The Gaming Club
Entry 3: Is it a problem that I’ve lost interest in playing video games to the end?
Greetings! I’m excited to be back on the stick for Slate, especially alongside those whose work I so admire. And thank you, Chris, for the kind word. Earlier this year, I was actively—and somewhat desperately—attempting to stop writing about video games and get back to being happily nicheless, but the Grantland gig proved too good to pass up. I’ve been allowed to write at length about whatever I want—a luxury few game critics have. I am, in other words, very lucky.
For me, 2011 was a year in which I played a ton of games I really liked and never finished. I’ve always been a pretty rigorous completionist, but when I was drawing up my 2011 favorites list, I was startled by how many of them I didn’t see to the end.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, for instance. This thinky and absurdly gorgeous open-world puzzler—the art design is all primary colors and silhouettes—involves guiding a tiny spaceship through different hostile environments. I loved it—and only got about halfway through. Another indie game I was quite taken with was The War of the Worlds, a surprisingly faithful platformer adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, though I played it only a tiny bit. For a little while, Catherine—a cross between an old-school block puzzle game and an emo Japanese soap opera—was my favorite game of the year. Did I finish it? Nope, because the last of its many puzzles proved impossible for me to figure out—and this was on the easiest difficulty setting! I played the first level of Bastion, really enjoyed it, and stopped. I loved the goofy third-person shooter Shadows of the Damned—which gets my vote for the second most unfairly overlooked game of 2011—but I didn’t finish that either. (Technically, that is. I was in the room when someone played Shadows to the end, but it wasn’t me.) I had a lot of admiration for Telltale Games’ Heavy Rain-ification of Jurassic Park, a throwback adventure title in which the gameplay revolves around navigating dialogue trees and surviving quick-time events—but I didn’t finish it. I liked much about Skyrim, which I didn’t come close to finishing. Ditto for Saints Row: The Third. Another game I didn’t finish: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, though in this case I have a good excuse, which is that I loathed almost everything about it, including the title, which sounds like Hanna-Barbera does The Hadith.
I’d like to think my not-finishing problem is largely a consequence of having a job, maintaining human relationships, near-daily bathing, etc., but the more I think about it the less convincing my excuses seem. I wonder if I’m simply playing games for different reasons than I used to. These days I’m much more content with getting a basic sense of what a game is up to and moving on. Does anyone else have this problem—and is it actually a problem?
Let us proceed to the heart of the matter. I have three favorites games of the year: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, Bulletstorm, and Dark Souls.
Sword & Sworcery is a little bit like a Wes Anderson retelling of The Legend of Zelda. I loved it for its wit, its startlingly inventive use of ostensibly primitive pixelated graphics, its intelligence, and how perfectly it used the iPad’s interface. Thanks to Jim Guthrie, S&S EP also boasts, bar none, the greatest game soundtrack I’ve ever heard. I downloaded it from iTunes the moment I finished S&S EP, and it’s been on heavy rotation ever since. Everyone with an iPad needs to try this oddly affecting little game.
Bulletstorm gets my vote for the most unfairly overlooked title of 2011. I’m on the record (and them some) about my dislike of what’s become of the Call of Duty franchise, and in last year’s Gaming Club I framed my dislike in terms of the franchise’s negligent handling of its narrative elements. At the same time, though, I accept that storytelling sophistication is not and will never be the point of Call of Duty. On top of that, Simon Ferrari reminds me that many of the design choices I’ve disliked in past Call of Duty titles make some measure of internal sense.
But Bulletstorm reminded me why I have such a problem with hyper-realistic first-person shooters. It’s not that the stories are bad or that they’re not well designed; it’s more that I don’t like killing so many people—especially in glancingly fictionalized theaters of real-life war, some of which I’ve visited as a journalist—without feeling anything in particular about it. Bulletstorm, on the other hand, is a ballet of thrilling carnage. Virtually every environment gives you a chance to kill people in all manner of hilarious ways: kicking them into cacti, whipping their heads off, blowing them up with rogue hot dog carts, setting off your explosive sniper rounds, and so on. Bulletstorm allows the player access to a devastating array of sadistic and incredibly fun weapons, and its slide-kick mechanic should be in every game from here on out, forever. Nothing I played this year made me feel better about killing, and it’s a tragedy that so many gamers were scared off by Bulletstorm’s potty-mouthed, bro-tastic reputation. Video game developers: If you’re going to found a game on the morally messy quandary of serial murder, this is the way to do it.
Which leaves Dark Souls. I agree with Michael: The game means something to those who play it. Something deep and maybe even something profound. Dark Souls gets in your head and dreams. Its pace goes from slow to grindy to incontinent intensity, sometimes in the same five-second loop, and the enemy design is some of the best and weirdest I’ve ever seen. Carriage-wheel skeletons? Snake-headed warriors? A giant wolf with a sword in its mouth? A gangly treasure-chest-headed geek with an upsettingly huge tongue? This is to say nothing of its environments: Blighttown might be the most convincingly nightmarish video-game location since Demon Souls’ Valley of the Defiled. And whatever music they’ve got playing at Firelink Shrine, I think I want it at my funeral.
More significant is that Dark Souls asks something from its players. In a game-design era where characters say, “Follow me,” and then walk off with the word follow fixed above their heads, Dark Souls is a game that doesn’t bother to hold the player’s hand, doesn’t clobber the player with story or direction, and has enough respect for the player that it allows her to figure out things—important things—on her own. Dark Souls insists on making you pay close attention to everything around you at every moment, and when you’re playing it well, it’s as satisfying as any virtual activity I know. That’s why it’s not only my favorite game of 2011 but one of my favorite games of all time—and no, I haven’t finished it yet. I’m somehow 71 hours in and still not done.
As for Chris’ question: None of the answers about how video-game stories should best be told satisfies me, I guess, because I hold out a possibly misguided hope for some sweet-spot combination of all the narratological possibilities I mentioned in my review of L.A. Noire. We all surely accept by now that a game that uses cinematic grammar to tell its story will be, at best, a competent simulacrum. Forgoing the language of cinema doesn’t mean abandoning cinematics or dismissing the whole idea that games can be “dramatic.” And while rigidly authored games can be wonderful—Portal 2, for instance, which missed my top three by a hair—I’m more interested, these days, in games whose stories are light on the narrative spackle and give the player plenty of space to act and interpret. A good game story should feel unique to whomever it’s happening to, and if anything of dramatic importance goes down, the player should not be a bystander. Ever.
I’ll stop here, though I would like to point out my favorite game-playing moment of the year. In the forthrightly right-wing and otherwise forgettable first-person shooter Homefront, my character happened upon a mass grave of dead Americans, whereupon a prowling North Korean chopper began circling. Here’s the prompt I got: PRESS X TO JUMP INTO MASS GRAVE. Every game, I think, needs a dedicated jump-into-mass-grave button. Also a slide-kick.
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.