Lots of people do end-of-year lists. In considering throwing my hat into the ring, I started putting together a list of my favorite games of 2008... and then realized that gaming for me this year wasn't defined by individual titles, but by memorable moments from lots of different games (and that some games which were very memorable for me would've been sadly disqualified from my 'favorite games of the year' list.) So, what follows is my gaming "Moments of the Year 2008." Note that this includes any games I've played for the first time this year, so 2005's Haunting Ground makes the cut (it was new to me!) while my ~12th playthrough of Full Throttle does not.

Note that these items may contain spoilers for the games involved. The list, in completely subjective order:

Agatha's Song, Fallout 3

Gloriously, Fallout 3 is by-and-large the sum many small, free-floating story nodes, gathered at will by the player into a matrix of experience unique to oneself. A few of these nodes stand out especially strongly: deciphering what transpired in Vault 106; happening upon the hidden vault where Dad is holed up; following a lost android's trail from a holotape in Moira's shop all the way to Rivet City; but most memorable among them must be Agatha's Song, a quest which combined subtle but evocative fiction that emphasizes the way the world has changed after the bombs dropped, with a simple but incredibly affecting reward that changes your ongoing experience of the wasteland. The Soil Stradivarius, what would be a priceless museum piece in today's world, has had its value transmuted to the purely sentimental. Searching for it draws you into the tragically inhumane story of Vault 92's downfall, and completing the quest doesn't save the world, or even any lives; it only reunites a lonely old woman with a bit of her family's history. Upon completion, the player gains Agatha's radio station, her violin-playing lending the wasteland a new, haunting dimension. Immediately after I completed the quest, I left Agatha's house and walked to a nearby ridge. Carrion birds were lazily circling over the valley. I knelt there for quite some time, listening to the strains of Agatha's violin and watching the birds' black silhouettes dance against the setting sun.

Opening a door, Far Cry 2

It's the little things that count. And within the first hour of big-budget FPS Far Cry 2, I experienced a little thing that felt like a big deal: I stood in front of a door, reached my hand out, grasped the knob, and opened it. By god, it's like a revelation. After years of opening doors by proximity, of pressing buttons with my mind, of picking up items by looking at them, I actually had hands, and they touched the world, and the world responded. Yes, it's all a scripted hand- and camera animation; it's no Trespasser hand, you really just click the door and a tiny authored in-game cinematic sequence occurs. But forget the specifics, it's the sentiment that counts: I'm a person, I'm there, I exist in this gameworld and I have to open doors just like any real person would. These are the same glimmers I spotted when playing Hitman: Codename 47 for the first time, and seeing Agent 47's hand flit out to individually pick up each ammo magazine off of a table; the same when the protagonist of Crysis reaches out to grab items from the world; the same when Jackie Estacado dynamically maneuvers his guns around the edge of a wall. It's a touch of simulational veracity-- of physicality-- that may throw other conceits into sharp relief (I still automatically absorb fallen enemies' ammo by stepping on their guns?) but nonetheless creates a meaningful impression of being there in the moment.

Facing down the chainsaw maniac, Resident Evil 5 (demo)

Though Resident Evil 5 won't be available until next year, the Japanese version of the Xbox 360 demo could (for a time) be loaded onto Western consoles. I was lucky enough to play it when one of our QA footsoldiers brought the files in on disc, and the first few playthroughs of the demo's two scenarios presented some of the most dynamic, vital co-op action I've ever played. The sequences where the level's space opens up-- the second half of each scenario-- allowing the players to run for cover, climb on roofs, jump through windows, flank, assist, hide, and generally own the entirety of the space while a hulking freak and his mutated honor guard bear down on you were just incredibly expressive, and genuinely thrilling and frightening at the same time. This isn't the dark, desolate, lonely fear of Resident Evil 4-- the designers, knowing co-op would inherently lend levity and energy to play, set the game under the bright African sun. This is that "oh, shit, he's right behind you!" "run, run, run!" "help me, he's got me, oh god!" kind of fear that perfectly complements the presence of another player. Tactics were devised, uppercuts dished out, and triumph achieved. The incredible micro-drama of each playthrough, and the players' autonomy to mold their presence in the space to their own playstyle, is worlds beyond the limited options and plodding advance through a typical cover-based stop-and-pop'em-up; it's a co-op shooter experience that feels, surprisingly, like something entirely new.

