THOUGHTS ON THE PAST DECADE IN GAMES

We've recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Anniversaries are like pizza to editors: not very difficult or expensive to obtain, predictably enjoyable to consume, and completely forgotten until the next slice comes along. This particular anniversary inundated us with journalists who covered it live, politicians bleating their remembrances of this Historic Event, explorations into the meaning of it all -- the fall of the Berlin Wall will live on in cultural memory and provide lucrative essay fodder for decades to come. The same thing happens in film: Costra-Garvas's Z just turned 40, and in addition to an awesome new Criterion Collection disc, scores of essays about this beloved (and long under-distributed) film have been penned. Books, works of art, invevntions, you name it -- once a date is sussed out to serve as an anniversery, there's guaranteed, easy work to be had. I want to be there when a videogame makes that kind of impact, writing influential stuff so I can then revisit it every 5 years or so as a talking head on documentaries about THE DAY THE GAMES BECAME REALITY or whatever. My appearance fee will be quite substantial. 



Outside of personal avarice, there is nothing on this earth I want more than videogames to realize their staggeringly high potential as a creative, collaborative medium -  be it evolutionary extensions of things like film and television, or something divorced entirely from that milieu, exploring familiar themes in extraordinary new, interactive ways.



On the evolutionary side: David Foster Wallace pointed out, in Infinite Jest, that television's domination over radio wasn't due to a technological gap between audio and video; television was audio plus video. Victory was simply unobtainable for radio. The most expensive movie of all time, James Cameron's Avatar - shit looks like a non interactive cut scene straight out of Final Fantasy XIII. But Avatar cannot possibly engross me like FFXIII can. It's audio plus video plus that undefinable thing GamePro would rate as FUN FACTOR in the early 90's with those creepy looking cartoon faces.

On the revolutionary side: there's a bubbling indie scene right now that has nothing to do with cinematic pretensions. There was an article in the New York Times magazine about it last month. Prolific Indie game aueterist/ madman Cactus, who creates roughly 40 games a week, all of them bewildering, used this august publication to extol the virtues of abject poverty as a path to creative autonomy. He was drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon with a few other indie darlings during his interview. When I am a talking head on the aforementioned documentaries, this is how I want my interview segments to be framed.



This decade has seen games inch towards fulfilling their potential, evolutionarily and revolutionarily, and here's a list of what I think are the ten games that inched the furthest along the way. These aren't the best games or my favorite games, exactly. The Battleship Potempkin isn't an entertaining movie to watch today, just like The Sims or Animal Crossing aren't necessarily "games" if we follow the strictest definition of the word, but all of them are worthwhile because they changed the atmosphere and expanded the possibilities of their respective mediums -- for the better, usually, and (arguably) for the worse.



While the innovators and canonical titles are the focus of this article, I'd be remiss to ignore that the aughts had some truly horrible things trend into the exciting world of videogames. I'm going to mock some examples I found the most egregiously offensive and harmful to this hobby intermittently in this feature to prove I cannot write anything of value without the help of an outside editor.  These aren't the worst games of the decade -- well, some of them may be -- but these games are the reason why so many otherwise open minded people dismiss this medium so readily. 



This is almost certainly going to be a huge mess, so let's get right to it: 


10. GEARS OF WAR

While adding virtually nothing to the storytelling side of the Bald Space Marine subgenre of game fiction, Gears of War set the template for the third person shooter in the latter half of this decade, perfecting a style of deliberate pacing introduced in the kind of terrible Nintendo 64 game WinBack. Death was guaranteed to those who rushed blindly into open space; you had to protect your (impossibly muscular, thick, square) neck, ducking behind cover, spraying suppression fire to keep the Locus, or whatever the hell other alien races out to kill you, at bay. Maybe Cliff Blizenski's claims that Gears is basically a 2D platformer imported into 3D space and that shooting dudes in games is simply a simple, effective metaphor for "touching" falls into the "counterintuitive thesis + charismatic personality - depth of thought or analysis = instant bestseller" equation perfected by Malcom Gladwell - but that doesn't mean his point is without merit. Four years ago, cover was an abstract, poorly implemented system grafted onto otherwise unremarkable shooty games so the marketing department could slap something on the box (kill.switch, in particular, but also EA's 007 games and undoubtedly others I can't recall at the moment). Now, a shooting game without some kind of cover mechanic is simply not published -- preferably with some kind of time slowing mechanic and a celebrity voice actor.

