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.


  1. Rich, I’ve joined the bandwagon (even if late) and I too am now making the switch from Wii to Xbox. The games are just far more interesting for it…at least they appear to be, I don’t know because I’ve never actually owned and only had minimal play on an actual Xbox.

  2. Great article Rich, you echoed many of my thoughts, hopes, expectations, and disappointments about video games in the last year.

    I think I have said this before, but thanks for being a reasonable, thoughtful, and critical voice on video games from a Christ-honoring perspective. Who else is doing that?

  3. I will be glad when (if) games reach the same level of general acceptance that movies, tv, books, etc. receive. Being 31 years old, I still get the derisive “You still play a lot of video games?” looks some times.

    I think a lot of people may be making a similar transition that some of you have made (Wii to Xbox) and for the same reasons. So I think that the Wii has been a gateway drug for many new (or old) gamers.

    Games ARE good for relationships. Board or Video. Shooting Zombies bring people together.

  4. Despite casual games boring people, the year saw the continued endurance of the genre. Only most casual gamers won’t look to a console system to do the tedious thing they’re already doing on their computers. Facebook’s ubiquitous Farmville is loathed by both players and non-players, but that doesn’t stop it from having more active users than Twitter. I have yet to meet someone who thinks the game is fun, but I know plenty of people who persevere in seeding, growing, and harvesting crops and customizing their farms.

    The most common reason people play Farmville: “I just can’t stop.” It’s like WoW minus story, challenge, and fun. But obviously it fulfills some level of felt need for those engaged. Same goes for Pet Society and Mafia Wars.

    I remember talking to an old roommate about why he spent so much time working in my garden a decade ago. He said it was because his work (with abused children) was so daunting and he truly realized that nothing he did to help these kids would last because they had been that screwed up, so it was a comfort to him to come home and have something he could tend and put to order. Something he could have control over.

    I suspect there may be something to this interpretation when applied to the dominance of web-based casual gaming. 1) It’s a non-competitive (or lightly competitive) environment in which one can exercise power over environment. 2) It’s convenient and just an extension (sort of) of checking email and facebook. 3) It doesn’t appear to be a big time sink – though it can obviously get there. Some level of satisfaction for performing mundane acts in a closed environment.

  5. I think 2009 was the year we talked more about great videogames than we actually got great videogames. All the games you mention that keep coming up in critical conversation are old games. It could be that the level of critical conversation that we’d like to see requires a robust playthrough of these games and so we shouldn’t expect to see critically conceived articles about 2009’s crop until well into 2010, but really, apart from a few indie releases, I can’t think of anything released in 2009 that was particularly noteworthy.

    Dragon Age sounded like it had potential but that it may just be expansion of ideas already explored by earlier crops of morally ambiguous decision-based games (as well as Bioware’s prior catalog). Modern Warfare 2 never really sounded like news, despite the fact that it became news. Beatles Rock band proves that a more robust experience can mean a more fun experience, but that’s not exactly news and the game wasn’t exactly innovative (and even in some sense withdrew some of the things that made earlier versions fun).

    I think a good question is What from 2009 will be talked about in any critical sense in Fall 2010? Anything?

    Despite how slight it was, people still talk about Portal. We still hear about Braid, even if only in reference to “Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid.” Fallout 3, Fables, Mass Effect, Bioshock, and The Witcher all get press still for their role in the maturation of choice and story content. GTA IV is still the bogeyman. L4D2 might get press, but that’s really just expression of L4D innovation. WoW will still be the posterboy for social gaming destroying lives—even though Maple Story‘s user base dwarfs Blizzard’s MMO’s own numbers (but WoW is just a 2005 story with legs. Same goes for EVEonline.

    To me, it seemed like 2009 was a dead year for gaming. A sabbatical after a well-played and overly busy couple years leading up to 2008.

  6. I can agree with the thesis of your comment, The Dane. It’s unfortunate, since it was my first full year in gaming. Then again, it gave me plenty of time to catch up with things like Portal, Half Life 2, Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, Little Big Planet, etc.

    One exception that comes to mind is Uncharted 2, which seems to be on its way to being a case study in good character design.

