Dec 222008

Since I’ve revealed my game of the year as part of Michael Abbott’s 3-Part Holiday Brainy Gamer Podcast Special (I’m in part 2, but listen to them all), I’ll go ahead and cap off my view of the year in games. Go over there and listen to all three volumes, then come back for more of my views (or visit some of those other wonderful blogs). Hopefully this will tide you over while I’m out of town and away from high-throughput intertubes.

Please keep in mind while reading this that the number of great games I didn’t play this year is almost as large as the number of great games that I did. Some of that is due to the fact that the genre just didn’t interest me (Gears 2, Left 4 Dead), some if it is due to the fact that a bunch of really great, long games all got released at the almost the same damn time, and I just didn’t have the time or money to get to some of them (Fable II, Far Cry 2). And then, I just don’t own a PS3 so some potential greats (LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4, PixelJunk Eden) got missed there as well. So if there’s something you think really ought to be listed in the greats, just assume I never had a chance to play it.

I know I chose one single favorite for Michael’s podcast, but that’s not really how I felt about the year in games. There wasn’t really, to my mind, one game that towered over all others. Instead of a big number one, allow me to designate…

Eight Games That Deserved Your Attention:
Not everyone will enjoy Braid, and I would not argue that everyone should. Although the game is easy enough to play, its puzzles can be very tough, and the underlying narrative is difficult to grasp. You don’t owe Jonathan Blow a second chance to grab you if you find his design or prose off-putting. Despite its shortcomings, however, Braid may be one of the deepest games this year, one in which you can still find something new and interesting on your third or fourth play-through. Worlds 4 and 1 may be the most mind-blowing experiences available in a game this year.

Fallout 3
This game has its flaws and its rough spots, especially in organizing its central narrative. Nonetheless, the vast, desolate open world provides one of the most compelling experiences to be had this year. The Wasteland’s richly-imagined Hobbesian state of nature argues poignantly against the idea that we as individuals or societies can successfully go it alone.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
Lots of modes, lots of fun, lots of hard. I mean god damn this game gets hard real fast. Extremely pretty despite being graphically stripped to the bone, Geometry Wars 2 will suck down the hours very quickly.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village
In a year marked by spectacular high-resolution, open-world games built on violence, it’s amazing that a 2-D adventure game based on brain teasers can seriously challenge for game of the year. But Professor Layton and the Curious Village is a wonderful, charming experience that never makes you feel like you’ve wasted your time. Why didn’t anyone think of this before? Why haven’t the sequels arrived here yet? Come on, Level 5, you’re killing me!

No More Heroes
Like Braid, a lot of people found it to be off-putting in one aspect or another. Its emphasis on structure over content, however, and its vicious lampooning of popular culture, gamers, and games themselves is something everyone should try to wrap their minds around. The reason I chose it as my favorite is that it has done the most of any game this year. to change the way I think about games and my criticism of them.

Wii Fit
While the PS3 and XBox 360 have taken steps to position themselves as high-powered home entertainment devices, Nintendo has started taking its hardware more in the direction of a lifestyle choice. Derided by most of the hardcore crowd, Wii Fit may not even be a game in any traditional sense. But it serves as the year’s strongest symbol of the waning importance of the existing hardcore base to Nintendo’s strategy.

The World Ends With You
Braid made the most complete effort to fuse story and mechanics, but the year’s best example of a game using mechanics to enforce its central ideas comes from The World Ends With You. Rewarding the characters with experience when the player turns off the DS and hangs out with his friends delivers the game’s pro-friendship message more effectively than a dozen talky cutscenes.

World of Goo
Creepy and cute, charming and weird, World of Goo helps make the case that the puzzle game remains one of the more vital and creative genres. A surprising diversity of structural problems are presented, lightly layered in with metaphors about consumer society, beauty, and creativity. The goos are delicious, but they don’t know it.

Pleasant Surprise:
de Blob
I bought this game in the calm before the storm primarily because some commenter at Mitch Krpata’s blog just wouldn’t shut up about it. It turned out to be really fun. Basically the aim is to turn a drab professional city into a bright, colorful party. Not everything it tries works, but overall de Blob succeeds in creating a fun experience good for all ages.

Unpleasant Surprise:
Tales of Vesperia
Please understand that this is coming from a person who genuinely loved Tales of Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss. I did not come to this expecting Vesperia to compete with the best of RPG storylines. However, the writing was slipshod and repetitive, the dungeon design made the whole game into a slog, the mechanics in general were excessively elaborate, and the ally AI hasn’t improved measurably. The game’s great graphical beauty and the one or two bright spots in its story can’t rescue it. It was better than the dismal Tales of Legendia, but not by much.

Best Moment in a Game:
Entering the wasteland in Fallout 3
In leaving the Vault, you are truly born. Too bad you’ve been born into the Hobbesian state of nature.

Worst Moment In a Game:
The end of Prince of Persia
Congratulations! Now participate as we completely nullify your understanding of the characters, monetary investment in the game, and sense of achievement!

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:
Osaka Castle, Yakuza 2
As Kiryu approaches, Osaka Castle splits in two, to reveal an identical Osaka Castle hidden beneath. Only this castle is made of gold. This fantastic transformation of a national landmark is never mentioned by the characters.

Genre in Crisis:
the JRPG
I think I’m through with them. The bloated faux-epic storylines, appalling voice acting, inane writing, and unrelenting reliance on grind have sapped most recent entries of all emotional impact and potential for meaning. The really vital recent games in the genre (Persona 3, The World Ends with You) have dealt in smaller stakes, connected more closely with characters, and used novel mechanics. Shake up your formulas and hire some damn writers.

Please be more careful with…
Found story elements
The idea that people record their most private thoughts out loud and then leave them lying around any old place boggles the mind and defeats the imagination. I like finding the pieces of a story for myself, but I prefer the approach of Fallout 3, where non-speaking parts of the environment tell the story, and the speech logs largely appear in reasonable places (Deus Ex had some of the same virtues). Done right, found story unfolds like an engaging mystery; done wrong, it comes off worse than a bland, talky, expository cutscene.

Bin This Practice:
The fall glut
For next year I am instituting a strict 2 game per month rule. That is, I will only buy two games that are released in a given month. I will not save the extras for next year anymore: I simply won’t buy them, ever. The best you can hope for from me is that I’ll rent. I’m willing to be a little more relaxed on indies and downloadables, but these tend to have a more sane release schedule anyway. Holding everything for fall is terrible for gamers and terrible for the industry: it crowds the market, drowns quality or quirky games beneath big-buzz titles, and led to several companies getting burned this year because the economy collapsed right before their prime release period. Take a lesson from every other entertainment industry and spread your releases out across the year. I’m not saying you can’t have a few peak weekends, but dumping more than half the major releases in two months is a recipe for bad sales and confused consumers. Get your shit together, people. Or rather, spread it out.

What Happened To…
Fatal Frame 4
Seriously, what the hell happened? I saw some cool screens, Suda attached, a proposed October release date, and then… nothing. Did someone inadvertently exorcise the game from reality while taking a screenshot?

  3 Responses to “Obligatory "Year in Games" Post 2008”

  1. Personally, I'd like to know "what happened to" Rainy Woods. A Twin Peaks inspired crime solving game? Count me in.

  2. Speaking of genre in crisis: is The Crystal Bearers the new Duke Nukem Forever?

    Anti-genre note: for my money, WiiMusic is tons more fun than Rockband, etc…

  3. Wow, the buzz around Geometry Wars II was furious for about a month and then… POOF gone. (FWIW I never played it)

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