Monday, December 21, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: The Decade in Games, Part One

aught-games-1Part TwoPart Three 

Rob Kunzig, Craig Getting and Andrew Cunningham have spent most of the decade with their eyes glued to their monitors and television sets, and over the next three days each will pick his three favorite games from the decade and offer them up for group discussion. The fruits of their labor await after the jump.

Rob – Half-Life 2 and the perfection of the first-person shooter

625502-hl2box_large RK: Let's face it: the aughts belonged to First Person Shooters, and the genre's pinnacle came in 2004 with Valve's Half-Life 2. I've already gushed about the game's near-perfection. Its technical excellence has been noted, exalted and retold in countless retrospectives. Instead of telling you why Half-Life 2 is my favorite game of the decade, let me tell you what it did to me.

I bought the game during Thanksgiving break during my freshman year of college, doubtful it would run on my parents’ aging desktop or my impotent laptop. Still, my memories of Half-Life were so fond that a $50 gamble was more than worth it. The five-disc install finished around 10:00 p.m. With the house quiet around me, I clamped on a pair of headphones and booted up the game.

Half-Life 2 unfurled around me at a silky 40 frames per second. My train rattled through the blighted outskirts of City 17. My fellow travelers, clad in identical blue jumpsuits, kept to themselves. We pulled into a train station - high, glass-paned ceiling, probably elegant in better repair - and disembarked. As soon as I stepped on the platform, a humming drone the size of a soccer ball zipped to my face and snapped a picture. My presence was logged in the most seamless, convincing dystopia I've ever played - no, lived - in many years of gaming.

I didn't get out of the chair until 3:30 a.m.

I'm suspicious of the term "immersive" when used as praise for videogames - like "cinematic," it more often than not means the game in question tries to be something it isn't. But as it applies to Half-Life 2, I can only agree. More than crafting an excellent game (which, by the way, they did), Valve conjured a world with all an artistry, subtlety and elegance that will be remembered not as an artful game, but as art, no qualifier.

Am I a victim of nostalgia, or is my hyperbole on target?

AC: I would say that you're being a bit hyperbolic there, but my praise for Half-Life 2 seems faint only when compared to yours. Simply put, Half-life 2 showed me the full potential of the first-person shooter genre.

This game brought some sorely-needed variety to the running-and-gunning ushered in by Doom and Quake and Halo and, indeed, the original Half-Life. Most FPS games stop with "here's your gun, maggot," perhaps pausing later on in the game to say "here's a bigger gun." Half-Life 2 did that, but then said "oh, you're bored with the gun? Here's a boat. Bored with the boat? Here's a boat-mounted machine gun. Tired of that? Here's a survival-horror segment, and a driving segment, and here's something that will let you call your animal friends to do your bidding" and on and on until the very end of the game. No two firefights or scripted events were exactly the same, and that feeling pulls you in and doesn't let go until the credits roll.

Some say that the episodic follow-ups to Half-Life 2 are disappointing because of the development time that elapses between episodes - this is certainly true, but there bite-sized nuggets of Half-Life also lose some of the amazing variety that was their predecessor's hallmark. Art or not, it's hard to think of an FPS before or since that has delivered quite as much in ten-to-fifteen hours.

CG: Rob, your hyperbole is not that far off the mark. Half-Life 2 still stands up, not only because of its less-is-more narrative and constantly evolving gameplay, but because of its characters. Eli and Alyx Vance may be two of the best non-playable characters in a game, ever. Robert Guillaume positively shines in his Eli voice work, an area of game production too often neglected, and Eli's crowbar-for-a-leg prosthetic implies that some serious shit went down prior to Gordon's arrival. Alyx moves through the game world fluidly and becomes a valuable combat asset as the episodes progress. Valve's decision to limit Alyx's "helpful" dialogue - the downfall of many a charming NPC (I'm looking at you, Claptrap) - made her all the more endearing in a world of Cortanas and clue-dropping audio logs.

I agree with your episode assessment in part, Andrew. Episode One feels a bit humdrum, mostly because it takes place primarily in City 17, an area you're already familiar with after Half-Life 2. Episode Two, on the other hand, shows Valve back at their old tricks - which is to say, coming up with new tricks left and right, whether it be poisonous antlions or strider-popping Magnusson devices. Then there are the Hunters, one of the most vicious enemies in the franchise. Devious, cunning, and extremely frustrating, they created encounters wholly different from those of previous installments.

What's nice about playing Half-Life 2 now is that it exists before the Regenerating Health phenomenon, before the realistic limiting of how many weapons with which a character might travel. Its play style being decidedly old-school, it's impressive that from an aesthetic and narrative standpoint it still blows away most of the stuff being churned out today.

Craig – A Rite of Passage

screen CG: Technical innovations throughout the decade brought us bigger, explodier, shootier games each year. Most AAA titles these days are Wagnerian in scope, but (save the few we're mentioning here) quite hollow inside. In reaction, the indie gaming scene has done its fair share of exploding, taking advantage of the blogosphere to bring attention to its finest offerings. And I can think of none better than Passage.

