The Metropolis Remix is here.

Ages ago, we started on an ambitious– perhaps over-ambitious –project: re-scoring all of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis with a diverse soundtrack pulled from about 25  years of video games. And now, after much waiting, hard work, complications, and kind of forgetting about it a couple times, it’s finally done. Watch it here, and tell your friends, because we are really proud of this one.

Why did you do this? We love film, and we love games.

Come on. Be more specific.
Well, we also wanted to say something about gaming and its place as an art. Many of the games we used music from– most, in fact –are from the 16-bit era or earlier. These are games that, like Metropolis, are from the infancy of their medium. But, like Metropolis, that didn’t hold them back: games like Final Fantasy VI, Mother 3, and Chrono Trigger tired to tell epic, emotionally-intense, and sweeping stories, while games like Super Metroid use their relatively “primitive” graphics and sound to create an incredibly immersive and mysterious world.

There’s a reason why Metropolis is a legendary film. It’s not just because the special effects still have an impressive scale and awe to them, or because it tells a complex and subtle story (it really, really doesn’t). It’s because, in an era of film defined by its limitations– missing even sound! –Lang recognized those limitations and used the technology at his disposal to make them irrelevant. With black-and-white, low-resolution film, he created a level of grand spectacle that didn’t get surpassed until Star Wars, 50 years later. And that’s what, for their entire history, games have been doing. Game music, for decades, didn’t have orchestras at its disposal– it had between four and eight channels of MIDI synthesizers, and game composers found new types of musical theory, new compositional techniques, and a whole new way to approach musical storytelling that fit both their technological constraints and the demands of their medium.

Why this version of Metropolis?
Wow, you really know your film history. Yes, there’s a few different versions of Metropolis, including one that’s wholly remastered and contains a lot of lost footage. We went with a slightly earlier one for a few reasons. The simplest ones are length (it’s already two hours long and was a huge amount of work as is without adding another half-hour of footage) and to try and be slightly less copyright-infringey (the copyright on Metropolis has always been dodgy– for 50 years it was public domain, Lang’s estate doesn’t see a penny from it now, and we decided to use an earlier cut from when it was public domain rather than the restored version currently being sold).

We also used the older, less complete version because it fit our vision a little better. If we wanted to engage with the film’s legacy, this is the cut to use– for decades it was the most complete and available. It’s similar to the one that Giorgio Moroder released with a pop music soundtrack (one of our inspirations), and, even incomplete, is the one that really represents what Metropolis meant for much of its history. There’s also the irony that, for about 60 years, the film’s original score was considered lost, and the version we used originally had only an adaptation of what remained of the soundtrack. There’s a certain pride to the fact that we’re joining in the long tradition of artists and producers who have re-scored this movie, from Adam Ant to the BBC’s electronics studio.

Were there any songs you used for specific reasons?
It’s not just about the music fitting–there’s a few songs that we picked because of interesting resonances between game and film (the very first piece of music we put in was Sonic 2’s “Metropolis Zone”). Metropolis casts a long shadow, and you can feel its influence in Final Fantasy, Mother 3, and others. Final Fantasy‘s “Shin Ra Theme” and “Magitek Factory” were pieces we’d decided on using before we even knew where they’d fit, and Mother 3‘s “Tragic Reconstruction” and “Natural Killer Cyborg” were such perfect tracks from name alone that we held onto them for weeks until we knew exactly where they needed to be. Similarly, the opportunity to use a System Shock 2 track behind the awakening of the robo-Maria– a near-doppelganger for that game’s SHODAN –was too big a temptation to pass up, as was using the Cyberdemon’s theme from Doom for its programming.

Not to say that there’s not moments where the opposite is the case: Donkey Kong Country is a far cry removed from German Expressionism, but the “Fear Factory” scene in the movie is one of our proudest moments. And while we didn’t have to use Mega Man 2‘s music for the famous “sexy robo-striptease mind control” scene, come on– what were supposed to do, not use Mega Man 2 music?

Is there a cover I can print off and use for the DVDs of this I’m going to make and give to all my friends?
Why yes, wildly-enthusiastic voice, there is!

metro-poster

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The Importance of Not Being Francis York Morgan

How can you not love this guy?

How can you not love this guy?

Deadly Premonition is a strange, strange game. Strange both in the fact that the cult hit budget title jam-packed with weird, quirky moments, mildly insane writing, and off-beat voice acting. But also strange in the sense that we’ve given it almost two full playthroughs and we’re still not sure if it’s good or not. The combat gameplay’s atrocious, the open-world is perhaps one of the clumsiest ever implemented, the story is deranged, and the whole thing constantly veers between good, so bad-it’s-good, and bad.

There’s one part of the game that we unreservedly love though, and the reason you should pay the pocket change needed to pick it up: its hero, Francis York Morgan. He’s well-written, well-acted, funny, and likeable, sure. But he’s also, honestly, one of the most important protagonists in gaming– one who’s wholly unique, one who could only exist in this particular medium, and one that should be studied by anyone trying to create games. (WARNING: Spoilers for Deadly Premonition follow.)

Francis York Morgan– just call him York, everybody else does –is a bit of an oddball. He’s basically all the weird parts of Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, Agent Mulder from The X-Files, and a hefty dose of schizophrenia. He receives messages in his coffee, is obsessed with 80’s movies, and is cocky to the point of being unbearable. He’s also incredibly kind-hearted, brilliant, a crack shot, and the FBI’s greatest detective. This is what brings him to the sleepy town of Greenvale: he’s investigating the murder of a young girl, believing it to be connected to a string of other cases he’s worked on.

"My coffee warned me about this Zach."

“My coffee warned me about this Zach.”

But what really makes York special is his imaginary friend. He speaks constantly to a “Zach”– a secondary personality that helps him solve mysteries, tells him where to go, and gives him extraordinary deductive powers and psychic sensitivity. This Zach, you’ll realize fairly early on, is you, the player. When you nail one of the game’s enemies in the head, York mutters “great shot, Zach!” When you open the start menu, it takes the form of the Red Room– the dimension that Zach resides in, outside of time (thus pausing the game). When working on a crime scene, you find the clues that are highlighted and point them out to York, who makes deductions. Even the game’s quick-time events have a neat justification– they all occur at times when York is panicking and scared, and you hammering buttons and waggling sticks is to keep him focused and brave.

This is a brilliant overlap of game design and narrative. First, and most obviously, it provides a great way to frame York’s actions as a player character. He’s erratic, detached, and unpredictable because he’s never really in control, instead taking orders from a being outside the world. York never questions Zach– if you want to blow off the case to go fishing, drive around in the rain, collect the skeleton of a separate, unrelated murder victim, you can. York trusts you completely, and won’t even eat or shave unless Zach tells him he needs to. At one point, York is captured and you need to go find another character and guide them to him. What in other games is immersion-breaking– the disconnect between the player and their avatar –is here a central part of the story. York could only exist in games because the central element of his internal conflict, his mental illness and his need for a friend to guid and protect him, is expressed entirely as a form of game mechanics.

York and Zach's discussions are the only things that make the driving sections bearable.

York and Zach’s discussions are the only things that make the driving sections bearable.

It’s also just wonderful storytelling, as it creates a bond between player and protagonist. We’d routinely throw the game’s other characters out of the car so that we could drive alone with York, talking about the Superman movies and Jaws. Although a lot of the game’s writing is strange and nonsensical, the moments between Zack and York always feel warm and friendly, putting the serial killer mystery on the back burner so that York can talk about movies or ask you for dating advice. Whereas most game heroes are loners, York actively reaches out to the player. And even though there’s murders to solve, lives to save, and coffee to drink, Deadly Premonition is at its core the story of York and Zach’s relationship. If Zach wasn’t the player, the climactic twist– [highlight to reveal] that Zach is York’s childhood self who suffered a grievous trauma, and York has been looking after their shared body for years, talking to Zach and giving Zach control to try and draw him back into the real world –would seem hokey. The twist seems tired when told in third-person, but when you’re involved in the story, when it’s about you and York’s relationship, it’s a surprising and powerful moment. Like Bioshock, it’s a twist that redefines your role in the game, turning the “player” of the game into a real character in it. It’s not exactly Bioshock’s level of  writing excellence and wit, but it’s an incredibly interesting and unique twist in the middle of a game that seemed like a cheesy, weird horror-comedy.

Not quite as good a character as Andrew Ryan, but just as...memorable.

Not quite as good a character as Andrew Ryan, but just as…memorable.

Like Bioshock, Deadly Premonition (and there’s a sentence you never thought you’d see game critics start) is about finding an emotional core to what the player accepts as standard mechanics. Whereas Bioshock took player agency as its core–making the player the protagonist, not just their controller — Premonition is about finding the emotion implicit in the difference between the player and their protagonist. York is brave and professional (one of the best lines in the game is when he tells a supernatural monster with godlike power that “you’re a first-degree murderer. And I’m a federal agent. Of course you’re going to lose.”), but he’s also profoundly lonely, more scared by falling in love than by ghosts and demons. He may seem like a super-detective with no social skills to other characters, but the player sees him in his intimate moments, when he’s weak and needs help. When he’s in the most dangerous situations, it’s not just an issue of the player being threatened, but the character that they’ve been protecting and guiding. It changes the way you look at a character, and creates a relationship between them and you that wouldn’t exist in another game.

The game’s ending is an especially beautiful use of this. By the end of the game, York’s trauma is revealed. He’s faced down the monster responsible for his parents’ deaths, he’s stopped the killings he’s spent years chasing, and he’s pulled Zach back into the world. But there’s a problem: Zach no longer needs him. Not only that, but Emily, the woman that York loved, is dead. And so you lie down in your hotel room. You discuss the case, as you have at the end of every mission, and talk about what’s happening next. And the protagonist asks the player if they’re ready to say goodbye.You can keep playing if you select “no,” but because the game is fundamentally about your relationship with York it doesn’t end until that relationship does.  The last action you, as a player take– the last button you press –is selecting “yes.” From that point on, the story plays out via cutscene, as you can only watch as the character you’ve spent the game guiding goes on to live his life without you. For all of Deadly Premonition‘s faults– Dreamcast-level graphics, awful combat, out-of-place and poorly-thought-out open world, bizarre survival mechanics, strange writing, unbelievable characters, unbalanced weapons, unintuitive sidequests, fishing minigames, uneven pacing –it’s a fantastic ending, one that mines the mechanics of the game for a wealth of emotion.

Chaos vs. Order: The Eternal Struggle

“You have destroyed so much– what is it exactly that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not.”
–Wallace Breen, Half-Life 2

Video game plots have long been accused of being the run of the mill good vs. evil stories. And for the most part that’s true, even the best game plots often feature mostly black and white characters and or morality systems with purely good and evil options. But the real underlying conflict that most gameplay features is actually not good vs. evil, but the struggle between order and chaos. This is probably, in part, due to the element of agency in gaming– unlike other mediums, the core principle of the medium is about the player having freedom in a premade world.

So in this article, we’re going to shed some light on this never ending battle and show how some of your favorite games portray this eternal conflict.

The Player as an Agent of Chaos

Link may be the messiah, but keep him away from your house.

Link may be the messiah, but keep him away from your house.

This is really the underlying conflict in the majority of video games on the market. The player controlled character invades an area controlled by the enemy with carefully laid out obstacles, traps, puzzles, enemy formations, etc. Essentially a carefully set-up environment that the player character is meant to ride roughshod through (like that time you knocked over that block tower your little brother was building). Despite what the background story may say about how the villains are invading and disrupting the status-quo (also chaos vs. order), when you take over and start actually playing through the levels, you’re wreaking havoc on the carefully arranged battlements set up by the enemy. Even something as grotesque as the R-Type series’s Bydo Empire, a strange alien army composed of machines and deformed flesh, is still an organized group that spends time building and fortifying defenses that you need to penetrate/destroy. Even more mundane gameplay activities, like smashing pots and slicing up carefully groomed bushes for cash in the Zelda series, involve messing up or destroying some other character’s hard work.

Hire at your own risk!

Hire at your own risk!

