The Designer's Notebook: Ten Years Of Great Games
November 26, 2007 Page 2 of 4
2000: Casual Gaming's First Star
The year 2000 produced the best-selling PC game of all time and ushered in the era of casual gaming. At the beginning of February, Electronic Arts published The Sims and changed the world.
The Sims wasn't supposed to work. A game about people living in suburbia, doing perfectly ordinary jobs? A game about buying furniture? A game inspired by A Pattern Language, a book for architecture geeks? It just goes to show you that not all players like to be entertained the same way, and there's more to video games than adrenaline. The Sims established the age of user-created content by letting people take screenshots, caption them, and assemble the result into stories that they could upload for other people to read. Modding had long preceded The Sims, of course, but this was different -- it was easy and required no tools. The Sims' legacy is huge.
Ion Storm published two legendary games in 2000, one legendary for the amount of hype that preceded it and disappointment that followed it (John Romero's Daikatana), and the other for the richness of its story and characterization and its imaginative gameplay, Deus Ex. I'll pass over Daikatana without further comment, but Deus Ex combined shooter, sneaker, RPG, and even a bit of puzzle-solving adventure game into a single unique title. Deus Ex gets my nod for important innovations.
For pure imagination, I have to go with American McGee's Alice. The game offered a macabre twist on Lewis Carroll's sweet if slightly demented children's story. The graphics were quite stunning for its time, possibly the most surreal since Myst, though gamers complained that the gameplay didn't live up to the game's visual promise. For the most part, it was just a platformer and had some balance problems to boot. But I give it extra points for taking a cultural icon and turning it upside down and inside out in an imaginative way.
Finally, a special mention for The Longest Journey. Its protagonist, April Ryan, is one of the very few truly well-rounded female characters to appear in any computer game. She's not a butt-kicking uber-babe like Lara Croft or Samus Aran, nor a damsel in distress, nor a sex kitten. Rather, she's an inquisitive young woman with a sense of humor, moments of fear and vulnerability, a kind heart, and a good deal of resourcefulness. I like her.
2001: Not What You Think
2001 was another big year. We got Grand Theft Auto III, Ico, Halo: Combat Evolved, Pikmin, Max Payne, Rez and Black & White. The last three, while significant, all were ultimately slightly disappointing. Max Payne invented bullet time even before The Matrix, although the game wasn't released until after the movie came out. Many gamers complained that while Max Payne's story was good, it was too short. Rez was an imaginative musical shooter set in a Tron-like cyberspace landscape and inspired by the concept of synaesthesia, but it didn't sell well. Black & White further expanded the god game to give the god a physical avatar who walked the earth, but it was buggy and at times seemed like an engine in search of a game.
For pure imagination in 2001 I have to go with Pikmin, and it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that the game was co-designed by Shigeru Miyamoto. A weird combination of real-time strategy and puzzle game, like Lemmings with fighting -- but that doesn't really begin to cover it.
Ico's important innovation was not its lovely environment or its tender storyline, but its context-sensitive camera. The camera always tracked the action appropriately no matter where the player moved the avatar -- which meant that there was a ton of design work involved in making sure that worked correctly. Context-sensitive cameras are tricky, because in high-speed action the player often needs a fixed perspective, but they make the experience far more cinematic. I'm convinced that they will ultimately become the default camera model for 3D third-person games.
Few games have had a greater legacy in the last ten years than Grand Theft Auto III. Yes, Halo is still around too and there has been a ton of hype about it recently, and Halo was probably the first really good console-based shooter. But GTA was more ambitious and made a bigger difference to the future of games, both for good and for ill. GTA III was the first really successful "open world" game, and became the template for many more to follow. It's too bad it had to happen in such a nasty context -- it made it that much harder to explain to non-gamers why the game is so important.
2002: A Little Less Exciting
2002 was a little less exciting, and I can't pinpoint any specific reasons for it. Notable games included Kingdom Hearts, Splinter Cell, Metroid Prime, Ratchet & Clank, Animal Crossing, and Battlefield 1942. Splinter Cell improved the sneaker yet further, while Ratchet & Clank brought a fun and imaginative series of weapons to the platformer genre. Metroid Prime revived gamer heartthrob Samus Aran after a long absence and gave her a new point of view.
For pure imagination I think the crown has to go to Kingdom Hearts. No one could possibly have predicted that Square Soft could make a dark, compelling, Final Fantasy-style game with... Donald Duck and Goofy?
Animal Crossing was a bit like The Sims with animals, but with more interesting things to do. Its innovations were small but many. For one thing, it included a lot of unlockable NES games, illustrating the continuing appeal of retro games. It also ran in real time, so that the GameCube's clock was the game world's clock, and holidays and other events duly took place on schedule. The game supported connections between the GameCube and Game Boy Advance, opening up new game-world regions on the GBA. Items in the game are also transferable over the Internet, an unusual property for a console game. Adding them all up, I feel it contains the most important innovations of 2002.
The lasting legacy title undoubtedly goes to Battlefield 1942. It took team-based outdoor shooter play to a whole new level, allowing players to choose from a variety of vehicles and roles. Because it's multiplayer and offers so much to do, this is the kind of game that produces great emergent stories.
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