Defeating Daniella, Haunting Ground

While much of Haunting Ground is compelling for its oppressive atmosphere-- the demented nature of the castle, the feelings of helplessness and vulnerability inherent to inhabiting the game's defenseless female protagonist, the abiding uncertainty about your captors' intentions-- the game is at its best during the apex of its first half, AKA "the good part." I've written at length about the game already, but I'll note that it's worth completing Daniella's chapter for the visual poetry of her demise, and the sense of satisfaction at besting the game's most poignant rival. Just do yourself a favor and pretend the game ends then and there.

Collecting shirts, No More Heroes

There's nothing I like more than character customization, when it comes right down to it. And while there was much to love about No More Heroes-- chronicled in detail here-- I derived endless enjoyment from dressing up Travis in more and more ridiculous shirts (designed by game director Suda 51 himself under the pseudonym "Mask de Uh) found in dumpsters throughout Santa Destroy or bought from the local punk clothing outlet. My favorite had to be the one featuring the text "CAT FIGHT" in rounded pink letters, accompanied by a cuteoverload.com-worthy portrait of a fluffy white cat. To know that Travis's absurd appearance was my fault as he hacked through endless, bloody waves of enemies made the proceedings that much more enjoyable-- the personal touch that makes the experience yours.

Completing Flywrench

I'm not a big indie gamer, I admit it. And I'm not often one for strictly challenge-based, mechanical gameplay. But Flywrench, much like God Hand (a very different game, to be fair,) was so pure, such a precise and finely-tuned unforgiving machine, that I was compelled to live up to its standards, and become a good enough player to complete it. Like Clover's beat-em-up, Flywrench is brutally difficult, but not cheaply or unfairly so; quite the opposite, in that every time the player fails, he knows it was his fault alone-- for not supplying precise enough inputs, for not maintaining exacting enough timing, for not honing the connection well enough between the game's state and his own fine motor reactions. When I finished the game, I didn't receive the spectacle of a lushly-rendered cinematic or a cache of Gamerpoints; I gained the satisfaction of having stood at the foot of the mountain, and proven I could climb it.

Upgrading my guns, Army of Two

See above under character customization; the inclusion of the weapon upgrade system in Army of Two was a brilliant move. It reinforces the themes of the premise in multiple ways-- as mercenaries, it gives you a reason to want money, and as wantonly uncaring and materialistic mercenaries, it gives you something egregiously destructive and ostentatious to spend your money on. Not only can you upgrade the power and accuracy of each weapon, RE4-style, but each piece of your arsenal can be "blinged" for a flat fee, resulting in gold-plated rocket-propelled grenades, a platinum filigreed magnum so large it requires a foregrip, or an AK-47 covered in rubies and diamonds. The ability to preview each upgrade, and the compulsion to earn enough cash to unlock them for use in the game proper, convinced another designer and I to complete the entire co-op campaign where we otherwise most likely would have moved on much sooner. Respect: as a player retention strategy, this system just made good business sense. Subversion: since the game is in third person, and the pauldrons of your player model obscure your gun in-game, there's no way to look at what you've unlocked on your own-- you have to get your buddy to aim his viewport at your upgraded piece to be able to see it at all. This results in two grown men sitting side-by-side in a dimly-lit room saying, "look at my gun, bro. Just look how big it is. Yeah, zoom in on it. That's good." One more way in which the system reinforces the game's fictional premise.