Perhaps the game series that is the most honest about this perpetual conflict is the famous Grand Theft Auto series, which might be one of the reasons we like it so much. Obviously rampaging around the city fighting the cops makes you a force of chaos, but the story missions carry out this theme just as much, especially in IV. Niko Bellic is honestly just as dangerous to his employers as he is to everyone else in the city. At least 6 (more depending on some of the choices you make) mission givers are killed by Niko himself and several more are killed or brought down by the whirlwind of danger surrounding him. He not only disrupts the order of Liberty City, but disrupts the order of its criminal underworld as well. GTA: Vice City’s protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, takes a slightly different approach. Anyone who’s played the game knows that Vercetti deals out as much chaos as any other GTA protagonist, but during the second half of the story Tommy does begin to restore some order to the criminal empire he just decimated. After destroying Ricardo Diaz’s organization halfway through the game, Vercetti’s focus shifts toward building up his own organization, which causes a bit of a gameplay shift. He purchases businesses around the city and builds them up as branches of his own criminal empire. Even though the missions for the businesses usually involve wreaking havoc against someone else, you still have the sense that you’re building something, which makes Vice City a little bit more toward the middle on the order/chaos spectrum.

Bringing Order to Chaos

It's always satisfying to see your cities grow and evolve.

It’s always satisfying to see your cities grow and evolve.

This is the approach that most strategy games take, where your entire goal is to build your own army or settlement from resources that you collect. One of the best examples of a game in this category is the Civilization series, where you literally start off in an untamed wilderness and must build and progress your own society through the different periods of history. While you can choose to wage war against rival civilizations in order to win the game, you can also win via negotiation, science, art and other less chaotic methods, which places the Civilization games firmly on the order end of the spectrum. You even build your society’s values, transitioning from a chaotic tribe intent only on survival to a culture with a very focused and specific set of principles. Even further in the order category are titles like SimCity, the Tycoon games, and the strangely popular Euro Truck Simulator, where the entire goal of the game is to manage something in an orderly fashion, whether that be a city, an amusement park, a zoo, or any of the other kinds of businesses the Tycoon games feature. While these kinds of games certainly have a dedicated following, there aren’t nearly as many titles that focus on creating order. There are probably a number of reasons for this but perhaps the main one is simply that causing chaos is just more fun. Even in SimCity, causing natural disasters and watching buildings topple is very enjoyable, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be an event the player wants to avoid. Despite this, these kinds of games can provide a welcome change of pace and we may see some intresting twists on gameplay dealing with bringing order to chaos in years to come.

Surviving in a Chaotic World

Remnants of a normal life.

Remnants of a normal life.

Games that fit into this category don’t quite belong on the order to chaos spectrum like the games mentioned above do. Instead, the locations these games take place in are designed to be chaotic and the goal is to push through and survive in a harsh environment. Many survival horror games like Silent Hill 2 and the recent indie hit Lone Survivor fit into this category. While combat is technically an option in these games, the ability to inflict chaos back against your enemies is intentionally limited to make you feel all the more helpless. In Lone Survivor’s case, the game actually rewards you for not killing enemies, despite the fact they won’t hesitate to do you in. The game also encourages you to preserve what you can of your normal, more routine life, like eating regularly (and well), limiting your intake of pills, and even adopting a cat. The emphasis here is truly on surviving while surrounded by utter chaos and even making the most out of such a situation, instead of destroying or instituting order. You win by keeping yourself under control, not the world.

Not a typical day at Black Mesa.

Not a typical day at Black Mesa.

Of course, like how Vice City is a partial overlap between the above two categories, there are games in this category that overlap with one of the others too. The original Half-Life takes place, for the most part, in an incredibly hostile environment where Gordon Freeman cannot fight all of his foes directly (like that obnoxious tentacle monster). The game beginning like just another day working at Black Mesa even enhances the chaos that you feel after everything goes to hell. However, your ability to fight back against the Xen aliens and the resilient commandos (who are trying to cover-up the whole affair) is substantial enough to set it apart the survival horror titles listed above, as Gordon Freeman ends up causing a fair amount of chaos himself during the course of his adventure. The protagonist’s world is being destroyed, but he can’t rebuild– only fight back.

Failed Revolutions: A Peter Molyneux Profile

Steve Jobs: European artiste model.

Steve Jobs: European artiste model.

It’s hard not to love Peter Molyneux. He seems like a really nice guy, he’s got cool ideas, and he’s genuinely passionate about games and their potential in a way that very few people with his level of power in the industry seem to be. Here’s a 53-year-old man who wears a suits a bunch and is absolutely, 100-percent in love with video games and is always encouraging others to take pride in their craft and stretch their artistic limits. More than maybe any other developer, he seems to be constantly trying to find new things for games to be, and constantly pushing the medium to new, unusual places.

The problem is that very few of those places have been good in about 12 years.

That’s not really fair, honestly. Molyneux’s only made a small handful of games we’d call flat-out bad. But, ever since he became the head of Lionhead Studios and started being the lead developer of his own dreams, they’ve all been huge ideas that promised to change gaming and then profoundly didn’t. And so, let’s take a look at the strange, imaginative failures of Peter Molyneux (technically, Peter Molyneux, Officer of the British Empire– which is pretty cool).

Black and White (2001)

Black and White was the first game by Molyneux’s Lionhead Studio, and the first game to really embody what would become Molyneux’s guiding

The most beautiful "endlessly throwing rocks at kids" simulator you'll ever play.

The most beautiful “endlessly throwing rocks at kids” simulator you’ll ever play.

principles as a designer: a focus on myth and fairy tales, archetypal morality systems, and player choice. You could tell it was about myth, morality and choice because it was a game where you played as a God and was named after the binary morality you could choose from. It’s… not a subtle game. You literally have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

Picking it up recently, it was surprising how well the aesthetic elements of it have held up. The visuals– which were incredible for 12 years ago –are clearly dated, but still have a good look to them, and a lot of little things (the game’s atmospheric use of lighting, the  surprisingly good physics) help give it a sense of grandeur and scale that fits it well. For all the emphasis put on the man’s choices in regards to narrative or agency, it often goes unmentioned that Molyneux and his team have an incredible skill for making a game look and sound really, really good.

The problem with Black and White is that its biggest weaknesses were what were supposed to be its biggest strengths. For all that it was supposed to put the God into God Games, there’s never really a sense of power. You can pick up your villagers and throw them around, but even getting a hut built requires resource-gathering and micromanaging. The average Sim City mayor feels more powerful and omnipotent than the divine hero of Black and White. This isn’t helped by the fact that the campaign casts you as a perpetual underdog battling more powerful gods, including crippling core gameplay elements for long sections, meaning that the player never has a chance to actually revel in their power. Similarly, the game’s morality system offers extreme choice, but no real reason to choose. Being pure evil is going to do nothing but screw you over (because if you can choose between keeping your followers well-fed and strong or burning them alive, one of those options is the smarter plan), whereas most of your benevolent actions are fairly dull and unnecessary (you’ll spend a lot of time and energy healing people who aren’t sick).

Black and White isn’t a bad game, but that’s its core problem: its premise should be there for pure escapism and moral anarchy, but it’s ultimately a fairly slow and rote experience. The campaign is only five levels long, and the core mechanic of that campaign– convincing other villages to worship you –is fairly simple. There’s lots of toys (complex miracles, an AI that was breathtaking for its time, all sorts of questionable actions) but no real reason to use them. It’s a game driven by huge dreams and staggering ambition that, in the end, makes you miss the down-to-earth focus and ordinary professionalism of Sid Meier.

Fable (2004)

SOMEONE'S been reading their Joseph Campbell!

SOMEONE’S been reading their Joseph Campbell!

Oh lord, Fable.  Not only could you write a novel on the gulf between Fable‘s ambition and the end product, that novel would honestly be fascinating and we would buy it and tell our friends to read it. Fable was like an artist set out to paint the Sistine Chapel and instead produced… we honestly can’t complete that metaphor because a work of art as workmanlike and fundamentally inoffensive but unexciting as Fable doesn’t get remembered by history. Don’t believe us– the previews for the game are still up, and every single feature listed is something that didn’t make it into the game.

It’s Molyneux’s fault, honestly. The man promised a game that was going to be like Morrowind crossed with Ocarina of Time, which you might recognize as our favorite games ever made. What makes Fable‘s hype somehow admirable instead of just embarassing is that it clearly came out of love: Molyneux was swept up by what videogames were doing and so enthralled by the potential of the medium that he forgot it was 2004 and not the magical future where computers can make games out of pure hope and whimsy.

All criticisms aside, it's impressive what this game got out of the original Xbox.

All criticisms aside, it’s impressive what this game got out of the original Xbox.

In the end, Fable was a fairly pedestrian but ultimately fun game. The core morality mechanic– that your character’s morality was reflected in their face and body, meaning you could grow horns or sprout wings –was simplistic, but a really nice way of demonstrating the mythic, fantasy-hero sense of good and evil that the game was going for. Like all of Lionhead’s games, it was visually stunning and had a unified and lush style to it.

At the time the fact that this “industry-changing, open-world, every-action-has-real-consequence, live-an-entire-other-life” game was a fairly linear fantasy action game was seen as hugely disappointing and shameful. Looking back, it’s honestly endearing. It’s clear that Molynuex wasn’t intentionally lying or trying to mislead (unlike some games), but that he was so excited by what he was doing and so hopeful about his game’s potential that he just wanted all of us to share in his excitement. This is why, despite having severe grievances with almost every game he’s done, we honestly really like the man: he’s so completely motivated by a love for his art, even when that might not be the best idea. When a developer literally, word-for-word, says that his project is “gonna be the best game ever,” it’s hard for their excitement not to be somewhat infectious.

Fable II (2008)

We got no real issues with Fable II. It’s not the game that Fable I promised it would be, but it comes closer than any other game in the series. It’s

Look at that! An antagonist with realistic motives and character development!

Look at that! An antagonist with realistic motives and character development!

the only Fable game with a fairly interesting plot, real moral nuance, and interesting side characters, helped along by very well-used celebrity voice actors (Stephen Fry in particular stands out as a character who’s half Oscar Wilde, half Blackbeard). It has a really good villain and combines everything that worked in Fable I with a bigger scope, better combat, more open world, and, most importantly, a better sense of what it wanted to be.

Its greatest strength is that there’s a real human connection. Whereas most of Molyneux’s other games can feel somewhat cold and distant, you really care about the characters of Fable II. The story is interesting, and has a lot more going on than “hero confronts bad guy.” The villain is a great example of how to write a villain that’s hate-able, disgusting, but also human and sympathetic (whereas the first game has, basically, The Devil and the third has a motiveless shadow monster). And there’s a real sense of epic scale to the game that was missing from the first. It’s still mostly linear, but the settings are varied, the spectacles are huge, and the story is suffused with a sense of grandeur and mystery. The ending of the game in particular, in which the player is faced with an almost impossible moral choice and in which the narrative pulls back from its huge epic adventure to some very simple human moments, is probably the best thing Molyneux’s ever done as an artist. It’s still not a masterpiece or a revolutionary game that changed everything, and if you don’t like some of the core Fable mechanics  this game won’t win you over, but it’s a really solid action RPG that never disappoints.

Fable III (2010)

Fable III is a really mediocre action RPG that perpetually disappoints. As much as we like Molyneux and respect the man’s vision, we cannot get

WHY DOES THIS MECHANIC EXIST?

WHY DOES THIS MECHANIC EXIST?

behind his decisions on this game. Then again, neither can he.

At least some of its failures are interesting. There are a lot of ideas here no one ever thought of doing before. The problem, though, is that unlike his previous innovations, no one thought of them for good reason. When you pause the game you get teleported to a magical room where you can go to your armory, inspect a map, and all the other things that are normally on the pause menu. It’s a neat way of giving the pause menu narrative justification, except that it also adds at least three button presses and five seconds between basic actions like changing what spells you’re using, checking the map, and changing clothes. The fact that you actually overthrow the king halfway through and the game becomes focused on making decisions as a new king is cool, except that it means that there’s half as much RPG-action as the last games and the moral choices stop being part of your character’s growth and just become you listening to two arguments and then hitting a button. Fable III may honestly have the biggest ideas and the most dramatic changes of any game in the series, but the way in which it tampers around with core gameplay mechanics, not just of its franchise but of game design in general,  is baffling and undermines the game’s potential.

There’s also more conventional failings. Whereas the previous Fable game had used its notable voice actors to great effect, this one squanders an

Remember that sad, interesting-looking old guy above? His replacement is a shadow monster who eats people.

Remember that sad, interesting-looking old guy above? His replacement is a shadow monster who eats people.

unimaginable amount of talent. Michael Fassbender, Stephen Fry, John Cleese, Simon Pegg, and Sir Ben Kingsley are all in this game. The only one you’ll even notice on a playthrough is John Cleese, and only because he has the most recognizable voice– Lionhead decided that the best use of a Monty Python alumnus was as the stiff-necked straight man to other people’s jokes. (Stephen Fry is recognizable, but only because his character returns, reduced from an interesting amoral rogue with to “man in top hat who represents the evil moral choice.”) The game is smaller, shorter, and easier, and the gameplay is identical to Fable II but simpler. Even the core mechanic of the Fable series, player choice, feels neglected. The Hero (who the game can’t seem to decide is a mute protagonist or not, as sometimes they speak and sometimes communicate in gestures) no longer changes depending on their skills and alignment, and the idea of choosing who you’ll be has no impact when it’s almost impossible not to have every skill maxed out by the end of the game.

