11.15.2009

Design of a decade

It's near the end of the decade, and everybody's making a list. Why not?

These aren't my favorites. If this were a list of my personal favorites, Fallout 3 would be number one, and Hitman: Blood Money would be number two. Metal Gear Solid 3 would be near the top as well.

Instead, here's my idea of 10 titles that defined the state of the art in game design in the 00's:


10 Ico. (Sept. 24, 2001) Fumito Ueda's first game took the puzzle-platforming of Prince of Persia or Out of This World into 3D the way Mario 64 did for action-platformers. It introduced an AI-controlled companion that the player developed a bond with entirely through mechanics and animation, as well as a cold, mysterious, wondrous, desolate fantasy world, all near-wordlessly and with absolute grace. Ico trumpets the possibilities for deep emotional resonance with person and place using only the means that games handle best: play and atmosphere.

9 Peggle. (Feb. 27, 2007) The ultimate development of the casual game explosion over the course of the 00's. It is everything that a casual game can be: skill-based but random, accessible but surprisingly complex, both turn-based and realtime, clever, fresh, instantly gratifying but rewarding to the devoted player. Like Tetris, it relies on mechanics only a video game can provide, as opposed to being a digital tabletop game-- physics are its lynchpin, but in a frame that any player immediately grasps. It's a sensation: Breakout meets Pachinko. It's a perfectly-constructed core loop that lends itself to endless variation. It's everywhere, and it deserves to be.

8 BioShock. (Aug. 21, 2007) It was an incredibly unlikely phenomenon in a number of ways: A revival of System Shock 2's FPS/RPG gameplay, set in a mid-century undersea city based on the Objectivist philosphy of Ayn Rand, populated by little girls that drink blood and their hulking, diving suit-wearing protectors. And it became a critical and popular hit. The storytelling was a triumph of economy, being all the more impactful for taking place almost entirely off-screen; the twist not only revealed unexpected aspects of the story's major players, but commented deftly on the role of the player of a video game; the open structure of the levels and the myriad combinations of abilities never took the player for granted; the city of Rapture near-instantly became one of the signature locations in the history of video games. In contrast to its peers, it demonstrated what else the FPS, and story in games, could be.

7 Portal. (Oct. 9, 2007) Above all, the design of Portal is incredibly economical. Built out from one central mechanic, the final product felt lean and focused, while the presence of GladOS-- a disembodied voice for most of the game-- gave it heart. The mechanic itself-- creating arbitrarily placed and spatially contiguous portals on walls, ceilings, and floors to solve puzzles-- was one of a kind, and its mind-bending possibilities were exploited to the utmost by the designers at Valve. Refusing to overstay its welcome, Portal introduced you to its mechanics, setting and antagonist all in step, saw them through to their logical conclusions, and provided the player resolution in a few scant hours. If only all games knew themselves so well.

6 Katamari Damacy. (Sept. 22, 2004) Keita Takahashi's interactive manifesto on play and whimsy came out of nowhere and floored us all. Using simple graphics in service of powers-of-ten gameplay, Katamari Damacy introduces us to a gonzo conception of modern life, and invites us to roll it all up and fire it into space. Mechanically unprecedented and immediately engrossing as pure play, the game worked equally well as an ambient commentary on the absurdity and disposability of consumer culture. The visceral sensation of growing from the size of a pea to the size of a city in the span of minutes is unmatched anywhere else; the game takes this constant outward expansion to its logical conclusion in a perfectly pitched end credit sequence. It's a brilliant, self-contained statement of intent and followthrough upon it; it is a creator's worldview expressed through atmosphere and interactivity.

5 Deus Ex. (Jun. 22, 2000) A love letter to player agency, in both mechanics and story; a paranoid fantasy about all those conspiracies being true after all; a meditation on the blurry line between man and machine, between progress and self-destruction. Equal parts George Orwell and William Gibson, the world of Deus Ex is one rife with conflict, and asks the player what kind of mediator they might be. In speech: straightforward, or deceitful? In action: loyal, or self-interested? In combat: all sound and fury, or silent interloper? Deus Ex trusted the player-- trusted them to build their abilities the way best suited to their personality, to help or hinder the people they encountered as they saw fit, to explore the gameworld and draw their own conclusions. Deus Ex is, above all, an experience defined by the player, and ably provides a gameworld begging for the player to define it.