Speaking of celebrities...

HONORABLE MENTION (OF FAILURE AND DECREPITUDE): KISS: Psycho Circus

This wasn't the first time a musical group was inexplicably attached to a game with only the most tenuous of connections to their aural oeuvre. Back in the 80's, when the entire American game industry was basically a coke-fueled bacchanal and chaos reigned, Journey had their own arcade game. I think Steve Perry floated around in space for some reason, avoiding those dangerous space platforms we hear about in the news all the time. Hardware being as primitive as it was back then, the music in the game was played directly off a Journey cassette tape housed inside the cabinet; as the machine got older, the tape would warp, so arcades were filled with demonic renditions of "Don't Stop Believing" playing under the blips of Pac Man and the squealing "hi-ho's!" of  Michael Jackson over the PA. 



Journey (and Revolution X... and Moonwalker...) aside, it felt like game/music crossovers exploded over the last ten years in nonsensical ways.  KISS: Psycho Circus gets the nod over Def Jam Vendetta, 50 Cent Blood on the Sand, and even David Bowie's Omnikron: The Nomad Soul due because KISS came out before all the others. It was a garbage first person shooter built on the Quake III engine, and like most things published by Gathering of Developers, it was terribly marketed and sold poorly. I cannot speak authoritatively on the product, having played only the demo 10 years ago for maybe 12 minutes, but I can use KISS: Psycho Circus to illustrate the way videogames handled music for the bulk of the decade. That is to say, poorly.



When a game did not cram a celebrity musician into, say, an underground wrestling tournament between MCs or a cover-mechanic heavy murder spree in pursuit of an errant diamond encrusted skull, it still could be infected by music selected in weird co-marketing deals wether or not it worked in the context of the game. The invention of EA TRAX was the single most insidious event in the history of mankind (okay, that was hyperbolic; the insertion  of "Dragula" by Rob Zombie in 80,000 PS1 titles was just as insidious.)



The last 10 years showcased at least a half dozen musicians in games that had nothing to do with music (I'd forgotten Michael Jackson as a boxer in Ready 2 Rumble, but... yeah, that too), sure, but there was also...

9. GUITAR HERO



If this list was based solely on the net profit a game (and its spinoffs/franchise opportunities) generated in the last 10 years, Guitar Hero would be #2 on this list (the most profitable game - in the history of forever - is World of Warcraft, which I don't know how to handle on this list because I've never played it and I have no intention to ever play it). Red Octane, a boutique manufacture of niche, high quality peripherals designed to work with import rhythm games, tried to convince Konami to bring Guitar Freaks to the US for many years to no avail. Finally, convinced that plastic guitars were sure to succeed with or without the backing of Konami, Red Octane partnered with genius music game programmers Harmonix, who developed a superior product than Konami's with (and this was less obvious at the time than it seems in retrospect) licensed music from established artists instead of supremely awesome Dance Dance Revolution songs. Drunken house parties were never the same. 



The commercial success of Guitar Hero has been a net positive for games, but not everything has to be commercial, which brings us to....



8. PASSAGE

Jason Roherer's five minute game, using just 100x16 pixels of play surface and simple chiptune music, tells a universal tale of life, love, and the inevitability of death with the grace and economy of a Raymond Carver short story. It does this without any extraneous borrowings from other mediums. This can only be a game, and can best be understood by playing it.

I love this game because it refutes a quip I'm sure I've made: "If you've seen the movie Aliens, you've basically played every game made in the last 15 years." That isn't completely fair (if I'd said "If you've seen Aliens, Evangelion, Saving Private Ryan, and The Lord of the Rings you've basically played every game made in the last 15 years" I'd have been more right) and while I'm still pretty happy playing well made pablum, there's no future exclusively mining the same handful of movies for ideas, for games as a medium or for me as a person.

Passage also feels like the first standout example of the indie game as it currently defines itself, like how Pavement feels like the first "indie rock" band as opposed to "underground" or "college rock" or "alternative" band. This is the kind of meaningless distinction that always feels important to me in a strange, academic way.