As much as people criticize Molyneux for his overarching ambition. Fable III, though, shows why that’s not fair. Fable III is the only Lionhead game not to feel ambitious, and it suffers for it. Whereas the faults of Fable and Fable II felt somehow excused in the face of how much they were trying, Fable III‘s smaller scale and relative polish just makes its faults seem ugly. The game’s not much worse than the first Fable, but because it aims so much lower it’s a lot harder to love.

Fable: The Journey (2012) and Project Milo (RIP)

We love you, Peter, but there's no way we weren't using this picture.

We love you, Peter, but there’s no way we weren’t using this picture.

In all fairness, Fable: The Journey is the only game on this list we haven’t played, because we’d have to be much more successful bloggers before we buy a Kinect (and, regardless of everything we’re about to say, it’s shameful that Lionhead used a Kinect-exclusive spinoff to tie up loose ends and explain mysteries that had been running through the entire trilogy). But that’s sort of the point: it was a rail-shooter for the Kinect. It got mixed reviews, Molyneux’s promise that “it’s not on rails!” was proven to be a flat-out lie rather than onverenthusiasm, and the general critical consensus was that it was a good story– one of the best in the series –undermined by mediocre gameplay, dodgy motion mechanics, and an unnecessary reliance on the Kinect.

How did this happen? How did a man like Molyneux, who always seems to be trying to go bigger and more creative, end up making this game? Did the man who is, more than maybe any developer but Suda 51, keenly attuned to the potential of technology to further art and story look at Microsoft’s questionable motion-sensing Wii knockoff and say “this new and challenging technology would be best used to turn my beloved open-world-RPG franchise into a linear rail shooter”? Or did Microsoft say “the Kinect is not doing great, especially among non-casual gamers. Let’s get that respected developer who’s under contract with us to create a non-casual game designed to showcase it, using his most popular franchise?”

We can’t say for certain, but there’s two good pieces of evidence for the latter. The first is that Fable Heroes, an Xbox-Live side-scrolling beat-em-up, exists. The second is Milo.

Whether or not it's a good idea is debatable, but it's definitely a new one.

Whether or not it’s a good idea is debatable, but it’s definitely a new one.

Project Milo was a project Molyneux showed off at E3 2009. It was intended to use the capabilities of the Kinect to really make the player feel like an active participant in the game’s world– you would interact with a ten-year-old boy, speak to him with the built in microphone, teach him to skip rocks using the motion sensor, and generally play with things that were unique to the Kinect (which, it should be noted, rail shooters are not). It built on AI from Black and White, it drew from Fable‘s idea of guiding the life of a single person and that person’s dog. By all accounts, Molyneux looked at the Kinect and thought of a game that he wanted to make that could never exist without the technology.

And then it was announced that Project Milo had never been intended for release as a game– despite numerous people on the development team saying otherwise –and was instead a tech demo. Technology used to create it was used to make Fable: The Journey instead. And that’s what makes Fable: The Journey so depressing. We know that it’s not the game Molyneux wanted to make. We know that when he saw the Kinect he had big, bold ideas of how to use it in new ways, just like how the Xbox’s processing power and memory space inspired the huge potential of Fable. But the game he wanted to make was the kind of strange, small-scale, offbeat thing he would have made before he started working for Microsoft, and it wouldn’t have helped convince people the Kinect was worth buying. And so instead, the man’s dream franchise got shunted into an out-of-place linear shooter game designed to sell hardware. We can get mad at Molyneux for Fable III, but Fable: The Journey just inspires pity: one of gaming’s most imaginative and enthusiastic dreamers, putting out a product he didn’t want to in order to sell hardware.

The Future

That’s not going to happen again, though. Molyneux has left Microsoft, gone independent, and is making games following his own visions. He recently announced and financed a game on Kickstarter and– while we’re skeptical about him using a platform based on the idea of “you need to deliver on your promises” –we wish him luck. The man is one of gaming’s true dreamers and we can’t help but love him, even when he stumbles.

Personal Favorites of the Generation

Whereas our last list was 6 games that we are equally united in loving, we found that getting ten we both agreed that enthusiastically on was basically impossible– the idiosyncrasies in our tastes became pretty apparent, and there’s just not enough room to boil it down to two or three choices each. Rather than even trying, we’ve expanded our choices to twelve. Each of your beloved bloggers will give you his four favorites. These might honestly be more interesting; this bottom eight is where we fully expect some dark horses to come through and some interesting picks to get revealed.

#7

Jasper’s Pick: Mass Effect 2

NOT EVEN THIS WILL RUIN ME2 FOR ME.

NOT EVEN THIS WILL RUIN ME2 FOR ME.

The Mass Effect trilogy stands as one of this generation’s biggest monuments. There are a huge number of achievements we can place at the series’ feet: successfully telling a cohesive 3-game long story, having some of the most memorable characters in gaming, and, most importantly, arguably being the best mainstream mass-media science-fiction story of the 21st century. Honestly, the best endorsement I can give the series is that if I had to pick one video game to pitch to my dad (a guy who’s never played a video game besides Oregon Trail, but is way into Star Trek and has a signed photo of Peter Jurasik from Babylon 5) it would be Mass Effect— it doesn’t simply compete with the science fiction that inspired it, but stands among the best. The series has always been plagued with problems though: the first game’s clunky combat and cluttered inventory and stat systems, the second’s planet-scanning minigames, the third’s occasionally-questionable writing (although I have no problem with the ending, I can’t take the evil cyborg space-ninja seriously as an antagonist).

The second one, though, is close to perfect. There are complaints, sure: the combat’s too cover-heavy, the planet-scanning is boring, Miranda exists. But those are small compared to complex, interesting characters like Jack and Mordin Solus, fantastic voice-acting, intensely satisfying and strategic combat, and some of the most well-written and fun missions of the past several years. The combat is simple but has a surprising depth (playing it on Insanity is up there with Brass Balls in Bioshock as some of the most satisfying hard-mode I’ve ever played), and it’s the richest and deepest look at Mass Effect‘s world and culture. It also made the bold decision to go in a different story direction from the other 2 games: relying on a less epic, more mysterious main conflict and focusing the majority of the game’s plot on exploring its world and getting to know its characters– only to spend the entire incredible final mission testing you on how well you knew and trusted those characters, with their lives hanging in the balance (the fact that Bioware is much better at world-building and characters than at narrative definitely helps). Also, it had Martin Sheen, something no other game on this list can claim.

(Runner-up: Dragon Age: Origins which is even more ambitious from a game design perspective and does some incredible things with player agency, but which has a story that never really clicked for me and some clunky, wooden gameplay and visuals)

Best Moment: “Bad Blood,” Mordin’s loyalty mission that pushes you into dark moral territory and essentially feels like the best episode of Star Trek that never got made.

Joe’s Pick: Super Mario Galaxy

How epic can you get?

How epic can you get?

It’s amazing that Miyamoto still has it after all these years. Super Mario Bros. created the platforming genre as we know it today and in 2007, Super Mario Galaxy completely revitalized the genre in the age of the FPS. In short, Galaxy reminded me why I originally liked Mario so much after many years of nothing but Sunshine (and the underrated Luigi’s Mansion) to tide me over. And playing it on Christmas morning back in 2007 made me feel like a child again. Structurally, the levels feel a lot more akin to the classic games in the series than the previous 3D entries, which had a more exploratory feel. The paths to each of the stars are mostly linear with finely crafted challenges along the way that all build on the motifs of the level. Classic items like the mushroom, fire flower, and invincibility star (which were absent in 64) all make reappearances, as well as some new items, like the bee suit, which feel right at home in the franchise. But not only did Galaxy  bring back that classic Mario feeling, it’s arguably the best title in the series, no small feat considering how stiff the competition is. It improved the aging gameplay of Super Mario 64 immeasurably, added in some innovative new gravity mechanics, and had an epic scale to it that the Mario series had never attempted before.

The game also manages to be incredibly imaginative with its settings, in ways that no other Super Mario title has ever been. There are, of course, the classic lava, desert, water, etc, levels that appear in almost every game of the franchise, but then there are the stages where you infiltrate massive space battle-stations, avoid dangerous dark matter in gravity shifting environments, and even traverse a floating obstacle course made of cakes and other pastries. If I have to point to flaws, some of the boss fights are a little lackluster, and maybe the underwater controls are a little too loose, but these issues do virtually nothing to diminish the luster of this nearly perfect game. Super Mario Galaxy manages to feel nostalgic while being incredibly new and I’m more than happy to call it my favorite game in the series.

Best Moment: The “Gusty Garden Galaxy.” It perfectly encapsulates the epic scale and the inventive gameplay that make the game amazing.

#8

Jasper’s Pick: Bayonetta

Japan: The Picture

Japan: The Picture

Bayonetta is a really smart game, and we’ve talked about this. It’s got gorgeous art design, maybe-feminist credentials, a surprising amount of serious theological scholarship, and pretty clever writing (plus a story that is one of the most ludicrously complex I’ve ever seen). The game’s treatment of religion is a big part of why I love it– I’m a huge fan of Blake, Miltion, and Donne, and the ways that the game interacts with and draws on some of the same ideas, Biblical weirdness, and Judeo-Christian apocrypha, combined with its weird quasi-feminist retelling of myth and history, makes for a strange and heady experience that I just love. But all of this artistic and narrative stuff is a distant second to the main reason I adore Bayonetta: it’s got some of the fastest, most fun combat I’ve ever played in my life.

Playing Bayonetta is like getting drunk and ramping a sports car up a dragon. It’s a fairly natural outgrowth of two of Hideki Kamiya’s previous awesome games: combining the varied, outlandish action spectacles of Viewtiful Joe with the acrobatic combat and semi-realism of Devil May Cry. And it works incredibly well. The way in which combat seamlessly integrates dodging, the completely natural flow to all the combos, the way that it keeps you constantly moving and weaving like a damn Sonic game– I’m hard pressed to name another game in which combat feels this fluid and cool. And the sheer spectacle on display– the giant boots made of demon-hair, the high-heel mounted bazookas (named the Col. Kilgore, which is great game design because Apocalypse Now is the greatest film ever made), the ability to spank enemies to death –means that I spent the first hour of the game with my jaw hanging open at the over-the-top cartoonish awesome of everything. Combine that with what are easily some of the best boss fights of this generation and this may well be the most purely fun entry in the entire article. Most of my love for Bayonetta is focused on how fun the fighting is, yes, and the game has some problems– its two minigame levels go on way too long, and the plot is so complex I’m still not sure what actually happens –but the core gameplay is basically perfect.

Best Moment: A boss fight against God. A boss fight. Against God.

Joe’s Pick: Red Dead Redemption

Cougars, the real scourge of the west.

Cougars, the real scourge of the west.

Despite the popularity of the genre in both books and film, there are almost no video game westerns to speak of. There was Sunset Riders, an arcade-style shooter that I was practically addicted to as a kid. But other than that, I can’t remember playing any other westerns, that is until Red Dead Redemption (which is technically the sequel to a Capcom game that I and most others didn’t play), and it was everything I had always wanted to see in a western video game. Redemption succeeds as a sandbox game more than almost any other title I’ve played. There’s just so much to see and explore within the world, and it reproduces most of the different kinds of environments that you’ll find in the American West. While the world in this game does contain some of that amazing Rockstar satire (like a hilarious early cartoon about the “dangers” of women gaining the vote or a terribly incompetent social Darwinist professor), it doesn’t have quite the same level of personality that GTA IV’s Liberty City does, but the greater potential for exploration makes up for that. I could spend hours just hunting bears in the mountains or riding through the wilderness busting gang hideouts, and that’s one of the main reasons this game shines.

Another area where Red Dead Redemption stands above the rest is its writing. As stated above, it doesn’t contain as much of a satiric edge as the Grand Theft Auto games, but it takes many of the darker themes about America that GTA IV introduced and adapts them to the wild west. As the plot progresses, the game deals with issues like the costs of maintaining civilization and the hypocrisies of the American government. It also does an amazing job of showing how brutal and amoral the wild west actually was. The game even covers a good deal of the spectrum that western movies do, starting out with missions similar to the old John Wayne westerns, transitioning into the grandeur and mythic qualities of the spaghetti westerns in Nuevo Paraiso (Mexico), while finally settling into the darker tones of films like Dead Man, and somehow it all feels seamless. Saying that Red Dead Redemption is only the best video game western does it a disservice– it really is one of the best westerns of any medium.