I wrote extensively about this game a year ago, and all of my feelings hold true today. Developer Jason Rohrer grabbed the Games As Art debate by the lapels, sat it down in front of Passage, and we all shut up. Or at least, we should have. In November, developer Chris Hecker gave a keynote address at the IGDA Leadership Forum, imploring the industry ask the all important "Why?" before embarking on any project. He believes developers often neglect to think about what their game might be trying to express, what it might say about the world. If he didn't, Hecker should have invoked Rohrer, who created Passage after witnessing a close friend pass away. And it's not just fellow indie folks rallying around Rohrer's work. At the 2008 Game Developer's Conference, Ubisoft's Clint Hocking declared during a speech that Passage made him cry. It's a tiny game, to be sure, but this is big stuff.

To me, Passage is of a piece with Pixar's Up. They both address aging, death, and companionship, but do so in mediums generally associated with children. Rohrer lures the adult player in with his pixel art and simple controls, much as Pixar does the adult viewer with its colorful characters and whimsical scores. The emotional punch to the gut is there, however, lying in wait.

If and when there is substantial real estate in the art community for video games, we will likely be looking back at Passage as a major turning point.

AC: I'm pleased to see Passage make it onto a list of mostly mainstream or just-off-the-beaten-path games.

Myself, I hope that Passage is the seed that eventually germinates into something larger, if that makes sense, and Clint Hocking's response to the game makes me think this notion isn't so crazy - one day, perhaps the production values and the "game-ness" of our present big-budget big-studio-backed titles can come together with the raw emotional core of Rohrer's offerings to create something new, something that will keep the Roger Eberts and Jack Thompsons of the world from looking down their noses at gaming like the nerdy new kid in class that it sometimes is. The mainstream media has (erroneously) claimed, based on some superficial similarities, that gaming has already found its Citizen Kane - by following Rohrer's example I think we'll eventually find a game that comes closer to filling that role.

RK: Passage is Jason Rohrer writ large - which is, really, gaming writ small. With a handful of kilobites, Rohrer managed to deliver more emotional impact than almost any big-budget title released this generation. The man works with an aging laptop in the middle of a meadow - a natural meadow, painstakingly cultivated in upstate New York - and subsists mainly on a diet of grains and vegetables, while the gaming-industrial complex churns along, fueled by Mountain Dew and Doritos.

Passage reminds of the primal spark that started this whole thing - pioneers trying to adapt their boundless imagination to a limited medium. Next to Passage, big-budget shooters look shamefully clunky and, despite their deep coffers, primitive as well.

Andrew – Okami, The best game no one played

270511-okami_boxart AC: My first game is Okami, and before I start I insist that everyone pour one out for Clover Studios.

Okami, released in 2006 for the Playstation 2 and then later re-released for the Wii, is one of those games that manages to be greater than the sum of its parts. An adventure game in the Legend of Zelda mold, there have been deeper game mechanics and better stories and better combat, but playing Okami was more fun than any Zelda game had been in years, and it didn't hurt that its art direction and writing were unparalleled. Sales were never as good as they deserved to be, as happens all too often, but I guess that makes Okami that much more precious to those few who actually played it.

It's the rare gimmick-driven game that isn't defined by its gimmick - drawing bombs in the air and slashing through enemies with your celestial brush is certainly an integral part of the experience, but when I think of Okami the first things that come to mind are meadows popping back to life as I revive them, or of watching flowers spring up in Amaterasu's wake as she runs across a gorgeous landscape. The news of a Nintendo DS-borne sequel is welcome, but nothing can best the original.

CG: Let me first admit that I never played Okami. The later years of the PS2's lifecycle saw me buy into lots of hype (I even went so far as to rent Criterion's Black only to realize that walls exploding John Woo-style aren't everything), and I was just as psyched as anyone for Okami's release. It just escaped me somehow.

Clover's genius is not lost on me, however. I poured hours into Viewtiful Joe, their Comix Zone-meets-Devil May Cry brawler. The game had platforming, time-bending combat, and (like Okami) a slick art direction that lent itself to the fiction of a man sucked into a parallel universe of movie references. I appreciated the 2.5D perspective, a design trick that's lending a lot of retro appeal to modern downloadables like Shadow Complex and 'Splosion Man.

To talk specifically about their art direction: Clover wasn't afraid to make colorful games. As the AAA big boys began to journey further down into an Uncanny Valley of beige realism, Clover dared to use bright, eye-catching colors, and then to incorporate that into its games. When you were low on health in Viewtiful Joe, the screen became grainy and grayish. Success in Okami meant bringing beauty to a drab environment (something copied recently in Pandemic's The Saboteur). Not only were their visuals daring, they felt organically tied to gameplay. Pour one out, indeed.

RK: I haven't played a single Clover title, though I'll pour one out nonetheless. However, I remember both times I've seen Okami in action. Andrew, you showed me the trailer in autumn 2005, and I remember thinking, with total certainty: this game will be amazing. I next saw it a year later, sitting (kinda drunk) on your floor, watching you play through a level. I was spellbound. I don't think I ever got over the fact that flowers sprung from the ground you walked on.

The story of Clover has become industry apocrypha. Okami is symbolic of every artistically ambitious and commercially stagnant game made in the latter-half of the aughts.

Tune in tomorrow for the continuation of the story, same bat time, same bat channel!