Making myself, Rock Band 2

Once more to the well of character customization, this moment is particularly surreal: I found that Rock Band/2's character creator allowed an eerily accurate recreation of myself onscreen, to the point that anyone who happened by while we were rocking the office after hours would comment on the likeness. So, when it was announced that Harmonix/EA were setting up a service allowing players to order 3D fabrications of their Rock Band 2 avatars from their website, I knew what had to be done. I now possess a 1/10th scale figurine of myself, which sits on my desk at work. The cycle is complete.

The cursed tape, Yakuza 2

There are a million stories in the naked city, and Yakuza 2 was at its best when it let the player discover them at his own pace. Though the game was chopped up into chapters that were bookended by linear narrative missions, in between the player was free to plumb the utter strangeness of the game's fictionalized modern Tokyo and Osaka, depicted via myriad small, disconnected side-missions and self-contained gameplay moments. While the game's story spine conducted itself with melodramatic gravity, the mini-threads surrounding it were anything but weighty: take joy in hunting down a ballerina's lost slippers (hint: a homeless man is wearing them after finding them on the street;) in judging a young man's amateur rap; in facing off against a diaper-fetishist Yakuza boss and his gang; in helping an amnesiac by clonking his head with a baseball bat; in exposing a fake-pregnancy extortion scam (hint: you've never met this woman before, and doesn't that belly look a bit rubbery?) in solving a friendly busker's congestion problems; in fending off a bosozoku biker gang that's assaulting a host club, and many more unpredictably weird and big-wide-grin-inducing scenarios.
A man runs up to you on the street and hands you a "soiled videotape," imploring you NOT to watch it, to throw it away immediately. If you choose to take it to a video booth and watch it anyway, an unsettling image of a woman in a red dress appears onscreen, and the item's name in your inventory changes to "cursed tape." You exit the video booth into an alley, and a man claiming to be an exorcist stops you, warning of a terrible omen he senses hovering over you. You turn him away, but as you step out into the street, you catch a glimpse of a very familiar-looking red dress down at the other end of the block. Do you dare follow?
Despite the game's emphasis on big-budget cinematics and an epic crime tale, it's this matrix of unfettered little stories of the city that was the real heart and soul of Yakuza 2 to me, and what made it one of my favorite games of this year.

Shanking harmless dinosaurs, Turok

As a first-person shooter Turok isn't necessarily exceptional, but as a dinosaur-slaughtering simulator it stands unparalleled. See, Turok is a dinosaur hunter-- one with big burly arms and a big shiny knife. While shooting dinosaurs is technically an option, it's preferable to get within arm's-length of a dino and, with a single, simple button press, watch as Turok absolutely guts his target with mechanical precision. This works on any dinosaur, big or small, carnivorous or harmless, all executed with the same soulless proficiency and seeming disdain toward all of dino-kind. The fact that each dinosaur-stabbing is depicted with the exact same canned animation, and that in high-dino-density situations these stabbings can occur in rapid succession, delivers an image of Turok as unfeeling dino-slaughterhouse worker, numbly snuffing out tiny life after tiny life, then "throwing the corpses aside like worthless garbage," as one co-worker put it. The greatest moment must have been when I ran up on a scripted sequence of four velociraptors attacking a defenseless parasaurolophus: bypassing the pack of predators, I homed in on the harmless plant-eater, casually jamming my knife into its throat like a basketball player delivering an easy layup. Ah, Turok. What a genocidal asshole you are in my hands.

Drunkwalking, Grand Theft Auto 4

In both scope and fidelity, it's safe to call GTA4 an epic production. And really there was no better investment made than their decision to embrace Euphoria character physics. This technology (which I don't pretend to understand well) allows characters to inhabit a state somewhere between posed and ragdolled, resulting in incredibly convincing tumbles off of motorbikes and through windshields, as well as wonderfully physical reactions by civilians to being pushed, bumped, and generally manhandled. Nowhere is this better showcased than in the game's implementation of a drunken state: Nico and his drinking buddies stumble, lean, wobble, catch themselves, trip and fall with amazing dynamism, fully expressing a feeling of being out of control of one's own body, and providing enormous comic relief as well. One particularly memorable moment was when Dwayne and I both tumbled down a flight of stairs into an alcove, and spent the next five minutes down there falling all over one another, completely unable to navigate the steps back up to street level. The image of these two jackasses crawling all over one another, seemingly trying to help each other up but, too bad, the blind can't lead the blind drunk, was simply priceless. My only disappointment was that I don't recall ever seeing drunkards out and about in the city. How great would it be to come across some random civilians stumbling around drunk in front of a bar, and know you were in for a couple minutes of simple fun just making them trip all over each other and watching the ensuing chaos? Much like the earlier entry on Far Cry 2, in a game this big it's often the little things that count.

