15 February 2010

Remember that Past Decade? Top 5 Video Games

Throughout my commentary last month on the past year and decade I covered a lot of ground, mostly in film, television and music. More and more though, video games deserve a mention just as much as their other media counterparts. As games become both more cinematic (so much so that films appear to be more game-like) and ubiquitous in culture, their pop importance also increases. So, while I should have written this piece within the past decade, we aren't losing too much to reminisce a bit here.

Now if you consider yourself a hardcore gamer this list will undoubtedly frustrate you. The games I've targeted are either games with narratives powerful enough to challenge any film of this decade or innovations that have helped either their respective genres or contributed to simply intriguing gameplay. So, the following five video games are either the most innovative or interesting to me, primarily from a narrative or cultural standpoint, they certainly may not offer the greatest graphics, sound or gameplay. Because that's just the way we do things here at Morning Wood. Without further ado:

#5: Halo: Combat Evolved (2001), Xbox

The first Halo game not only set the standard for FPS for the next decade, but is also one of the most fun console games ever. This standard-setting nature runs throughout the whole game, from level design (both iconic multiplayer and single-player maps), gun selection (Probably one of my favourite elements is the limited, standardized weapons - i.e. shotgun, assault rifle, sniper, it's very easy to pick up and play, I have no idea what I'm doing or what gun to pick when playing something like Call of Duty [2003] for the first time) and characters (Is Master Chief the best badass of all time? The answer is yes). It elevated multiplayer experiences almost more than GoldenEye 007 (1997) did and provided a strong science fiction franchise that currently spans books, comics and a possible film. It also generally saved the Xbox's critical and commercial fortunes, facilitating one of the greatest growing creative markets in the business (although its increasingly tepid fanboy-appeasing nature of both the franchise and the market is disturbing). Its sequels were alright, but the original remains my favourite by far. Mostly for the pistol.

#4: Shadow of the Colossus (2005), PS2

This remains one of the most original adventure games I've ever played. It's so beautifully streamlined, a Zelda-like world without any of the overly complicated Zelda-esque drama. It's liberating, the only enemies to fight in one of the largest worlds to date are the sixteen eponymous Colossi.

The Colossi are absolutely huge and intimidating. The music throughout is restrained, as is character interaction, collecting and even the plot development. It all enfolds very naturally, rewarding the gamer for puzzle-solving and insight rather than vomiting out a scripted and procedural narrative. This is to say, that while all these elements are limited, the scope of the adventure is absolutely epic, a very well done contrast that provides for one of the only fun times I've had on a PS2.

#3: Conker's Bad Fur Day (2001), N64

Mostly for all of these reasons, but Conker is still one of the most impressive games I've ever played. It certainly has its share of severe, severe flaws, but it makes up for these with one of the greatest endings of all time that completely shifts tone, elucidates themes and justifies most of the preceding experience. It also gets points for reinvigorating a 3-D platform gameplay that had become stale and obsessed with cheeky character tropes, collecting and very limited and defined worlds. Conker works because it is a parody of culture as well as its own genre, being the only game ever to really do so (except maybe Gex) it ranks pretty high here.

#2: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), PS2

GTA: VC was neither the first GTA game to implement the sandbox-style play (that was GTA III [2001]) nor is it necessarily the best in the series (that is GTA IV [2008]). Vice City gets its spot here for a few reasons, namely because it's the Henry Ford of the GTA Franchise. It didn't invent the sandbox genre, but it popularized it incredibly, leading to a change in all future Spider-Man games, as well as monstrosities like Prototype (2009); in general providing for an entirely new concept of gameplay that was widely popular in the past decade. Vice City also gets points for being one of the most widely known games in pop culture at the time. Observe:

Not only would this never work with a game like Halo, but its core format is instantly recognizable in parody. It was an important part of early 21st-Century zeitgeist, whether it be known for its excessive sex and violence, innovative game design or simply its fun. Vice City is here because its massive popularity alone changed video games more than any other game in the franchise.

#1: Braid (2008), Xbox Live Arcade

And I made sure #1 would be a game you've never heard of. Braid is an excellent, excellent video game available first in Xbox Live Arcade, later on PC, Mac and PS3, so no excuse to not play it right now. It is like a time-travel version of Super Mario Bros. (1985) that both refreshes the 2-D platformer in both gameplay and narrative. In fact I'll argue it has the single most revolutionary ending of any game I've ever played, one that deepens the plot, shifts previous character conceptions and makes you struggle to understand the assumptions you've made about any game you've ever played. Yes, without giving too much away, it is that good. Here is a sample of its time-traveling game play innovation through the mind of Soulja Boy:

Compelling stuff. Man I've got to quit defending Soulja Boy. Anyway, there's a lot here in a very small, indie video game package, which could also provide a foundation to game development as the means of production become cheaper and more accessible (not unlike the explosion of indie film talent in the late 1980s / early 1990s). The 2010s could very well see a rise in independent video game developers, which would of course be a great creative boon to an industry that, as I already mentioned, is tending to become stale and over-catered to a narrowing fanbase of Mountain Dew-drinking college nerds. We'll see what happens.

Honourable Mentions:

In all honesty, everyone knows the best game of the past decade was BioShock (2007), Xbox 360, by all rights this is the most fantastic game, by theme story, style and innovation that any one has ever played. Its influence in the industry as of yet is not clear yet, however, my guess is it will tend to be LOST-like (many imitators, no one comes close, ends up shitting the industry). This decade also saw the rise of truly cultural movements like World of Warcraft (2004), Mac/PC and Guitar Hero (2005), PS2, neither of which I can ever say is a good game without choking on my own blood and vomit. We also saw about thirty-thousand versions of Call of Duty, which I really contend only further re-hash an identical concept in slightly new directions (although props to Modern Warfare [2007] for having a lot of innovative levels and character surpises, Modern Warfare 2 [2009] for fucking that all up with an overemphasis on an addictively rewarding multiplayer that makes casual pick-up gaming obsolete). Also, apparently Fallout 3 (2008) and Half-Life 2 (2004) are really good. I've never played both. I don't care. Here is another pretty good list for your perusal (not just because we shared a lot of the same picks!).

Either way, this was certainly Video Game's decade and as more and more movies turn out really really shitty, who knows how the demographics will shift in the following ten years. Undoubtedly, the industry will have to grow up sooner or later and come out with some more authentically compelling games, games like the five here to continue its growth as a serious form of media.

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