The decade isn't over. It has a year left. Well, screw it: everyone else thinks the decade is over.
If I don't write this thing, right here, right now, I'm probably never going to write it; if I write it next year, everyone will call me a jerk-off goody-two-shoes know-it-all. What this is, right here, is about the decade, in me, and in videogames.
When we last left me, I was in my parents' home in Indianapolis, Indiana for the first time in nearly six years, playing Final Fantasy XIII on my dad's HDTV, nursing what I believed at the time to be the onset of viral meningitis. It turned out that didn't have meningitis; I was just bored. Also, I was eating a lot of things that I typically don't eat. Usually, I live on oats, black beans, peanut butter, and water. I manage to eat 5,000 calories a day of that stuff. Throw Chipotle in there, and my masterfully balanced metabolism is shot to hell.
Well, one Final Fantasy XIII later, and I realize that, somehow, I am in Indiana. The decade of the 2000s was the one in which I decided to live in Japan probably for good. Though I've never felt precisely "at home" anywhere, especially Japan, it turns out that, by default, Japan has become my home. I realized this while sitting in my parents' living room last night, the third-to-last night of my three-week vacation to nothingland (a fitting retreat from the everythingland of Tokyo); a familiar commercial popped up on the television. "Ray Skillman is Indianapolis' number-one Mazda dealer".
"Ray Skillman: where we stack 'em deep and sell 'em cheap."
My god, that exact same camcorder-filmed commercial, with that exact same terrible catch phrase, aired nightly during The Late Show way back when I was a freshman in college. Lord, that was well over ten years ago.
The thing is, Ray Skillman, Indianapolis' Number-One Mazda Dealer, hasn't changed at all in the past decade and change. Mazda cars might have changed — they could be running on portable fusion reactors and flying. I just wouldn't know, because Ray Skillman is still saying the same thing. The Ray Skillman in the little picture-in-picture on this commercial is a person who, in the context of the universe at large, simply doesn't exist anymore. Every cell in his body, except for those in his (alleged) brain, has been replaced with another one many times over.
Have you ever read an interview in, say, a videogame magazine, with Yuji Naka, "creator of Sonic the Hedgehog"? You know, they always use the same picture. That picture was taken in, like, 1991. I was looking at a Yuji Naka interview maybe two years ago, on the subject of his Let's Tap game, and the magazine used that exact same picture. I mean, I'm sure Yuji Naka has aged gracefully (he has), though there's no doubt that he's a different man now from what he was in that picture, nearly twenty years ago. Twenty years! That's two whole decades, there.
I was reading something recently about how, like, something like 29 of the top 30 highest-grossing films released in the last ten years have been sequels. I actually linked this article in my last big column on this website. There's no use linking it again. I'm going to try to write this entire article without looking anything else up on Wikipedia.
Most games are sequels now. I think everyone agreed that Uncharted 2 was the 2009 game of the year, right? I mean, let's go ahead and say it is. I'm going to say it nonchalantly. I won't even put it in bold text or anything: good job, Naughty Dog. You get my vote. It was fun. I'll talk about the game more in a minute, though for now, let's talk about sequels.
Why does everything have to be a sequel? I remember talking to Toshihiro Nagoshi, director of Super Monkey Ball and F-Zero GX, on the occasion of the announcement of Ryu ga gotoku, known in the West as Yakuza. This was years ago: Nagoshi told me that Yakuza represented his attempt to break free of the vicious cycle of making Super Monkey Ball sequels. Yakuza was to be something big, and whole, and mature.
The game sold something like a quarter of a million copies, which was, I think, an eighth of a million more than any of the top brass at Sega expected it to sell. Later, I'd get the impression, talking to Nagoshi, that Sega didn't want Yakuza to sell, that they were humoring him by letting him make it. Anyway, it sold decently well. And what was Nagoshi's response? It was to make a sequel, and to want to make that sequel. They turned it around and had it on shelves in under a year. It wasn't as good as the first one, just as "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" isn't as good as "Die Hard," no matter what any sick excuse for a human being might try to tell you. The next Ryu ga gotoku was a period piece that shat all over the legend of Musashi Miyamoto. It was for the PlayStation 3, and it looked like it was on the PlayStation 2.2. The best way they could think of to portray a bustling marketplace was with text bubbles popping up, overlapping one another, by the hundreds. A year later, they had Ryu ga gotoku 3 on the PlayStation 3, and now they've announced Ryu ga gotoku 4.
So, to summarize, the dream of the great, stuck-in-a-rut sequel-spawning game developers of the early 21st century was to make something totally their own, so that they could proceed to sequel the ever-loving shit out of it.
Can we really blame them? This is a business, after all. You spend money, and ideally, you make more money. Then you spend more money to make even more money. Analysts have known for years (since well before analysts even existed) that people feel comfortable buying something familiar.
Prior to working in the games industry, I used to play games and say, "My god, look at this. How could these developers be so dumb?" Then, once my feet were wet, once my socks were soaked up the ankles, I realized that the same fear humans apply to spending money also applies to earning money back. When you make something, you have to think of everyone, or you aren't really thinking of everyone at all. Every creative work that emerges is the result of a pirate-ship-crew's-worth of people being dogpiled atop a "Creative Problem." The "Problem" is, how do you turn an "idea" into a "good idea", and how do you turn a "good idea" into some vehicle that immediately communicates the goodness of said idea to any and every player? The answer is: Fuck you. The problem has no concrete solution.
You have a game like Portal, with this rock-solid core game mechanic and this amazing writing, and the game almost leaps to the top of my "Best Games Ever" list, only to fall flat, heartbreakingly, because something about the entire first half of the game being a tutorial really messes with me. The game manages to squeak by on context — the story actually takes place inside a training facility for this portal-gun technology — so I can't dare say it's not a great game. It's just a little transparent. It's a game, and it's about teaching you how to do something that you are doing in a game. There's some neat sci-fi twists and bigger questions in there, though really, what are you left with, in the end? The game was likely made this way because the developers knew that the whole idea of a gun that rips holes in space-time, while big enough and brilliant enough to build an entire game around, was easily going to blow the hell out of people's minds, so they treated them gently. I'm not talking about just the tutorials. I'm talking about the structure, the everything. It's a great piece of work, though it's also weirdly, nastily didactic, when you really look at it. Maybe the key is to not really look at it.
People compare games to films all the time. They talk about how game don't have a "Citizen Kane", or how films don't have a Super Mario Bros., or whatever. I would also like to note that films don't have a "Ben-Hur," and they don't have a "Casablanca." Well, games have plenty of "Die Hard 2"'s. I guess that's one way of approaching the "problem" of entertaining the masses. We're not going to ask the hyper-naive question "Does entertainment have to be a problem?" Instead, we will only touch briefly on the question of whether or not violence is the only thing that can possibly be fun in a video game: Probably not. Recently, I was playing Super Mario Sunshine with my friend Doug Jones' five-year-old daughter. We were passing the controller back and forth. The cause for her passing the controller to me wasn't player death — it was when she exited the hub world and entered an action stage. She called them "The enemy places." Basically, she only wanted to play in the hub world, because there, she could jump, swim, climb, and be free. "In the enemy place, you have to be scared, because you might lose," she said. At any rate, this isn't nearly a question of violence's inherence in video game design: It's a question of freedom, of scope. It's less a question of "do games have to be violent in order to be successful?" or a question of "do games have to be connected to some existing franchise in order to be successful?" and more a question of "do games have to be exactly like other games to be successful?" In the past, we had dozens of great films, and also dozens of duds. We had "Casablanca," though we also had some other shit that no one remembers because it wasn't as good as "Casablanca." These days, no one's taking the risks necessary to birth the "Casablanca"s. It used to be, with entertainment, you'd eat Arby's five times a week and then you'd get a filet mignon; now, it's like, six meals a day, you get this vitamin / protein-injected cotton candy, and it only comes in one of three flavors: Sweet, spicy, and not-sweet.
I guess this would be the perfect (in other words: worst possible) point in which to segue into a list of games that did something or other right in the last decade, believe as I do that games haven't even started to crack the problem of creating actual immortal mainstream entertainment. I was going to make up really lame "Fuel'd By Dew"-like awards categories, like, "Best moment in a game where you don't realize you're actually in control, and then you do (brought to you by Honey Nut Cheerios)", though ultimately, I decided against it. I'm always getting mails about how negative I am in these columns, so let's focus on the positive for a change. Again, these games are in no order other than the order I feel like writing about them, right here, in the moment.
Noby-Noby Boy (Namco-Bandai, PlayStation 3)
Why the hell not? Noby Noby Boy is a game-like thing that costs less than a sandwich. Designer Keita Takahashi also brain-spawned Katamari Damacy, which is essentially a game about rolling a ball around. Katamari is a vacuuming simulator, or sometimes an ironing simulator. It's an entire game constructed around the joy of one particular friction. You feel a ball rubbing against the world. Keita Takahashi once mentioned that he'd "rather be making parks for children" than videogames. That's a quote that got taken pretty wildly out of context, I reckon. I think the interviewer had asked him what he would be doing if he wasn't making games. Well, either way, he's apparently actually designing a park now. Noby Noby Boy is more than enough of a park, though. I'd recommend it for Doug Jones' oldest daughter. It's a really remarkable little Funtool. As with Katamari, it's a game built around the idea of one simple friction. Katamari is rolling; Noby-Noby is stretching. You use the two analog sticks to stretch this . . . character-like thing. Only, unlike Katamari, the sinister influence of Old Men Who Want Money is kept at bay. The game is not shackled with arbitrary stage structures, time limits, or "goals." The "goal" is to figure out what the hell it takes to entertain yourself. You just stretch that weird little bastard inside the TV so he's wrapped around lampposts and threaded through holes in a towering structure. You pull and stretch and rip the world apart in your quest to grow bigger and longer, until you begin to guffaw. There you go! You're having fun! You've beaten the game! Brilliant work.