4 Animal Crossing. (Sept. 15, 2002) This disc does not contain a game, but a place. Playing off of our natural alignment with time and season, Animal Crossing makes itself real by matching what you see on screen to what you see out your window. In the morning the sun rises and animals get up to start their day; at night the shops close and everyone goes to bed. This isn't only the game's clock-- it matches the clock of the real world, a little autonomous town puttering by in time with our own. In this way, it presaged the current trend of low-pressure, near-ambient games that have gained popularity on social networking sites, while providing a much fuller experience when you did decide to spend a few minutes (or hours) in town. It also bucked the standard of high-pressure video game pacing, implicitly encouraging players to relax, only play for a little while, and be patient: letters sent by post take days-- real days-- to be delivered. Insects go into hiding in the winter, and the player waits months-- real months-- for them to reemerge. A year in the life of Animal Crossing is a singular, rich experience, one that teaches moderation through practicality and that good things come to those who wait. It's an experience only a video game could provide-- a simulated, parallel other place, humming along almost perceptibly inside your Gamecube even when it's turned off, just waiting for you to visit, if you want.

3 Passage. (Dec. 13, 2007) The last few years have seen the rise of the indie game to greater prominence, and the one work that expresses the promise of this movement most clearly, succinctly, and affectingly is Jason Rohrer's Passage. It exploits the symbolic quality of Atari-era graphics towards a sharply-honed observation on youth, memory, companionship, and the emphemerality of life. It has no tutorial, but its mechanics aren't obfuscated-- movement is your only verb; that and perhaps taking the hand of another. The implications of these simple inputs say more in just a few minutes than do the reams of dialogue of a thousand big-budget console games. Passage is a deceptively simple, elegiac and touching meditation on our path through life that gains its power as you tease out its meaning through interaction. Along with Braid and Flower, Passage sits at the crest of a wave we're only just now seeing break the horizon. These games will likely define our next decade even more strongly than they did this one.

2 Grand Theft Auto 3. (Oct. 22, 2001) It's rare for a game to come along that creates a new genre unto itself; for the 90's it was Doom, and for the 00's it was Grand Theft Auto 3. The open-world, "sandbox" aesthetic exploded from this point forward, but what impresses most is how GTA drew from the past: while everybody else has spent the decade adding "RPG elements" to their games by way of stats, loot and leveling up, GTA brought the overarching RPG structure to the masses by stripping that all away. Think of it: what other game has a wide-open world for the player to explore, a cipher protagonist who who starts as a nobody and ends up turning the gameworld on its head, a series of questgivers that can be visited in an arbitrary order, optional side-quests that can be opted into for better money and equipment, and takes 40+ hours to complete? Ultima, maybe? Fallout? Baldur's Gate? The creators of GTA saw in traditional RPGs an incredibly compelling structure for play; the brilliance was in building a convincing, familiar, modern setting around it, and stripping out all the math and inventory screens. The delaying action became car chases and shootouts instead of turn-based battles and loot collecting; the fiction played off of its setting and mechanics by placing the player in an over-the-top vision of modern American life populated by sociopathic criminals and consumerism gone wrong. And from all this arose a new popular framework for game design based on player freedom, easily expanded upon with new settings and mechanical innovations, the same way so many had added onto the work of id a decade earlier. Has there been a truly new, game-changing epiphany following GTA3, as Half-Life was to Doom? Maybe, if only in the incredible immersiveness and relative gravity of Rockstar's own GTA4, which succeeded in making Liberty City that much more vibrant, alive and real (which perhaps casts GTA4 as Quake to GTA3's Doom... with a Half-Life moment still to come.) The existence of Liberty City, in its original and then next-gen form, may be the crowning technical and creative achievement of video games this decade. And amazingly, that's not even half of why GTA is so significant.

1 The Sims. (Feb. 4, 2000) But then, a true sandbox is nothing except four walls, some rolling sand, and the toys you choose to put in it. And while lighting the fire of a new genre is quite the achievement, doesn't creating an absolutely singular design-- one which is a genre unto itself and which practically no one has even attempted to match-- mean more than spawning a legion of imitators? The Sims, in all respects, stands alone. Will Wright dared to take the pieces of our daily lives and recast them as the toys in that sandbox, and in doing so, The Sims became a lens through which we reflected ourselves-- our visions of prosperity or squalor, of harmony or discord, of fancy or practicality; it let us play with the possibilities of the world we know, to faithfully replicate our own house, friends and family, or instead to imagine a world in which that's all completely different. Its underlying structure implies a simplified vision of the bootstrapping American dream, where anyone can start out in an empty lot with a few bucks in their pocket and end up being a celebrity or CEO. And it acknowledges the modern implications of that dream-- to end up with an ever-expanding house, filled to bursting with the most expensive furniture, appliances and knick-knacks you can find. It's a view of the allure and emptiness of consumerism through the most open, unfettered kind of play-- like SimCity, all that's defined by the designer is the bounds of the sandbox and the identities of the toys that can go in it; the rest is up to you. But the rules also result in an almost Tetris-like determinism: no matter how successful you are, you'll eventually run out of rungs on the career ladder, run out of tchotchkes to buy. And what are you left with? A big house filled with expensive things, and a life you're most likely bored of living. It's been said that Passage was "the first interactive memento mori." I'd have to disagree. While Liberty City is an amusing and wry parody, The Sims presented us with a concentrated abstraction of the comfort and futility of 21st century America, and let us realize that grim system entirely through our own means. It is play, self-expression, aesthetic, and message all rolled into one, and its overwhelming success-- selling millions upon millions of copies to the very demographic it depicts, and millions more expansions containing fresh junk for them to pretend to buy-- is the confirmation of its thesis. Will Wright intended The Sims to be a simulation of ourselves, and we proved him right. If great art is both a reflection of its society and is reflected in it, then it's hard to argue that The Sims is any less than the defining game of its era.

Disclaimers:

  • Where is World of Warcraft? Call of Duty? Halo?
These games had a huge impact on gamers, but their success was much more in refinement of existing designs and strong production values and usability than in achieving the kinds of design breakthroughs outlined above. WoW is Everquest shined to a blinding sheen, Halo is a standard PC FPS executed superbly for a home console, and so forth. This is the same reason I highlighted GTA3 instead of GTA4, or The Sims over The Sims 3; the latter are more refined but are not the original conception of the thing.

  • What about Shadow of the Colossus? Resident Evil 4? Metal Gear Solid 3?
Again, if this were a list of favorites, it would be different. Oh fuck it, here's my list of Personal Favorite Games of the 00's, written up hastily and with little forethought:

25 Kane & Lynch: Dead Men

24 Yakuza 2

23
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

22
Metroid Prime

21
Far Cry 2

20 F.E.A.R.

19 No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way

18 Bully

17
Resident Evil 4

16
Deus Ex

15 BioShock

14 Grand Theft Auto 4

13 Super Mario Galaxy

12 God Hand


11
Shadow of the Colossus

10 Portal

9
Silent Hill 2

8 Ico

7 Dead Rising

6 Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence

5 No More Heroes

4 Katamari Damacy

3 Animal Crossing

2 Hitman: Blood Money

1 Fallout 3

Thanks, and here's to next decade! See you on the other side!

15 comments:

Josh said...

Thanks to this post I realized that the Passage is also on Mac and iphone. I'd heard great things about it, but don't have a functioning windows pc. Nice!

David Carlton said...

Surprised not to see Yakuza 2 on your personal list; an oversight, or am I overestimating your affection for that? (As it sits on my shelf unplayed.) Though, to be sure, two games per year is not a lot at all...

Steve gaynor said...

David: I knew I was forgetting something. My personal favorites list is now 22 entries long. Maybe I'll bump it up to 25 just to keep things even.

Zach said...

I would have to include Rock Band on that list - I've never had a gaming experience with so much crossover appeal. I mean this is a game that I played co-op with my mother, my wife and my brother all at the same time.

