The Gaming Club
Seth, Chris, and Stephen,
I'd say that it feels good to be back, but like last year, I'm feeling awkward and uncomfortable about having to sum up what this arbitrary unit of time means for video games. I'm in no rush to compile a top 10 list, to reduce the experiences I've had over the previous 12 months to A-is-better-than-B-but-not-as-good-as-C. Chris, you seem pretty comfortable in your assessment that 2007 was a better year for games than 2008. Stephen, you're insisting that 2008 was better balanced than 2007. But so much of this is by accident rather than by design.
Last year would have been more awesome and less balanced if the Brothers Four—Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4—hadn't missed their original holiday 2007 release dates. So? Did 2008 become less awesome but more balanced when those lazybones at Rockstar North failed to complete their planned expansion pack, The Lost and Damned, for this holiday? Maybe. But I don't know how meaningful those standards are beyond this brief moment in time, the week in December when we gather around our computers and fire off e-mails to one another about the year that just went by.
Last year, I said that one of my most important criteria for judging games was obsession. And on a game-by-game basis, 2008 scratched that itch just as much as 2007 did. Chris, I'd argue that the role-playing game Fallout 3 is easily as good as BioShock … but maybe that's because I'm an avowed RPG-hater who naturally skipped Bethesda Softworks' previously acclaimed hit, Oblivion. So even as I surprised myself by falling so hard for the bleak immersiveness of Fallout 3's stuck-in-the-'50s post-apocalyptic world, I had no way of telling whether it was just Oblivion in Mad Max fetish gear or something more. (Then again, I've never played BioShock's spiritual predecessors System Shock or System Shock 2; if I had, would BioShock have seemed quite as impressive?)
Even though I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and other pen-and-paper role-playing games, I don't like playing their computer and video-game counterparts. I hate the presentation of dialogue trees. I don't like assigning points to my character's attributes. I prefer action to behind-the-scenes d20 dice rolls. I dislike managing a party. Fallout 3 doesn't overcome all of my RPG pet peeves, though the focus on solo play (i.e., sans A.I. buddies) and the credible first-person-shooter mechanics helped tremendously. Still, I think it was the seamless unity of its presentation—character creation at the moment of childbirth; stat management first via a children's book, then a wrist-worn computer; combat using the green screen, data-terminal-like overlay of the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System—that subconsciously allowed me to settle into Fallout 3. All of this meant that I was finally able to appreciate the best virtues of the RPG: how narrative, character, and location can blend to create a series of interlocking stories, stacking choice upon choice until you feel that even though the world is bigger than you, you're still having a meaningful impact upon it.
Chris, I'll also see your Portal and raise you Braid. For a game whose mechanics could have been extremely confusing, Braid somehow taught me to play each of its time-twisting levels without instructions as explicit as Portal's own. One reviewer—I think it was Chris Dahlen—suggested that the best way to play Braid is like a crossword puzzle: Solve the parts you can, skip the parts you can't, then go back and slowly pick your way through the unsolved parts until you're done. That's what I did with Braid over four play sessions, and it worked like a charm. One hard-to-get puzzle piece required me to take advantage of my character's brief death animation, and I was floored when I finally figured it out. Most games teach us to either dismiss player death or be entertained by it. Braid let me ignore it for a long time, then, um, upbraided me for doing so. A nice touch in an exceedingly clever and, in its final act, unexpectedly moving game.
These aren't the only two games I'm considering for whatever top 10 list I assemble whenever I assemble it; others include Patapon, Grand Theft Auto IV, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, The Last Guy, PixelJunk Eden, Gears of War 2, LittleBigPlanet, Left 4 Dead, and Play Auditorium. But I'll end here by asking each of you to name and discuss the game you've had the hardest time expressing your opinion of. For me, it's Resistance 2, a staggering work of heartbreaking mediocrity from one of the industry's most accomplished studios. Staggering in its we-put-every-dollar-up-on-the-screen production values, in its scope, in its careful borrowing from all the right touchstones of the shooter genre. Heartbreaking in that its overblown scale may have helped do it in, in that it has created a fictional world that over two games has never truly connected with me, in enemy encounters that hit all the notes without ever quite playing the tune. It's not mediocre in the way that most games are mediocre. It's just off, and for the life of me I still can't figure out a succinct way to explain why.
Any games from 2008 make you feel that way?
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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 email@example.com. 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.