I would love to see more games like Noby-Noby Boy, that really get what it was and is going for. It seems to me that everyone throws around the word "Sandbox" to describe a certain type of game, though few of them seem to stop to think really hard about what a sandbox is. Grand Theft Auto isn't a sandbox — it's more like a whole playground, with tons of cool rides. There's nothing wrong with that! Noby-Noby Boy is an actual sandbox, simultaneously a celebration of a definite tactile feeling and a license to express yourself through fun. In a way I'm afraid I might not be lucid enough to articulate (I am writing this in a Starbucks in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a violently mentally handicapped man has been informing me that he is "Moving next Saturday!" and that "The Chinese woman took my money!" "She should go to jail!" for all of two hours now), it is a long-overdue major step toward the promised land of fun games that Super Mario Bros. offered the human race way back in 1985. We need more little, fun things like this. We need more games that don't give us mathematical requirements for winning or losing.
Canabalt (Semi-Secret Software, iPhone / Flash)
I love Canabalt for many of the same reasons that I love Noby-Noby Boy: They are both cheaper than a cheap lunch, they both have no absolute, definite end goal, they both last potentially forever, and they are both hyper-confident in their aesthetics. Canabalt is the be-all end-all side-scrolling platform game. You run and jump. In Super Mario Bros., you had to hold a button to run. In Wonder Boy, you accelerated naturally as you held the directional pad. Canabalt is the case of a minimalist game designer looking hard at the platform genre and asking what is more important: The running, or the jumping? Clearly, it's the jumping. So the running is automatic. You touch the screen (or click your mouse) to jump. Your guy just keeps running.
I praised the hell out of this game on my website. This got me plenty of emails from "concerned" readers who took issue with my praising such a game when there are "so many others" "just like it." I would argue that Canabalt alone is presented well enough for me to care about playing it. I like how it has a "story" in which your main character is the only person or thing who ever dies on camera. I love how you can't see what is chasing you. I like how it's all in classy black-and-white. I like the way the music pumps. I like how it, like Tetris, ends ultimately with your failure, and that your only "achievement" is measured by how long you were able to cheat your death.
Maybe I didn't like things like this, say, ten years ago. Maybe I wanted more purpose and more structure. Though, you know what? Back when I was in high school, I thought The Jesus Lizard's album "Goat" was the greatest thing I had ever heard. I listened to a lot of music between then and now. Now, I'm thirty years old. I still feel like a kid, sometimes, like whenever someone asks me a question that begins with a phrase such as "Hey, what's that one stage in Super Mario Bros. 3 where—". I suppose I've come back around, and I'm pretty sure, as an "adult," that "Goat" really is the best rock and roll album I've ever heard. I saw them live in Chicago on New Year's Eve, just a couple days ago, and it was fantastic. The whole time, all I could think, every three seconds, was that I'd never see anything this great ever again. Playing Canabalt while waiting in the front seat of a car parked outside a thrift shop two days later, I'd get the distinct impression that I'd see plenty of things just like this in the future. Little games that entertain briefly, though also contain some mirror-thin semblance of artistic conscience, integrity, and cohesion.
I hadn't driven a real car in over two years when I first started playing Grand Theft Auto IV. The game was my first experience driving a car with a talking GPS navigation device. At the time, I thought very little of the navigation devices. It seemed like simply a good way to get the player to and from places in the game world. In the older Grand Theft Auto games, it was like, you had this tiny map in the corner, which was just wildly spinning as you steered your car. And there were these microscopic little icons on there, and you were expected to either know what they were or be willing to open the map screen and look at the legend to figure it out. I can't tell you how many times I screamed at the TV screen re: those map icons while playing Grand Theft Auto III. Well, it probably wasn't as many times as I screamed at the infuriating lock-on. How terribly, horribly hard is it to bang out the lines of programming code necessary to tell the game to not lock on to corpses? At the very least, it'd be appreciated if you could lock on to enemies who were actually close to you, like the guy sticking the gun in your face point blank, not the guy crouched behind a box maybe two hundred feet away. I am digressing, I know. Games are just such a perfect conversation topic for digressing.
Anyway, the GPS thing. If you've ever worked on a video game development team, you've no doubt sat in on meetings discussing visual language, and how you're to communicate to the player what they're supposed to do or where they're supposed to go. Grand Theft Auto games have always been great about telling the player what he's supposed to do, and why he's supposed to do it, through the magic of very well-written and well-acted cut-scenes. Meanwhile, getting around the games' cities sucks sometimes, because you get lost a lot. You get lost a lot more than in real life, for a multitude of reasons, some of them believable, some of them jarring. One of the believable reasons is that American cities, which the Grand Theft Auto game developers have researched with loving intimacy, are labyrinthine things that have grown and evolved over booming decades. No great city started with a concrete plan of what it's going to look like when "finished," because America's job is never "finished" (lol). One of the unbelievable things about getting lost in these games is that you're playing the part of a character who's supposed to be some real genius when it comes to driving, or at least he's supposed to be some hard dude who knows his way around town. No, wait, now that I think about it, every Grand Theft Auto protagonist since III has been explicitly presented as someone who is brand-new to the city in which the game takes place. Or, in the case of Carl "CJ" Johnson from San Andreas, someone who's been away from the city for a long time. Hmm. Funny that I never really picked up on that before. It's obvious, then, that the makers of the games realize, sympathize with, and (brilliantly) attempt to contexualize the players' tendency to get lost in their labyrinthine game worlds. ((Rockstar, have my baby.)) The last reason why you get lost a lot in Grand Theft Auto is kind of a tenuous one, though it allows me to paraphrase Jeremy Clarkson of "Top Gear": Did you ever see that episode where Clarkson races Laguna Seca in Gran Turismo 4, and then tries to race it in real life, with the same car (a Nissan NSX), and just can't nearly approach the time he hit in the game? There's that turn — the notorious "Corkscrew" — in which the Real Life Fear of Death stabs into his heart, killing his speed just long enough in real life to shoot his time in the head. In short, in real life, where everything is, you know, real, where you have a real-life dinner date who is waiting for you, where your chances of getting real-life paid or real-life laid hang in the balance, you are that much more motivated to remember where the hell you are at any given time. In a game, it's like, "Whee!" You get lost, you smash into a police car, you "Oops!" and you go on a shooting spree.
Grand Theft Auto IV gave players taxis — a safe, non-violent alternative to stealing cars and/or the hassle of driving yourself around — and it also (slyly) gave them free vehicles at the start of every mission. Most of all, it gave us GPS.
When I first used GPS in Grand Theft Auto IV — this is the embarrassing part — I thought it was something the developers had made up. I'd seen GPS devices before, of course — every taxi in Tokyo is equipped with one — though never anything that talks to the driver. Also, the ones in Japanese taxis are more like Google Maps viewers that update the driver's position every ten seconds. They look more like something you'd see on a submarine than something you'd see in a video game. I wonder why that is? Years working in Japanese companies have gifted me with the impression that many people here like pretending to work a lot more than they like working. They like it when their job gets complicated. I like using this expression: They're like people who decided to become a doctor because they saw "ER" and thought it would be cool to run down hallways alongside gurneys shouting medicines and dosages. If we had a Grand Theft Auto IV-style talking GPS in every taxi in Tokyo, it'd strip so much of the mystique out of it. The passengers would pause in their idle conversation for all of four seconds, long enough to take interest in the GPS, and think, man, if I had a car, I could probably do this — drive a taxi. That's the last thing a professional wants someone else to think: "I could probably do what this guy does." Also: Tokyo is an older, uglier, vaster labyrinth than any American city will likely ever become.
So I came back to America to celebrate my first American Christmas in more than half a decade. Three days after Christmas, I rented a Mitsubishi Galant (think "A Lancer for Grown-ups") so for to drive up to Toledo, Ohio. What I was doing there is none of your damn business. Naw j/k I was going up there to play a rock show. My drummer's family lives up there. I had many options on where to play shows, and none of them fit into my drummer's hectic schedule of Wii Sports Resort with his twin sisters. So I had to drive up there. My dad stopped me on the way out the door. "Son, you forgot my Garmin." What the hell is a Garmin! "It's a Global Positioning Satellite receiver. It has maps. It will tell you how to get where you're going." I told my dad I had Google Maps directions printed out, and besides, I wouldn't need any directions until I got into the city of Toledo, anyway. "You don't need Google Maps. Just take the Garmin."