Another game that feels important to me in a strange, academic way is...

7. ICO



Ico is videogame yin to Modern Warfare branded Monster energy drink's yang. It is of pure intention, spare and minimalist in a market obsessed with naming every fucking thing a game does with some acronym or alliterative phrase. There are no advertisements for Axe body spray in-game, no anime spinoff series, no extended tutorial levels, no HUD, almost no music, no upgradable weapons, no bosses (outside of the final confrontation, which feels organic and inevitable, whereas the vast majority of bosses are obstructionist, mechanical, and preposterous) no levels or leveling up. It's almost like a Terrence Malick film: hypnotic, beautiful, mysterious - a unique object to treasure or a big load of pretentious hooey, depending on your perspective.

Ico didn't sell, but to paraphrase Brian Eno, everyone who bought it copped something from it when going on to develop their own games(*).

*(this is a half-truth, as it applies only to the French and the French Canadians, and in retrospect that wasn't as high quality a paraphrase as I envisioned when I began typing).

One of those French Canadian design teams eventually made...

HONORABLE MENTION (IN ANTI-CHARACTER DESIGN): PRINCE OF PERSIA 2: THE WARRIOR WITHIN

Heretofore known as "The Bubsy," this award recognizes questionable characters or alterations made to already established, successful characters. The inaugural winner, The Warrior Within, battled strong competition from Blinx: the Time Sweeper, Jax & Daxter, and Star Ocean 4 (standing in for every JRPG containing some goddamn 14 year old moe girl with cat ears), but the baffling changes Ubisoft Montreal foisted upon the titular Prince in the sequel to The Sands of Time are outstanding even in this competitive environment.



The Sands of Time's prince was vainglorious, proud, and bratty, but he was also a fully realized character whose journey though the game's story led him towards redemption and a new empathetic outlook on life. The Warrior Within took this somehow plausible character (for a videogame, certainly), gave him a second sword, made him a pirate (?) with a heart as cold as frozen oxygen, and generally beat all the charisma out of 'em.  I'm not a complete philistine - I know art doesn't have to be pretty, or sensible, to be worthwhile - but I do not understand the reasoning to take something iconic, clean, and lovable, then ugly the hell out of it for no reason.

Also, like KISS: Psycho Circus, The Warrior Within featured licensed metal music that fit the game about as well as a cutaway gag on Family Guy that tried to fit Andrew Jackson's Secretary of War Lewis Cass into a skit about the 80's television program Family Ties.

Speaking of ill-fated pairings...

6. FINAL FANTASY XII



The Final Fantasy series was in the care of Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi for most of its history; he directed every game for the 8 and 16 bit systems except for Final Fantasy II, where Akitoshi Kawazu first showcased his weird and fundamentally misguided talents as director (FFII, widely regarded as the worst game in the Final Fantasy main series, set the frustrating template for all future Kawazu games... and I wouldn't be surprised if the most problematic details in FFXII were Kawazu's fault - the infuriating need to "buy" spells even after unlocking them on your License Board strikes me as a very Kawazu thing to do).  Sakaguchi began to focus his attentions away from gaming in the late nineties after convincing Squaresoft to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into his pet project, an animation studio in Hawaii, which produced one of the greatest commercial flops in cinema history, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. In his absence, an Ocean's Eleven like group of miscreants and ne'er do wells took over, including scenario writer Yoshinori Kitase, battle director Toshiro Tsuchida, and character designer and noted zipper enthusiast Tetsuya Nomura, whose aesthetic sensibilities have defined the last 13 years of the Final Fantasy franchise. Nomura splits his time between Final Fantasy and the ridiculous Kingdom Hearts series, where incomprehensible anime nonsense sullies Disney classics and turns Mickey Mouse into the personification of evil or something.

While I have no beef with Tsuchida, who reinvented the hoary Active Time Battle system in Final Fantasy X with the more strategic Conditional Turn-based Battle system (this is what I was talking about when I was talking about fucking branding and acronyms in the Ico section of this list), Kitase and especially Nomura have decided to take the series in directions I'd rather not see it go. The angst-riddled protagonists at the center of their games are defined by their haircuts (oh their fucking stupid haircuts) as much as by their actions, and whenever a chance to indulge their most solipsistic impulses comes along, Nomura and Kitase don't pass those opportunities up. There certainly was no restraint exercised in branding the extended universe of which Final Fantasy XIII is the flagship title "Fabula Nova Crstallis Final Fantasy XIII Collection," which may be the single most bewildering name in the history of Square Enix's very extensive collection of bewildering names.

Before Kitase gained complete control over Square-Enix Production team 1, however, something marvelous happened. Although Sakaguchi was in the ignominious process of leaving Square after getting the full-on Japanese Corporate Firing Experience, where every corporate problem is blamed on one guy until he is shamed into retirement, he chose Yasumi Matsuno to direct Final Fantasy XIII and supported him fully until his departure. Matsuno, who began his career at Quest developing the brutally hard, complicated, and brilliant tactical strategy games in the Ogre Battle series, had made Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story for Square before getting a shot at the second most important Japanese Role Playing Game Franchise in history.

His scenario design was antithetical to the whining and romantically facile work of Kitase: Matsuno specialized in crafting intricate stories of political subterfuge, all set in his world of Ivalice. His greatest strength, however, was his ability to design gameplay systems of staggering elegance and depth. While Final Fantasy is often a very ridged and linear style of RPG, those entries in the series incorporating the lauded Job System introduced in Final Fantasy III and perfected in Final Fantasy Tactics allow for all kinds of customization. You want to play as a onion knight, you make a fucking onion knight -- although it'd be wise to level up another job class with utility and value in case you ever want to defeat a boss. This can be taken to the extreme, rendering most decisions meaningless: FFVII let users insert Materia inside weapons to craft their characters, essentially making every party member an interchangeable blank and making it a moot point which dudes you brought along with you to battle. The best games in the series strike a balance between the strictness of Final Fantasy IV and the stupidness of Final Fantasy II, and Matsuno was the most capable person in the world of finding that exact balance.

The License Board was a nearly brilliant middle ground. Every character had within them the ability to become anything by purchasing licenses on a big 'ol chess-like board. Purchasing a license opened up adjacent licenses, usually similar in type to the one just purchased. Buying the right to use level one black magic spells, for instance, opened up a new square with level two black magic, along with two or three other licenses - maybe a stat boost, maybe a different kind of magic with similarities to the kind just purchased - there's logic to the arrangement, but just enough variability to make unlocking more licenses really exciting, because your path is not explicitly laid out for you. The implementation of this awesome character development system was a little fucked up - you needed to spend money to buy spells at magic shops, and then spend License Points to purchase the right to use them, which is complicated and infuriating if you've forgotten to buy every spell before getting stuck in the middle of a dungeon with the points to buy a crucial upgrade but no way to use it - but I blame Kawazu or Square executives fearful of change for making it that way, because it makes it easier for me to sleep at night.

Matsuno fundamentally changed major aspects of the game. Gone were the tyranny of random battles. Gone were the dissonant transitions between town, overworld, and battle segments. Gone were the turns, even; much like an massively multiplayer RPG, each action simply took a set amount of time to execute, and your party didn't just stand on one side of the screen like a bunch of maroons waiting for their chance to strike. Because the battles took place in real time (as opposed to "active time," which really was more like harried turn-based time), the Gambit system offered a solution to issuing party orders under such duress, and then some. By setting up various "if=then" statements for your party members and organizing them in a hierarchy of importance, you potentially never had to touch a button in combat. This could be very satisfying, or very boring, depending on how much you feel like selecting menu items in battle is critical to your enjoyment of life. The most rewarding way to play, I found, was to automate much of the fighting of random mobs and micromanage the hell out of your dudes during boss fights. Again, like the License Board, the fact that you had to go into a Gambit store to buy the "Ally < 50% Health" gambit AND the "heal" gambit frustrated to no end -- why do I have to buy the ability to freaking tell my dudes what I want them to do in certain situations? what in the game fiction makes this a reasonable thing? who else uses these gambit stores in Ivalice? - again, Kawazu or Square management did this.