Best Moment: The mission, “And The Truth Will Set You Free”, where protagonist John Marston finally confronts his old mentor and gang leader. It contains some of the best written dialogue I’ve ever heard in a game.

#9

Jasper’s Pick: Borderlands 2

The Borderlands series went from having no conflict to one of my favorite villains ever.

The Borderlands series went from having no conflict to one of my favorite villains ever.

I really didn’t expect to be taken in by Borderlands 2 as much as I was. There were various reasons: the first game was a really fun diversion but had a really bungled finale and was pretty sparse in terms of narrative. The core mechanics of “tons of random crap and sifting through loot” seemed too MMO-ish to grab me. The people who made have a history of being kind of awful. But it really, really worked for me. (Mind you, I might be biased– I played through the entire game with my girlfriend as Player 2, which I think might be a little more fun than doing it with random strangers online).

What’s really impressive about Borderlands 2 is the way in which it successfully married mechanics and art. It uses the skinner-box-driven luck and reward mechanics of an MMO and the team-based co-op of games like Left 4 Dead, but was actually able to craft a compelling narrative out of them. I went in expecting a fun way to shoot bandits and hunt for guns with my girlfriend, but found a level of consistently clever writing and interesting characters more befitting a classic Lucasarts adventure game than anything else. And there’s the visuals: the lush and cartoony cel-shading that makes it one of the best-looking games ever.

The game's art design and graphics make even minor events look beautiful.

The game’s art design and graphics make even minor events look beautiful.

And then it got serious. And it got big. The game started throwing out really fun characters, more and more unique and quirky weaponry, and some legitimately great storytelling. It actually made me tear up at one scene. It delivered one of my favorite video game villains of the past several years. By the end of the game the combat was still fast-paced and fun, the loot was still random, and there was grinding and scavenging galore, but I had a really deep emotional connection to the game that took me completely by surprise. It’s everything a sequel should be: so much bigger and deeper that it makes the original game obsolete. And it’s the rare game that you can pick up for an hour of mindless diversion, or sink an evening into just getting absorbed in the story.

Best Moment: “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” the end of the second act. Things have been getting progressively more serious, but the sudden turn towards a much darker story– and the amount to which the previously-cartoonish villain Handsome Jack  becomes sadder, more complex, and legitimately menacing –highlights this game’s ambition and everything it does right.

Joe’s Pick: Mega Man 9

A return to that classic Mega Man style.

A return to that classic Mega Man difficulty.

After roughly a decade of silence in the classic Mega Man series (and let’s be honest, Mega Man 8 was no prize), it was great to hear that another entry was finally coming out. I thought it would at most be an interesting little diversion but it turned out to be one of the best games in the series, second only to Mega Man 2. And considering how Mega Man 2 is virtually the gold standard of level design, 9 taking second place is perfectly understandable, and it even added a survival mode (called endless mode in the game) and a pretty great time trial mode. It’s just too bad that Capcom couldn’t have released something like this for Mega Man’s recent 25th anniversary (good thing a fan stepped up to the plate for them.)

It’s true that Mega Man 9 didn’t really add anything to the core gameplay of the series, much like most of the other Mega Man titles, but there’s something to be said for a game that does an exemplary job of polishing up an old formula. The level design is some of the strongest in the series, introducing new twists on the core mechanics in each level, but never straying too far from them. The level design is also helped along by possibly the best arsenal of weapons in the entire series. While in most Mega Man titles (even in the second one) you can coast through almost the entire game using only three or four of the more useful weapons, here all eight of the weapons feel relatively balanced and equal. And playing the stages in time trial mode will encourage you to find new uses for your powers too. Finally, and this might seem like odd praise to heap on a Mega Man game , the story is handled really well. The NES style cutscenes (still images with text) capture the old charm that storytelling in retro video games has, and the ending is amazing (again second only to Mega Man 2). Overall, it’s just a fun game that takes a great old song and makes it catchy again. And speaking of songs the soundtrack’s great too but c’mon, for a Mega Man game that goes without saying.

Best Moment: Tornado Man’s stage. The level introduces a slew of interesting gameplay twists. Also the music and changing weather patterns (which not only look great but affect the gameplay) make it one of the most immersive stages in the whole series.

#10: Rayman Origins

The game looks and feels like a wonderful cartoon.

The game looks and feels like a wonderful cartoon.

This was a tough choice, because it’s ultimately one of representation. I could have put another Western RPG here (Fallout: New Vegas was definitely on my short list), repped another great indie game (until Hotline Miami came out, Bastion was going to be the indie representative here), or said Sonic Generations because Sonic is the coolest hog alive and nothing you will say is going to change my mind (also, Sonic Generations really is a fantastic game and it made me feel like a kid again). Ultimately, I decided to go for Rayman Origins, a beautiful throwback that proves that there’s still room in this generation for some really classic ideas.

This has been an interesting generation for platformers. There have been a few mainstream ones that took the genre in new directions (Super Mario Galaxy being the most notable example, while newer Sonic games have been taking a more ignoble path), but 2D platformers have been mostly delegated to the indie market while the mascot-driven 3D collect-a-thons of the last two generations basically died out. But Rayman Origins avoided either of those directions: it’s a perfectly-done, completely classic 2D platformer, and one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Sonic 2 or Prince of Persia. And the fact that it got a full-price release and full support from Ubisoft (and an upcoming, amazing-looking sequel on the Wii U) is one of this generation’s most surprising success stories.

It deserves the success though. The game feels like a master class in how to design a platformer. Gorgeous art design, wonderful music, a perfectly-designed sense of difficulty and escalation, and a wide variety of levels built around a ton of different challenges and play styles. Like the best Mario games, many of the levels have their own unique challenges, are built around quirky mechanics, and incorporate familiar obstacles in new styles and combinations. The game has 66 levels and almost every one of them feels distinct. It’s not just a return to the classic Rayman formula, it’s the best game of the entire series. If this game had come out in 1994 we’d be talking about it as one of the great 2D platformers. I hope that we still can.

Best Moment: When you get the ability to run up walls, suddenly transforming the game’s fundamental mechanics halfway through.

Joe’s Pick: VVVVVV

This would be impossible in any other platformed.

This would be impossible in any other platformer.

This is another game that really inspired me as an fledgling indie developer. It’s amazing that essentially one guy was able to create a game that’s as well made as this one. VVVVVV manages to impress me so much because it takes a simple gameplay mechanic– the ability to flip (basically reversing your own gravity instead of jumping)– and wrings everything it can out of it. The game also follows the Mega Man approach to level design, introducing unique twists on the gameplay in each new stage and gradually evolve said twists through the duration of the level. The stages are actually linked together by an overworld and can be accessed in any order (except for the final stage), making it a bit like a metroidvania game on top of all this. The graphics are really well done too. Using this simple, yet unique and attractive graphical style no doubt gave creator Terry Cavanagh the time he needed to make the gameplay nearly flawless.

So yeah…that’s about it. I’m sorry for the shorter entry here but really no amount of discription can do this game justice, it’s the kind of game you just need to play to really understand, which you can do now that you’re almost done reading this blog post. The difficulty may be pretty high but don’t worry, the frequent checkpoints stop the game from getting overly frustrating.

Best Moment: “The Tower”, where you have to flip quickly to escape a steadily rising floor of spikes. It’s a great segment that really gets your adrenaline pumping.

Our Favorites of this Generation

[Apologies for our recent absence. The two of us have been traveling, working, and fighting off illnesses for about a month straight now. But we’re back, we’re expanding and going deeper on out last topic, and we’re gonna try and keep posting regularly from now on.]

Which games are winner? Read on to find out.

Which games are winner? Read on to find out.

With the end of both 2012 and the nearing end of this video game generation (the seventh according to Wikipedia) with the release of the WiiU, we felt it would be appropriate for each of us to look back on the past several years and list our ten favorite games of this generation. Unsurprisingly though, since we think alike enough to write this blog, our top five choices of this generation were basically the same. So we’ll be listing those five first and providing our individual comments for them, and then we’ll diverge into our separate lists for the next five next week. We’re defining the beginning of this generation with the release of the Xbox 360 in 2005 so any game after this is eligible unless it’s a remake of an older game (no Ocarina of Time for the 3Ds or Resident Evil 4 for the Wii). Since this list can also double as some game recommendations, we’ll try to keep it spoiler free.

#6: Spec Ops: The Line

The Line was a real surprise for us– to the point where we’d already written most of this article by the time we played it (hence a top 6). There’s a lot to talk about, and a lot of it has been by other critics. But it’s probably the best mainstream game of 2012, and the best military shooter of all time.

The gameplay can be a little repetitive, but that’s the smallest complaint. It’s well-written, smart, creative, and boasts the best performance of Nolan North’s career.  Even the visuals, which few

Brown and gray don't have to be dull.

Brown and gray don’t have to be dull.

reviews mentioned, are praiseworthy. It’s one of the most beautiful games we’ve ever seen, and definitely the best-looking that doesn’t rely on a fantastical setting and a different world. The apocalyptic Dubai of the game is absolutely gorgeous: tragic, lush, and full of tiny visual details. The contrast between the opulent buildings and the ravaged landscape isn’t just “Destroyed Beauty,” it’s loaded with heavy, heavy symbolic weight.

And that’s The Line‘s greatest achievement: it’s a game where everything means something. It takes you to dark, dark moral territory, and it does so through more than just a well-written narrative. It tells its story through mechanics, and especially through the narrative tropes common to other war shooters. Whereas Modern Warfare gives you a gatling gun and a helicopter and lets you revel in it, The Line makes you feel guilty for the bloodthirst your power inspires. The player’s decision to keep playing until they “win” is cast as a psychotic hero complex, their attempts to make meaningful moral choices are swatted down because you don’t get to just decide you want to be a good person, and the game’s philosophy– encapsulated when the protagonist is told “you’re no savior. Your talents lie elsewhere” –is about as good a refutation of the idea of the “heroic action protagonist” as there ever has been. Other shooters would treat the death of civilians as a giant turning point. In The Line, it’s possible while trying to evacuate a refugee camp to see a shape running at you, panic, and realize you just shot an unarmed woman. It wears you down, makes you scared, and doesn’t just show evil–  it makes the player realize how evil happens.

The Line: Where Happiness Goes to Die!

The Line: Where Happiness Goes to Die!

It’s a game that has a real sense of morality and is making bold, unfriendly statements about both American foreign policy and about

contemporary games. It has enough power and enough intelligence to make you consider the way you play other games– both of us feel a lot less friendly towards military shooters after The Line made us  feel culpable for our actions. It’s a testament to the game’s power that it tries to be the Apocalypse Now of gaming and comes damn close to living up to that.

Best Moment: It’s hard to talk about without spoiling but there’s a moment right before the final level when things are very, very bad that not only pushes the player harder than any other game we’ve seen, but makes a very clear point about the way in which war leads to people doing terrible things.

#5: Hotline Miami

It's not about making those corpses. It's about walking back past them.

It’s not about making those corpses. It’s about walking back past them.

Hotline Miami is very much The Line‘s indie brother. It has brutal, realistic violence, a strong film influence (Nicolas Wending Refn’s Drive), and works to make the player feel guilt not just for narrative actions but for completing the core gameplay objectives. When a game directly asks you if “you enjoy hurting people” it’s pretty clear what it’s going for.

Hotline Miami deserves to be praised not just for exploring the issues of violence, escapism, and identity in games but also for, well, everything. It‘s visually stunning: a throbbing, pulsing fever dream of 80’s neon and blood that looks both incredibly cool and unsettling. But these visuals also work on a level that serves the narrative– the swirling, psychedelic look of the game lulls you into a psychotic trance, while watching an enemy try and pry your hand away before you jam a power drill into his ear does a damn fine job of pulling you out of it. At every step the game is pushing you towards violent acts and then making you feel terrible for them.

You owe it to yourself to go watch every trailer for this game.

You owe it to yourself to go watch every trailer for this game.

Despite all this, it’s also crazy, crazy fun. It’s easy to pick it up, play for half an hour, and have a blast. The gameplay is fast, frantic, and cool, while also doing something great with its ultra-hard difficulty: it’s the rare game where beating your enemies isn’t about strength, equipment, or inborn advantage but about quick thinking and strategy. The fact that your character is just as frail as the enemies, can’t outrun them, and has no superweapons both fleshes out the game’s story (the people you’re killing are just as human as you), but also makes the combat about as nerve-wracking and intense as we’ve ever seen (Jasper’s girlfriend loves the game, for instance, but can only play one level at a time or “it feels like I’m having three heart attacks at once”). Plus, you know, the soundtrack is one of the best game soundtracks ever made.