Maybe what put me off was how "Garmin", a brand-name, had already become synonymous with GPS-receiver products. I mean, I can understand when someone calls a Pepsi a "Coke." When someone asks if you want a Coke and you say yes and they say "What kind?" and you ask what kind they have and they say they have "Root beer or Sprite", though, that's kind of creepy. Why and how can people call a GPS device a "Garmin" already? How old does technology have to be before you use a brand-name to refer to a generic instance? To me, the less complicated the product, the better: "Kleenex" is fitting for "tissue", because there's not much to a tissue. A GPS device, though, has more moving parts than the average human can understand.
I didn't use the "Garmin" for my entire trip to Toledo. It stayed safe in its pretentious leather rectangle for the duration of the journey. When I got off the airport highway, I stopped at a gas station and studied the Google Maps printouts under the dome light. I found my drummer's house without any more trouble than I could handle. After that, my drummer was my human GPS. He sat in the passenger's seat, giving me directions to Guitar Center, Goodwill, Wal-Mart, and, eventually, to the best Mexican food in the upper-left quadrant of the state. Days later, I'd be on the way to Chicago. I was meeting a friend at Gino's East. That's some hella great pizza! I didn't need the GPS to get there, though you know what? While parked outside a gas station and waiting for my passenger to take her time in the bathroom, I whipped out the GPS and plugged in the coordinates for Gino's. What ensued was hilarious. Having that thing on the dashboard was like having a talking encyclopedia (or a female taxi driver) in the passenger's seat. Two days later, I'd be speeding down Lakeshore Drive with this GPS ticking off the minutes until a somewhat very really emotional meeting with a long-time internet friend. The first days of 2010 would be spent flogging that GPS like a lame mule, zooming around and between the scariest suburbs to thrift stores. My passenger was the owner of a chain of clothing shops in Tokyo, and she obtains all the materials she needs to make clothes from American thrift shops. She just goes in and gravitates toward the pink, lavender, baby blue, and yellow stuff. It's not that she's looking for things she can sell; she's looking for fabric that can be used in stuff she can sell. I went into a few thrift shops and scored some great T-shirts. After an hour, I was bored. I decided to wait in the car, with my music and the GPS. I plugged in routes in that GPS diligently until I had sketched together what I found to be a pretty excellent and efficient route between the thrift shops. Every time the car started rolling again, I couldn't help thinking of Grand Theft Auto IV. How strange that I am thirty years old, and my context for so many real-life experiences comes from video games. On the other hand, at least a half a million other things could be more embarrassing. Driving my friend around Chicago for nine hours felt like the world's most boring Crazy Taxi mod. I earned a strange new appreciation for Grand Theft Auto, for making something feel real, though also making it fun. I wondered, again, if killing people and / or running people over was the one thing people wanted to do more than anything else in games. I took simple pleasure in the feel of the car — I'd spent so many years commuting via trains and subways — and knew again and again that I am the type of person content to race endless laps around Laguna Seca in a humble Lancer or WRX, sometimes making good time, sometimes making fantastic time.
It strikes me that the real world, with its GPS devices, is starting to resemble a video game. Back in America for three weeks, the most time I've spent in the country this decade, I couldn't help noticing the leaps and bounds of progress in the presentation of live televised football. I was watching the Sugar Bowl in HD on a friend's giant Samsung LCD. They have that helicopter camera that flies around and makes everything look like a round of Madden, and they've got some little cameras in players' helmets, which you can view for free via the web. How soon before they start presenting instant replays using coverage from every single camera on the field, quickly and tastefully edited together in the moments between plays?
In summary, I'd probably be calling Grand Theft Auto IV my favorite game of the decade, for all it did right — it feels real, it feels fun, the story has some weight, the missions are exciting, the gunfights are well level-designed — if it weren't for the thing wherein you keep locking on to corpses or the precise guy you don't want to lock on to. Also, if it weren't for the thing where stealing a car requires you to press the triangle / Y button lightly, and hailing a cab requires you to hold the button down. I would rather the controls not pass cruel judgment on my and my character's psychology: That, for this man, and for me, crime is a reflex, and legitimate human behavior requires patience and restraint. A figurative psychological ocean exists between crime and lawful good; the least they could do is relegate them to different buttons. I guess there aren't enough buttons on the controller. If there were, maybe we'd finally get a "hug" button. Until then, death and violence it is.
Animal Crossing really freaked me out the first time I played it on the Gamecube. You've got this randomly generated small town. You're a newcomer. You earn money by doing little deeds for people. Eventually, you get a shovel, and you are free to dig holes all over the village. Sometimes you find things you can sell at the shop. If you earn enough money, you can make your house bigger. Really, that's all there is to it. You can buy accessories and tinker extensively with their position in your house. You can have four files on one memory card, so your other family members can have their own houses in your village. You can leave notes for each other.
What you do with this game, ultimately, is up to you. When Nintendo put it out on the Gamecube, Japan tittered. When they put it on the DS, Japan shared a hearty sales guffaw. It suddenly made perfect sense.
Unfortunately, I was unable to really ever get into the game. I had it on the Gamecube, yet had no real-life friends [who played videogames]. My fondest memories of Animal Crossing involve the one week in which I played it, fascinatedly, and wondered all the while what it would be like to play this thing with other people. I showed the game to some friends and they were like, "Yeah, I'd play that, maybe, if I had a Gamecube."
More than anything else, Animal Crossing is important because it asked a lot of questions. One of those questions was, "Why is a game with no violence in it this much fun?" The answer is tenuous, and it has something to do with love and care. You can really feel the friction of the world around you in all the simulated social interactions of an Animal Crossing game. Around the time it made a huge splash on the DS, developers the world over started thinking about working "social elements" into their games. We got some really rancid shit out of the Animal Crossing game model, though eventually, we got the renaissance of Monster Hunter.
It took the Monster Hunter franchise until the expansion of the sequel to the portable version of its first home console sequel to finally find the respect it deserved in Japan. If I recall correctly (I might not), it was the first game to sell a million copies for the PSP in Japan, and it was also the first game to sell two million copies. That's a lot of copies.
Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G is very nearly the same game as the first Monster Hunter on the PlayStation 2. Now, if you're a fan of Monster Hunter, don't jump down my throat at accusing the game of not growing up or evolving. I like — love, even — how slowly and subtly the game evolves. Bear in mind: I am a Dragon Quest man.
What's so great about Monster Hunter, and why should you be playing it? For starters, it's like an MMORPG, except you can enjoy it very, scarily thoroughly all by yourself. The game is about hunting monsters. You are a person who hunts monsters. You live in a village whose inhabitants hunt monsters for their livelihood. From the very start, it's all context. You choose your weapon and your type of armor. Your weapon choice determines how your dude fights. Each weapon is like its own little game. At any given moment of the game, you know exactly what you're doing, and why. You're either "fighting this monster" or "heading to that landmark." You don't need a GPS or anything. Unlike your typical MMORPG, you play Monster Hunter like an action game. When you get three friends together to play the local multiplayer, tactics unthinkable in the single-player mode come together out of literally nowhere. Everything happens and works exactly as you think it. The risks play out dynamically. You don't feel stupid when you play the game. It's remarkable.
Capcom USA tried pretty hard to promote Monster Hunter Freedom Unite in the West, though the majority of comments I remember seeing on, say, Kotaku, seem to indicate utter disgust at the game's lack of an online mode. Why the hell would you want to play this online? I'd feel so empty as a human and as a consumer to sit in my living room, or anywhere else within signal range of my wireless router, playing Monster Hunter with friends in distant parts of the world or city. I'd hate to have lag to blame for missed voice chats or fluked attacks.
The way you play Monster Hunter is with real people, in person, sitting around a table in a cafe of your choice, communicating in real-time about the game, until, eventually, you're talking about something else, and hardly enjoying the game less. You might say that you don't have enough friends with PSPs, or enough friends willing to play Monster Hunter. You might be wrong! All you might have to do is show them Monster Hunter, and then they might buy a PSP and be willing to play Monster Hunter with you. I'm pretty sure this is what happened in Japan. Monster Hunter has been portable for years, and you still see grown-up adult human beings playing it in Starbucks, with no one batting a judgmental eye in their direction. Monster Hunter with a friend at Starbucks is at least as "normal" as, say, playing Tetris alone on your phone to slay vile time on a packed train. And — I feel like I've mentioned this a million times — you see couples playing Monster Hunter, sometimes. Lots of times, even. You know what the vast majority of couples who aren't playing Monster Hunter tend to be doing in Japan? (Warning: biased view ahead: most of the couples I see tend to be at Starbucks, because I can't really be bothered to go anywhere else that isn't my home or one of the three restaurants I have deemed worthy of my patronage.) They tend to be looking over their schedule books, deciding when they're going to have their next date, and what they're going to do on that date. This might have something to do with the reason that GPSes in taxis look so old-school: Make it feel like work. If it doesn't feel like work, it's not working.
Unfortunately, Monster Hunter isn't as good as it could be. It has little snags. I don't like how clunky the inventory system is, for example. It's a hella bad inventory system. I mean, it's just dreadful. They won't change it, or make it better, of course, because it's "part of the game", and therefore undeniably one of the reasons for its success. (See: "The Everything Disease".)
I select Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G to represent the Monster Hunter franchise because it's the best of them all. Monster Hunter 3 for the Wii misses the point, by being on a home console. You feel so alone when you play it. It really is meant to be played around a table with friends.
