Games of 2010: Part II

Again, this is the second part of the games that have somehow impacted me during this year. Mostly on the way I think about story and presentation in games, not so much about the game play itself. It’s by no means a definitive list and there are a bunch of games I have yet to try out. (They’re at the bottom of the list), but it does represent my thoughts on these games and how good I thought they were at what they were doing. Onwards, in descending order to Number 1.

4> Stalker: Call of Pripyat.

There’s a certain existential dread pervading the Stalker worlds, something that Fallout’s post-apocalyptic Americana kitsch completely avoids. Maybe it’s a Russian thing, after all they do like their desperate struggles for humanity’s survival. (See Tolstoy, Doestovesky, or better yet, read Stanislaw Lem and play Stalker.) Either way, it makes the third Stalker a unique experience, an often cold, desolate, depressing experience, but a unique one.

3> Starcraft II – Wings of Liberty

The story of Starcraft II is not in its cliché ridden melodramatic hackfest of a single player campaign. No, as polished as that was, it was a side show attraction to the real meat and bones of a game designed from ground up to be competitive. The real story of Starcraft II lies in its multiplayer.

It tracks the rise and fall of wannabe generals, the careful strategic planning that give way to tactical blunders, the emotional rollercoaster to near misses and inevitable death. It’s the rush of adrenaline as you think you might just have a chance, but no, no, that one muta just murdered your entire ground army. It’s the frustrations and the recriminations of your own stupidity, followed by the burning desire to do better. Just one more game, I’ll be better. I promise. Maybe I’ll just quit. No wait, I can beat them. Ok I can’t. This game sucks. I Nuked! I win.

Every story plays out differently; every story can be recorded for your playback pleasure. Every story is a personal one against your arch nemesis for those few minutes, and every story has that one moment of dramatic glory, or pyrrhic victory, or triumph that can be shared. It’s often an intense story, but man, is it a personal one.

2> Fallout: New Vegas

Obsidian knows how to build worlds. They know how to put the player in a place that’s filled with vivid adventures, and colorful characters and unique locations. They know how to write a place that’s both fantastical and dangerous, and then give you the choice on how you want to shape that world. Fallout: New Vegas is a giant RPG sandbox, filled interesting things to see, do and talk to. It’s archaeology, reconstructing stories from the past, and seeing how they’ve shaped the present.

And it’s all built with a philosophy in mind. Specifically in Fallout: New Vegas, Hegelian dialetics, how do societies in a post-apocalyptic landscape reshape themselves. How do they fit themselves into the larger world. If society is largely a collection of tribal associations, what happens when those tribal associations go to war in a harsh, unforgiving, (but oddly humourous) environment. And what do you, as player want to explore with each of these ideals? What can you do to shape it.

The games doesn’t really successfully explore all these ideas though, but it’s massively ambitious an attempt to do so, and because of that, it’s a game that rewards thinking about the consequences of your decision and the fate of this fictional world. It’s a game that goes beyond the tropes of saving the world from a great evil, or from dastardly conspiracies and manipulative overlords. It’s a world where there’s a good and bad side to everything, so what do you think is best?

Shame the game is a bit buggy though.

1> BioShock 2

No other game hit me as hard on an emotional level. No other game presented a world so detailed in its conception and so ambitious in its ideals. No other game seems to be as mature in wanting to tell a story that can be emotionally affecting in a unique way, and then giving the player the ability to experience that story in his own way, at his own pace. BioShock 2 tugged at heartstrings that few games have ever done, and is likely to rarely do. It’s a game that takes its concepts and builds an incredibly story, action and adventure around them. Then it sucker punches you.

At this point, I’m waxing lyrical about a game and fully admit bias. If I were to speak objectively, I realize the emotional impact of a game is about as subjective a topic I can get from writing about anything. Objectively, Bioshock is merely a good game with many of its nits and picks to quibble about. Objectively, the story isn’t really for everyone either.

Subjectively though, this is one of those rarefied games that will enter the annals of my influences. This is how you build a level for game-play and story purposes.* This is how you pace a game to give player’s control of their surroundings. And this is how you get me to care about the characters in your game. Not by following clichés and tropes, but by taking a single idea and exploring all the perspectives around it, and then letting me decide which one is ultimately mine.

*Fallout 3 and Fallout: NV are great, but its identikit level design has nothing on BioShock’s aesthetic goals.

Honorable Mention #1
Mass Effect 2

It was a bold experiment in RPG design; in its own words, it’s all about Big Decision and Visceral Combat now. Mass Effect 2 is streamlined space opera, an RPG cut down to its very core. It’s all-action, all story, all the time. You are Commander Shepard and man, are you getting the band together to save the universe. But first, let’s deal with your issues.

It’s too bad the streamlining undercut a lot of interesting gameplay for cinematic immersion, and a lot of world building for an encyclopedia and corridor shootfests. It’s an efficient game, (we’ll not talk about planet scanning) and in that efficiency, some soul was lost.

As it is, Mass Effect 2 is a great window into the universe, but it always felt like I’m staring at one small corner of it, wishing I could explore more, talk more; wishing I could go deeper. There are touches of brilliance everywhere, bits and pieces of awesome scenery tucked away in a skybox, and hints of historical depth in random conversations. Yet I can rarely explore them, because the game is too busy hurtling me down the action path. I have to save the universe from the collectors, but first I have to play amateur psychologist, or undercover cop, or hacker supreme. Mainly though, I just have to play a guy* who runs and guns through corridors. Alrighty then.

In the end, Mass Effect 2 ends up feeling like an awesome collection of short stories, tenuously connected by an overarching theme, played over the same game. Great in short doses for the story, but the game was ultimately kinda shallow.

*(well girl really. FemShep is the only way to play)

Honorable Mention #2

WoW: Cataclysm, (and Wrath of the Lich King)

I’m late to the party, but it’s a party that never ends.

I actually want to talk about how Blizzard seems to be getting much better at designing zones. They’re now little subsections of the world where stories can take place. Yes, sure, it’s world, where the stories are a hodge podge of fantasy tropes and pop-culture references and there’s no serious attempt at building anything, well, plausible. It’s a fantasy theme park.

So what? Theme parks are designed to be incredibly fun. Take a ride, take many rides and remember the times. WoW is a game in all its gaming glory. The stories are there, but their fun tales to be shared by drunken barflies after work. The characters are there, but they’re broad fantasy archetypes meant to paint an epic picture, not tell a nuanced deep story. It’s all very entertaining, but it’s hard to care for any of it. In fact, the only thing worth caring in Wow are numbers, and the loot to make those numbers go higher.

And that’s where the game lets me down, because sometimes, more often than not; people over-caring about those numbers, really really suck.

Games I should get to playing.

Civilization V
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Greed Corp
Call of Duty: Black Ops


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