King Kuranes said...

I'm really glad to see God Hand in your list (I mean, in a list that also contain acclaimed titles such as Ico, Re4 or Deus Ex)

Nels Anderson said...

If The Sims truly was intended to emptiness of materialism, what percentage of its players came away with an understanding of that message? I can't imagine it's that many. Is that a problem? I ask, because I'm honestly not sure.

Steve gaynor said...

Rock Band/Guitar Hero: I don't know. They definitely influenced how we played and who was playing. Rock Band parties became a "thing" in a way that video games weren't before. But that isn't exactly the kind of impact I was thinking of when writing this up. If so, I'd have to find a place for Wii Sports since it caused my mom to buy a video game for herself for the first time. Which isn't to say that Guitar Hero isn't a great design.. it just doesn't seem to have much relevance outside itself or its clones. This in contrast to The Sims which, while standing alone in many ways, presents design lessons we should all be aware of. In any case, lists like this are subjective and biased I guess and maybe this reveals my bias.

Nels: I doubt that The Sims was intentionally designed to communicate my interpretation of it, but I think this reading of its systems is a pretty clear one, regardless of authorial intent. I don't think that the majority of the audience reading it the same way is relevant; in fact, most people missing the point probably helps reinforce it.

Brian Longtin said...

A fantastic interpretation of the Sims, which I'd never heard or thought of before.

Having never played it though: is there a way to engage with that game and not be sucked into consumerism and careerism?

Or to put it more snarkily: Do you win at the Sims by not playing it at all?

I Am the Dream Unicorn said...

Interesting choice for #1... I've never been a fan of The Sims - I think it's too much choice for my taste. It's overwhelming. But it is still interesting to hear what other people do with it.

Another thing that struck me was that you didn't list any games from 2005 or 2006, the years when the Xbox 360 and PS3 were launched. Do generational shifts have that much impact on the quality of games, seen from the perspective you chose for this blogpost? Or is it just coincidence?

Anonymous said...

Oh mate! So glad to see the brilliant Hitman: Blood Money get some well deserved respect from a designer. I loved the mission A New Life.

That game never got the glowing write-up it deserved.

dw said...

I'd like to make a small argument in favor of Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

Because these games used a new game controller, it took people's gamer-skills back to square one. People who had been playing games for 20 years couldn't handle using all 5 buttons on the controller, even when the entire game structure was completely predetermined and predictable.

To play guitar hero, you had to learn a new skill from scratch, and the game had to teach you that skill. That's where the game shows its relevance. The game was a great teacher, perhaps because the developers were musicians, and music provides one of the greatest models for learning in mankind's history.

Notice the way that different game difficulties changed the core game-play. Each play through taught another couple of techniques. Notice the way you could practice core skills outside the core of the game. Notice the way that it acknowledged that there are gamers of all skill levels.

How is this relevant? Look at Japan and the FPS. Many think that Japanese have no taste, because good western games don't get respect. I say: look to guitar hero. Maybe the Japanese are like beginning guitar hero players, with no cultural history of a strong PC shooter community.

Aside from Japan: look at all the non-gamers out there. They might want to become gamers, but there isn't a Guitar Hero to teach them the ropes. After all, Guitar hero has 5 buttons and modern game pads have 14.

Dan CiTi said...

Actually, I'm pretty sure Call of Duty, Gears, and Halo sell pretty well in Japan.

Ryan Wiancko said...

I'm impressed to see the Passage so high up on your list. For me Passage would be a contender for the #1 spot. It is the very first game I've ever played that made me stop become more conscious of my perception and ideas of the world. For days and weeks after I played it. I don't know of a single game before or since that has accomplished this with the power of Passage

Author said...

No Flow? No Flower? I'm shocked.

David said...

I'm glad you actually put Far Cry 2 up there. I've always felt like it was an incredibly underrated game - so many ppl bitching about driving times, etc. and missing the overall point and message of the game.

I'll probably write an essay about it some other time, but thought it delivered a particularly sophisticated (and tragic) message about human avarice and Africa.