And the fact that it’s such a small-scale, personal project game is just icing on the cake. It was the best game of 2012– it’s one of our favorite games of all time –and it was made by two guys. In their spare time. With freaking Game Maker. Its success is a testament to some of the massive changes going on in gaming right now. And as people who have loved Cactus’s work for about five years now, it’s wonderful to see him make a masterpiece.

Best Moment: The fourth chapter, Tension. Specifically opening the door. If you’ve played it you know the door we’re talking about. Wait… no, the best moment is when one of us got featured in a trailer for the game (third quote).

#4: Portal 2

Portal 2 isn’t as daring as anything else on this list. It’s an expansion of the first game’s puzzle-shooter mechanics, it doesn’t make the player

You might say that the game is... looking pretty good. (VIDEO GAME COMEDY.)

You might say that the game is… looking pretty good. (VIDEO GAME COMEDY.)

question themselves or redefine what the medium is capable of. So why is it on this list?

Because it’s as close to perfect as any game has ever been. Do you want to know our complaint? Our one complaint? Some of thepuzzles in the middle section of the game have art design that makes it a little hard to see where you’re supposed to go next. Maybe 3 or 4 of them. That’s it. This game is so well-done that we can literally count every single problem we have with it in the span of about a minute. It doesn’t quite soar to the heights of the other games on this list, but it’s an absolute masterpiece nonetheless. It’s simple, refined, and near-flawless. It has four major characters (one of whom is a mute protagonist and one of whom is dead), and around a dozen different puzzle mechanics, and it manages to make one of the medium’s most compelling stories and an endlessly surprising game out of them. Whereas the first Portal was tight effective writing paired with a handful of puzzle elements, Portal 2 kept that simplicity and sparseness and transformed it into a beautiful, powerful efficiency of both narrative and design.

There's as much tragedy and pathos to this goofy mad scientist as most Oscar-winning films.

There’s as much tragedy and pathos to this goofy mad scientist as most Oscar-winning films.

Portal 2 is really the best representation of Valve’s strength as a director: it’s not just that they made a game which was imaginative, well-written, and fun. It’s that they did that and worked and worked making that game as good as it could possibly be. It’s about as meticulously crafted and focused on its artistic goals as any game in the history of the medium, and it applies that focus to gorgeous art direction (which is also expressive and great at telling a story), brilliant writing, and inventive mechanics. It may be Valve’s masterpiece (and if not, their best since Half-Life 2). It’s a simple story, with a few characters, but those characters are brilliantly written and the story’s emotionally engaging and consistently hilarious. The puzzles are intuitive and clever, and almost entirely on a just-about-perfect level of difficulty. If the last games on this list were Drive and Apocalypse Now, Portal 2 (the only game on this list with an E-10 rating, coincidentally) would be a film like Wall-E or Toy Story 3: less edgy, less auteur-ish, but just as revolutionary and every bit as great.

Best Moment: The game’s focus on rapid-fire wit over spectacle makes this tough, but it’s either the aftermath of the “fight” against GLaDOS that closes the first act or the slow, hilarious reveal of who and how crazy Cave Johnson was.

#3: No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle

Suda 51’s No More Heroes was a wonderful oddity: a game that actually used the Wii’s motion controls in a way that felt necessary, with excellent boss fights, funny writing, and a sharp satiric edge. Between that and the wonderful trailers, we were pretty excited for its release. We were expecting another fun cult hit that had cool ideas and some great moments.

GAMES ARE ART.

GAMES ARE ART.

What we got was one of the best games we’ve ever played, and one that established Suda as one of gaming’s most interesting artists. The series still has its faults, of course– the non-boss combat is usually functional but unimpressive, some levels go on far too long –but almost all of them were removed between the first and the second game. The first had fun and creative boss fights, the second makes them not only more fun through deeper combat but makes the bosses more rounded characters and has you fight a gundam, an anime nightmare, a supervillain, the White Male Power Structure, and an astronaut. The sequel improves in every way, from having great retro minigames in place of the first’s dull jobs, to a weirder and more postmodern tone (fellow game creators Shinji Mikami and Hideo Kojima get loving tributes, cult director Takashi Miike makes a bizarre cameo), to an overall richer and deeper story.

The story is Desperate Struggle’s biggest strength. Whereas the first mostly used protagonist Travis Touchdown as a punching bag, making points about escapism into games and nerd culture through him, the second really lets him come into his own as a protagonist. He’s still dumb

What makes the romance so good is how realistic it is.

What makes the romance so good is how realistic it is.

and self-absorbed, but he’s a complex character with real human depth and growth. The game still has a ton of satire in it (its main focuses being on our obsessions with sex and violence, mass-media culture, and the amoral nature of most action heroes), but it’s made stronger by having real characters we care about at the core. Travis Touchdown, in this game, is one of gaming’s most interesting heroes and one that couldn’t exist in any other medium.

What really makes the story special to us is that it’s real and human in a way that a lot of game stories aren’t. NMH:DS may throw spectacle and absurdity at the player nonstop, but Travis’s core arc is learning to value other people, become less dependent on pop culture to define himself, appreciate the real world, and develop a set of adult values in place of childish wish-fulfillment. It’s a story that’s fundamentally one of growing up, and resonates especially hard with people for whom video games, TV, and movies are a big part of life. The game may feature mech battles, ghosts, katana fights, and space lasers, but it’s fundamentally the story of what it is to be a young man who feels disconnected from his society and alone in the world. It’s one of the coolest and weirdest games ever, and one of the most heartfelt and nuanced ones too.

Best Moment: The fight against the third ranked assassin, an aging cosmonaut. The actual gameplay of the boss fight is really solid but it’s the atmosphere that pushes it over the top. Not to mention the touching cutscene afterwards.

#2: Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV finally accomplished something that no other crime sandbox game had been able to do: creating a narrative and world in

"We can pick the game, Niko Bellic. But we cannot change the rules. "

“We can pick the game, Niko Bellic. But we cannot change the rules. “

which the game mechanics felt natural and realistic. It’s hard to understate how massive of an achievement this is. When playing as Rico Rodriguez, The Boss, Tommy Vercetti, or any other sandbox hero you feel like, well, a kid in a sandbox; the world is fun to interact with and the toys are awesome, but you never feel like a real part of it. GTA IV is one of the only sandboxes to escape this.

It did this, in part, with incredible writing and narrative. Niko Bellic should be taught in college courses as the perfect example of how to create a game protagonist. He’s interesting, complex, sympathetic, and– most importantly –every aspect of who he is, from his traumatic past to his status as an immigrant outsider, is tailored to fit the game. Every action the player can do as Niko feels like a natural result of who he is. Even the mechanics of the game reflect this: Niko trudges from place to place, fights with cold, mechanical precision, and generally feels like an unlovable killing machine. The game is able to give the players an extraordinary amount of freedom, but Niko’s character is so perfectly crafted that you’ll feel immersed even while biking off skyscrapers and starting battle royales between cab drivers.

Liberty City, meanwhile, is the gold standard of what a sandbox world can be. It’s not as pretty as Far Cry 3 or as full of games as Saints Row 2,

The strip clubs are depressing and not fun. Told you it was realistic.

The strip clubs are depressing and not fun. Told you it was realistic.

but it feels alive unlike just about any other game. Every neighborhood has its own demographics and unique feel, there’s a sense of unique personality to a lot of the pedestrians, and it actually feels like a real, living world– which makes the chaos  so much more rewarding. Getting drunk and starting a fistfight in central park is as enjoyable in this game as blowing up a city block is in Saint’s Row, just because having that real and organic a world makes disrupting it so much more fun.

Finally, the game just has an incredible story. It’s well-written and full of great characters, and it walks a delicate line between goofy satire and serious social commentary. It has hilarious fake right-wing talk radio, sure, but it also says a lot about what America is and how cruel it can be. For every hilarious moment like Brucie talking about his lack of “funny balls,” there’s a haunting one like Niko’s discussion of how he became who he is. It’s dark, funny, and moving, and it works because the world and the mechanics immerse the player so deeply in what it is to be a man like Niko Bellic in a grim and cynical America.

Best Moment: The game’s absolute gut-punch of an ending– either one –which drives home how unattainable the “American Dream” truly is for people like Niko. Either that or the amazing bank heist mission.

#1: Bioshock

The game's dialogue could be nothing but fart noises and visuals like this would still make it a masterpiece.

The game’s dialogue could be nothing but fart noises and visuals like this would still make it a masterpiece.

Don’t act surprised. You knew it was going to be Bioshock. We could write this entire blog by doing one entry a week on some facet of this game and keep busy for years.

Bioshock is beautifully-designed, visually-stunning, and packed with so many creative ideas that it’s hard to go ten minutes without seeing something new and cool. The city of Rapture is one of the best settings in game history. It’s one of a handful of games to set its sights on really big ideas– to grapple with one of the twentieth century’s major philosophers –and really succeed. The gameplay, while kind of simple, gives the player some extraordinary freedom in terms of the tools at their disposal and how to use them. But the gameplay’s not why we’ve replayed the game at least twice a year since it came out.

Bioshock is a success on virtually every aesthetic front. The art design is absolutely stunning, both in terms of raw visual beauty and in terms of serving the narrative– a ton of the game’s story and tone comes through details of setting and visual elements. The characters are all distinct individuals with their own strong personalities and narrative arcs, who also serve to illustrate the world and give human faces to its philosophical conflicts. The music’s amazing, the sound design is unimpeachable, and the game’s grasp of tone is so flawless that it can be laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly creepy at the same time.

Oh man, remember this?

Oh man, remember this?

But what makes Bioshock truly special is that it’s a game in many ways about the potential of gaming. Its closest analogue– no hyperbole intended –is Citizen Kane. Like Kane, Bioshock uses the very mechanics of its medium as a central part of its story, and in doing so proves what that medium is really capable of. It’s ambitious, creative, and so deeply in love with everything games can do that its love is infectious. And just as a Citizen Kane book would be laughable, Bioshock provides a narrative experience that is entirely dependent on the interactivity, choice, and immersion that games provide. Bioshock is a great game, yes. But even more than that, it’s quite possibly the best argument ever for why video games are an important, even necessary, medium for art and storytelling. It’s our favorite game of the past six years, not just because of how good it is on its own but because its very existence is an inspiration as to what the medium can be at its best.

Best Moment: Don’t even play. You know what it is. Man. Chooses. Etc. Possibly the most famous scene of the entire generation. A scene that basically changed gaming forever, when the core principles of game narrative were fundamentally challenged.

The Overlooked Legends of Zelda

200px-Ocarina_of_Time_poster

This is what Zelda is all about. Right?

The Legend of Zelda is easily one of the most recognizable video game franchises out there. Nearly everybody knows it and most people acknowledge it as one of the best series of all time. But recently, these games have been in a bit of a rut. Sure, most of the recent Zelda titles were still good games, but they tend to draw most of their influence from Ocarina of Time, the gold standard for the series. And when they try to add innovative new mechanics, the game usually doesn’t turn out as well *cough*Four Swords Adventures*cough*. When you think of amazing Zelda titles, most of you probably think of Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past, games that provide an epic medieval fantasy world to explore. You probably think of vanquishing Ganondorf using the Master Sword and reclaiming pieces of the Triforce. But there was always another side to the series, a stranger side that helped to keep the games fresh before they went stale. This week we’re going to talk about two of the more offbeat entries from The Legend of Zelda’s golden years, and why they were instrumental in keeping the series fresh with their unique worlds and gameplay mechanics.

Link’s Awakening (1993)

Link can never just have a peaceful journey.

This was the first installment of the series that did not take place in the land of Hyrule, instead beginning with series protagonist Link ending up shipwrecked and unconscious on the mysterious island of Koholint. He’s awakened by Marin (a young woman) and her father, Tarin. From here, Link begins his quest to leave the island and return to Hyrule,  soon learning that he must awaken the sleeping Wind Fish in order to accomplish this. Interestingly enough, this was the first Zelda game to use music as a key plot element, since in order to awaken the Wind Fish, Link must collect (okay, so it’s not totally different) the eight Siren’s Instruments. There’s also an ocarina item in the game which Link can learn three songs for, each with a unique purpose. Surreal elements start popping up right away and continue to do so. A man warns you to watch out for him later because he knows he’s going to get lost in the mountains later.  Right off the bat, the game has a different tone from it’s predecessors. A strange raccoon monster who halts your progress turns out to be a transformed Tarin when you defeat him. Character’s from other Nintendo franchises make cameos (like a Yoshi doll you can win at a crane game, or a Chain Chomp you can take for a walk). Clearly, the game has a very different feel from any other Zelda title.

