The Gaming Club
My friends and fellow gamers, it is a real pleasure to be doing this with you. Chris, you are, simply, the man. John, your London Review piece gladdened my heart in a deep, permanent way; I can't thank you enough for writing it. It gave me inspiration, repeatedly, when I was writing Extra Lives. Seth, your reviews are always thoughtful and challenging, and thank you for fighting the good fight for this medium from behind the walls of such a culturally important redoubt.
When I go back over my favorite games and gaming experiences of the Year of Our Lord 2010, I have to admit that, yes, my head tells me that Red Dead Redemption was the best game I played last year: the most involving, the most accomplished, the most comprehensive, somehow. I thought 80 percent of it was terrific, and I loved almost all the characters (with the unfortunate exception of the cokehead Yale professor, who went racing past the line of caricature in a supersonic jet). Also, the quest structure of the game is really, really cunning and fine—much better than GTA IV, I think. My most intense RDR experience came when I was galloping around Tall Trees, the northern area, and I heard someone crying. I followed the sound. It turned out to be a man, kneeling next to his dead horse, weeping. When I got close, the man lifted his pistol to his temple and blew his own brains out. It was a randomly generated event, yes, but it was so harrowing I just sat there for a moment, breathing. I love this type of game storytelling, in which concurrently running systems interact in a way that allows little "stories" like this to occur. It's what I play games for, because it's the kind of storytelling that only video games can do.
However, RDR, I think, still cannot overcome the basic problem with narrative-driven open-world games, which is the degree to which you're constantly being pulled out of the story by what these systems require of you. You're pressed for time, say, galloping across Mexico to do something that, within the game's fiction, is terribly important and pressing … but OK, sure, you'll stop and help this older gentlemen find his ancestral treasure as though you have all the time in the world, because, in a video-game sense, you do. Even though RDR is a game with regenerating health and limitless inventory, and any number of other ridiculous formal conventions native to video games, the way in which RDR's narrative breaks down during these moments often frustrated me. I realize there may be no way around this problem, and that the best game designers can do in narrative games is to mask the tension between narrative and game. Verisimilitude junkie that I am, I still long for a game experience that wants to solve this problem rather than merely mask it. It also makes me wonder whether the hardcore "ludologists" who believe video games aren't or shouldn't be a storytelling medium at all, might be onto something. I hope they're not.
I also agree with John: RDR made me want to play it in a way that honored John Marston. Very often in games I'll play the "bad" path, because it's fun to see how designers cope with players who want to run around as the putative hero, blowing people's heads off. But when, as Marston, I accidentally killed someone who didn't deserve it, I felt a kind of galvanic shock. Marston is real to me the way all really great fictional characters are real. I was not Marston. Marston was Marston; I was merely performing as him. When a game with crappy characters does this to you, it can be enraging. You want to be the author of the game experience; it's what makes games games, after all. But a truly great video-game character, I believe, reminds us that interactivity and agency can still fall silent and bow before first-rate fiction-making.
I said that RDR was my head's favorite game of 2010. My heart's favorite game of the year was Metro 2033, an intense and atmospheric first-person shooter set in a post-apocalyptic Russia. (It's based on a Russian sci-fi novel of the same name that I'm told is quite good.) I'm not generally that into sci-fi, and if I never see another post-apocalyptic video-game world that would be fine with me, but this game wormed its way into my dreams in a way no game has since good old BioShock.
What I love about Metro 2033 is that it takes the power fantasy tropes of the first-person shooter and effectively Russianizes them. In Western shooters, typically, you progress through the game, unlocking deadlier and more accurate weapons and cooler and ever-more-neato technology. Metro 2033 says, To hell with all that. Your sniper rifle is pneumatic. You actually have to pump the thing up manually before firing it. Your bullets suck. Really good bullets are the gameworld's only currency; they're literally what you use to buy stuff. This means that, when you switch to the good bullets to fight, you're losing money. Ammunition's expensive in real life, of course, and this was the first shooter I've seen that tries to explore that fact. Also, you've got a miner's light on your helmet for use in the gameworld's underground Metros (where most of the action takes place), but the battery sucks, and it's constantly running out of juice, and, yet again, you have to manually pump a hand-held generator to brighten up the light again. This is a shooter imagined by the heirs of a resource-scarce culture, and as such it's a culturally revelatory experience. Metro blew me away. I can't believe more people didn't talk about it this year, but then my other favorite games of 2010—Enslaved, Kane and Lynch 2, and Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley—didn't get much love critically or commercially, either.
I guess that, in many ways, this was a year in which I felt deeply out of step with what the average video-game player wants. I thought Call of Duty: Black Ops and the Medal of Honor reboot were, forgive me, pretty goddamned disgraceful, and the former's overwhelming marketplace domination can really put me in a funk about games and life in general, if I let it. That said, I played the Black Ops multiplayer until 2 a.m. last night. What's wrong with me?
Tom Bissell is the author of several books, including the essay collection Magic Hours, which will be published in April. He writes about video games for Grantland, ESPN's sports and pop culture website, and is a past winner of the Rome Prize and a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow.