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Games of the Year: Part 5, 2004-2008

And then there were five. This process of covering all the best games year by year has been enlightening, as its forced me to really get a fuller view picture of how far gaming has come, and where it still falls short. Of course, it also made for some tough choices, as great years in gaming seem to cluster, while some years...well, just don't really measure up. 
This last list was especially interesting because it is the only set of time I might consider myself a "serious" gamer, interested in game design and various aspects of the so-called "industry." I started listening to 1Up Yours during E3 in 2006, and have been an avid listener to various gaming podcasts ever since. All of which is to say, this is the only list of games I really fully remember learning about far before their release. They are games I heard of, then saw, then played, then formed an opinion on. Thus, I feel that these opinions might be the most fully evolved and certainly the most fresh.
But lets get on with the list.



Half-Life 2 (PC)

 Well Hey There
 Well Hey There
The narrative of Half-Life 2 is never fully explained in torturous exposition, which is naturally why it is so compelling.  The story of Gordon Freeman waking up in a dystopian future with little understanding of his surroundings creates a perfect backdrop for Valve's effortless shooter masterpiece. The pacing of Half-Life 2, with its puzzles followed by combat followed by puzzles that lead to more combat, continually pushes you forward. The characters you meet are well-defined without feeling like creations. The world is one of horror and wonder, with Gordon constantly uncovering more broken segments of the Combine's manipulations. The game is essentially one unbroken shot, a trademark of Valve's games, that briskly moves along. One of the greatest testaments to Valve's design is that it proves that linear game design is not a fault, but a skill, offering a game that is the creation of master auters at the height of their craft.



Psychonauts (Multi-Platform)

 Don't Mess With Raz
 Don't Mess With Raz
It is a bit (okay, really) difficult to make out, but my avatar is actually a screenshot from a fictional demake of Psychonauts for the Game Boy.  The Milkman Conspiracy level to be precise, which is just one example of one of the games highlights. While many better 3D platformers have been made from a purely mechanical standpoint, none have a core concept quite so fascinating: every level is the psyche of a game's character. This includes the portion of their personality that they want you to see, and the pain and torment they have locked away. Supported by the genius writing of Tim Schafer and Eric Wolpaw, the game offers surprisingly rich portraits of complex human beings within the guise of Tim Burton inspired grotequeries. The resulting experience is amusing and thought provoking, and is in turns moving and disturbing.  



Guitar Hero 2 (Multi-Platform)

 Getting the Band Together
 Getting the Band Together
Yes, it is hard to remember when the whole  peripheral  guided rhthym game genre was still novel. And yes, 2006 wasn't exactly a watermark year for gaming. But Guitar Hero 2 is still a high mark for the series, mostly because it introduced the concept of playing together, either in co-op or in competition. It provided the first hint of what it felt like playing in a group, and offered a soundtrack of fairly shredtastic tunes. Most importantly, with its new outrageous characters and bloated venues, the game fully utilized the rock-star-simulator aspect of the original game to the umpth degree. While the ongoing Rock Band/Guitar Hero war becomes more and more grating as days go by, this second entry in the then-unknown battle is most likely the zenith of the Hero series. It built upon the excitement and promise of the original, and offered a basic blueprint for where Harmonix would grow next.



Portal (Multi-Platform)

 Try Not to Vomit
 Try Not to Vomit
If Half-Life 2 is a bold, inspiring attempt at reimagine the FPS genre, then Portal is the clear heir to its throne. Short, sparse and effortlessly streamlined, the game constantly surprises and urges the player along. And while much can be made of the narrative (I still hold that the whole game functions as a meta-commentary on the structure of video games, with the player as Chell, GLaDOS as Valve and cake served up glorious by Jonathan Coulton), the game wouldn't be any good if not for the expertly designed puzzle dynamics. The majority of the games head play is made up of sorting out how to get across spaces using carefully designed portals, then implementing occasionally tricky timing to actually execute. Chell nevers act offensively, purely in defense, but the amount of empowerment towards the end is rather amazing. The tug and pull between feeling like you're breaking free, only to realize that you're following the very path you're designed to go along, is not only a masterful bit of game design, but something that will help inspire years of indie game philosophy.



Dead Space (Multi-Platform)

 Someone Should Clean This Up
 Someone Should Clean This Up
After doing 25 of these, it probably is becoming clear that setting is very important to my opinions on games. From the husk of planet Zebes, to the bright neon of Vice City, to the quirky  Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, few things will cause me to love a game more than an imaginative locale within which to play. Perhaps that is why exploring the husk of the USG IShimura left such a strong impression with me. Or perhaps it was the clever use of mining tools to solve puzzles and hack off limbs from raging necromorphs. It could be the unbelievable sound design, only fully appreciated in full 5.1 surround. Or how Dead Space doesn't limit itself to the stock standard rules of survival horror, and offer a setting at once familiar and alien (no pun intended). While it certainly borrows a lot from other games  (including games on this very list, namely System Shock and Half-Life 2,) the precision and detail that went into every second of Dead Space created a memorable and truly frightening experience that served as the highlight of the last year of gaming.
And that's it. Every game for every year, from the bleak 1984 to the impressive 2008. Again, the leaps and bounds gaming have gone through in a relatively short amount of time is pretty awe-inspiring, and makes me very excited about the future. If interested, check back here in two weeks to see my write-up for what I consider the best game of 2009.