The Skinny: The Smithsonian gathered votes for its upcoming Art of Video Games and this week, I detail what I threw my weight behind. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here. Part four is here.Today, I talk about my picks from the last decade or so.
Era 5: Next Generation
Maybe it’s because they’re compressing so many games on more consoles than in any other era, but Next Generation presented me with tougher decisions than the other four time periods. But, more than that, it’s a little trickier to judge the lasting merit of cultural production in the moment it’s actually happening. I mean, it feels like I just played “Limbo” a couple of months ago and I know it’s great. However, the questions that come up with voting for The Art of Video Games are, “Is it great for the ages? Should it get the time capsule treatment?” (BTW, answer is a resounding “YES.”) While the games of 30 years ago may be hard to reckon with because they’re further back in memory, the games of today still feel a little too fresh, maybe. Anyway, one more round! In multiple parts! Because it’s so damn big!
Renowned designer Peter Molyneux fixates on the idea of games-as-Rohrschach-blot. Even if the execution doesn’t fully deliver on the idea, it still gets players to invest in the gameworld and character more deeply or in a different way. “Fable” is a game where you find yourself wondering on the idea of how good or bad you can be, then acting on it to see what the consequences are. Your behavior changes the way you look, too, and seeing how your character changed in the game’s wonderfully pointed visual style was as strong a motivator as the plot or gameplay. Once those devil horns started growing, you never wanted them to stop.
All three of the games on this ballot try to do something apart from the norm. “Jet Set Radio Future” uses graffiti and unfettered artistic expression as inspiration and “Halo 2” cedes much of its playtime to the Arbiter, a member of the villainous Covenant collective, basically forcing you to play as a bad guy. “Psychonauts” turns to neuroses and yearning for its gameplay and narrative ideas, resulting in hilarity and poignancy few games ever match. That’s why it got my vote.
Three great games faced off against each other in this genre. I didn’t play “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion,” (I know, “gasp!” Never been one for high fantasy.) but I love “Mass Effect 2” just as much as I do any game of the last five years. Except for maybe “Limbo.” It’s almost unfair for these two games to face off against each other. In “Limbo,” you have a game that’s been stripped down to raw gameplay and presentation, where nothing superfluous exists. Contrast that to “Mass Effect 2,” where players get thrown densely knotted threads and are encouraged to wander down as many of them as you want. In the end, I voted for “Limbo,” because it was maddeningly hard and dedicated to its own sensibilities in laser-focused fashion.
“Gears of War 2” and “Halo 3” are installments of franchises predicated on blockbuster action. Both series throw players into epic military conflicts where the fate of whole planets are at stake. They treat their weapons like fetish objects and entreat players to explode and eviscerate enemies with orgiastic abandon. The action in “Bioshock” is of a different sort. Oh, you’re still killing genetically modified freaks in Rapture, a failed underwater Objectivist paradise torn apart by civil war. The Art Deco aesthetic, the radio play narrative and the chillingly sweet rleatioship between the Big Daddies and the Little Sisters pull you into a well-sculpted gameworld. But the more compelling action in “BioShock” occurs on a philosophical level, where the player steers the mute protagonist Jack along a series of decisions that come to a surprising end. You don’t save the world in “BioShock”; hell, you don’t even really save Rapture. It’s still a ruin at the game’s end. But, depending on how you play, you can save a soul. That might be the most important action of all.
At first, I was upzzled as to why this game’s here as a Windows release when I knew it as a PlayStation 3 title. But that doesn’t matter. About as singularly psychedelic as games come nowadays, “Everyday” owes everything about its fusion of sound and visuals to the creativity of one guy. Jonathan Mak did the graphics, design and most impressively all the audio work all by himself. Every sound in the game comes from Mak’s guitar, with notes bending and ringing out in unexpected ways. Each level in the game offers its own abstract visual language where, once you start shooting things, elements bloom in startling and attractive shapes. Beautiful, in its own prickly way.
“Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic”
Should I vote for “World of Warcraft,” a game whose cultural global impact is undeniable but I’ve never played? Or there’s “Fallout 3,” which was huge and impressive but I failed to finish. Ultimately, “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” got my vote, for adding shades of morality to gameplay experiences. In titles like “Deus Ex,” video games had played around with consequence and branching story paths but “KOTOR” blew that idea out exponentially. Also, the light side vs. dark side duality made a perfect fit for a Star Wars game and it made “KOTOR” not just a great game, but one of the best Jedi vs. Sith experiences in years.
As soon as this page loaded in the browser, I knew I was voting for “Portal.” Part of it’s the “Portal 2” frenzy that led up to the sequel’s release. But, then again, that frenzy comes from the fact that “Portal” is a nearly universally beloved game. Humor, minimalism, a single, brilliantly executed gimmick comes together to create a narrative drawn in negative space. “Portal” does more with the stuff it doesn’t do than other games do with the tricks they do pull off.