  7. I had thought about Uncharted 2 and remembered hearing some level of praise at the time of its release but haven’t heard much noise since.

    I think something else interesting is LucasArts move to play off gamer nostalgia. Their rerelease of Monkey Island (with refurbished art and an all-new voice cast) is a fascinating move and their release of the new Monkey Island game in truly episodic fashion is a pretty cool strategy. (If you’re unaware, when you bought the puzzle-based game at release, you only got the first portion of the game/story, with new pieces coming out every couple weeks.) It’s kind of the model explored by MMOs such as WoW, in which later patches deliver new content for free, but in this case, they are essential to the game rather than value-added.

    Still, the nostalgia angle interests me. And all the more so as one more indicator of the conservatism of 2009’s gaming industry. Fear of alienating customers through an untried/untested user experience (i.e. innovation!) is driving companies to rely on outright sequels or at least games of spiritual kin to their predecessors. I mean, this has always been the case within the industry, but it seems in 2009 conservatism was the first, last, and best word on the matter.

  8. Its Xbox online–only those Microsoft losers make you pay a monthly fee! Playstation Network is free.

    Out of curiosity–what are people saying about Character design in Uncharted 2? I rented it and played through most of the single player campaign. It was a good game no doubt, but to me it feel short of revolutionary.

  9. Drew, in response to your xbox dis: How often do you play online? And with friends? I suspect it’s not as much as the average Xbox Live member. BECAUSE IT’S NO FUN. ;-)

    As for what people are saying about Uncharted 2, some links:

    Interestingly, a lot of the praise for Uncharted 2’s characters come from the feminist perspective. Really though, of all mediums, I think video games could benefit from a little feminist criticism.

  10. Yes, I know, from what I hear Xbox live is much better–my slam on Xbox was just one of those “I don’t have an Xbox, so I am going to trash the other system” sort of lines. In actuality, I would love to have an xbox 360 if my wife would let me, but probably in the end I would play it too much.

    The PSN has made some strides though, I play FIFA and CoD on there and have overall positive experiences there.

    Feminist criticism can be tiring, but I agree with you here, I think video games NEED some feminist criticism!

  11. Also, sometimes I get a little jealous when I checkout your site and all you guys are talking about the your Halo and L4D games. I would enjoy PSN more if I had more friends who were on it.

  12. Drew says MS is lame because they make you pay for a service that should be free. You respond that Xbox Live works like it should. You guys are arguing different points.

    It’s great that Xbox Live works well (aka, as it’s supposed to) but that doesn’t address the concern raised, i.e. that a working Xbox Live shouldn’t cost a dime. Maybe you think that it should cost a dime. Or even $9.95 monthly. But that is not an argument you made.

  13. Good point. My feeling is that there’s enough value added, between the community atmosphere, ease of use, cohesive avatar system, occasional actually good free multiplayer game offerings (1vs100 and the upcoming Joy Ride), party system, and reliable and encouraged voice chat to justify the extra price.

  14. Well there you go. That’s all I wanted.

    It’s too bad you all hate PC gaming. I’d be curious how Xbox Live compares to free services like Battlenet (which is much larger than Xbox Live’s user base).

  15. I don’t hate pc gaming, in fact there was a time when I was something of a pc gamer. I just don’t have the $ to drop on a pc that will play all the games that would interest me. Actually I probably have the $ but again my wife would graciously and providentially discourage such a purchase.

    I got my PS3 because I wanted a blu ray player, or at least that is what I said–deep down I probably wanted a next gen gaming system more.

    You may argue with this Seth, but I think console gaming (now that prices have been lowered) holds a slight edge over pc gaming on price (though there is far more free content on pc games, but I don’t get into that stuff anyway).

    Rich, just out of curiosity, do you own a PS3?

  16. I could probably go either way on the price question. I primarily got my PC for graphic design (and providentially it also plays most games that I’d like to try) so a $1500 machine wasn’t just an entertainment expense.

    Most games I get for PC end up costing around $20 and with mods and free downloads etc. I can generally get at least a good fifty hours out of each one (sometimes four times that—even last night I was playing through the final levels of Age of Mythology again and I can’t wait to get into Morrowind again for the fourth time).