Link'sAwakeningBowWow

Da Da Da Daaa! You got the Chain Chomp! What could be cooler than this?

Now if you happen to hear about the big twist in the game without playing through first, you’ll probably think it’s a cop out. As it turns out, this is yet another “it was all just a dream” story. Well, that’s not entirely true, Link is really trapped on the island because it, and all it’s inhabitants are part of the Wind Fish’s dream. Link’s shipwreck sent him into this deity’s dream…somehow. In spite of the potential problems this kind of plot twist can have, the game really makes it work. The strangeness that is present from the beginning of the game helps makes the twist seem believable when the revelation finally occurs. Many of the later bosses (or Nightmares) will even try and warn you about the island’s true nature, pleading with you not to wake the Wind Fish with their dying breaths. The Nightmares even suggest that since you are in the dream, you too will vanish once the Wink Fish awakens, building a great sense of tension as you get closer to your goal. All of this builds up beautifully to one of the most bitter sweet endings we’ve ever seen in a game. After defeating the final Nightmares inside the Wind Fish’s egg, you do finally manage to wake the god and escape, but only after watching the entire island, including all the friends you made along your journey (including Marin, the woman who saved you at the beginning of the game), vanish into nothingness. It’s one of the few endings that captures some of the sadness you have when you finish a really great game, that despite your accomplishment, it’s all over now. And the ending has so much weight behind it because you were the one that made it happen, destroying the island was really what you had been working towards from the beginning of the game. In short, it’s some of the best storytelling The Legend of Zelda series has ever done.

Majora’s Mask (2000)

Not your typical fantasy adventure.

Not your typical fantasy adventure.

How on earth do you follow up such a monumental success like Ocarina of Time? You go off in a totally new direction. Miyamoto and Nintendo wisely decided not to try and one-up their magnum-opus and instead create a sequel with a completely different feel and some startlingly different gameplay mechanics, Majora’s Mask. Right from the beginning of the game, you know the Zelda formula is going to be shaken up, as the story begins with a strange imp known as the Skull Kid turning Link into a weak and seemingly powerless Deku Scrub while stealing his horse, ocarina, and trapping him in a strange new world eerily similar to Hyrule, except that it’s own moon is going to crash into it in three short days. The most obvious new gameplay mechanic is that you keep replaying the same three days over and over again, until you stop this impending disaster. It’s an interesting spin on the switching between present and future time travel mechanic in Ocarina of Time, and is even more original and central to the game. Many of the NPCs have very detailed routines throughout this three day period, which makes the side quests some of the most detailed within the series. Timing becomes a big deal, as you’ll have to approach people at a certain time during the three days to start a side quest and also usually have to finish by a particular time. While this sounds annoying on paper it actually works very well in practice, since you can speed up and slow down the three day cycle via songs on your ocarina, as well as going back to the beginning of the three day cycle at any point. These abilities give you a sense of control over time that has never really been replicated in any other game, making these very time specific quests of Majora’s Mask work. The only parts of the game that suffer because of the three day mechanic are the dungeons, since they follow the standard Zelda formula (which allows you to take your time) and have not been altered to fit the more time specific gameplay of Majora’s Mask. However, even if you fail to complete the dungeon within a three day cycle, it still won’t set you back that far, since you still retain most important items while traveling back.

Enjoy looking at this the entire game.

Enjoy looking at this face the entire game.

Another unique gameplay mechanic to Majora is Link’s ability to transform. At the beginning of the game you’re trapped in the form of a tiny Deku Scrub, but once you reclaim your ocarina, you’ll be able to learn a song that will let you swap forms, by turning your Deku Scrub form into a mask that you can put on and take off at will. As the game progresses, you’ll acquire Goron and Zora masks (the other two main races from Ocarina) through two tragic incidents, which will give you a total of four different forms (including your normal form), all with their own unique abilities. All of these forms are useful throughout the entire game, which is one of the design areas that some of the more recent Zeldas are lacking in (the wolf form in Twilight Princess for instance becomes much less useful beyond the halfway point of that game). This is probably one of the reasons Majora’s Mask was one of the few post Ocarina of Time games in the series that managed to innovate successfully, both the mask transformations and the three day time mechanic are completely inseparable from the game, so much so that they really define it. And of course, the mechanics are fun too.

So while setting a Zelda game in an epic fantasy world has certainly made for some great entries to the series in the past, it would be nice to see Nintendo revisit the more surreal and strange tone that the above two games had. If nothing else, it would add some variety to a series that’s becoming in desperate need of it. Oh, and they should bring back Tingle. Everybody likes him, right?

A Look Back at Phantasy Star

Frikkin’ Sega, man.

(Sorry for the hiatus, Dear Readers– one of us has been working a new job, the other on a big creative project, and we’ve been putting the finishing touches on our Metropolis project. Normal posting is resuming now).

One of the authors of this blog did not have a Nintendo as a kid. If you hadn’t already guessed after our article on Sonic 2006, one of us grew up as a Sega kid. And part of being a Sega kid means having different experiences from a lot of gamers. Mario games always feel a little sluggish. You gain a real affection for weird and offbeat concepts like Seaman and Crazy Taxi. You feel more affection for Ristar than for Megaman. And you play Phantasy Star.

That last one is what prompted this article. It’s a series that doesn’t get talked about much at all these days, except for its MMO-style spinoffs in the (totally-different, yet fantastic) Phantasy Star Online series. But for a while, it was Sega’s answer to Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Between ’87 and ’94, it produced a series of influential, mostly-excellent JRPGs that were pretty major achievements for their time. And they deserve a salute.

Phantasy Star (1987)

Phantasy Star I was a pretty huge deal in 1987 (’88 in America). It came out in the same week as the first Final Fantasy, and– I know this sounds

There are like five groundbreaking new ideas in this picture.

hard to believe —Final Fantasy wasn’t the best JRPG to come out that week. On a technical level, the game is a staggering achievement for its day. It was the largest console RPG, and one of the largest console games, ever made– not to mention by far the biggest and most ambitious game on the Master System. The combat system– featuring animated enemy sprites and backgrounds that changed depending on location –was like nothing else on the market visually. Some of the dungeons were even in rudimentary 3D! Granted, the idea of a first-person maze crawl in a JRPG is a pretty iffy one, but still! Fake-3D, on consoles, in 1987!

What really makes the game a big deal, though is how much of its genre it pioneered. JRPGs are basically synonymous with Final Fantasy, but PSI is where the modern JRPG really took form. It was among the first to allow more than one playable character, and the first in which those characters were unique, with their own personalities and attributes. It was the first JRPG to use non-engine cutscenes, providing a level of visual detail to story scenes that was absolutely incredible for the time. There’s a reason it was the most expensive console game of all time when it came out, and a reason a lot of critics compared it to the first Legend of Zelda in terms of its ambition and innovation.

As for the game on its own merits? Pretty strong. Obviously rough to play today, and certain things– like those amazing 3D dungeons –have aged really badly, but for a 1987 RPG it’s a pretty impressive thing. The story and setting were plenty innovative, too. It was the first JRPG to use the guns-and-swords, sci-fi/fantasy blend that’s now a staple of the genre, and the first RPG to feature a female hero (named Alis). While fairly rote, the story has a lot of human elements to it that felt new– you weren’t trying to rescue a princess or save the world, but instead overthrow the cruel king whose robot-cops murdered your brother. While the story is bare-bones and the translation is… questionable, it was one of the first RPGs to be driven by its characters’ personal motivations rather than “you should go save the world now.” Also, it was one of Yuji Naka’s first games. That guy is awesome.

Phantasy Star II (1989)

“You like that?” Sega said. “You like a game that’s big, has lots of characters in it, and ends with you facing an ultimate evil? How would you like a game that is JUST CRAMMED FULL OF THAT?” And then they skateboarded away chugging their Surge, because they were Sega.

If there’s two words for PSII, they’re “bigger” and “darker.” It takes place a millenium after the first game, when high-tech terraforming and a system of sueprcomputers has turned the desert planet of Motavia into a paradise. Or… sort of. This is where the second game in the series gets interesting. As it goes on it becomes more and more clear that you live in a police state, and that the paradise is falling apart at the seams. Whereas the first Phantasy Star started by showing you that the king is evil and should be overthrown, the second makes the system much more insidious and deeper-running, and makes you a part of it for much of the game. There’s not a singular bad guy running things, and there’s a real sense of despair that pervades a lot of the game.

Sega, pictured doing what Ninten-didn't.

Sega, pictured doing what Ninten-didn’t.

There’s two things here that are especially important. The first, and the most famous thing to come out of the game, is the fact that one of the main characters freaking dies. This was the first RPG where this had ever happened. It was huge. She’s part-human, part-monster, and the protagonist has been protecting her from bigots for most of the game. She’s the second-most important character in the game. And when she dies, it’s because of you— she’s biologically connected to one of the game’s villains, and defeating that villain means she dies. Beating the boss means killing a character who’s been with you since the beginning. Gamers had never seen an RPG character die for good before, and this game made them responsible for it.

The other is the ending. The bleak, bleak ending. By the end, millions of people are dead,

an entire planet is destroyed, and the computer system that ran the ecosystem is collapsing and taking the world’s environment with it. You finally face down the aliens

"Turns out it's man."

“Turns out it’s man.”

that are controlling your government and leading to your people’s extinction– turns out, in a corny twist that was pretty cool for the day, that the evil invaders were humans from the distant planet Earth –and you don’t. win. The game ends with your team trapped on the human ship, knowing there’s no way back, fighting for as long as you can and taking the ship down with you. The world is “saved”– although Phantasy Star IV highlights how small of an achievement that is –but all the characters are pretty much guaranteed to die, unknown and unremembered. It’s notable that even in PSIV, where almost every character and event from earlier in the game gets acknowledged, this game’s heroes have been effectively erased from history. It’s an ending that would be dark even by modern standards, and was part of what made the game’s narrative revolutionary.

The gameplay is… something of a mixed bag. It was the biggest game ever, of any system, when it came out, and it shows. Part of how it shows, though, is that every single dungeon is sprawling, labyrinthine, and brutally hard (the first dungeon in the entire game is about as big and maze-like as the most difficult ones in PSIV). The game is incredibly heavy on grinding and most of the player’s progress is pretty slow. Similarly, combat is tough as nails, with enemies dealing a ton of damage and random encounters being frustratingly common. The game’s biggest gameplay innovation does grow out of grappling with this difficulty, however– the only character you need to have in your party at all times is the protagonist Rolf, whereas there’s a large roster of side characters with specialized skills you can swap in or out every time you visit home. If a dungeon is too hard you can grab a doctor, or if you’re having trouble with groups of enemies some characters can attack multiple targets at once. It’s not enough to keep the game from getting too frustrating, but the ability to construct and manage an RPG party in this level of detail helped give the game more depth and encouraged the player to approach every challenge tactically.

Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom (1990)

maia

Sega, pictured doing what Bio-wouldn’t yet.

Phantasy Star III is the only game in the series that has real, serious problems that can’t be excused by its time. It’s incredibly ambitious, but it’s also deeply, deeply, flawed, and the only one of the core four games that doesn’t really seem that important to game history. If this list is making you hanker for some old-school RPGs and a series marathon, this is one you can probably skip.

First, though, that ambition. You start the game as Rhys, a prince of a war-torn kingdom trying to rescue his betrothed from a dragon. You then discover that your stereotypical Western fantasy kingdom is, in fact, just one of several gigantic environments on a colony ship (evacuated from the same planet that was destroyed in Phantasy Star II), team up with a couple of maintenance robots, and are then given the choice to marry either your original love interest or the woman who’s been aiding you in your quest.

Then you play as Rhys’s child for the next third of the game. This was Phantasy Star III‘s big focus, and where a lot of its resources went: it spans three generations, and which characters you play as depend on what choices you make in previous sections of the game. Characters will inherit the skills of their parents, meaning that depending on who marries whom you can end the game with a radically different party layout. It meant a

Come on, Sega. You're better than that.

Come on, Sega. You’re better than that.

branching storyline, a huge cast, long-term consequences for player choice… and a lot of problems. It was a mechanic that was definitely ahead of its time, but it was also ahead of the hardware of its time– that amount of branching decisions had to fit on a cartridge the same size as Phantasy Star II, meaning that many of the game’s central characters were palette-swapped versions of each other, that there wasn’t time or space to really establish their personalities and motivations, and the game was critically short on memory. Animated enemy sprites were gone, combat animations regressed to the level of Dragon Warrior, and the plot was fairly bare-bones.