Have some memorable moments of your own? Feel free to share. Here's wishing you a 2009 filled with these kinds of unforgettable experiences that only video games can provide.



Casting 3

In an attempt to provide coverage over the Christmas break, I recently recorded two podcasts in a row with the Idle Thumbs crew: one is available now, the other should run next week. This week's is a weird one, where we spend most of our time talking about old simulation games and other seemingly (but not!) boring stuff. Also covered: the origins of indie shooter Retro/grade, a city-building MMO, and Emily Dickinson tech demos.

Minotaur China Shop
Gamasutra Last Express retrospective
Peter Molyneux's "Emily Dickinson" presentation
SimCity 4: Rush Hour
Bus Driver
Eric Kaltman's blog



Holiday confab

I appear on the 2008 holiday edition of Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer Podcast, specifically in "Volume 3" of the series. Abbott asked more than a dozen guests for their favorite games of the year, then brought small groups together to discuss their picks on the air. I was joined by Wes Erdelack of Versus Clu Clu Land and Tom Kim of Gamasutra Radio. It was an interesting chat; I look forward to listening to the rest of the sessions, and hope you will too.



The Cabrinety Collection blog

Somehow or another I came across this blog today: Eric Kaltman's work cataloging the contents of the Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection at Stanford. There are a number of incredibly enlightening posts already, focusing primarily on obscure, forgotten, or otherwise intriguing computer games from the 80's.

According to the site, Cabrinety was a graduate of Standford; a software engineer, entrepreneur, and computer game hardware and software archivist from his teens onward. He died at the early age of 29 (only a few years older than I am now,) leaving his extensive collection to the Stanford University Library.

Kaltman posts more-or-less monthly examining different slices of the collection, such as 80's financial market software, avenues of realistic simulation left by the wayside, the style versus substance of early Psygnosis titles, and more on Nintendo, Sid Meier, and Sierra.

It's enough to make one feel nostalgic for the early, dry, nerdy, wild west days of game development, regardless of how clearly one might remember them.




Leigh Alexander, video game journalist person and writer of the SexyVideogameland blog, started a side project a little while ago: it's a sort of yearbook of video game developers of all stripes who volunteer to participate, under the (possibly slightly unfortunate) banner of SexyVideogamedeveloperland. I opted in, as have a number of developers from prominent studios like Bethesda, Ubisoft Montreal and Sony, as well as some indie projects, representing programming, design, QA, art, and everything in between.

It's an interesting project, specifically because its main goal is to humanize game developers, who are often obscured behind the monolithic banners of their publishers or development houses. The most useful aspect of this venture as I see it would be the project's potential to inspire. I know that one major step in my own process of realizing I wanted to make games professionally was reading about the few individual figures the games industry made available to fans at that time: Will Wright, Peter Molyneux, Tim Schafer, Warren Spector and others. Seeing that games were made by people, and reading the stories about how they'd gotten to where they were, that they tended to be conversant on games the same way I was, and that this was something that anyone could do if they were willing to put forth the effort, was the inspiration I needed to decide I was going to devote myself to the pursuit of making games.

So, I added a little "how I got into game design" blurb on my post. If some young person reads through the SVGDL entries and it brings them one step closer to joining the game development ranks, I think there will have been a positive effect. The main thing the project needs is more developers getting involved, and more people getting the word out. If you have a minute and the means, jump in!