Wednesday, December 23, 2009

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


Part OnePart Two

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 – Bioshock, a lesson in replay value

bioshock RK: While I'm here, I might as well throw out my third game of the decade. It is, in my opinion, the best title on the 360: Bioshock.

Rapture, the underwater utopia built by Randian separatists, is the most engrossing atmosphere this side of City 17. It's an art deco wonderland gone to hell, splattered with blood, springing leaks everywhere you go. Anyone familiar with Irrational Games' System Shock 2 will be familiar with the audio logs sprinkled throughout the ruined city, shading in the beautiful architecture with the voices of its dead inhabitants, hopped-up on gene therapy and their own arrogance. 

It was also the first game to explicitly reference the quandary of choice in video games. While Bioshock sold itself on the ability to choose a path of good or evil, it seemed to be aware of the fact that there was, really, little choice. The levels were linear, despite appearing open-ended, and the game's principal moral choice ends up having little consequence. But, as it turns out - spoiler alert - you're a test-tube assassin, gentically programmed for the sole purpose of assassinating Rapture's founder, Andrew Ryan. You discover your origin during a showdown with Ryan, in which he orders you to kneel, stand, and run with the beguiling command "would you kindly?" Your condition becomes a metaphor for the impossibility of true choice in games.

I'm still in awe of Bioshock. Andrew - I remember you saying the game actually improved with its second playthrough. 

AC: It's definitely a game that benefits from a second playthrough. Aside from playing through twice to make the other choices (which in Bioshock, sadly, effect gameplay in very minor ways), the vast variety of armaments with which you're presented is guaranteed to make no two playthroughs the same.

Aside from the guns (mostly conventional, though their design is interesting) and your trusty melee weapon, the wrench, you're also given "plasmids," gene-modifying superpowers which let you encase things in ice, set them on fire, or electrify them - one even lets you send an angry swarm of bees after your opponents. Other modifications let you walk more quietly or explode things more easily or turn you invisible when you stand still.

In one playthrough, I'm a sneaky wrench assassin, with my swinging speed and melee attack jacked all the way up - foes can't hear my footsteps, and when they try to pursue I disappear into thin air. In the next, I'm an incendiary powerhouse, setting enemies on fire and sending grenades raining down on their heads. It's the rare game that not only encourages multiple playthroughs, but really needs them, to bring out all the nuances of the gameplay.

CG: I find it remarkable (in a good way), Andrew, that armament choices enhanced your enjoyment of a game all about the illusion of choice.  That's good design.  Plain and simple.

Chiming in third, I'll be the one to point out the game's flawed ending, with the caveat that I couldn't stop gushing about it until said final moments.  Why would a game that handled encounters and environments so well end with a minion-throwing superman of a boss?  Fontaine as a plasmid-soaked junkie is not an inappropriate image, but the encounter with Andrew Ryan is just so much better.  It builds up for hours and then completely deprives you of the battle entirely.  All your plasmids, all your weapons, rendered irrelevant.  Here's a golf club.  Would you kindly take care of business?

I do worry about the sequel.  I feel like a lot of BioShock's better devices - its use of audio logs, varied weaponry, and excellent environments - will feel a lot less fresh the second time around.  And they're starting to wear out their welcome in other titles.  I know I'm pretty tired of talking heads in the top corner of the screen, ordering me left and right (Borderlands much?).  This felt organic to the world of Rapture with its careful critique of the gaming artifice.  Games with lesser ambitions?  Not so much.

Andrew – Super Mario Galaxy, a fresh-faced throwback

i_13158AC: I've been agonizing over my third choice for a couple of days now - every time I think I've found one, something in me says "no, there has to be something more monumental." What I came up with after days of internal debate was Super Mario Galaxy.

The Nintendo of the new millennium has been on a rollercoaster of falling and rising fortunes, of fresh new ideas mixed with tired old ones, and throughout it all the company's attitude toward the "core" gamer, the crowd that still has a soft spot for them but has largely moved on to the Xbox and Playstation, has been ambivalent at best. Still, every now and again they pitch something to the old guard that really knocks it out of the park - Galaxy is just such a game.

It can't beat Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario 64 in terms of impact, but it brings back the varied environments and challenges of those games while wringing a few last drops of innovation out of the dry ol' dusty ol' boring ol' platforming genre. Playing it (or watching it played) can be breathtaking thanks to its planet-hopping concept, cinematic score, and gravity-bending physics, and the whole experience is driven home by one of the smoothest control schemes and the sharpest graphics the Wii can offer.

Hey, third-party studios, wonder why your stuff doesn't sell on the Wii? It might be marketing. But it might also be that you haven't put out a game that looks, feels and plays as gracefully as this one does.

CG: I, too, had a hard time picking my third choice - mostly because there were a bunch of good games whose overall effect on the industry isn't as cut-and-dry as say, a Bioshock or Civ IV.  There's also the looming shadow of something like World of Warcraft, whose popularity is almost frightening yet remains unplayed by any of us three. 