That’s the problem with Phantasy Star III— it sunk a lot of its resources into the generational mechanic, and that mechanic isn’t enough to make up for how much it cost the game. The enemy design is pretty awful, battle backgrounds are a copy-pasted mess, the combat system is much less deep than its predecessor, and the soundtrack ranges from passable to bad to this is seriously one of the worst video game songs of all time. The game’s still not bad– no contemporary critic though it was as good as PSII, but it got fairly positive reviews– but these significant problems coupled with its very loose ties to the series’ overarching story mean that it’s definitely skippable.

Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millenium (1992/94)

It's the teenage catgirl who's only one year old! God bless Japan.

It’s the teenage catgirl who’s only one year old! God bless Japan.

What isn’t skippable– for fans of the series, fans of JRPGs, or anyone –is Phantasy Star IV. Whereas every other game on this list has to be qualified with phrases like “for its time,” the series’ fourth installment is an absolute classic and still holds up fantastically well. It’s probably the best non-Sonic game on the Genesis, and one of the best-looking, best-sounding games of its generation.

Plotwise, it’s clear that a lot of work went into PSIV. It was intended to be the last traditional Phantasy Star game and its writers went all-out in both giving the series a great ending and paying tribute to the games that had led up to it. There’s an impressive, and successful, effort made to take the previous three games and tie their stories into a fairly consistent story– the game’s world gets a more fleshed-out history, the actual purpose, plans, and origin of recurring antagonist Dark Force is revealed, and many of the setting’s disparate elements are tied together. On the smaller scale, this is one of those games where it’s clear the developers had a deep love for the series they were working on, as a whole host of side characters, quests, items, and ideas from previous games make appearances. (The quality of the writing’s also helped by Sega’s choice to give the creators complete creative control, meaning that every aspect of the plot and characters arose out of what the artists wanted rather than what would sell or what corporate wanted).

One of the best things about Phantasy Star IV, like II, is the extent to which its plot eschews heroics and derring-do. After the destruction of their homeworld in the second game, Parmanians– basically humans, and the race to which most of the main characters belong –have colonized the two other worlds in their solar system. But they’re just barely surviving. The game is almost post-apocalyptic, as all of the sci-fi technology of the previous entries is either lost or decaying (leading to the rare time random encounters have an in-plot justification: the world is overrun with monsters, meaning that only armed travelers can move between settlements), there’s no unified government, and the terraforming systems meant to keep the worlds habitable are slowly running down and malfunctioning. Even by the end of the game, after the horrible demon-monster that threatened all life is defeated, it’s clear that the game’s world is never going to recover or be much less hostile to human life. While not as dark or desolate as II, the game still puts you in the twilight days of human civilization (Phantasy Star Online actually picks up from this, as you attempt to colonize a new home after this collapse). And speaking of the ending– in a medium driven by sequels, the decision to conclusively end a long-running and well-respected series, and to do so in such a bittersweet and nuanced way, is incredibly admirable.

Chaz has unique commentary on everyone's kitchen. None of them are as clean as his.

Chaz has unique commentary on everyone’s kitchen. None of them are as clean as his.

This is kept up by the protagonists, who are an incredibly motley and diverse bunch. While they’re all decent people, none of them is outright heroic– you’ll make a good amount of your early-game earnings from the party leader extorting one of your other party members out of his wedding fund in exchange for your protection. Your wizard is a cocky know-it-all who thinks that being able to use magic makes him the coolest guy around, your healer a cantankerous troublemaker with a terrible sense of humor, and even the game’s hero is a panicky novice who wants to get all these problems over with so he can settle down to an ordinary life full of interior decorating and being oblivious to women hitting on him. The mixed bunch of characters (who are often  argumentative and at cross purposes) and rough, dirty world help keep the game from falling into the heroics or melodramatics that can drag other RPGs down.

The gameplay in Phantasy Star IV is rock-solid, although not as deep or complex as its rough contemporary Final Fantasy VI. Turn-based combat is fast-paced, the battle system is fantastic-looking (with probably the Genesis’s best sprite work), and the decision to divide characters’ special abilities into more generic Techniques (which draw from mana) and Skills (which are unique to each character have limited uses depending on the character’s level) adds some additional depth and makes each character feel unique in combat. The characters themselves are also well-designed– most of them have two or three specializations,  so that you’re never too dependent on one party member and they can work together in different ways (including combining two or three different characters’ attacks into powerful and cool-looking combos). The game also does an admirable job of actually reflecting characters’ growth and personalities through its mechanics; in the most notable example, the protagonist’s recognition that he needs to take responsibility and become a leader coincides with the point in the game where he develops a wider base of skills and starts to become the core member of your party in battle.

It's like if H.P. Lovecraft designed Magic Eye pictures.

It’s like if H.P. Lovecraft designed Magic Eye pictures.

Probably the game’s biggest triumph, though, is its visuals and music. The art design and graphics are absolutely gorgeous, which certainly doesn’t hurt that combat system– the animations for characters’ attacks and abilities are really, really good-looking and have a sense of motion and energy that really suits the fast, streamlined combat. Settings and environments look lush and feel atmospheric, and there’s a real sense of awe as you enter some of the game’s more impressive settings. This is helped along by the music– some of the best of the era, and up there with the Sonic games as the Genesis’s best. Some of the music is a little goofy (but endearing), but for the most part it’s an incredibly impressive soundtrack that also helps establish a great sense of place and suits the game’s sense of mystery and desolate setting.

End of the Millenium

In the end, Phantasy Star IV may represent the series’ biggest achievement: a quartet of games that tell an overlapping, continuous story. Compared to the in-name-only nature of the Final Fantasy series or the stand-alone sequels of other games of the time, this is a special thing. Even given the variable quality and tenuous connections that link some of the games, it’s an impressive legacy. Each of the games is very much its own unique entity, but taken together they represent both several years of strong RPGs and a great look at gaming history. Made when RPGs were being born and molded, they’re  an interesting example of a lot of gameplay and narrative firsts and a new perspective on the genre that’s often been overlooked. While some of the games may be more interesting to historians than to players, it’s a landmark series that honestly deserves more mention for its innovation and greatness.

Failed Revolution: Sonic The Hedgehog

“Hey, before you go play a Sonic level, how about a terrible fishing minigame!”

The Sonic the Hedgehog games are awesome. Sonic can both really move, and has an attitude, and starred in some of the best games ever made. Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is honestly, seriously, as good or better than any classic Mario game. They have great music, fantastic level design, and an incredible, fast-paced action that makes them constantly exciting and fun.

Then there are the other Sonic the Hedgehog games. The ones that started as slightly rough, inconsistent 3D platformers and slowly degenerated. By the year 2006 the series was something of a joke– elements that had been clunky in Sonic Adventure 1 had metastasized into tw0-thirds of Sonic Adventure 2, the music had gone from being so good Michael Jackson admired its craftsmanship to sounding like Smash Mouth b-sides, and the characters that had been lovable and cool in the early 90’s now seemed like Poochie, if Poochie had melodramatic comic books and uncountable amounts of porn made about him. Sega knew the brand was in trouble, and they launched a last-ditch attempt to save the franchise.

That attempt was 2006’s Sonic The Hedgehog.

The Tragical History of Sonic The Hedgehog

Sonic 06 isn’t just bad, it’s tragic. Over the span of 15 years, the Sonic series went from being represented by arguably the best platformer of all

The first five Sonic games. The first real console RPG. Nights, a game so good Miyamoto said he wished he’d made it. Because of Sonic 06, he now makes cell phone games.

time to being represented by possibly the worst. Like Duke Nukem Forever, what’s fascinating here isn’t just that this is a bad game, but that its failure is a tragic irony of Shakespearean proportions. It wasn’t a grudging cash-in. It was the game that was going to save Sonic, that was intended to be a callback to the classic games. They even called it, simply, Sonic The Hedgehog— as though this was the game that summarized the entire series, that was supposed to embody why Sonic was great and important. After a decade of dodgy games, the shuttering of their hardware division, and the complete creative bankruptcy of their signature franchises, Sega was making a project that would celebrate their successes and remind everyone of what their games used to be.

The universe was not going to let this kind of hubris go unanswered. By the time the game came out, it had gone from a grand artistic mission to a cash-in so desperate Sega was shoveling it out for Christmas as an obvious beta. It did so much damage to the Sonic brand that not only is it now out of print, but unavailable for download– the game that was supposed to be Sega’s pride has been quietly erased from public record. It embodied, not the Sonic of old, but every single mistake of Sonic’s 3D era. It was so disastrous, and so terribly managed, that Yuji Naka– the man who created Sonic, Phantasy Star, and Nights Into Dreams –quit the franchise he had helped create and left Sega entirely. This is a huge part of why we find the game fascinating– that, with everything riding on it and an entire franchise depending on it, Sega ran the project into the ground so thoroughly and devastatingly that it seemed like a deliberate attempt to tell the saddest story in the history of game design.

A Master Class In Failure

It’s pretty sad when you had better physics back in 1991.

Another part of why we find the game fascinating (and yes– we own it, and have played it through twice)? Its sheer number of mistakes, and the enormity of them. It’s not just that it’s unfinished, or that it’s poorly written, or that the graphics are terrible. It’s that the game seems like a deliberate attempt at franchise suicide. The very promise to “return Sonic back to his roots” means that Sega knew there were problems with the previous Sonic games– and yet Sonic 06 takes every previous complaint against the series and carries it further. No one liked playing as Amy in the first Sonic Adventure, and yet here she is, playable. The very idea of vehicle sections was laughable in Shadow The Hedgehog, but now they appear in every one of Shadow’s levels and side quests. Sega recognized that the open world in the first Adventure was poorly-done and removed it, but it’s in this game and it’s worse. Whereas everyone who wasn’t looking for fanfiction ideas thought the previous Sonic games had terrible stories, Sonic 06 has a story so incredibly convoluted and obtuse (involving time travel, alternate futures, stable time loops, and a plethora of misunderstandings and betrayals) that we’ve played it twice and still can’t explain it accurately. And these are just the mistakes that there was precedent for– some of the game’s ideas are so bad that there’s no sensible explanation for them.

This is where the game gets interesting. Almost every level has to be played three times, and then again in a fourth, abbreviated version. Sega licensed the Havok physics engine, built an entire (awful, awful) character around using it, built in complex physics puzzles and then forgot to give anything mass or friction. Some powerups do absolutely nothing; you can buy shoes that make Sonic shrink, which has no effect except that the camera can’t follow you and you essentially end up playing blind. One competitive race map– yes, we’ve played them — is actually unplayable because the version used in competitive play is from a level for a flying character, leading to players needing to coordinate jumps off each other to proceed. Playing as Tails makes it impossible to jump on enemies; instead you throw bombs that shoot rings and make the exact same noise and graphic as when you take damage. The end result isn’t just a slog through a bad game– it turns into a darkly comic experience akin to the painful awkwardness of a film like Waiting for Guffman. It’s not just that the game is bad, it’s that the people making it were trying to salvage the franchise and ended up failing in ways that no one could have ever predicted or expected.

Get used to this screen.

Some of the game’s best comedy comes from its absolute technical ineptitude. Struggling through it serves as a harsh reminder to people who want to work in games that, for the majority of a game’s development cycle, it’s unplayable and bizarrely broken. The loading times are infamous (even the logo needs a loading screen): starting a sidequest requires the game to reload the entire world to play a few seconds of dialogue, and then load the world again for the actual mission. You’ll see four load screens between starting the game and actually playing a level. All the font is Comic Sans. Sonic’s spines look like fleshy protrusions covered in fur, and they sway slightly like a camel’s hump. The controls are so finicky and glitchy that the best way to play this Sonic game is as slowly as possible. Water in the game is a plain, unmoving mirror that doesn’t reflect enemies, characters, or parts of the scenery that can be destroyed. Characters always stand perfectly perpendicular to the ground, even when this means they whip wildly back and forth while walking over uneven surfaces or when that ground happens to be a wall that they casually stroll across in zero-gravity. There’s a real sense of joy to be found in playing with the game’s horrendously broken physics. Have you ever made yourself fly by standing on top of a crate and then kicking it a bunch? Have you ever played a Sonic game and wished it had a stealth segment? All this and more awaits you.

The Worst Sonic Characters (Worse Than Cream the Rabbit)

So the Sonic series has some of the worst secondary characters known to video games. Characters like Rouge the Bat and Cream the Rabbit sound and look like fan creations more than official Sega characters. But Sonic 06 manages to take the series to new lows even in this area. The first of the two new characters, Princess Elise, is a human who becomes Sonic’s new love interest. And yes, they do kiss and it’s a horribly awkward scene. So that alone explains why Elise is awful (not that there aren’t at least 50 other reasons too), so let’s move onto the new playable character, Silver the Hedgehog.

