The Designer's Notebook: Ten Years Of Great Games
November 26, 2007 Page 4 of 4
2006: One's Barely Even A Game
In 2006, Gears of War made the third-person shooter more grimy and depressing than ever before, and was widely admired for it. (Why aren't shooter games ever set in forests full of bluebells? At least it would be a change.) Uniquely, Gears gives special rewards for efficiently reloading your weapons. Dungeons & Dragons finally got its own online game in 2006, which really should have happened ten years earlier. It was highly anticipated and of course the brand recognition is excellent, but WoW remains unconquerable.
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out and corrected many of the errors of its predecessor Morrowind; it was a massive success for a single-player RPG and advanced the open world concept so ably pioneered by the Grand Theft Auto series. Similarly, Tomb Raider: Legend repaired the damage done to the Tomb Raider franchise by it's predecessor, Angel of Darkness. The biggest surprise of 2006 was Brain Age, which barely even qualifies as a game, but sold Nintendo DS machines all by itself.
For pure imagination, nothing I've seen from 2006 tops Okami, winner of a BAFTA for Artistic Achievement (I was on the jury and voted for it). The player plays the Japanese sun goddess Ameratsu, who has taken the form of a wolf. Departing from photorealism, the game Okami is rendered in Japanese brush painting style, despite the fact that it's 3D -- a visual triumph. In an extraordinary innovation, when the player casts a spell, the game world flattens into a 2D painting and the player invokes the spell by painting on the world with a brush; the world then becomes 3D again and the effect of the spell is shown. And there's one other little item of gratuitous beauty: when Ameratsu runs really fast, she leaves a trail of flowers behind her.
Predictions are dangerous, but Wii Sports will probably have the greatest legacy -- not because the games themselves are terribly imaginative, but simply because they introduced vast numbers of non-players to video gaming. Stories abound of unexpected converts thanks to Wii Sports, from developers' own puzzled family members to elderly people in nursing homes. By providing an easy, fun, familiar set of games at launch of the Wii and its motion-sensitive controller, Nintendo has quite simply revolutionized gaming.
2007: You're Living It
That brings us up to 2007, and of course it's not over yet. One key event this year was the non-existence of the Electronic Entertainment Expo. E3 had been a glorious extravaganza of self-congratulation, but by 2006 it was collapsing under its own weight. The noise, flashing lights, smoke machines, and booth babes turned it into a seizure-inducing monument to tastelessness.
Speaking of tastelessness, Manhunt 2 was big news this year, but perhaps more in the mainstream press than among gamers. Just as graphics are no substitute for gameplay, gratuitous gore isn't either. The antidote to Manhunt 2, for those in need of a detox, is Viva Piñata, which made its way to PC this year. What a lovely and strange little game this is! It's an artificial life game about living piñatas. They have their own ecosystem and life cycle, and they want nothing more than to go to parties and be broken. The gameplay is fun and the graphics particularly colorful and attractive.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl finally came out after having been vaporware for several years, and did something unique in video gaming: in the guise of a shooter, it memorialized a true human tragedy and allowed the player to explore a genuine, rather than a fictitious, poisoned and decaying landscape. I don't think S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will have much of a legacy -- it's a bit of a one-off -- but I feel it's important for what it tried to do.
The most important game of 2007 thus far, and I predict overall as well, is BioShock. The game possesses that rare quality of being multilayered, and rewards replay and close attention. On the surface, it's a survival horror shooter, and you can enjoy it purely at that level, doing what you must to stay alive. At a deeper level, it offers a moral dilemma: do you kill the Little Sisters or try to save them? You can choose how you wish to play. And at a deeper level still, it's a savage satire on Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. Ken Levine imagined what would happen if things started to go wrong in a utopia of unfettered individualism, and the result is the nightmare that is BioShock. The art and architecture is stunning, too. It's even worth stopping to read the advertising and propaganda posters on the walls; everything contributes to the mood of the whole.
Several big games have yet to reach my hands. Both Crysis and Rock Band are much-anticipated, Crysis because it will undoubtedly be spectacular if you can afford the PC it needs to run on, and Rock Band because it will expand on the Guitar Hero experience. But whether they will really be fun or important only playing them can determine.
That's my round-up, and no doubt many readers will be furious that I left out a pet favorite. My knowledge of games is not encyclopedic -- I'm not made of money, after all -- and is naturally influenced by personal preferences. But even if I've forgotten a more important game, I think nobody can deny that all these games did something new or important for the art form. It has been a fun ten years, and I'm looking forward to the next ten.
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