Unfortunately, none of my friends play the game anymore, because it got "too popular." I still take it for a lonely spin every now and again. It feels like "Pokemon for adults." Not that Pokemon ever really did anything to actively slap adults in the face and tell them to get off its lawn. Well, Pokemon was the 1990s; Monster Hunter is the 2000s. It's alive, and it's got plenty of little reflex tricks to it. Pokemon is like Dragon Quest; Monster Hunter is packed with MegaMan-boss-fight nuances. More than anything else, like Pokemon, it's a tool of self-expression: you are precisely the kind of person who equips his Monster Hunter character with the type of weapon and armor your Monster Hunter character is using.
Demon's Souls takes the Monster Hunter concept of being a rock-solid action game in an RPG structure, and pushes it several steps further. If Monster Hunter is a plucky teenager, Demon's Souls is a thirty-something bodybuilder out to kill the bastards who killed his family. I've said that Monster Hunter is compelling in a single-player environment, though I've also said that my favorite part of Gran Turismo is doing endless laps of a track in my favorite cars, so maybe I'm not 100% normal. Well, Demon's Souls is a single-player Monster-Hunter-like RPG game-thing that is most certainly inclined toward players who lack my sick attention span. Moody and atmospheric as it is, it doesn't force the player to have or employ nearly as much imagination as it might have. Instead, it asks you only to be afraid.
So many people have bemoaned the difficulty of this game. What is wrong with these people? The game is not "hard"; it is "strict." When you die in Demon's Souls, it temporarily leaves a "bloodstain" visible to other players elsewhere in the world, playing the game on the same servers. You can touch the bloodstain to see how that person died. I can't tell you how many times I've checked a bloodstain just to see a ghost charge forward swinging, recoil a couple times, and then die. These are the types of people who say that Grand Theft Auto is "more fun" if you "ignore the missions and just have fun." Maybe, for these people, ignoring the missions is "more fun." Why don't these people find the missions fun? I find the missions fun enough. Moreover, what are these people expecting out of Demon's Souls? You'd imagine that these people think that games are more fun if they don't die, or if they die in situations completely unrelated to the main end goal of the game's quest, like, say, because they ticked off enough police officers to get the army on their ass.
Demon's Souls merely asks you to pay attention, and not be a jerk. It asks you to learn to recognize when you are outmatched. Very seldom does the situation arise in which you must die in order to learn how to do something the right way. Though when you do die, it's a learning experience. You shouldn't ever have to die more than once to solve a situation. The game is more than generous when it offers you a chance to reclaim your lost worth by crawling back to the place you died. There's nothing unfair about the experience at all.
Most interesting is the hint system. You can leave notes for other players, telling them when an enemy ambush is coming up, or suggesting which weapons they should use when proceeding. You can also rate hints based on their usefulness of truthfulness. One of the hints you are able to leave is to beware of false hints. This turns the entire game into something of an unintentional meta-metaphor for reading videogames forums on the internet. At the very least, the mark of Animal Crossing is felt, as you have a social experience while playing a videogame, mercifully free of having to actually interact in real-time with actual people.
World of Warcraft
Come to think of it, I've never played World of Warcraft. However, WoW creators Blizzard's games Lost Vikings, Rock and Roll Racing, Blackthorne (oh god, Blackthorne!), and Diablo II are literally among my absolute favorite games of all-time, so World of Warcraft, the game that turned them from a developer and publisher of deliciously frictive little game experiences with hardcore cult followings into a multi-billion-dollar corporation rivaling, say, pharmaceutical conglomerates, must actually be really damn fun to play.
Ozzy Osbourne plays the game, apparently. I mean, that has to count for something.
I have friends (believe it or not) who have played videogames for many years, and now play literally nothing except for World of Warcraft. This might be because it really is that good. These are people whose personalities are compatible to mine with undeniable precision. I'm quite frankly scared of playing World of Warcraft. What would happen if I really liked it? Would I stop playing literally every other game I play, just so I can play World of Warcraft? I had a decision to make, a couple of years ago. A friend of mine was into World of Warcraft, a friend who had previously tried Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Final Fantasy XI, only to be let down each time. He told me that this World of Warcraft was "the real deal", and that he could imagine himself playing it for ten years. He told me to "get in on the ground floor," and that "we could rule this shit together." It scared me to hear a game talked about that way. Five years later, he's still playing it, and I've never touched it. Five years later, he has a great job and a wife and two kids and three cars.
Every time I look at a screenshot of WoW, it scares me. It's like a spreadsheet with graphics. Look at all those icons! There was that one humor article on the internet a couple months ago, where a guy explained what Super Mario Bros. would be like if it played just like World of Warcraft. That's the way I feel about the game, without having ever played it. Though lord, everyone who ever plays it seems to enjoy the ever-loving shit out of it. One of my hypotheses for why people enjoy it so much is actually kind of perplexing to type out: They've never played a really good, dynamic, exciting single-player RPG. In fact, they might be complete newcomers to games in general! Popular demographics research would have us believe that non-gamers prefer to play stuff like Brain Training or Imagine Puppiez on the Nintendo DS. The same research would also inform us prophetically that "lots of non-gamers are infants," or "lots of non-gamers are senior citizens." If non-gamers want simple, inviting experiences, what on earth are they doing with World of Warcraft, with its millions of buttons, where each screenshot looks like the last thing a bomb squad rookie sees before Eternal Darkness?
People tell me it's "the social element." Oh. I guess that's it, then.
Half of me is dead convinced that if I played WoW, I'd like it so much I would just stop working, until they tore my apartment building down around me. The other half is convinced that, if I played the game, I would plunge head-first into an apopleptic seizure-like typing tirade in which I cataloged every loathsome minute of the experience, going into minute detail re: every little tiny thing that could be fixed or made immediately more engaging and less stereo-instruction-manual-like. So I choose not to play.
I mean, it'd be so easy to make an MMORPG that was the Only Game Anyone Ever Needed To Play. I just don't even want to begin compiling a list of the qualities that would constitute such a game.
Maybe there's a deeply rooted psychological reason for this, I don't know. My first real, serious girlfriend was this beautiful creature who played EverQuest. On our first anniversary, she asked me if I'd consider marrying her for tax purposes; I remembered the date and accused her of making an April Fool's joke; she informed me that it wasn't just April Fool's Day, it was our first anniversary. Anyway, we shared Diablo II characters. She had a level 87 hardcore sorceress that she was quite proud of. (Hardcore characters are ones that, once dead, are deleted forever.) One night, years after breaking up with her, I was in an internet cafe in Korea, and I logged onto the US East server. I summoned forth her sorceress for a little adventuring. She hadn't been playing the game much in recent years. I think she was playing Final Fantasy XI at this time. Anyway, I'm in a Korean internet cafe, playing on a US server. There's a guy next to me playing Lineage, and not satisfied with the current condition of his grind. He blows some smoke in my face as a way of letting off steam. I run around as this hardcore sorceress for a bit. I am no stranger to how the game works. Some kid jumps into my game, joins my party. We go out on a rollicking adventure. At one point, the game is lagging considerably. The kid leaves my party and immediately goes hostile. The game glitches out. The sorceress is dead. Man, that felt really bad. I wonder if she ever noticed that her sorceress was dead? She never emailed me about it. I bet she plays World of Warcraft now. I kind of really hope she does. There, in that game, there's no way I can ever do anything to kill her sorceress.
Dragon Quest VIII
I prefer Dragon Quest to any of the multiplayer RPGs. I like the way the game starts with you knowing nothing about the world; I like how they show you treasure chests behind locked doors right at the beginning of the adventure, and when you try to open the door, the game says, "You don't have a key." When you get a key, it says, "The key doesn't fit." Tens of hours pass, you remembering that locked door. You try every key you get. The door never opens, until the very end of the game. Is the treasure inside worth it? Maybe not. Though it's the "maybe" that makes the experience precious and beautiful. Every Dragon Quest game spills out experiences like this, some large, some small, from start to finish. Dragon Quest VIII is very much like the rest of the Dragon Quest games, though it has beautiful art direction and is presented in glorious 3D.
Dragon Quest VIII retains as many of the placeholders of the Japanese role-playing genre as it throws away. A slight possibility exists that Dragon Quest VIII might have been originally envisioned as some kind of action-RPG hybrid, and that those aspirations were eventually ditched in favor of staying truer to something that wouldn't alienate series fans. The evidence of this is the game Rogue Galaxy, which Dragon Quest VIII developer Level-Five turned out just a year after releasing Dragon Quest VIII. The next bit of evidence is Dragon Quest IX, which Level-Five and Square-Enix eventually announced as a multiplayer-centric action-RPG on the Nintendo DS. Fans — or, at least, a group of about thirty very vocal people with the ability to post anonymously from multiple IP addresses — lashed out on the internet. Thanks to these angry change-haters, Square-Enix bowed and apologized furiously, until the game was once again a menu-based old-school affair. This was just before Monster Hunter truly exploded. If only they'd have been more confident.
Both professionally and as an amateur, I've railed against the conventions of the Japanese RPG many times in the past. What's with random battles? Why do enemies just attack you out of nowhere while you're walking around? Where do they come from? When you're in a battle, why do your guys jump forward, attack, and then jump back? Why don't they just keep swinging? Because they don't have enough "stamina"? Why does adrenaline never figure into these games?