While marrying the best aspects of Western RPG character development and real time gameplay with the splendid art direction and design of Japanese RPGs(*) Matsuno began making a very important game, indeed. He didn't get to finish what he started, however. He left the project a little over halfway though development due to "health issues," almost certainly after suffering a nervous breakdown. Maybe he got sick of fighting to get his radical vision made in a very risk averse corporate environment. Maybe the pressure of shepherding the Second Most Important Role Playing Game Franchise in Japan was too intense for anyone to bear, especially during the turmoil of the Squaresoft/Enix merger. It's a bummer no matter what -- maybe this game could have been higher on the MOST IMPORANT GAMES OF THE DECADE list had he seen it though.

* (wether you prefer the storytelling in Western or Japanese RPGs is largely a personal thing, but I'd argue that Final Fantasy XII's story is pretty far removed from the typical Nomura angst-fests, and even if your characters are "pre-rolled," so to speak, the majority of them are interesting, well realized archetypes, and by using the ostensible leading character Vaan more like a player surrogate, tagging along with these hugely important figures as history is made, is a pretty neat move)

Speaking of a game that actually is higher on this MOST IMPORTANT GAMES OF THE DECADE list is...
 
5. HALO: COMBAT EVOLVED

It's a widely believed fact that Halo was the first FPS to "get the controls right" on a console. This is a load of hogwash I mean to disprove. Clearly Insomniac's first game, Disruptor for the Playstation One, is the definitive console shooter experience and proof that Sony is objectively better than Microsoft at everything; in the recorded history of man, not once has Micro$oft achieved even one one hundredth of what Ken Kutaragi's right ring finger could achieve without Kutaragi even trying.

...............


Okay, I lied. Halo is completely and totally the first console FPS to get the controls right -- or, more accurately, the first game built around the limitations and advantages of a dual analog setup(*). As simple and obvious as it seems now, after a decade of first person shooters tweaked specifically for the console market, Bungie was the first to realize that, hey, maybe we need a slower paced, more tactical, less precise system, and maybe we need to give people the option to invert the y axis on the right stick so people with sense can enjoy the game(**).

* (In Halo's case, this was the preposterously oversized "Duke" controller the Xbox came bundled with at launch. That controller was so heavily touted before release as the most focus grouped, researched device in computer history; J (then "Jay") Allard undoubtedly said some very Moleneuyx-esque things about it while riding a skateboard though the office or while dreaming of the honorary doctorate Boston College was bound to someday give him or something.

** (I play inverted, and I absolutely cannot understand the mental process one who plays standard goes though for that to feel more natural. I realize I'm in the minority. I move my neck when I look around, not my imaginary field of vision camera, and I want everyone on earth to accept and embrace this "neck pivot" system, if you will.)

It's hard for me to speak too authoritatively about Halo. I was late to the party. I found the mere idea of playing an FPS on a console uninteresting and nausea-inducing for the longest time. In 2003, I nearly threw up playing Timesplitters 2 against my then girlfriend, a lovely woman who loved Goldeneye for the N64 but lacked the ability to master this newfangled system. I didn't really get it then, either, and I was still woefully unprepared by the time Halo 3/Call of Duty 4/BioShock arrived in 2007.

I never personally owned the first Xbox; when one was available to me, I spent my time playing Indigo Prophecy, Dreamfall, and other sissy European adventure games. I was ignorant of the Halo mythology. I was not tremendously enthralled by that bold art direction and unique color palette. I held completely unreasonable grudges towards the franchise, bummed that Bungie never made another Myth: The Fallen Lords game, still angry that Oni was clearly a casualty of Bungie's acquisition. When I actually gave Halo 3 a chance, however, I completely understood, 6 years late, why Halo set the criterion for all future console FPS's.

What sets the criterion for all future games, period, might just be...

4. DOUKUTSU MONOGATARI (CAVE STORY)

Okay, I'm clearly throwing out a lot of the stated guidelines I announced during the preamble to this list. Doukutsu Monogatari represents the beginnings of the intentionally anachronistic retro style beginning to dominate the indie gaming community, sure. It also is in the "best Metroidvania of all time" debate I sometimes have with myself, when I'm very lonely (Doukutsu Monogatari is just as good as Symphony of the Night; Super Metriod is maybe a hair's width better). Still, the game's impact was fairly minor on the entire gaming landscape.

