The Gaming Club
Hey gang, Last night I finished Metro 2033, which I found as evocative and intense as Tom promised it would be. Immediately, I started playing it again, which is something I rarely do. On this play-through, I'm listening to the Russian-language dialogue, with English subtitles. (The ambient conversations among peripheral characters are not, alas, translated—but I heard them in English the first time around.) I find it even more gripping and immersive this way. If you haven't gone through it this way, Tom, you should. Metro 2033 is not, however, for beginners. This is not a game for our proverbial space alien, or for my magazine-writer friend who wants to dip his toe into the medium. I found it extraordinarily difficult at times—on my first play-through, I dialed the difficulty mode down to "easy" after a while, which may be the first time I've ever done that with a game. Even so, I died scores of times, and at certain stages, it took me a dozen or more attempts before I made my way past a particular challenge. The game doesn't do a terrific job of explaining itself to the player.
Of course, the difficulty is part of the game's appeal. But so is the atmosphere: the Cyrillic lettering everywhere; the aboveground Metro station that captures what I recall a particular station looking like during a trip to Moscow a year ago; the heavy breathing you hear when Artyom, the protagonist, wears his gas mask; the way the screen fogs as the mask's filter begins to wear out. And yes, like Tom, I even love pumping the pneumatic rifle and the battery charger. In a way, the game Metro 2033 most reminds me of is Far Cry 2, a 2008 title that was somewhat underappreciated upon its release but that got a second life among bloggers and enthusiasts (and is now regarded by many as a classic). While Metro 2033 is a linear shooter rather than an open-world one, like Far Cry 2, it does a lot to hide its gameness—there's no heads-up display, and Artyom writes his objectives in a journal that you can make him pull out and examine when needed (he carries a lighter to make it easier to read the journal in the dark). Small details like that go a long way toward creating the sense of immersion that John wrote about. But they also add to that uncanny-valley feeling: Where does Artyom get that magical compass that tells him where to go all the time? (A feature that favors playability over realism and that also, by the way, I believe makes Metro 2033 a better game.)
So, Tom, thanks very much for recommending Metro 2033. I hope it gets the attention it deserves. But Limbo, I must say, just didn't do it for me. At least, it didn't send me into raptures the way it did others. I loved the artwork, or I suppose what you would call the art direction, but I wasn't engaged by the gameplay or the story (such as it was). While I didn't dislike Limbo, I wouldn't shortlist it for Game of the Year. The same goes for Mass Effect 2. I'll happily play Mass Effect 3 when it comes out, but, for me, the overlong, assemble-your-team buildup to the climax in Mass Effect 2 felt a little bit too much like work. And don't get me started on the Illusive Man, voiced by Martin Sheen. I like BioWare, but this wasn't their best effort. (If you must know, I play FemShep.)
And Tom, you nailed my feelings about Enslaved (which also, by the way, has some of gaming's best-drawn characters in the literal, animated sense) and about Black Ops. A reader in the comments complains that we're judging a multiplayer game by its subpar single-player mode, which would be like castigating Red Dead Redemption (or BioShock 2) for its lackluster multiplayer fare. Maybe that's true, but game critics everywhere, including Seth, have hailed Black Ops for its campaign, which is a dunderheaded mashup of Lost, Fight Club, and JFK with a pro-torture gloss. There is a "twist" near the end that is telegraphed midway through the game, sapping it of any surprise. Seth called the storytelling "witty and mature." It is neither.
And here's the thing: I liked Modern Warfare 2. I thought it was the second-best game I played last year. If Modern Warfare 2 were a book, I would put it this way: The plot was absurd, but man, the sentences. I loved Modern Warfare's sentences. Black Ops, on the other hand, is a mess no matter how you look at it: It has only workmanlike gameplay and an even more egregious plot.
I second the notion that fun is way overrated—people wrongly think games should be fun, because they think games are, well, games (like Monopoly or checkers or the NFL) and not entertainments (like books or movies or The Nutcracker). But I also agree that Black Ops, as a whole, wasn't fun. Certainly not as fun as the overpraisers have made it sound. Seth's reaction is akin to a film fan who just adored a Transformers movie and thinks his friends who didn't like it (even though they loved, say, Aliens) are snooty art-house pseuds who are putting on airs. Is it possible that they just didn't like it? I am not concerned with Black Ops' "frivolity" or that it is "escapist." My objection, rather, is that it is not "superb." It is foul-tasting, burnt popcorn.
Calling people defensive is a good rhetorical gambit, because it turns us into Nathan "Who's being defensive?" Thurm, Martin Short's 1980s Saturday Night Live character. But I too am puzzled, Seth, by your reaction to this conversation. What you're hearing is definitely not what I have been trying to say. (When did I discuss whether games are art?) I don't give a hoot whether my colleagues or friends like or admire video games. I just want more games that I like to play. (Though I do want to evangelize for the games I do like. Who doesn't?) I'm not being protective of the medium; I'm not worried about it; I'm not embarrassed for it or by it. There's no ulterior motive to what I've been writing. I was just giving you my honest opinions: I want more games like Read Dead Redemption, Metro 2033, Enslaved, BioShock 2, and even, in their own ways, Heavy Rain and Alan Wake, please.
Oh yeah, Alan Wake. Didn't I promise to say something about the thermoses? Like John, I liked Alan Wake quite a bit as an exercise in camp, and I sometimes convinced myself that the developers were in on the joke. (There's certainly evidence in the game that they're not taking it too seriously.) But I can't get over the thermoses. I went in having heard about them, about how the urge to collect them—they're strewn about the game, and you get an Xbox Achievement for picking up 25, or 100—breaks the game's tension and pacing. And so I told myself, Well, Chris, you'll just ignore them, then. But I couldn't help myself. I would see a glinting thermos, and I (or Alan) would run over to pick one up. Here, Seth, is where I felt some self-loathing. (When I'm engaged in self-loathing, I won't hide it from you.) Here was a stupid, ruinous game element that was undermining my appreciation for a pleasantly diverting video game, and I couldn't stop myself. It was like when I hear—and I apologize in advance for even typing these words—the Deep Blue Something song "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and, despite myself, can't get it out of my head. That's called an earworm. I'd like to name the related phenomenon in gaming. The thermoses in Alan Wake are a thumbworm, and I hate them for it.
John, one final thing that I meant to tell you, about your observation that, this year, real life reminded you of a video game for the very first time: Something similar, if less harrowing, happened to me. When my wife and I took a trip to northern New Mexico earlier this year, the landscape made me feel like I had traveled into Red Dead Redemption. I still kind of marvel at that.
And I will say this about 2010, which I've maybe been a little too rough on: It had the best first six months of any gaming year I can remember. Maybe that's why the second half felt a little bit like a letdown.
Until next year,