Dragon Quest VIII was so beautifully presented, right from the beginning, that I didn't really care about a lot of these questions. I feel like such a creep for saying this, though the familiarity of the experience really meant something for me. That's the kind of thing I usually defriend a person from the Livejournal of life for saying. Even in the face of certain death, you can behold the game very calmly. You're like a kid hearing a bedtime story. You trust your dad to not stop mid-sentence and then inform you that the little boy on the adventure then got sodomized by a werewolf and stabbed in the back of the head.
Japan is synonymous with reserved, stringent, constipated businessmen. Change happens glacially, especially within something that is already successful enough for all those involved to pay off their houses and see their children through college and marriage. To change something successful is to risk the entrance of a single uncomfortable moment into one of its creators' lives. Dragon Quest VIII honorably withstood accusations of motion-sickness from long-time 2D-grounded series fans in the name of making something that looked gorgeous. Years later, we still see RPGs where forests are represented as green tiles on the map, which stain your character from the torso down as he walks through them. Dragon Quest VIII made forests places full of trees, and actually managed to enhance the previously-imagination-requiring sense of discovery evident in past installments.
I really do feel like a sleaze for not being able to pick on the menu-based fighting system in Dragon Quest VIII. Why is that? Dragon Quest VIII's only "enhancement" of the combat system is to include a "charge" command that lets you choose to spend one battle turn to double a character's combat effectiveness for the next turn — or quadruple it, by charging for two turns. Why is this enough? Can't I think of some way to represent this more effectively in a real-time, action-based game?
It's weird, by the way, how much I enjoyed playing Dragon Quest IX multiplayer. A friend and I spent literally twelve straight hours in my living room one Friday night, hunting and slaying Metal Slimes and Metal Towers. Why and how did menus become so much fun? Is this "nostalgia"? I'd sworn I was immune to it. If what I say about Dragon Quest seems at odds with what I say about everything else, well, hey, everyone is allowed one deviation. Either way, for many years, I've known that all I really want in my life is a humble home, a nice TV, and the freedom to enjoy entertainment experiences with friends on the odd weekend. Maybe college really is the best time of your life. Dragon Quest is my personal flaky love-like choice of the decade.
Here's a game that purposely selects a minimalist tool set and proceeds to do everything it possibly can with these limited tools in the name of being exactly everything its creators wanted it to be. I imagine if you asked the makers of Mother 3 if they have any regrets about anything related to the game, they would immediately answer "No." It's a perfect little gem. It's probably one of the best games that has ever existed. It might even be better than the series installment that came before it, though I might need another five years or so to decide on that one for sure.
Sure, again, like Dragon Quest, this is a game with a menu-based battle system. Though, like Dragon Quest, it has more than enough cute little quirks to keep itself interesting. For one thing, when an enemy hits you, your HP start decreasing gradually until the damage has completely counted down. Mother 2 did this, as well, though the countdown tended to be so fast that you barely ever really got to plan any strategy around it. In Mother 3, it's all over the place. Also, you can press the attack button in time with the excellent (excellent) music to begin a combo chain that can hit up to sixteen times. Sometimes, you choose to cut a combo short because one of your dudes has recently been hit for more damage than his HP total, so you speed through to the next turn of the battle so you can choose to heal him. Enthralling little strategies are born and die with feverish frequency in every little conflict. It's a fantastic game, even if all you're doing is "playing" it.
"Experiencing" it is another thing. In its mishmash of pop-culture references, it manages to arrive at its climax as a genuine work of cultural significance without becoming "just" a cute little self-referencing game-thing. It employs moments of actual (figurative) weight, friction, and pressure as it hammers into its final moments, and it chokes you up. I don't want to explain what happens in the end of the game, because I hope you will learn Japanese and play it some day, because I have heard from an inside source that Nintendo will never publish it outside Japan because its story is of such a level of mature complexity that, together with the cartoon characters that star in it, would serve only to confuse the general public in a way that could only tarnish Nintendo's image. (Here is where I say that I don't want to encourage playing the fan-translated ROM-hack, because that would be tantamount to condoning piracy. (Here is where I remind you that I don't recommend listening to me all the time.))
Over many acts, Mother 3 sees you playing the part of many different characters. You flip-flop back and forth between protagonists and situations. Time moves. It's a small world. It gets bigger, then it gets smaller again. You go where you're supposed to go. Instead of flowing like a film, or another game, Mother 3 flows like a play. Any and all nods to video game conventions are so subtle we might as well call them buried: Your protagonists never speak in chapters when they are the main character, though they most certainly do speak in chapters where they are not the main character. The chapters vary in length from two minutes to ten hours.
The final boss battle of Mother 2 was and is one of the most feverish, frustrating, emotionally draining entertainment experiences ever committed to its medium. Mother 3 evokes this feeling in large, explosive experience pockets throughout its running time. I wish I could be more specific, though that would involve basically spoiling everything that happens in the game. Instead, let's talk about Metal Gear Solid 3 for a minute. The thing I'm about to discuss is very much as interesting as everything that ever happens in Mother 3:
THE GAME MOMENT OF THE DECADE
Games don't need motion controls to do something big and nifty. I nominate, for the title of Game Moment of the Decade, the end of Metal Gear Solid 3.
Your main character is standing over a person he doesn't want to kill. He's got the gun against the person's head. The person informs him that he has to pull the trigger. The hero knows that he absolutely must do this. The camera pulls back, very slowly, so slowly it could be a hyper-dramatic cut-scene. Eventually, there we are, staring at this man with a gun against someone's head.
This is the magic part: We realize that we have to press a button — the "fire" button, the very button that you press hundreds of times during the game to fire your gun.
The length of time it takes you to realize you have to press the "fire" button is also perfectly analogous to the emotional hesitation the hero feels with his finger on that trigger.
That's fantastic — that's a case where the player has no choice, though at the same time, he kind of does. Given the excessive weirdness of the journey up to that point, we wouldn't put it past the director to end a "film" like this with a twenty-two-minute wide shot of a man hesitating to pull a trigger in a flower field, while the person about to be shot calmly bears the other party's hesitation.
Right now, we have games like Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, games centered on simple though deep play mechanics and an online community element. Though we In The Know know that the makers of Left 4 Dead are also genuine crafters of entertainment masterpieces like Half-Life, Valve is shrewdly using Left 4 Dead to boost their reputation. One day, they'll make a big-scale Half-Life-level event again, and "artistic conscience" will enter the feature snipers' list of "things to watch." Maybe overnight — or maybe over a couple of nights — everything in the games industry will change.
Metal Gear Solid 2
Man, Metal Gear Solid 2 was fucked up, wasn't it? You started the game thinking that you were going to be playing as badass Solid Snake, kicking people's asses, and then they made you play as some girly dude. I liked the girly dude a lot, though that doesn't mean I was less surprised about the Big Reveal at the precise moment it happened.
What happened with Metal Gear Solid 2? I've heard that director Hideo Kojima wanted to call Metal Gear Solid "Metal Gear 3," though the top dudes at Konami told him that putting a number into the name would just make newcomers feel alienated. So he put an adjective in there. Then, after Metal Gear Solid was successful, he wanted to call the sequel Metal Gear [different adjective]. The same top dudes at Konami said, no, man, now that the game is popular, it's a brand: You need a number to keep the brand strong. I disagree with as many elements of these practices as I agree with, so oh well.
Hideo Kojima apparently decided then and there that he would make Metal Gear Solid 2 the cruelest kind of fan-bashing joke possible. He would trap you inside a character you don't want to pretend to be, and force you to only watch the guy you really wanted to pretend to be. He called this "an experience that can only be communicated through the video game medium." That was the exact phrase he used when I interviewed him.
Metal Gear Solid 2 was the game that made me start writing about games. I only ever started writing about games as a joke, to be honest. I had been in Japan for a month when Metal Gear Solid 2 was released. This was back in 2001. For whatever reason, Metal Gear Solid 2 was released in the US a month before it was released in Japan. My former girlfriend sent me a copy of it. The planets were gloriously aligned the day the game arrived: I was an English teacher in Japan, and I had just finished an early shift. I had the next day off. I had gotten home at eight PM, to find my copy of Metal Gear Solid 2 on the dining room table. Miraculously, my roommates had also just purchased a new television, which they had placed prominently in the living room. I asked them if I could take the old, tiny, 13-inch television into my closet-like room so that I could play Metal Gear Solid 2. They said sure, whatever. It turned out they hated me pretty bad. In just a month, one of them would call my school to report that I had been fraternizing with one of my students in my spare time. The other roommate would corroborate the story. The story wasn't true. I would end up getting questioned, and then fired three days before what was scheduled to be my last day, even though they didn't know the student's name and didn't have any proof. Well, whatever. I got fired on Christmas. I had a new job lined up, anyway, and by then, I'd already beaten Metal Gear Solid 2. The reason I'd come to Japan was to try to write about music. It turned out nobody gave a shit about Japanese experimental rock music. Well, no one willing to give me money, anyway. So I wrote about Metal Gear Solid 2 from the perspective of someone who would rather be writing about experimental Japanese rock music. A couple years later, I interviewed Hideo Kojima for Wired. Now, here I am, on Kotaku. This dumb hobby has taken me places.
Back on track: when was the last time a game freaked people the hell out the way the big Raiden reveal freaked people out in Metal Gear Solid 2? Can it be done again, or was this like the Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, where people are just going to be too smart from now on?
