Naughty Dog for the train sequence that sends Drake hurtling from boxcar to boxcar, a moment that builds on the character’s mythology. In the end, I was baited to complete the game not by the hook of more fireworks, but by my fascination with a character.
(Also, is Nolan North, who voiced Drake, the video-game industry’s Will Smith? In addition to Uncharted, he did the leads for the summer hit Shadow Complex and last month’s Assassin’s Creed 2. I’m pitching North as the new voice for the video-game blockbuster.)
I love my other favorite game of 2009 for the exact opposite reasons. Developed on a miniscule budget as part of the Experimental Gameplay Project, Canabalt is a much-needed retort to long, expensive, graphically complex games like Uncharted 2. You play as a faceless, nameless, low-res, white-socked, tie-wearing runner who must escape something on his quest to do something. I’m not being flip. Uncharted shows that great games can be built around characters. Canabalt shows that great games can be resolutely anti-story. There are hints at what might be happening—the shadows of giant robots rambling in the background and the request to make “a daring escape.” But I don’t know why I’m escaping, where I am running to, or if I should be helping this little man at all. (What if he’s trying to block a piece of life-changing legislation?) And yet, I feel compelled to run for my life. Play a Flash version of the game for free, and I bet you’ll be running for your life, too.
With almost nothing but a simple game mechanic and some evocative details (the fluttering doves a la John Woo, the pitter-patter of his black loafers), Canabalt made me feel desperation, longing, and sadness when my character inevitably fell to his death. By intention or by time constraints, the game lacks an ending. The fact that I felt like my harried little man deserved some type of respite or resolution proves exactly how powerful this little game is.
Chris, I completely agree with you about the length of games. Most important, thinking of games in terms of cost per hour casts the medium in terms of economic utility. That’s a terrible way to evaluate any kind of art or entertainment. It’s the Wal-Mart approach to gaming and makes Dragon Age the most recession-friendly title of the year. To continue your “novel” analogy, I like to think of gamemakers like Adamatomic (the people behind Canabalt) as the Chekhovs of the video-game set—masters of the short form. One other note: Jesper Juul’s phenomenal A Casual Revolution uses time as one of the ways to conceive of genre distinctions in games. As someone who finds fewer hours to play games every year, I’d add time as other variable that complicates your sport vs. story dichotomy.
Before I go, I want to mention one more game. The last chapter of Grand Theft Auto IV was my favorite of all three stories that the game told, including the original plot with Niko Bellic. The Ballad of Gay Tony reminded me of the New York that I knew best. I lived in Harlem, just blocks from where Luis Lopez, the criminal turned nightclub enforcer, rests his head. Downtown might as well have been a million miles away for many of my neighbors, and Lopez’s spats with his childhood friends about what it meant to be a New Yorker could have been ripped from my overheard conversations on 125th Street. The absurd bacchanalia of the New York club scene (the champagne drinking contest! the bathroom sex!) was as comically sharp as the fraternal tenderness between Gay Tony and Lopez. GTA IV condensed everything I know and love about New York into a single game, and the final episode was a proper bookend to a two-year story arc.
My honorable mentions can be best summed up in moments: tearing down an entire building with only a sledgehammer in Red Faction: Guerilla, stuffing the greedy face of Fat Princess, watching someone dunk their own skateboard in a reel from Skate 2, propelling my little cellular organism in Osmos, finding the secret “cop-out” ending of Shadow Complex, and tearing up at my office cubicle during Flower.
Chris, I really want to tackle your Modern Warfare 2 comments, but I think they’ll be best served by another post. A hint: Waiting outside on launch day for the game was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my gaming life.