Surviving High School: The joys of an iPhone choose-your-own-adventure game.

The joys of the iPhone choose-your-own-adventure game Surviving High School.

Surviving High School.

Surviving High School, a game for the iPhone

© 2011 Electronic Arts.

Michael, you ignorant slut. How dare you call Portal 2 disappointing?

Actually, though, you know, in one sense I sort of agree. But here’s the thing: I liked the setup and the performances and the world and the script so much that the vaguely overbusy “game” part of it—I think you’re right about that—didn’t really matter to me. I guess this is where I disagree with a lot of gamers: The game part of something doesn’t always have to be the best part, at least not for me, just as novelistic language doesn’t have to be Nabokovian for it to be “good.” I hope that doesn’t too terribly caricaturize the view that gameplay always absolutely makes a game. I think it can make a game, but I don’t think it has to. I used to say, “A game that has a good story but bad gameplay will be a bad game.” I don’t believe that anymore. I think a game with a good story and bad gameplay can be something special. Of course, it might also be a turd, but it won’t necessarily be a turd. My experience with L.A. Noire really clarified my thinking on this point. It’s a terrible game qua game, has a frequently klutzy story, and I loved it. It riveted me in some very powerful way. All I need to be is riveted, and I’m increasingly inclined not to care about how I get there. Maybe this isn’t even a controversial view.

I’ve become strangely depressed since our colloquy began, though. I think it’s because I looked at this and this. For those of you who don’t click through, these are the release schedules for all the PS3 and Xbox 360 titles that came out this year. These lists don’t include any handheld games or PC games or Wii games or iPad games. Just the games for the Big Two consoles—the only games, by and large, I wind up playing. And I’ve played not that many of them. Shockingly few, in fact. I like to think of myself as a broadminded dude with fairly unpredictable taste—I loved Kane & Lynch 2, for instance, and one of my favorites I haven’t mentioned is Ubisoft’s astoundingly good platformer Rayman Origins—but at the same time I actually do own a mirror and even look into it from time to time, and I have to concede that my taste in games is, at the end of the day, pretty narrow. Just as narrow, I concede, is what I want to see games do. That said, I’m certainly no more or less well versed in modern video games than I am in the modern American short story, a subject on which I have taught university-level courses, so what am I even trying to say? Just this: I got to thinking about the immense folly of pretending to know what’s really going on in the world of video games in any given month, much less affecting the authority to pronounce on the value of a whole year’s worth of games.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Gaming Club—this has been an unusually good one, if I do say so myself—and I also love lists. But putting myself on the spot to come up with my favorite, best, and most-disappointing games of the year after pondering those twin release schedules and reflecting on my massive ignorance of 95 percent of what came out this year actually made me laugh out loud. For all I know Hunted: The Demon’s Forge is the best game of the year. (Actually, I heard that was kind of OK. I also heard that Driver: San Francisco was terrific.)

All I’ve got is what I played between teaching, reading, writing, being a magnificent lover, traveling, and otherwise living my life. Most of what I played was big-budget console stuff, and most of that was very much of a piece. I did not have enough time. I’m not an authority. I’m a writer who mostly plays a certain kind of game while trying to stay open to as much in this medium as possible, which is hard, because this medium is big and getting bigger. That’s great. It’s also exhausting. I’m exhausted. Consider your emptor caveated.

Favorite game (that is not Dark Souls, and which I haven’t already mentioned): Surviving High School. No, I’m not kidding. This iOS app really isn’t a video game so much as a digitally reanimated form of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books. And it’s wonderful. Here’s what I really appreciate, though: The conceptualization and characters and writing are all snappy and funny and just good. High school, my friends. It’s such fertile video-game territory. So why is it that—as our pal Kirk Hamilton notes over at Kotaku today—so few video games bother to engage with high school? On this point, or sort of, I was alerted to someone having made fun of me on Twitter because I said earlier that I liked the Jurassic Park game. Cruel person, what’s not to like? You walk around and look at stuff and talk to people and engage with environments—and occasionally run from dinosaurs. It’s not the most sophisticated game ever, no, but I really do believe that there’s something to be said for games that bother to make simpler, less-fraught human activity into an emotionally engaging experience, and that’s what games like Jurassic Park—when you’re not running from dinosaurs—and Surviving High School do so well. So: My best game of the year that is not Dark Souls and that I have not already mentioned is Surviving High School. Yes, I know it came out in 2005.

“Best” game (that is not Dark Souls): Gears of War 3 multiplayer. I probably played more hours of Gears 3 multiplayer than anything other than Dark Souls this year. It is, in my view, the most compelling multiplayer experience in the history of time—and if you don’t like playing Horde Mode, I’m terribly sorry for you.

Most disappointing game: Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I don’t know what to say about this. Everyone I know loved it, but I gave up after two hours. Why? The dialogue, mainly. It wasn’t bad, not at all, but it was terribly dull and boring. When you’ve played a cinematic game with a strong focus on character for two hours and no one has said anything remotely interesting, ear-catching, or memorable, you can’t blame the literary gamer, which is what I resolutely am, for bailing. If a playwright, novelist, or screenwriter spent a commensurate amount of time being uninteresting, they would never work again.

And because I’m a dirty stinking cheater:

Most unexpectedly good game: F.E.A.R. 3. I shit you not. My most memorable video-game vision of 2011 was the F.E.A.R. 3 sequence in which your character enters the electronics section of a massive, Wal-Mart-ish superstore that has been overtaken by psychopathic hobos. I refuse to say more, because even another word of description will spoil the tableau’s inimitable freakiness.

My friends, thanks for being swell. This has been really fun. You may now guess what I’m off to play.