I’ll start with Charlie’s point about Portal 2, which is, to my mind, the best example of scripted-event storytelling—which, I think, video games invented—since Half-Life 2. I love your description of what it feels like to play Portal 2. Exactly how I felt, and put forth much better than I could have. That said, scripted events are such close kissing cousins to cut scenes—the embodiment of cinematic grammar—that parsing the real difference between the two is, in a certain sense, challenging. Fixed things happen that you’re supposed to pay attention to; in one case you can turn the camera elsewhere and in the other case you can’t.
Keep in mind, I don’t think cut scenes are always ill advised; I also don’t believe that gameplay necessarily has to be the point of every video game. I’m open to a wide range of video-game experiences, some of which may only notionally be games—like, say, Dear Esther, the upcoming re-release of which I was lucky enough to get to play earlier this year. Basically, you walk around a gorgeously gloomy island and listen to bits of rather haunting narration. “Playing” Dear Esther turned out to be a really moving experience, and while it uses the grammar of video games it doesn’t do anything a game is supposed to do. Which is to the good! What I want from a game is something with smarts in at least one key area. Portal 2, happily, is smart in about 12 different areas, and Stephen Merchant’s performance as Wheatley is incredibly funny and alert. The Og Monster lives in Aperture Science!
The other day I stumbled into a video-game forum and read a vigorous, intelligent debate about what made a game a “game.” As I get older, though, I find that these discussions dehydrate me. It’s like defining what makes something “literary,” which reliably results in the definer excluding from the discussion whatever the definer wants to exclude. Ripping apart an album or play or novel or game or film and divining in its entrails the thing that made it alive is a valid academic pursuit, but at the same time you should be forced to acknowledge you just killed the thing under investigation.
Why did I loathe El Shaddai? I don’t know. The music sounded like the soundtrack to Neptunian porn. The combat bored me to death. The environments didn’t interest me nearly as much as I’d hoped. I’m writing a book about early Christianity and still couldn’t get interested in its take on the apocryphal Book of Enoch. Also: I’m sorry, I hate to pull this card, but I must: El Shaddai’s English subtitles incorrectly used a comma after consecutive sentence-beginning uses of and and but. But, maybe you don’t think that’s important? It’s not, not really. It does indicate, though, a certain lack of respect for language. Man, am I sick of seeing video games treat language like it’s parsley; I’m so sick of video-game text that reads like it was punctuated by a 20-year-old college sophomore on mushrooms. Because, language is beautiful. And, someone needs to care enough to copy-edit this shit and get it right. So El Shaddai irritated me right out of the gate. I do like its idea that God can be reached on a cellphone, however.
And yes, Chris, let’s also talk about the elephant in the room when it comes to video games, which is how punishingly expensive they are. Just last night my girlfriend asked me how much I thought we’d spent on Rock Band 3. Well, there was my fancy drum kit, which was almost $300, and there were all the extra instruments, which were another $200, and then there are all the songs I’ve downloaded, which added up to an astounding $1,000. And that’s just Rock Band 3! I’m pretty sure this is not an investment I’ll look back upon from my deathbed and think, “Wise, my dying liege. Altogether wise.”
I long ago made the decision never to resell my games and buy new at every opportunity—despite my friendly GameStop sales rep’s gentle prodding that I buy used—but the only reason I can do so is that I make a decent living. A lot of my gamer friends are still in school or the earlier stages of their freelancing careers, and from them I hear upsetting stories. I simply can’t imagine having to endure the Take a Nice Person on a Date vs. Get a New Game internal argument. Horrible, right? The more people resell their old games, the more game developers have to charge for new games. Gamers give developers a hard time, on this issue and much else, but when I learned that one game—a game I love—sold only 3 million copies despite having 20 million unique players … well, I can’t really say I blame developers. It’s a terrible, tail-eating clusterfrack, and I don’t see any near-future path out of it, since the last thing anyone should be doing is telling a young person who’s having trouble making rent that he or she needs to be spending more money on video games.
Michael, onto your point about whether my view of certain games would be more informed if I finished them. Of course, yes, in certain cases, it would. In just as many cases, though, I’m not sure it matters. I wrote my essay about—not, note, my review of—Skyrim after 19 hours of play, and this was after sinking 200 hours into the same developer’s Oblivion and about 50 hours into Fallout 3. (Yet more numbers Deathbed Tom is bound to regret.) To write what I wrote about Skyrim, I didn’t need to spend more time with it. That’s the crazy thing about games: Isn’t spending nearly an entire day engaging with an aesthetic experience enough to form a solid judgment? So I never discovered how the civil war between the Imperials and the Stormcloaks worked out. I can’t bring myself to believe that it’s actually important.
As for Nintendo, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I don’t own a Wii. I’m fully aware of how important Nintendo is, and its games have given me a lot of pleasure over the years, but … I’m finding it hard to finish this sentence. I played Super Mario Galaxy with my nieces when it came out and had a blast, but I tend to associate Nintendo’s marquee characters with a time of life long passed. I don’t say that in judgment of Nintendo; it’s not even about Nintendo. It’s rather an acknowledgment that certain associations endure just as certain enthusiasms fade. Oh, wait—one Wii game I did unreservedly seek out and enjoy is Epic Mickey, which I played in 2011 (though it came out in 2010).
Finally, damn you, Trop, and your gutless punting! Let me just say, Charlie, that I don’t believe there’s any rational metric for video-game perfection. I’m a little alarmed by the prospect of a perfect game, in fact. Wouldn’t that basically be Infinite Jest come true? Maybe that’s our next question: What was the most perfect—or, if you prefer—most well-made game of 2011? That’s a very different question from what was your favorite game. I would throw two games out there that seemed inordinately well made: Dead Space 2, which is as scary as the thought of Newt naked, and Batman: Arkham City. I had my problems with both, but in terms of how they felt to play … well, mainstream games don’t get much smoother than that.