The Gaming Club
Dear N'Gai, Seth, and Chris,
Let's start with a correction.
I did not write that 2008 was the best year in gaming history. I wrote that it was the most well-balanced year in games.
You've got a fine balance when you get:
- A year that starts with the racing game Burnout Paradise—the video game that borrows from Facebook by making you aware of every little thing your fellow Paradise owners have achieved: who's now driven faster than you on any given road in the game's vast city since you last logged in, who has just launched the most jumps off a nearby ramp. Burnout links you to a network of other gamers more efficiently than any console game made before it, erasing classic gaming distinctions between single-player and multi-player experiences.
- A year that reaches the halfway mark with the release of Wii Fit and Metal Gear Solid 4, the former a triumph of design, marketing, and the philosophy that games can be good for you; the latter the story of an old soldier in a too-long war that unfolds with the constant, colorful surprise of a Haruki Murakami novel and serves as thebest example yet that most game-makers take more creative risks with their sequels than filmmakers do.
- A year that ends with Prince of Persia—Ubisoft's adventure of a tower-climbing, cliff-jumping prince and his princess companion that posits that, yes, you actually can craft a romance in a game. The slowly developing flirtation of male and female lead don't get in the way of all the less-sentimental climbing and monster-killing the developers needed to put in the game to keep the player's thumbs and lizard-brain engaged.
I didn't hear much grumbling from gamers of any kind in 2008, except for hardcore Nintendo fans, who felt abandoned for about the past three months. (Yes, gamers are the kind of people who want satisfaction now!)
This was the year that Sony released interactive art for the PlayStation 3. Microsoft promoted a season of new small downloadable Xbox 360 games that were some of the best games of the year. And Nintendo put out a fantastic Scuba-diving simulator that let me virtually swim with sea turtles and whales.
So I cannot complain about gaming in 2008.
Chris, the four games you cited were all quite good. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a little bit of the weak link there, but it's quite a good-looking weak link. And don't feel bad about liking it. Time's Lev Grossman thought it was better than Metal Gear Solid 4, Fable II, and Fallout 3, those three games you say other people have cited as their Game of the Year.
Grand Theft Auto IV as Game of the Year? Maybe. If you don't mind that Rockstar made my home state of New Jersey the setting for the game's bland final third. I thought the game lost its zip after its first 20 hours. It stopped developing the morally compromised immigrant protagonist Niko Bellic, turning him into just another avatar for virtual homicide and costing the game its potential as a "classic."
Fallout 3 as Game of the Year? Possibly. I've still played only four hours of this game, which puts me about 46 hours behind my MTV colleague Patrick Klepek, who likes it quite a lot.
Fable II as Game of the Year? Getting warmer. In the reverse order of what happens in GTA IV, this game begins with a poorly defined character in an uninteresting medieval European fantasy world but winds up with you controlling a man or woman who is literally the shape of the choices you've made in the game. All that celery he ate made my guy skinny; his ample scars came because he was a clumsy swordsman; his youthful visage remained, because I chose not to sacrifice his looks when given the alternate option to sacrifice a maiden to the gods instead. Ten years from now, the world will remember Nov. 4, 2008, as the day America elected its first black president. I'll also remember that day, I'm sure, as the day when I was first emotionally affected by a video game. Pausing my DVR just after California was called for Obama, I had to go back to Fable II to make the game's final moral decision, a triple-optioned Sophie's choice involving money, loved ones, and community that would affect characters I'd interacted with for weeks. I'm still haunted by the pick I made. Obama's victory speech later that night distracted me from the unease that my final actions had put in my heart, but as I went to bed, with cheers still echoing down the Brooklyn streets near my apartment, I was haunted by the wonderful emotional pain I finally felt from a video game.
Yeah, that's my frontrunner for Game of the Year.
Chris, to answer your questions:
1) A serious gamer should own every console. Costs notwithstanding, to miss the PS3 is to miss not just LittleBigPlanet and Metal Gear Solid 4 but the burst of creativity that's on the PlayStation Network, small- and medium-sized games that are more unusual than most of what you can buy at the average game shop.
2) The Wii is a critical flop only to the critics who don't like having fun with a group of people gathered around their TV. What's more fun at parties than the Wii or arguing whether the auto companies should be bailed out? Rock Band and Guitar Hero? But they're on Wii, too.
3) I haven't played Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist, but I did play Braid. How can you not love a game that has a level in which time moves forward when you walk to the right, time moves backward when you walk to the left, and time stands still when you idle?
Hey, can we all agree about one thing that was a bit of a downer this year—what happened to handheld gaming? The burst of iPhone games notwithstanding, the creative excitement around the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable seemed to diminish significantly in 2008.
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N'Gai Croal is a general editor for technology at Newsweek and blogs about video games at Level Up. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Seth Schiesel is a staff writer for the New York Times. He currently writes about video games for the newspaper's Culture department. Chris Suellentrop reviews video games for Slate.Stephen Totilo is the video game reporter at MTV News and editor of the site's blog about games, Multiplayer.