The answer is yes, no, and maybe. All games have to do to freak us out like this is take big risks, and to set down the freak-outs in outline form well enough before the production begins. It's really not that hard to make a cultural event. It's just that you can't always choose whether that event's impact is going to be positive or negative.
Modern Warfare 2 might have sold a trillion more copies, though Modern Warfare is probably the better game. With Modern Warfare, the Band-aid has been ripped off, and we are officially in Post-Kojima territory.
Modern Warfare is doing interesting things all the way from the beginning. There's that opening scene where you watch a dictator be executed from the first-person perspective. Then, later in the game, you control a soldier as he crawls hopelessly, eventually dying, in the wake of a nuclear explosion. That was powerful, big stuff. Around the same time as Modern Warfare was making critical waves, Hideo Kojima and the Metal Gear Solid 4 team were concocting viewer-shocking mechanisms such as a Hebrew-Coca-Cola-drinking, underpants-wearing monkey. Metal Gear Solid has taught the game-developsphere how to surprise players and make them feel something. The knowledge is out, and people like Infinity Ward are brandishing it like a weapon.
Modern Warfare is also a mercifully straightforward game. You can approach it even as a newcomer to first-person shooters. Nothing really outside the realm of common sense happens within the world of the game. You are a soldier. People want to kill you; you kill them. Some criticized the "story" for being "confusing." Such is the nature of war from the perspective of a soldier on the ground. For so long, Hollywood films have spoon-fed us entertainment spectacles wherein the viewer is constantly made aware of every aspect of a conflict. This can be educational; it can even be masterpiecely. Modern Warfare tries something else, turning the chaos of war into merely an atmosphere in which to inject action. We aren't in control of films, so "story" is important. We are in control of games; this is one of the reasons that atmosphere is more important than story.
Look at another huge first-person-perspective-pushing game that came out in this decade: Bioshock. I find far more bad things about Bioshock, mainly regarding the bits of inexplicable world-logic-rending that come alive in the experience of actually playing the game. Still, I have to admit that it's got a hell of an atmosphere. You almost really feel like you're in this world. And it's such a bizarre world that, sometimes (when something ridiculous isn't happening), you could swear that it's so bizarre it can't possibly be made up. Many of Bioshock's "advances", like information being relayed through in-world objects (early in the game, we see discarded protest signboards and luggage on a dock floor, et cetera), are concepts that have been alive and kicking in games for a while. We just need to start making some of these things the norm.
Late in Bioshock, it's revealed that your "friend" Atlas is actually using a mind-control psychic power to control your every move, thus inviting questions of "WHO IS IN CONTROL OF WHOM????" which is supposed to really shock you, maybe even biologically. What I did at this point was make a massive jerking-off motion with my right hand. Can we stop making games that ask questions about games as a medium? I mean, it's really silly. I could go into a million reasons. I won't bother. Try and think them up yourself. Anyway, I wrote in a review that I find it terribly dumb that your guy, when prompted to search a garbage can, will immediately remove and eat any bags of potato chips that reside inside said garbage can. One of the many comments on my review dealt with the potato chip comment: You're being mind-controlled by some dude, and he needs you for something, so maybe part of that involves him needing you to stay alive, so he makes you immediately eat potato chips when you find them in the garbage. Okay, maybe that makes sense to Kids on the Internet. Though what about real people? Do you see how quickly these Internet Kids are equating "potato chips" with "staying alive"? Just because you feel like life isn't possible to live without potato chips doesn't mean that it's that way in the real world! And seriously, doctors are millions of years from proving that potato chips, when ingested, immediately cure the concussive effects of being hit in the head with a lead pipe.
Better idea for Bioshock climax: Once your guy realizes he's being mind-controlled by this guy who has been guiding you, suddenly there's a bright white flash and we see a dude staring at himself in the mirror: It's the dude who had been controlling the main character. Now we can hear the main character talking to us: "I'm going to kill you, you sick fuck!" Now we have to defend ourself from the character we'd been controlling the whole game. That'd be some serious Double Dragon shit, right there. (You know how at the end of Double Dragon, if you're playing two players and you get to the end of the game, you're forced to fight each other to the death.) I don't know; I think something like this would work a whole lot better than that over-complicated spreadsheet-calculated shit they came up with. Also, I think it would be really cool if the game featured only one Big Daddy and one Little Sister, and they were on a quest to somewhere vaguely in the direction that you're traveling, meaning that you run into them many times throughout the course of the game; when you choose to fight the Big Daddy is up to you. Anyway.
So, in short, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of the best games of the decade because it is much better than Bioshock, because it has little to no shit like the above in it. The only reason the "die in a post-nuclear-explosion wasteland" moment isn't the "Game Moment of the Decade" is because it's possible to have died maybe fifty times before that moment, as that character, and that might make some gamers ask, "So, wait, is my dude dead for real this time?"
While we're at it, let's say that Bioshock's "moral" question of whether you kill or free the Defenseless Little Girl characters is really boneheaded, even more boneheaded than Modern Warfare 2's kind-of-dumb terrorists-in-an-airport scene. You know, you could make a whole ultra-compelling game about terrorists in an airport. Maybe you'd play the part of one or more dudes who are trying to kill the terrorists. Anyway, the terrorist scene is kind of dumb. In it, you're an undercover CIA agent who has infiltrated a terrorist group. Maintaining your cover is essential. So these guys go into an airport and start shooting civilians. You shoot them as well, because you want to look like a real terrorist. Anyway, at the end of this grueling, maybe-disturbing mission, the guys reveal that they know you're an undercover CIA agent, and then they shoot you in the face, so the whole incident can be blamed on the US. It's dumb because it comes so early in the game, and the rest of the game revolves around a conflict that issues forth from the assumption that the Americans were responsible for this terrorist attack. Again, your guy is only going to be killed by the terrorists at the end. It's a case of the game knowing something you don't, and even if you do know it, because you have played the game before, the game just pretends that what you know for a fact isn't actually true. In short, it's a case of a game stepping on your balls. I can understand that they were trying to "up the ante," though it's not as good as any of the stuff that happens in Modern Warfare. I give them credit for trying.
Bioshock, Modern Warfare, and Modern Warfare 2 are these expertly constructed rollercoasters of videogameness. They have a lot in common with those old "interactive" movies of the 1990s, you know, where the seats moved and fans blew wind in your face while you watched chunky 3D CG of a helicopter flying into a volcano full of dinosaurs, or whatever. Playing them, I can't help feeling like games are merging toward one supreme form of entertainment, and that this is a big part of it. However, they miss it just barely. What are they missing?
It's personality. Gears of War has personality. Sure, the personality is located inside a man-meat-mountain with a soul patch and a doo-rag, though hey, that's a lot more personality than most game protagonists have. You see, we are starved for humanity, in the world of games: Any personality will do.
Gears of War has just enough personality, and just enough context. The world has been destroyed. These freakish alien brute-monster-bastards have done it. They've killed almost everyone. Well, you're still alive, and so are some of your friends. You rage against the freakbastards by running head-first through five grueling stages, stopping to take cover every time you hear a shot.
Gears of War turned the shooter genre on its ear by forcing you to take cover. This isn't one of those games where you can just run into any situation guns blazing. Each little conflict in Gears of War is a juicy little puzzle involving shooter reflexes, resource management, and honest-to-god problem solving skills. One of the most exhilarating sequences in Gears of War is when you have to climb a tall stone staircase. Dudes are coming down at you. Then, you enter the mansion on the top, acquire the MacGuffin that brought you here, and attempt to exit, only to find that enemy reinforcements have arrived. Now you must defend the staircase you just climbed.
So many games these days populate their worlds with enemy drones who are mere zombies. They do this for a variety of reasons, not the least among them because zombies are "cool" or "popular." Well, zombies are boring. They also indicate that the game designers haven't really thought through the significance of the ways the player characters in their games "communicate" or "interact" with the world. The enemies just shuffle at you, and you keep them away, usually by shooting them. Sometimes the enemies shoot you, like in Call of Duty, though what do you get, when you die? You get a scrap of knowledge: Don't go there. The enemies are opponents so much as training tools, informing you where to not stand.
In Gears of War, the enemies are bundles of love and joy. They gladly spar with you. They interact with you dynamically. They will be your best friends during firefights. You're playing the game because playing it is fun; playing the game entails shooting monsters; shooting monsters is fun; you're playing the game because shooting monsters is fun. You love shooting them, and they love being shot.
Future game developers should study and love the friction and weight evident in every level design of Gears of War and its sometimes-superior sequel. Just, like, lift the game structure directly and use it as a template. Then we can worry about getting some super-compelling characters and art-film-like writing quality in there.
I'm aware that, maybe, this isn't enough to justify calling Gears the "game of the decade." The problem is that there's really not much to say about it. It's got a very complete world, and a very good grip on itself. It feels like it gets smarter as you play it. It feels vaguely like you're raising a child, or at least a puppy. The wild fantasy setting gives contextual permission to all the psychotic violence, and we never feel creeped out or weird, like we do in something that much more closely resembles reality, like Uncharted. Gears of War is like "Hello Kitty," abstract to a point, cute — maybe — and never something that doesn't personify itself effortlessly. The secret is, Hello Kitty doesn't have a mouth. You're free to imagine that she's feeling whatever you're feeling. Uncharted is like "Hello Kitty" with a mouth: It's just human enough to make you stop and think and feel appropriately creeped out.
