Dear Michael, Tom, and Charlie:
I realize this is the first rodeo for two of the three of you, but the main video-game thought I’ve had this week is this: I can’t believe that Slate has let us do five of these. That’s right, this is the fifth Slate Gaming Club, the magazine’s annual look back at the year in video games.
This year’s Clubbers—that’s you three, plus, for reasons of path dependence, me—are an especially august group. Tom, you know I admired your book Extra Lives, but what you’ve accomplished at Grantland is just as remarkable: In about six months and a half-dozen or so pieces, you’ve established yourself as the most astute critic of video games working anywhere. Michael, your blog, The Brainy Gamer—with apologies to Founding Gaming Club member Stephen Totilo and everyone else at Kotaku—is the place that convened, and even in some ways created, the community of online writers who now participate in a fascinating, running conversation about games. You have informed my thinking and my writing about games for years. And Charlie, I loved your novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. When I read your review of the last Scott Pilgrim book in the Times, I guessed that you were a gamer. The fact that I was right delights me almost, but not quite, as much as the fact that you agreed to be here this week.
Now, to paraphrase Winston Wolfe, on to business. In this first entry, I’m going to break the one cardinal rule of the Gaming Club—that each of us select our favorite game of the year—but only because I am finding it extraordinarily difficult to decide what game I liked most in 2011. That’s not, alas, because I’ve been overwhelmed by greatness. It wasn’t a bad year—2011 saw an unusually large number of extraordinarily polished blockbusters—but nothing floored me the way, in years past, BioShock, or Portal, or Red Dead Redemption did. Unless, perhaps, it was Ico, a 10-year-old game that I had never played before and which astounded me when I played it as part of 2011’s The Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection. But choosing a venerable game that is already regarded as canonical feels like a cheat. (Though I would argue that 2011 was, in many ways, the Year of Old Games: Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Ocarina of Time, Halo, and Resident Evil 4 all were given high-definition re-releases. I hope to return to this subject later this week.)
Are my gaming standards too high? Maybe they are. I’m reminded of 2008, which in retrospect was the year of Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Fallout 3, but at the time felt like a bit of a muddle. Maybe in retrospect we’ll all think Skyrim, or another title, is head and shoulders above everything else, once we’ve been able to spend the scores of hours it demands in order to be judged fairly. (And I really like Skyrim.) Or maybe, in retrospect, we’ll all like the one game that surprised me most this year, because it got scant mention in the usual sources: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.
An adaptation of the apocryphal scripture of Enoch, El Shaddai has enough style and art direction for seven or eight games—literally, because the art changes radically as the game progresses. You play a man—he looks like Fabio crossed with a Japanese pop idol—who has been tasked with defeating the archangels, who have left heaven and created Tower of Babel-like distractions for humanity on earth. Helping you—or perhaps impeding you—is black-shirted and designer-jeans-wearing Lucifel, who talks to God on his cellphone. In important ways, the game is broken. The third-person platforming, in particular, is frustratingly death-inducing. But El Shaddai was also like nothing else I played in 2011—playing it with the original Japanese audio track somehow made it less weird—and for that reason, it’s the early front-runner for my favorite game of the year.
There will be plenty more to talk about this year, I’m sure. Here’s a question for each of you that I’d like you to address this week:
1. Tom, you wrote in your Grantland review of L.A. Noire:
While playing through the rest of L.A. Noire the following question was never far from my mind: How big of a problem is it that players can effectively screw up video-game stories? It is a question that is never far from my mind when I am playing any game whose fiction works in tandem with my decisions to create something thematically unified and dramatically satisfying. So, how big of a problem is it? One answer to this question is: There is no answer to this question. Another answer is: Strong interactive fiction will compel players to behave in ways roughly analogous to how the interactive fiction’s author intends them to behave. Another answer is: The whole purpose of interactive fiction is to encourage this type of crisis. Another answer is: This is precisely why the video-game medium is incompatible with authored forms of storytelling. In the past few years, I have thought about this question a lot—maybe more than any other question, in fact. None of the above answers satisfies me.
I think that one of those answers is satisfying: “Strong interactive fiction will compel players to behave in ways roughly analogous to how the author intends them to behave.” In a well-crafted game, the designer’s wishes are evident. The player can choose to flout them for the sake of making a philosophical point, but it’s just as true that a tourist can crawl through a cathedral on his stomach, with his nose pressed to the floor, to demonstrate that you can traverse the space without feeling awestruck. The freedom to do that is not a serious criticism of an architect’s work.
Why isn’t that a satisfying answer to you?
2. Charlie, you write in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe that your first novel was inspired, in part, by the writings of Douglas R. Hofstadter and David Deutsch. But when I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think that it was deeply influenced by video games. Now that I’ve confirmed my supposition that you’re a gamer, can you tell me whether that’s true? How else have you seen games influence fiction?
3. Michael, because you’re next, and because I’ve gone on long enough, I’ll ask you the easiest—or maybe most difficult—question: What was your favorite game of 2011?