    PC gaming, I think, tends to offer (still to this day) a more robust gaming experience than consoles and because of that, the pricetag feels a lot lighter. Even something like WoW is a fantastic value in terms of dollars per month spent—when I’m playing the game, other games don’t even appear on the radar.

    When I got my PS3, I don’t think there was a primary selling point (even though Blu-Ray was a cool bonus). We needed something to play Beatles Rock Band on and we already had compatible instruments from our PS2 and I was looking forward to the next release from Team ICO. I haven’t given PS Network a try simply because the only game we have is Beatles Rock Band.

  17. Yeah, that is why I am something of a cyclical PC gamer. When my pc becomes disparagingly old, I get a new one that is good enough to play the newer games, then I am PC gamer for a while until my PC becomes too slow to play the newer games.

    Any news on The Last Guardian or Project Trico or whatever it is now called? Its been some time since Shadow of the Colossus came out.

  18. Going along with what you were talking about in the article, Rich, the most successful game series almost always have a storyline. Look that the Blizzard games (starcraft, warcraft, WoW) they have people who do nothing but develop the stories and characters. Entering into these games is almost like the first few chapters of a book, where you have to learn history and previous plotlines and such. Same with things like Final Fantasy, Halo, etc.

    PC games are, in my opinion, better than console games. I have personally found them to be much more focused on solid gameplay and less on flashy graphics. Over the last several months I have become a starcraft geek. If you want an interesting cultural study, check out starcraft in South Korea. They have a professional league and players who should be in high school making large salaries. I think starcraft is pioneering esports through starcraft. It won’t necessarily be SC in the future, but I think they have proven that games can be a mainstream sport.

  19. Because of Steam’s massive holiday sale (and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to praise Steam enough—either in concept or execution), I’m finally getting to play a ton of 2009’s releases. I’m having a blast with Trine (which is almost a pitch-perfect platformer) and I’ve been able to complete both Lucidity and Machinarium.

    Lucidity was a quiet blast and adding its visual and aural beauty to a humble storyline made the game one of my most leisurely pleasant gaming experiences in years. Machinarium on the other hand was a tour de force reinvention of the point-and-click adventure game and easily the most endearing of the genre I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience (even moreso than previous genre favourite, Grim Fandango. The game was visually spectacular and may be the best-looking game I’ve ever played. I was able to play the entire way through with my wife and besides Rock Band and Guitar Hero, it may be the first gaming experience that she’s actively looked forward to (“Can we play with Mr. Robot Friend again tonight?”).

    Dragon Age has largely been a disappointment to me. Perhaps it was hyped too much. Perhaps my standards for the genre are just too high. In any case, while it takes gameplay concepts from several different games and kluges them together into what could have been the perfect game, it doesn’t improve on the ideas it takes. In fact, it doesn’t even do things as well as the games it borrows from.

    The control scheme (from movement to hot bar) comes from WoW, but it’s a clunkier version of that. The moral paths and ability to change fairly significantly the outcome of events hails from a number of places, but doesn’t come near the fluidity of something like The Witcher. The talent trees are adequate but don’t match the versatility of those honed over the years by Blizzard. The lore and storytelling are there, but again don’t hold up to the stuff Blizzard routinely puts out. The tactics system for controlling the party without having to micromanage comes from Final Fantasy‘s gambit system, but doesn’t work half as well so that you end up micromanaging half the time anyway. The one thing it does better than anything I’ve seen is voice-acting for the dialogue (though I’m sad that your own character doesn’t say her own lines—after I went to all the trouble to chose a voice for her), and yet, I’ll make dialogue choices that I think sound one way and yet characters interpret them 100% differently than I thought—so there’s definitely room for improvement.

    This is not to say that Dragon Age is a bad game. It’s not. It’s just so much less than it could have been. The graphics are weak and while playing I always felt claustrophobia creeping in. You’re as limited in where you can go as you would be in most JRPGs and seeing as how we’re standing six years after WoW, that’s just a shame. It’d make sense if there was a story-reason for it, but there just isn’t. Dragon Age is set up as a single-player WoW experience and it stumbles in almost every area. Which is just sad considering how much I wanted a MMO-less version of the WoW experience.

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