It’s like his head’s a permanent facepalm.

Silver’s gimmick is that he’s psychic. He throws boxes with his mind, and that’s about it. Sometimes if you stand on a trigger point he’ll do scripted action, like bending bars, so the level can continue, but your main way of attacking is via box. This is probably an attempt to utilize their half assed implementation of the Havok Physics Engine. Aiming and throwing these boxes (which just happen to be scattered everywhere, and will respawn out of nowhere right in front of you) is especially tedious with the bad camera controls. On top of all this, Silver moves at a snails pace compared to every other character yet he has most of the same levels so it just takes forever to get anywhere with him. He can float for short distances too, but it’s only about as useful for crossing gaps as Sonic’s or Shadow’s Homing Attack, without the added benefit of killing enemies.The only things he can do that the other characters can’t are horrifically unfun, and in no way feel like they belong in a Sonic game.

But it’s Silver’s personality that makes him a horrible character, even by Sonic standards. He whines throughout the entire game and constantly attacks the other characters (particularly Sonic) due to various misunderstanding in the convoluted storyline. Now we at Cardinal Virtual have no problem with characters who are unlikeable for a reason, but Sonic Team clearly wants us to love Silver. He is, after all, the game’s main character— you spend more time playing as him than as Sonic, and it’s his insufferable conflict that drives the plot. Despite his whiny obnoxious behavior, Sonic Team tries to pass him off as a mysterious badass in many of the cutscenes, having him kick Sonic’s ass even after Sonic beats him in a boss fight. And in the end, he doesn’t change or learn anything. He spends his whole storyline worrying about the responsibility his role in defeating the main villain entails and at the end his best friend/girlfriend ends up taking responsibility for him. He literally has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

You Are Tearing Me Apart, Sonic

NO. NO. STOP IT. STOP THIS RIGHT NOW.

In the end, Sonic 06 is a lot like Tommy Wiseau’s cinematic masterpiece The Room. Not just in a “oh my god this is awful way,” but in being so bad that it’s worse than “so bad it’s good.” You can laugh at it, but playing it feels like more than just playing a bad game– it turns into a test of endurance and willpower. We ended up playing it once just out of morbid curiosity, laughing constantly at how broken everything is and how hideous the game is. And then, a year or so later, we played it again. We have no idea why, except maybe to inflict it on someone who wasn’t there for the first playthrough. And then, while researching this article, we tried to play it again but started feeling physically ill and had to turn the Xbox off and lie down for a little while.

In the end, it might be worth picking up. We’re certainly better for having played it– though awful to actually suffer through, the game becomes hilarious in hindsight. It’s also an absolutely fascinating look into what happens when developers drift so far away from critical opinion or objective quality that they become incapable of figuring out which ideas are good and which ones are awful.  This is perhaps the biggest lesson to take away: the next time you defend a game with “I don’t care what the critics think, I love [Franchise X]” remember what happened when Sonic Team went down that path.

It would be an awful game normally, but the context magnifies it. We played Sonic 2 in between levels of this game and the experience is surreal– one of the best games of the Genesis/SNES generation, followed by one of the absolute worst of the current. The glitches, terrible writing, and absolutely catastrophic design ideas are funny on their own, but knowing why this game was made, and why it failed– that turns it from simply a laughable experience into something strange and sad.

Man, remember the Chemical Plant Zone? That was rad.

Games are Art, and that means criticism.

Recently, Halo 4‘s lead developer mentioned that games, and the gaming community, have a serious issue with sexism. The comments on the article… were awful. There were the ones that instantly proved her right (one person said that the fact that Halo 4 was made by “whiny, sensitive women” who cared about this issue had convinced them not to buy it), but the ones that really stood out for us were the ones that called talking about sexism in gaming a “pointless crusade,” said that raising the issue was an “ego trip,” and saying that because gaming was full of misogyny trying to change it was a waste of time. These comments, and these complaints, go way beyond the issue at hand to one of the biggest problems with gamer culture: an instantly defensive attitude towards any kinds of critical discussions. Not just to negative criticism, but to the very idea that we should be looking at games intellectually and through critical lenses. This isn’t just ignorant– this is hurting the very medium that gamers claim to love.
Because if you don’t want a critical discussion, you don’t really believe that games are art.

“Trying to actually discuss relevant issues? Big risk. But the priiiiiiiize… is being taken seriously by critics outside gaming.”

Gamers act like children about social issues. This is a more specific part of what we’re talking about, but it’s where we wanted to start because of this article and other problems the past several months in the gaming community. Look at this article, in which a lot of issues with race and gender in major games are examined. You might notice something, which is that it’s not a very great article. Jacob in Mass Effect, for example,  is the most well-rounded and professional member of your entire crew, and the fact that he has daddy issues (like everyone else in the game) and moves 6 months on after your brief fling ends and you’re under house arrest and he’s living half a galaxy away aren’t issues of bigotry on the part of the designers. Similarly, Gay Tony in GTA IV? Fantastic character and one of the most rounded and human gay characters in gaming.

Do you see what we did there, fellow gamers? How we actually responded to the issues raised in the article that we disagreed with, and didn’t think that any discussion of social issues was an attack on our personal clubhouse? That’s how grown-ups who like a medium act about criticism. You don’t say, as virtually the entire comments section did, that “feminists don’t know anything about games” or “games are just catering to their market” or “but tits are nice to look at” and “all that matters is that the game is fun.” If you truly believe that games are art and should be treated as such, you have to accept that all art gets looked at through critical lenses. Imagine if an art critic said that Gauguin’s work is sexist or racist and people who love art, who spend a few hundred dollars a month on paintings and art books and going to museums, said “clearly you don’t like paintings” and “who cares about that, I just love the pretty colors.” The only reason that games could get a blanket immunity to criticism on social issues is if we said “well, they’re just toys for adolescent virgins, so who cares?” If you want games to be art, you have to accept that they’re going to be treated like every other form of art. (And if you, say, respond to the very idea of a feminist look at games with ranting and death threats, then congratulations– you understand the medium as much, and approach these issues with the same tact, as Jack Thompson).

And speaking of Gauguin, yes, the man is absolutely sexist and racist– he abandoned his wife to go have sex with women in Tahiti while

“Ugh, just another complaint by a watercolor fanboy whose parents were too poor to buy him oil paintings as a kid. Grow up and stop loving babby painters.”

fetishizing their culture and doing a lot of talking about the noble savage. You know what else he was? One of the greatest painters of the 19th century. And that’s because acknowledging criticism doesn’t mean art is bad. This is part of the problem– gamers have a hard time hearing “there are some problems with this game” as anything but “this game is awful.” You’ll see this manifested in whining about review scores– “this game deserves a 100 instead of a 98, clearly if you think it’s a masterpiece but not perfect you’re an idiot” –but it also shows up in other discussions. There’s a thread running through gaming that any attack on any aspect of a game you love is a personal attack. It’s why console fanboyism exists, and why gamers treat other people’s opinions as invalid– “I love Resident Evil 6 so it’s an objectively good game, and any critic who didn’t enjoy it has to be deliberately lying.” Criticism, both in terms of quality and critical interpretations, is meant to be a part of discussion, not the be-all and end-all of “is this game bad or not?”

What criticism isn’t meant to be is a venue for people who love art to try and control discussion of it. Let’s compare two similar works in different mediums. Blue Velvet is a fantastic movie– aggressive, innovative, and unique, taking viewers to dark place and trying to challenge how we interact with film. Heavy Rain was a game with a lot of the same ideas and approaches, loved by a lot of critics, scored by the… same composer (okay, “similar” might have been a little too kind). And we love Blue Velvet. We’d put it in the same category as Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, or The Seventh Seal. It’s safe to say that we love it as much as the people who think that Heavy Rain is the best game ever love it.

“I’ll send you a love letter. You know what a love letter is? It’s a 6.5 out of fucking 10. You get a love letter from me, your Metacritic average is fucked forever.

And, if you love Blue Velvet, you know Roger Ebert’s review of it. The one where he just didn’t seem to get the movie– where the balance of comedy and horror, the sexual menace, and the feeling of unease and disgust never worked for him. The review where he gave the best film of the ’80s one star. And do you know how we feel about that, as people who love film and love Blue Velvet? We acknowledge his points, state our disagreements, have a laugh that it didn’t work for him. David Lynch joked about it and then made Twin Peaks. In the long run, we love the review– it raises questions, and the discussions it provoked (both among other critics and between Ebert and Siskel, who loved it) have enriched peoples’ understanding of the film.

Heavy Rain, though, had a very different relationship with critics. David Cage, who wants so badly to make gaming’s Blue Velvet that he hired Angelo Badalamenti to compose the soundtrack, called its critics– who gave it a 6.5, vastly better than Ebert’s Deuce-Bigalow-level-score –“children” who were “just barely intelligent” and were simply resistant to the revolutionary work he had created. He then did the worst thing anyone can do in regards to game criticism: he points out the Metacritic average and says that because these reviews are so far below the average, they don’t count. That because a person’s opinion is different from the majority that opinion shouldn’t be treated as valid. When Cage responded like this– to a handful of critics who said his game was mediocre-to-decent and not a masterpiece –it wasn’t just a tantrum that he wasn’t being universally adored, it was making a public statement that he believed popularity and selling lots of copies mattered more to him than making art.

And the fan’s response to this prima donna behavior was to carry it further. To say that everyone who doesn’t like Heavy Rain is a shill for Microsoft deliberately trying to sabotage a PS3 game. They say that the scores should be exempted from Metacritic averages because they’re obviously the product of biased hacks. They say that any critic who lets their “personal biases” determine how much they enjoy playing something– who lets their opinions shape their opinion piece –should be fired. This is unique to gaming, and it’s not just about reviews. This is how gamers react to critical discussions. And it’s awful. Games are never going to be able to grow and develop if you attack the very idea of critical disagreement. If minority opinions are treated as irrelevant. If the individual perspective of critics is treated as a bad thing. If game developers rely on Metacritic averages to defend their art. That’s not how art lovers defend art, that’s how P.R. executives defend products.

And then they fall back on the single worst defense of a game ever when people raise the issue of plot. Whether you like the game’s story or not,

“You are looking at a man who– you are looking at a man who has zero lives left.”

it’s an objective fact that there are problems. There are narrative contradictions, elements and ideas that are quickly dropped, stilted dialogue, and a plot twist that relies on lying to the player. These don’t have to be dealbreakers. It’s perfectly fine to say that they’re not major issues, just as you can say that a movie has a bad script but is really fun and visually stunning. What’s not fine is to say “well it’s better than Halo‘s story.” And what’s absolutely unacceptable is to say, as many did (and as Cage’s promise to “make a game with a story as good as a Hollywood movie” implied) “it’s just a game, so lower your standards.” These are the same arguments that pop up in response to any negative review or complaint about games that anyone makes anywhere, and they’re insulting to the medium. If you think games are art, respect them by actually holding them accountable. Don’t just say “well, not every game can have a story as good as Taxi Driver.” When Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, he wasn’t content to say that no movie could measure up to Crime and Punishment– instead he tried to write a film that could. You see this every time a game’s story is criticized or examined– the notion that as long as the game’s fun, all of these issues can be disregarded. The idea that writing, art design, characters, plot, or social awareness are just optional add-ons is something unique to games, and it arises out of the same defensive attitude as our previous examples. When someone raises the fact that a game has narrative problems, you’re not a little kid trying to defend your hobby to your parents anymore– you’re someone who claims to be passionate about an art form who should be willing to engage in an actual discussion. When Roger Ebert said that games weren’t art, the gaming community exploded with rage– only, every time the issue of a game’s artistic failings is raised, for many of the people that were apoplectic at Ebert’s claim to fall back on saying that it doesn’t matter as long as the game is fun.

Gamers have gotten so used to, for years, accepting mediocre writing that they see it as standard. But the achievements of gaming can only matter if they’re looked at in context and treated as examples. The fact that Bioshock and No More Heroes can say great things about gaming and tell powerful stories isn’t just a neat little bonus– it’s every bit as big of an achievement as making a game that’s incredibly fun or has the best graphics ever. If you believe games are art, you have to treat them as every other critic of every other medium does. You have to hold them accountable for their failings. You have to recognize that other people have different opinions and priorities. You have to accept that games should be for everyone, not just straight white men. You have to discuss them and look at every aspect of them. Saying that the only thing that matters is how much fun you have is only true when it comes to toys for children.