To get a little graphic, I shamelessly poopsocked [ed: WHAT.] Super Mario Galaxy - and I didn't even own it.  It remains the only Mario game in which I collected every last star (though I put it to bed rather than truck through the entirety of Super Luigi Galaxy).  You're right, though, Andrew.  It couldn't even begin to measure up to SMB 3 or Mario 64 in terms of impact.  What could possibly be left for a 3D platformer to revolutionize that 64 hadn't already attempted?  But it does, to me anyway, represent near-perfection of a genre that has long fallen by the wayside.  Sure, 2D platformers are on the rise (I'll casually name drop 'Splosion Man once more), but the third-dimension seems to have moved on open-worlds and first-person perspectives.  Galaxy succeeds because, like most of Miyamoto's creations, its core mechanics - mostly just making a plumber jump - are sound enough and fun enough to entertain the player.  I'll split hairs by saying I was saddened to see flight confined to the hub world, but...yadda yadda yadda Stones lyrics.

By freeing Mario from the confines of a solely-terrestial environment, Galaxy allowed for greater creativity in level design.   Not only did the crazy gravity mechanic create new ways to play, it also ingeniously updated some classics.  Ghost levels could be a series of floating space platforms.  Races could take place on rivers in the sky.  Smart camera restrictions turned some levels into variations on the 2D formula.

I barreled through Galaxy, unable to stop myself because it just so damn fun.  From a more critical perspective, however, I wonder where you go next.  Okay, you release a retro-flavored multiplayer 2D Mario.  And you can polish up a bunch of ideas that didn't make it into the first game.  But then what?  Isn't space the final frontier?

RK: Is it possible for a self-professed gamer to have never played through a Mario title?

If I am that rare species, forgive me, and shelter me. I've dicked around with the Kart games, and I've watched enough playthroughs to give me an idea of what it's all about. Except Galaxy. I've never so much as seen a gameplay video.

What I do know is this - in 2007, the year of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Bioshock and Mass Effect, Galaxy stole many a Game Of The Year award. A Wii title, in the 360's proudest year.

There's a parable, here, I'm certain.

Craig – Portal, and the advent of the first-person puzzler

3132PortalBox00 CG: The end of the decade saw more genre mash-ups than we ever could have hoped for (or wished to avoid).  Puzzle Quest taught us that you could use Bejeweled to play an RPG.  Countless scores of shooters, action-adventure games, and hero-based RTS titles milked the RPG for all it was worth, mining it for character customization options and persistent experience systems.  But one particular mash-up stands above them all: the first-person puzzler aka Portal.

It's not surprising that Portal's ancestry includes Narbacular Drop, an offbeat little title from a student team at the DigiPen Institute.  It's also not surprising that Valve saw their cool idea and immediately said, "Gimme!"  Then they slapped some vague Half-Life fiction on it, ran it through the Source Engine, and pumped some devious humor into it.  Oh yeah, and then Valve had the keen sense to pack it in with The Orange Box, thereby giving gamers hungry for more Half-Life a game they didn't even know they were ravenous for.

Portal's insidious level design, clever use of atmosphere, and endearing antagonist made for such a memorable experience, you'd think the game lasted 20 hours they way it ingrains itself into your memory.  It actually only takes five or so the first time through (at least for me, anyway).  But the pacing is just spot on.  The gradual ramping up of difficulty.  The introduction and - spoiler - destruction of the Companion Cube.   The You-Thought-It-Was-Over-Already Final Chapter that takes you behind-the-scenes at Aperture Science only to bring you face-to-...weird robot eyes with GLaDOS.  And your reward at the end: the witty pen of digital troubadour Jonathan Coulton.  Played all in one go, Portal makes for one hell of an afternoon.

AC: I can't say as I, ahem, poopsocked this one, but in retrospect I feel like I did - I had seen one trailer for Portal a few months before and that was all the hype it needed, an ad campaign that (like the game) did more with less. It's a short journey, but it's so sharp and inventive that every obstacle, nearly every line of dialogue is meaningful and memorable. No game-padding fetch quests, no cutscenes, no backtracking purposelessly trying to find the one NPC you have to talk to in order to move the story forward. It's a novel game and it's a tight game, with scarcely a second wasted. More like this please.

The problem with a game like Portal in an industry like this is that it'll be damn hard to craft the inevitable follow-up. Valve has done little more than confirm a sequel's development, but it has confirmed it. It'd be great if the second Portal was like the first one - sharp and short and full of impact, a digital punch to the cyber-gut. What's more likely is that the Portal sequel (and any further exploration of the universe) will be more like the Katamari Damacy sequels, each expanding on the core concept in ways that are pleasant and interesting but rarely as meaningful as the first entry. It's like eating cookies - eventually, no matter how good the cookie, you just have to say "I think I may throw up if I eat any more cookies, thank you."

RK: Gabe Newell, are you reading this? You must be a very happy man.

Andrew, I also dread the follow-up to Portal. But I'm surprised there haven't been more mini-expansions - Portal's witticism and modular design could easily accommodate scores of map packs.

This is where I think Portal dropped the ball: the game needed a map editor. Sure, a functional editor for the Xbox 360 might have been out of the question, but there's no reason the PC-gaming public couldn't be let loose upon the program. Who knows - Valve might scoop up a few extra designers, as they swapped Portal's devs from grad school.

Were the internet flooded by ham-fisted puzzles and graceless attempts to recreate the genius of the original, perhaps I would regret my proletariat urges. But couldn't Valve at least give us the chance to defile their masterpiece?