However, look at Doukutsu Monogatari in a certain cockeyed way, and see it as I torturously am trying to, as the harbinger of a sea change in games distribution(*). Doukutsu Monogatari became a known thing around the time the XBLA and PSN stores launched. Digital distribution opened up a huge new market for remarkable revivals of ancient, dead genres and crusty franchises. Jonathan Blow became something of a raconteur after spending 3 years making Braid, one of the most gloriously pretentious things ever made, although the competition was lacking. If only Kenji Eno hadn't been on sabbatical for most of the decade...

*(and ignore for the moment the very long delay between the freeware PC version and the coming-any-day-now WiiWare edition)

3. WORLD OF WARCRAFT

Clearly, the most successful product in history has to be on this list, but I've never played it and I have no desire to change this. Blizzard made Blackthorne, though, and that was a pretty sweet game.

Around the same time Blizzard made Blackthorne, DMA made a pretty sweet game named Lemmings before they became Rockstar and unleashed...

2. GRAND THEFT AUTO III
and at number 1...
1. THE SIMS 
 
I got tired and ran out of things to say there, sadly.






Start the Conversation

An Introduction, In Ten (X) Parts - Director's Cut

Okay. 
Here are some facts about me: 

  1. I've never driven an automobile legally, and in my 25 years of life, I've only driven one (1) Subaru four (4) times in two (...) adjacent parking lots in Ashland, OR.
  2. The closest thing I've had to a career was in the exciting, draining field of residential care for the retired and enfeebled, eventually obtaining CNA (Certified Nurses Assistant) certification from the state of Oregon. Mostly, I kept orderlies and cooks on task when not delivering special meals to the very ill - or recently deceased, on two occasions.
  3. I was offered a writing position at Jeremy Parish's side project/zine, Gamespite.net, but I couldn't figure out the wiki markup language the day my first article was due and, showing the kind of derring-do and stick-it-to-ive-ness I've developed a reputation for, I just kinda stopped posting on the staff forum. Since my first piece of Gamespitefullness is nearly a year over deadline now, I don't think I really have a position there. I can still access the staff forums, which is kinda neat.
  4. I've played guitar for nearly 9 years, and I'm still barely an intermediate talent at the instrument.
  5. I cannot whistle.
  6. The only time I've ever been a recognized member of a videogame message board/community type thing was four or five years ago, on the insertcredit forums. Oh, those were the days. I never countenanced to selectbutton.net - although there's still a bunch of old "internet friends" posting there I wouldn't mind communicating with.
  7. I've been toying around with interactive fiction for the past three months or so, using the Inform scripting language (if you can call something so... intuitive a scripting language - which is what it is, of course, it just uses, like, actual grammatical sense to this Lit Comp major).  When I get something that is not pre-alpha done, I'll host it somewhere. Any zcode interpreter will run the Inform language, I think, so it shouldn't be much of a hassle no matter what system you've got. Right now, I think a true experience with my project requires a Commodore 64 with an Epyx fast cart loader. Hopefully, I'll get some stuff written on the process of writing IF with no prior game development experience and post it here, but I'm pretty slow and notoriously flaky when it comes to this stuff. 
  8. I like NEXT GENERATION POWER and all, but lately I've been enjoying PSP and DS gaming way more than the NEXT GENERATION POWER experience - the recent slew of awesome fighting games and Far Cry 2 notwithstanding. 
  9. My favorite comic artist is Alex Ross, of being Alex Ross the Comic Artist fame.  One of my favorite high brow authors in any field is also named Alex Ross, of the New Yorker and writer of 2007's Pulitzer Prize nominated The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. 
  10. I play bar trivia at the Hawthorne Hideaway (it's on SE Hawthorne St. in Portland, OR) every Monday.  Our team is named Willocalypse, for very long and convoluted reasons.
That about covers it. Since my 'official' gaming blog, A New Sku for This IP, has more or less died out due to lack of audience, I'm going to post all game-stuff here until this blog also becomes a depressing wasteland of no consequence. The over/under is 6 months.
3 Comments