One rule of the kind of yearly predictions that sites like these do every year is that you are bound to be somewhat wrong, which is one reason the biblical test for prophecy works so well: believe him, until he gets one thing wrong. Then stone him. When Alan and I made our video-game related predictions last year, we had no idea we’d be drowning in stones by the end of the year, but here we are.
Quickly, because it is oh so embarrassing:
Alan was anxiously awaiting Heavy Rain, writing “Even though I don’t personally own a PS3, and therefore will probably never get a chance to play Heavy Rain, I am excited about this game’s potential to help redefine the Mature rating so that it doesn’t merely refer to graphic violence or sexual content.” Was he right? Who knows. It hasn’t released this year and a release date has yet to be announced.
I, on the other hand, was anxious for Bioshock 2 for a similar reason: “With Bioshock 2, you can rest assured you won’t be playing this game without thinking hard about the consequences of your actions and those around you.” I based this almost entirely on the brilliance presented in the original Bioshock. Was I right? Again, we’ll find out in 2010, when the game really becomes available.
One game, however, was released: Punch Out!! Wii. I declared myself to be excited about it’s slightly more deep gameplay in comparison with the previous light-weight titles such as Wii Sports and Wii Music. Clearly I wasn’t that excited since, in spite of being quite the prolific gamer this year, I couldn’t be bothered to try it. From what I hear it’s not that deep after all.
So go ahead, stone away. In the meantime, let’s try something I like to think I’m a little better at: examining what really happened in the gaming world in 2009, and how it affects us.
1. Casual games made us bored, while we began to long for deeper offerings.
This time last year, everyone was convinced that Nintendo was on track to being in the possession of a world-class money printing machine, and third parties were following the piper all the way to the bank. Alan even pointed out in the aforementioned brilliant piece of journalism that by making Heavy Rain, developer Quantic Dream was taking a risk since “a party game for the Wii is always a sure bet.”
Well, apparently not. As I pointed out in my defense for switching from the Wii to the Xbox 360, the only thing that’s going to encourage customer loyalty in this industry is a reason to stick around. If you make treadmills, it’s fine if they stay in the closet. The sale has been made. But console manufacturers make their money off of games, and closeted Wiis just don’t help to sell more games. Even worse, they discourage others from buying the console themselves.
Nintendo has responded brilliantly this year, by releasing various new versions of reliable franchises such as Mario and Zelda games. In the meantime, consumers are slowly beginning to gravitate to more substantial artistic and social experiences on the other two systems. Is it too little too late? Probably not.
But the real struggle is for those of us who have a video game console in our house. Like any media device, it presents real challenges, and because we are focusing more on deep gameplay and various meaningful experiences, we face the very real danger of becoming enamored with what is in fact a simulacra, or a fake version of a real thing. “If only I was Nathan Drake,” but I’m not. If only my friends on Xbox Live were my friends in real life, but they’re not. Not only must we acknowledge these realities, we’re going to have to remember to live in light of them. If only I was awesome enough to survive the zombie apocalypse and save my brother-in-law. But I’m not. Sorry, Jason.
2. Games demanded we take them seriously, and we did. Or not.
Serious games are nothing new this year. Artistically minded, serious, and indie games have been a prominent part of the gaming scene for quite a while, but it was only recently that they began to be examined on their own terms, for what they aspire to be. When a video game called, of all things, Flower, was released to the world on the Playstation Network in February, most might expect the video game world to reject it outright as misguided, pansy pretentiousness. Instead, it received what Metacritic called “Generally favorable reviews,” and went down as a game-changer in the industry and an indication of how real game art is done. Game review site, Giant Bomb articulated a key unique aspect of this game insisting that it is a game that they “feel richer for having played.”
What followed was a general acceptance not only of art-games such as Flower, but a desire to delve more deeply into the meaning of more mainstream games. Unfortunately, much of the result was a reader-response sort of personalizing of video games, which can be interesting but is also little more than a thought exercise. Some of this, I am guilty of myself. The response to this was often to take video games at face value, with little thought at all. You’re a dude killing dudes, and that’s fun. End of Story.
Except that there were certain games that just wouldn’t go away. This year became the year that games were discussed and discussed and run into the ground, and yet the discussion never felt stale. Games like Braid, Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Bioshock just kept coming up. Yes, most of the discussion was discussion about the medium itself, rather than more broad issues, but it was nonetheless a sure sign of a medium beginning to take itself seriously.
As a young but maturing medium, video games are only as good as their designers, and only improve as they are seriously evaluated and explored by critics. This year game design and game criticism showed promise – if only because the two worlds seem to be colliding in the rise of game critic/designers like Jonathan Blow and Clint Hocking.
In the meantime, many argue that games are simply meant to be fun, and that without such an intent, a game’s pretensions add up to nothing. Some refuse to take games seriously, claiming that both designers and critics are simply over-thinking things and ruining the fun. Both of these arguments are sure signs that video games are becoming just another valid medium, alongside movies, television and books.
3. Games brought us close to one another – even hardcore gamers.
Video games have never lacked a competitive element, being known since Doom for being the originator of the “deathmatch,” and providing plenty of opportunities for guys to come over and trash talk one another. However, with the release of Left 4 Dead at the end of 2008 and the subsequent followers that came out in the following year, video games suddenly became an opportunity to demonstrate something that had previously been relegated to sports: teamwork.
This year, a selection of writers for this website have spent time together – whether or not they live in the same state – by conspiring to defeat the zombie hordes. Just as Alan, his wife and I were about to escape, Ben became victim of a pouncing super-zombie and almost got us all killed when we tried to rescue him. Other times, Ben saved us all with the sly use of a pipe bomb, which distracted the zombies just long enough for us to get away. Recently, I had 3 friends over to play through a Left 4 Dead 2 Campaign in which we are fighting our way through a zombie-infested Carnival. It was tougher than we anticipated, and after about nine total failures we were finally able to board the escape vehicle.
I remember saying that I felt like we’d been white-water rafting together or something, by which I meant we had had an experience that brought us closer and forced us to acknowledge one another and work together, not just side by side. There is incredible value is something like this, not just as an icebreaker, but as an opportunity to explore and strengthen relationships.