That said, let's say right here that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is my runner-up game of the decade by a mere bastard-fraction of a psychological millimeter. Which means, it's close, though at the same time, it's even farther away than, say, Final Fantasy XII.
Final Fantasy XII
I loved this game; I loved it so much. I loved it so much I hardly care what you think, though at the same time, I grow all shaky with rage whenever I read someone call Final Fantasy XII a "failure" or an "atrocity." It was just a great game. People say they didn't like it because they didn't feel like they were "in control." Did you actually feel like you were "in control" back when you were choosing "fight" and then seeing your guy attack like thirty seconds later? People got pissy about Final Fantasy XII, and that translated directly into Square-Enix shitting all over Final Fantasy XIII. Well, to be fair, I liked Final Fantasy XIII immensely, and I recommend that you play the hell out of it when you can, though Final Fantasy XII is totally something else.
The director of Final Fantasy XII was, at the start, one Yasumi Matsuno, former creator of the Ogre Battle series, and of Vagrant Story, and of Final Fantasy Tactics. He left partway through development due to "creative differences," or "illness," depending on who you ask. I think the former is true. I think he had a lot of things he wanted to do with this game that Square-Enix were too (understandably, as they are a multi-national corporation) hard-headed to let him do. I think one of the things he wanted to do was completely eliminate numbers and allow the game to communicate everything to the player visually. Final Fantasy games have always let you see your characters while they're attacking, which was the first difference between it and Dragon Quest that most gamers noticed when the original was released. When a character is near death, he stoops in obvious pain. If I weren't afraid of convincing you that I am a kleptomaniac with nothing better to do, I could rattle off a near-endless list of ghosts littered all about the world of Final Fantasy XII that points us in the direction of what Matsuno was trying to do. The game would have been a real entertainment masterpiece if they'd let him do what he wanted to do; I'm dead convinced. Let's hope that, wherever he is now, his patrons trust him much more than Square-Enix did — or, about as much as Sony Computer Entertainment trust Fumito Ueda.
Shadow of the Colossus
We always talk about the "Citizen Kane" of games. Maybe Shadow of the Colossus is the "Battleship Potemkin" of games. It has an old silent-film feel to it. Director Fumito Ueda, who is seriously a big fan of Burnout, has said in interviews that it always creeped him out when non-player characters in role-playing games said the same thing twice. Shadow of the Colossus manages to impart upon the player the full overwhelming scope of an RPG without a single NPC. It is a minimalist masterpiece. The bosses and the dungeons of Zelda games have been combined seamlessly into one experience. You find your way around the world by doing something so elegant as allowing the sun to reflect off the edge of your blade. Actually progressing through the game comes to feel genuinely emotionally draining.
This would be the perfect game if it weren't for the heads-up display. Why do we need an icon in the corner to tell us we're currently wielding our sword or bow? Can't we see the sword or bow in our dude's hand? I'm sure some guy on the development team was assigned to be in charge of the "user interface," and Ueda wasn't mean enough to tell him that there shouldn't be an interface. Well, whatever! Thanks, anonymous guy, for ruining the best game ever!
It's worth noting how much Ueda's works owe to Eric Chahi's Out of this World (Another World), which I consider the best game of all-time. So many Japanese game creators call it their favorite, including Goichi Suda, Shinji Mikami, and Hideo Kojima. Why don't we see it mentioned more in reviews of Ueda's games? I've always wondered. Out of this World is seriously a perfectly put-together game, even more so than Ueda's ICO or even Shadow of the Colossus. I wonder how long it's going to be before we see a western-made game that tries to evoke Ueda (via Chahi), the way that God of War evokes Devil May Cry. Maybe sometime in the coming decade.
This game proved to me that Pac-man wasn't just something I enjoyed as a child — it was really a genuine piece of great art. I don't have much more to say about it that has to be said right here, right now, just that it proved to me that Namco, invariably arriving at a console launch with a new Ridge Racer title and a Gundam game, throttling their legacy for years in multi-part classics compilations that can't possibly have more than two megabytes on the disc, eventually going so far as to make an RPG and then sell level-ups via an online store, aren't as shameless as I'd always thought. The era of downloadable games is upon us, and it's delicious, and Namco, despite having already had lovelessly uploaded Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man to the Microsoft Xbox Live Arcade, actually genuinely cared enough to update one of those games and make it perfect. Seriously, if you haven't played it, you have to. It's one of the better things humans have ever been involved in. We still play it, over here, in my house. We will never stop playing it.
The 2000s were also the decade of the "tower defense genre" of games, which is what people started calling Desktop Tower Defense after it had two copycats within the space of a half a year. Pixeljunk Monsters was the best of those copycats. It pushed the "genre" far enough in the right direction without returning it to home base (that is, the genre of real-time strategy (let's face it: a "tower defense" game is just a real-time strategy where the units don't move)). It stays simple long enough, and gets beautiful when it gets hard. It's even more fun with another player. I can't say enough good things about it, so I won't even bother starting. If you have a PlayStation 3 and you have never played this game, part of your house might also be on fire.
Games I'm putting on my list because I know no one else will put them on theirs
I'm at the end of this thing, having said almost everything I wanted to say. Maybe there's one game or another that I forgot. Oh, well! If I forgot to mention it, it's probably because the game wasn't truly great enough. Anyway, these are four games that I find myself either going back to many times a year, or thinking literally every other day of playing. If you haven't played any of these games, you must. You most likely own the console they all appear on — the PlayStation 2, aka "The Console of the Decade" — and these games can most likely be had for ultra-cheap. Go and do, gents and ladies:
Spartan: Total Warrior (Creative Assembly): The press didn't love this game, or, if they didn't love it, they didn't scream about it nearly enough. When it first appeared at E3, I tried to tell people to play it, and they all said, "Oh, isn't that just the game that's like God of War?" God of War had been announced at the same E3. Damn it! All the reviews mention Dynasty Warriors. Well, fuck Dynasty Warriors. Dynasty Warriors games' instruction manuals consist of figuratively just a photo of a Square Button. They are games for the people who never got a date in high school (. . . like me?), or, uhh, the people who lack the gumption to walk into the office on day one, flip off the boss, tell him "I'm going to teach you codgers how to change your game" and be wearing flip-flops and flying around town in the executive helicopter by Friday. They give us a world with the invincibility code turned on. Spartan: Total Warrior is different. It presents war from the perspective on one soldier amid a teeming mass on a battlefield as exactly the kind of fearsome thing it is. It deserved at least as much a buzz in 2004 as Demon's Souls got in 2009. Every single instance of button-pressing in this game is instantly rewarded with a hard, sticky discharge of excitement. For god's sake, play it. It's brutal and it's amazing. And it's also a tragedy: The next action game The Creative Assembly saw fit to make was the limp-wristed Viking: Battle For Asgard, which, in name alone should be the best game ever (vikings will be the new pirates, someday). Instead, it was a big, washed-over, mealy-mouthed sandbox-wannabe with ropey "user-friendly" combat. Spartan, however, was and is pure gold, frictive and loud and rock-hard. Please play it. And if you have already played it and loved it, please be my friend.
Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter (Capcom): This is a Japanese-style RPG about escaping from an undesirable place. It shouldn't take you more than twelve hours to finish. You play as a police officer of sorts in a surreal deep-underground space-station-like city. Mankind has lived here, deep underground, for thousands of years. The people of this world believe, pseudo-religiously, that the surface of the world is uninhabitable. After some strange events, you learn your partner is Not a Good Guy. You find a girl with wings. She's some kind of test subject. You're supposed to kill her. Your guy doesn't want to kill her. Something happens. Soon you, the winged girl, and a female bounty hunter are unified in the goal of getting to the surface of the planet, which you suddenly realize might not actually be uninhabitable. You have pursuers. The entire game progresses as you attempt to escape from subterranean violence hell.
The game presents battles and conflicts as neat, little, palm-sized tactical skirmishes. It's consistently delicious, and the aesthetic never falters. Then there's the thing about how you can choose to restart the game from the beginning when you die, keeping all your experience points. Then, there's the super-powerful dragon transformation attack: Once acquired, you are able to use the attack whenever you want, however much you want. However, every time you use it, an ever-present meter in the upper-right corner of the screen climbs closer to 100%. If it reaches 100%, your dude goes ballistic and enters some kind of vaguely defined psycho perma-dragon-rage mode, which equals a game over and a reset of your save data. I found that brilliant. I guess most people found it too scary. Whenever I hear people dissing the "D-meter" aspect of Breath of Fire V, or the fact that the game encourages you to start over from the beginning every time you die, I assume they are psychological copycats of my little brother, who, at age twelve, would literally start shaking with fear when retail store employees announced over the PA that the store would be closing in twenty minutes: "We have to get out of here. Right. Now." At age six, while watching me play The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, my little brother would repeatedly inform me, after I bombed a hole into a wall, "You might want to take your bombs off, dude. You — you — you don't want to waste your bombs. You might accidentally use your bombs." Once or twice, I started laying bombs with reckless abandon, just depleting my stock to zero, while my little brother freaked out. I guess most gamers are kind of like that, these days: They were young, in elementary school, back when they played their first games. When people talk about the best games of the 2000s, they mention ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, though they never mention Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter. Maybe that's because the review scores were sub-phenomenal. That's a real shame — I'm pretty sure the review scores were lower-than-huge because the reviewers were "upset" or possibly just "confused" that the game didn't play exactly like all of the other Breath of Fire games, or maybe because the way the game imposes responsibility on the player succeeded in creeping them out. I say that this is a game worth really savoring — it's on the level of Shadow of the Colossus or Metal Gear Solid, only instead of trying to be a Hollywood blockbuster, it's aiming for German expressionism.
