This year saw the opening of a video games exhibit in the museum in the Smithsonian and the promise of one in the Museum of Modern Art next March, as well as a video game whose score was nominated for a friggin“ Grammy. Video game culture is evolving, and the Pangaea that was once the entirety of â€œvideo gamesâ€ has broken off into a number of continents.
Point-and-click adventures, top-down arcade bloodbaths, rhythm RPGs – it seems like no genre is off limits in this new, hopeful era of gaming, ruled by passion and creativity. In no particular order, here are some of my personal highlights of what I truly hope is a gaming renaissance.
Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy
Theatrhythm makes my list not only because it“s an extremely addictive and unique game, combining RPG elements with rhythm-based gameplay in an experience that lasts far longer than the initial run through (I“ve put in over 55 hours so far); I“m also including it because it“s the best Final Fantasy game released in recent memory, a fact that is as sad as it is indicative of the gaming culture shift we are witnessing. Formulaic gameplay might have worked for a while, but with so many creative titles on the market, it wouldn“t be a stretch to say that shallow cookie-cutter sequels (like, ahem, Final Fantasy XIII-2) won“t keep the attention of the new gaming crowd, whose attentions are constantly threatened by a rainbow-like barrage of great new properties.
While larger studios were preoccupied with crafting storylines, characters, special effects, and whatever else in their attempts to distract us from what was often the same old experience, smaller groups have demonstrated a natural talent for proving the adage that "less is more." Hotline Miami, made by a couple of guys and a handful of composers, has you infiltrating buildings and strategically wasting goons in short bursts (by shooting them, throwing pipes at them, or my favorite, knocking them out by timing the opening of doors just right) using only the WASD keys and mouse, in a top-down perspective reminiscent of the first Grand Theft Auto. It“s laughably simple, and yet this game emanates with blood-soaked charm and an arcade-style addictive quality that will keep you entertained far longer than most of the big-budget titles that came out this year.
The Walking Dead
If there“s anything that represents the point of this list, it“s this: an adventure game based on a popular comic that features a riveting story, multi-dimensional character relationships, and choices that affect the game in ways that range from the subtle to the devastating. More important, though, is that The Walking Dead is possibly revitalizing the entire point-and-click adventure genre, a category that has been pretty much dead itself to the larger gaming populace since the days of Grim Fandango. I don“t know what it means when a low-budget indie game can make this kind of impact on the industry, but it“s surprising, exciting, and likely to inspire a whole new wave of would-be game designers to work with the archaic game genre of their choice.
As you traverse through a mountainous desert landscape with your partner – an anonymous online player with whom you can“t communicate save for a wordless shout – you get the sensation an early explorer must have felt after docking his ship at an unknown island for the first time. Stunning landscapes, emotionally-charged co-op gameplay, and an evocative, Grammy-nominated soundtrack all come together to produce something far bigger than the sum of its parts. It seems like an insult to call this a â€œgame.â€ This is humanity, programmed and interpreted.
And yet, amidst this paradigm shift into more minimalistic and avant-garde attitudes, there remains the knowledge that a game may not have to do something entirely unprecedented as long as it does a phenomenal job of pulling you into it and keeping you there. Also, that a big budget can still be used to kick entire truckloads of ass. Borderlands 2 isn“t just about the millions of guns you can acquire, or the constant barrage of tasks and rewards, or about the unique, colorful characters or well-written dialogue or the sheer hilarity of playing it for even half an hour. It“s about how all of these things conflate into an unequivocally magnificent experience.