While devotion to the mediums of film, books, and music are often acceptable and even encouraged, it’s harder to justify a devotion to video games. While those who appreciate these more respected mediums are often thought of as smart, perceptive, and thoughtful, video game devotees are often thought of as simple-minded fanboys simply out for another challenge or mindless fun.
I am well aware that this perception is based on a certain reality: when it comes to artistic seriousness, video games probably lie somewhere between comic books and television. 2009 wasn’t exactly a year that helped to change this. However, I still have a strong belief in the potential of the medium to impact me emotionally, to make me think, or to challenge me in a deeper sense than merely achieving a high score. In fact, I spend much of my gaming time seeking out specific moments that do this, and this year I was not disappointed. While most (if not all) of the games I played were severely flawed in terms of artistry (even the best-told story of the year, Uncharted 2, was nothing special by artistic standards – you will not find it in this list, because nothing stood out besides the whole of the well-crafted story), they had their moments.
And so, I thought I’d share some of the most meaningful moments I experienced in a video game this year.
1. Assassin’s Creed 2 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3) – Shameful acts result in shameful feelings.
The time I hurt someone while playing Assassin’s Creed, it was an accident. I was just trying to get used to the controls, and was running around, jumping, climbing and sneaking through crowds of people in Florence. Then, I decided to see what the x button would do and ended up punching a courtesan, who was quite literally minding her own business. My spectating wife was shocked by my action, but understood rather quickly that it was accidental. The crowd, however, simply saw a man in a cloak run up to a lady and punch her for no reason. Their reaction was an appropriate mix of shock, confusion and outrage. As I ran away, I started to realize that I wasn’t running from any physical threat, or from the immanence of video game death. Instead, I was running from my own shame and embarrassment from physically harming someone. Say what you will about a video game that allows you to punch a lady for no reason, in my book it’s pretty impressive that doing so results in a palpable sense of horrified shamefulness.
2. Left 4 Dead 2 (Xbox 360 , PC) – Being left for dead in New Orleans.
Much of Left 4 Dead 2 is an extension of the previous installment: serial zombie movie style fiction, meant to provide low-impact scares and a context for interesting multiplayer interactions. The next to last campaign, Hard Rain, provides an experience of pure anxiety, fighting your way through a downpour and hurricane force winds, hoping to make it out with your life. And yet the real surprise was the last campaign, the culmination of the game, in which it becomes clear to the characters what was clear to us in the beginning: they have truly been left to die.
As you begin to work your way through New Orleans, you realize that not only are the zombies out to get you, but the military has begun bombing the area, which is already significantly demolished. As you pass through former government checkpoints and makeshift clinics that are now devastated, one is brought face to face with the realization that they don’t care about us. Whether this feeling is objectively true or not in the L4D fiction as well as real life, it at least causes us to think about what it might be like for those who do feel that sense of abandonment. The most obvious real life comparison is to those stranded in New Orleans during the entirely real Hurricane Katrina debacle, when real people found themselves stranded and, as far as they could tell, truly left behind.
Lucidity fell under the radar, mostly because the passive play style didn’t appeal to most gamers. The entire game consist of little more than placing planks, springs, fans, and bombs in particular locations so as to provide a way for a little girl. As the difficulty of the game ramps up, the emotional struggle ramps up for the lead character. For me, the defining moment was shortly after we discover that her grandmother has died, and the levels become manifestations of her darker emotional struggles. Beyond simply making it through the level, I felt a desire to protect this character, not just from video-game baddies, but from an emotional abyss.
4. Flower (Playstation 3) – Wanting to take a walk.
In Flower, you are the wind, and you direct the motion of a flower. It is, to say the least, a unique proposition for a video game. There are a myriad of ways this game could have gone horribly wrong. Nonetheless, Flower plays just as it should: a tilt of the controller seamlessly guides the flower through a green field. The experience can’t be described in any way that does it justice except to say that it is truly beautiful, not only because of the superior graphics and art design, but because of the reaction it coaxes out of us. When was the last time a video game intentionally made you feel a strong desire to turn it off and go take a walk outside? The first time I completed a level and did just that, I knew it was special.
5. Spider (iPhone) – Stumbling over meaning
iPhone games aren’t known for their meaning. Instead, they’re known for their addictive qualities, their ease of play, and their purely skill-based, high-score chasing nature. They are not, normally, artful. If it weren’t for the release of Spider, I would still be turning my nose up at iPhone gaming. I had read that Spider was a fun, mysterious trip through an abandoned mansion, but what I really loved was just how the game used the inherent qualities of the format so brilliantly. It assumes a casual sort of gamer, and it allows that gamer to play as such by taking on the persona of a Spider. A spider doesn’t care about what anything in an abandoned house means. He is merely looking for the best places to spin webs and the best ways to trap bugs. And yet, as we pass by more and more obvious evidence of something gone wrong in the mansion, the game reminds us not only of the humanity of the previous occupants, but of our own humanity as well. It challenges us to think and act as a person, even in the context of a casual game – the type of game we tend to play on auto-pilot. We are not merely insects, but thinking, imagining beings with the ability to ask “What is the meaning of this?”