God Hand (Capcom): I met Shinji Mikami for some reason or another, and talked to him about God Hand. He confirmed my suspicion that the vaguely eerie sense of "humor" evident in the game was not something engineered for a purpose. It was the result of a man just winging it, just flinging stuff at the wall. God Hand is an ugly, stupid game with a plot that makes no sense and characters who you can't begin to understand, much less sympathize with. The very first dialogue involves a man and a woman walking into a deserted wild-western town. Big, burly, dumb, ugly thugs appear. "These guys are cuter than you!" the man says to the woman, before walking forward to them and beginning a player-controlled fist-fight. The ensuing ugly, stupid piece of video entertainment software is a relentless nut-hugging massacre. It doesn't stop chafing from start to finish. Why is this fun? How is this fun? The controls are weird and the camera angle is weirder. You don't play the game so much as you wrestle with it.
Some reviewers (like IGN.com, who gave it a three out of ten) passed the game off as button-mashing trash. Those who looked deeper found one of the greatest, best, and hardcorest action games of all-time. God Hand very quickly achieved cult status and became one of the first games people talk about when they talk about hardcore action games. Hell, it's the only game some people talk about when they talk about hardcore action games. Some people have become so good at looking past a game's shortcomings that God Hand is the only game they can see anymore.
Why didn't God Hand sell millions of copies? Did the producers not want it to? They mustn't have, right? If they wanted it to sell, all they had to do was hit all the bullet points that, say, a Final Fantasy hits. That can't be that hard, can it? Well, maybe it can. Clover Studio must have genuinely expected this game to succeed. How could they have? I mean, what were they thinking? I remember seeing the sales figures in Famitsu the week after this game was released. I think it sold, like, 6,000 copies. The funny thing is, in Japan, they knew they were playing to a niche audience, so they made the retail price something like 8,000 yen. In America, they knew the audience was a niche, so it retailed for like $30. I still play this game all the time — maybe once a month. It is a relic of an era before Xbox Achievements, where every god damn button press is an Xbox Achievement. Where if you're alive three seconds after pressing the start button, it's an Xbox Achievement.
Sometimes, you meet someone who's hip to the game, and you talk about your combo settings, or boss strategies, or you swap war stories. Man, I tell you, this game was Street Fighter V and Street Fighter VI way before they even announced Street Fighter IV. Street Fighter IV didn't "revive" the fighter genre — it just pushed God Hand back a generation. Sometimes, I meet game industry people who love God Hand, and we talk about how you could take action this fierce and thick and perfect and foamy and make it into a serious money-printing license. We usually never go anywhere with our musings, though it's always a hell of a lot of fun. If nothing else, God Hand represents the fact that the job of the game-developer collective isn't finished: We still need to make something as good as this, which is also successful and entertaining to a mainstream audience. And before I forget, because it's relevant, all of the lines of enemy NPC dialogue are quotes from insane things Mike Tyson said in interviews. That's pretty awesome.
Raw Danger (Irem): If there's one game that really felt like something new, it would be this one. Raw Danger is the English title of Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 2, the sequel to a game that had the same title, only without the numeral "2." That game was originally released in the States as Disaster Report. It wasn't nearly as good as it wanted to be. Disaster Report was about an earthquake, and surviving in the aftermath of said earthquake. Raw Danger is about a man-made island in the harbor of a Japanese city that might be Tokyo, and about how that city disastrously floods on Christmas Eve, during a would-be enjoyable party. You play, on your first time through, as a young boy working part-time as a waiter in the ballroom of a big fancy hotel. The game teaches you vehicle controls by asking you to push a meal cart. You do some waiter-like stuff for about a half an hour before, at one point, as you're walking out into the hall and toward the kitchen, a wooden screen falls over, and water can be seen overflowing from behind a pair of emergency exit doors. You cross back from the kitchen to the ballroom on another errand. On your next trip back into the kitchen, you see that four people have gathered in front of the small puddle of water. As you approach, one of them — a woman — runs off in the direction of the kitchen.
In this first half hour, you've learned that your hero is smitten with a girl, that she's the daughter of some politician, that the politician is a jerk, and that his adviser is hiding something (and has a problem with frequent urination). Pretty soon after that, everything is shot to shit. You're going to spend a lot of time in dark, ugly, cold places. Keeping your character warm as you move through the world, solving puzzles, is going to be very important. You can stay warm by huddling around gas stoves, or by eating instant ramen. Lots of things will happen over the course of the game. I won't spoil them.
You can find the game for probably around $10. It is very nearly the "Die Hard" of games, and it's genuinely frightening that a team of around thirteen people was responsible for its development (and also the development of Steambot Chronicles, released nearly a year earlier). When I first played this game, I felt like a music critic in the 1980s discovering Daniel Johnston. Immediately, I wanted to pick up a phone and find a way to get these guys tens of millions of dollars with which to change the world. Here was a game where you don't kill anybody, where all you do is run from liquid death and crumbling structures, and still you never get bored, and everything remains compelling. It's very much a game in the mold of S.O.S., that old game by Super Fire Pro Wrestling developers Human. In S.O.S., you play the part of one passenger on a ship that is going down in the middle of the ocean. You have precisely one hour to escape. Every fifteen minutes, the ship rotates ninety degrees. All S.O.S. needed to be Certifiably Huge Fun is a control pad and a jump button. Raw Danger does even better with an item menu. It's really fantastic! You should play it! And then, someone should make a game that's like it, only better. It shouldn't be hard, at least, to beat the production values.
Finally, games I didn't mention though don't want to exclude:
and then games I do want to exclude:
Ending with a personal anecdote:
I was on the Narita Express train back from the airport, yesterday, back in Tokyo from being in America for three weeks, following my first American Christmas in literally six years. I'm on the train, and a girl comes by in these knee-high white socks, her voice pitched an octave higher than human, poised ready to enter dolphin range. "Would you like some delicious teas, coffees, or snacks?" she was asking, in the perfunctory polite fashion. I was playing the only game I had in my DS — Yoshi's Island DS. I was thinking, all of a sudden, how the area around an airport never changes. I mean, nothing grows up around an airport. The English train station announcements on the Keisei Line platform at Narita Airport Station are terrible. It's a guy talking like he has a mouthful of carrot. "Een ah mo-mento, anu appu ando daun baundo to-lain wiww alive on prathome wan!" ("In a moment, an up- and down-bound train will arrive on platform one.") What the hell does this mean? I've asked seasoned Japan-living veterans to confirm my suspicion that this announcement has remained unchanged for literally decades. The oldest foreigner I've met in Japan said that as far as he can recall, the announcement was exactly the same the first time he ever used the Keisei Line at the airport. Why don't they change it? It sounds terrible. All of the major train lines in Japan have amended their English announcements so that the announcers are using actual, real English pronunciation, instead of sounding out katakana. However, many tourists to Japan won't actually ride every major train line. Most of them, however, will pass through the airport.
It's a weird, sticky feeling, that they haven't updated the train announcement. It's like, every year, rail companies look at their revenues, and maybe they see that some demographic is lacking, or maybe the numbers aren't higher than they were last year, or maybe they just aren't higher enough than last year as they wanted them to be two years ago, and they start thinking about things to fix. Sometimes, "record new train station announcements, even when not necessary" enters that list of things to fix. I guess, with the trains running out of the airport, what with the urgency with which people need to use the airport, the willingness with which we'll buy a Starbucks just because we are waiting for an airplane, or a friend who is on an airplane, which might be delayed, even though we couldn't care less about drinking a Starbucks right now, sales are now and always will be booming. What would it take for the operators of Keisei Line Narita Airport Station to go, "Oh, maybe we should fix our absolutely shitty train station announcement"? I estimate it would be nothing short of a terrible accident right there inside that train station — not inside the airport, not inside Japanese air space, not even inside the JR station a hundred feet across the way. Why is that? Well, there are hundreds of reasons, and they're all complicated, and most of them don't make any bloody sense at all. It's kind of how I felt at the end of Final Fantasy XIII. It's kind of how I feel about videogames in general. Hopefully, this next decade, we'll have new train station announcements, or at the very least a significant, stirring enough accident.
Something mostly unrelated
Look at this! This is my band, Large Prime Numbers, performing a 100% improvised, minimalist, stoner rock tribute to Final Fantasy battle music:
If you're in Tokyo and this kind of thing seems appealing to you (warning: none of our other music is videogame-related), come see us live every Saturday night in Koenji. Just email me (mail address below) any time for details.
—tim rogers is the editor-in-chief of action button dot net; friend his band on myspace (and if you're in tokyo, come see us live any sunday afternoon in koenji); follow his twitter; mail him at 108 (at) action button (dot net) if you have something fun (or not) to say!