Looking Back: Five 2009 Video Game Moments That Give Me Hope for the Medium

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.

3. Lucidity (Xbox Live Arcade, PC) – A little girl’s emotional health is at stake
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?”

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  • Alan Noble

    I have to say that this year was lacking in artful gaming moments for me. These are some neat moments.

  • There were a lot of meaningful gaming moments for me in 2009 but I know you’re not going to want to hear that a lot of them came from World of Warcraft‘s latest expansion. In any case here are some of them from a smattering of games.

    The game as a whole was a meaningful experience to me. The way art and music conspired to create deeply dreamlike settings almost instantly made certain the game could do no wrong in my mind. Every level was fun and even as the game ratcheted up its tension and caused the gamer to genuinely empathize with the struggle that Sophie was at that moment wrestling with in her subconscious mind, I was still there every step of the way. For me though, The Moment arrives when having slogged through nightmare after nightmare, Sophia encounters the golden frog. And this just moments after the absence of her grandmother is driven home. That frog returns buoyancy and childhood fancy back to Sophia and introduces hope once more into her dreamworld. The nightmares still threaten but there is the palpable feeling that they shall not endure.

    Completely awesome little game.

    I’m cheating a little here because though we started the game in 2009 on Christmas, I think, we didn’t finish it until two nights ago. Machinarium quite easily slides into my Top Games of 2009 list and hovers in the top three spots. I haven’t played every lauded game released last year (or even many of them), but I find it hard to conceive anything really being able to knock it out of this place. Mostly because I don’t recall anything being released that would beat out Shadow of the Colossus either. And yeah, Machinarium is on a level with Shadow of the Colossus.

    Visually, the game had more artistic oomph than anything I’ve seen since, well, since Shadow of the Colossus. Which is pretty high praise—since Lucidity (see above) had some of the best art design I’ve seen in a while. Machinarium‘s entirety is hand drawn. Pen and ink. Coloured pencils. The game is gorgeous and has an obviously European look to it. Visual style helps the player grow comfortable in this robot’s skin and with his world.

    As you puzzle your way through the game (and it really is a riddle/puzzle-oriented story) the narrative begins to unshackle itself and you come to find that you’re the foremost soldier in the war of sweetness and good-natured salt of the earth versus brute anarchy. There is no dialogue as such and story is revealed through gestures and through animated sequences that play out through though balloons. There are plethora of awesome moments from moments of personal discovery when you figure out how to solve a puzzle that’s gripped you for the last half hour to noticing your little robot’s non-chalant actions when you aren’t controlling him to his reaction to music when the band really gets going, but for me (and I think probably for my wife as well) The Moment came about halfway through the game when you discover your little robot (girl-?)friend. Their joy at reunion is your joy—even though you still have plenty of work ahead of you.

    Just a fantastic game.

    World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion
    I know none of you are fans—mostly because of what seems like either fear or prejudice (both of which I suppose are understandable)—but there’s a reason that WoW continues to be so ridiculously popular even five years after its release. That reason is that the game is astoundingly well-put-together.

    At release, WoW was a pretty impressive game. It had to be to draw me in. One simple reason: I hate playing games with people online. Hate it. Still, despite the fact that it had a lot going for it, there were some obvious problems and things that made the experience less enjoyable than it could have been. But Blizzard never stood still. Over the past six years, they’ve released major patch after patch—each time introducing new gameplay mechanics, fixing old ones, tweaking player classes for balance, and offering tons of new content. They didn’t have to do this and a lot of companies probably wouldn’t have. After all, things were never really broken, per se. Blizzard just knew they could continue to refine the game and make it more palatable to potential customers, so they did.

    Two years after release, in early 2007, Blizzard released their first piece of expansion content that players would actually have to pay for, The Burning Crusade. It changed a lot for the WoW world and built upon the lore established in previous games (both the Warcraft RTS series and WoW itself). With BC, it became clear that players were engaged in an evolving story and that many of the story elements that were thought to be static had the potential to evolve.

    Two years later again, in 2009, we come to the subject of my Moments of 2009. Wrath of the Lich King. WotLK was what we like to call game-changing. It took a number of mechanics that were previously part of the WoW gameplay canon and turned it on its head. One of the problems with the previous incarnation of the game is that despite player efforts and the completion of various storylines, nothing could ever really change. This is something of a bugbear natural to MMOs. If one group of players saves the princess and defeats Bowser for all time, you don’t necessarily want the opportunity to do the same stripped from every other player. So the way things worked is that the princess you just rescued would be back in the clutches of villainy again three minutes later.

    What WotLK did was create sections of the game that determined where in the story you were and phase you into a unique dimension for you and all other players who were at that particular place in the story. This pioneered truly meaningful moments within the game, allowing main characters to die or turn evil or turn good or whatever and have that be a lasting development. As far as individual moments go, there were just so many in that expansion that made me excited to be a gamer that I can’t even hope to count them all.

    Seriously, with the release of WotLK, WoW became one of the best games ever to be released (and the recently announced expansion, Cataclysm) makes the level of innovation in Wrath of the Lich King seem simplistic by comparison. In a way, I’m sad for all of you who haven’t had the pleasure—though I do understand that for those of you in school, carving out five to ten hours a week to play a game might not seem feasible.

  • As the creator of Lucidity (along with an amazing team) I want to say thank you for mentioning our game. It’s so gratifying whenever we hear from people who connected with the deeper emotional themes we were exploring.

    I hope those of us that make games can continue to advance and evolve the artform in a way that interests you. I truly believe that the medium has the potential to be a positive cultural force in our society.

    I hope you made your way through and completed the game as we aimed to finish on an uplifting note!

  • Hey David, thanks for putting out such an awesome game. I hope you’ll be gratified to know that I’m one of the forty-seven Steam users who have thus far completed every possible thing in the game. All stars, all achievements. I had such an enjoyable time doing it that I would have easily played twice as many levels—and I look forward to playing through it all again in a couple months after all the patterns have faded from memory.

    If the games you make in the future are anything near as good as Lucidity, you can count on me being there for them. Thanks again for putting out something meaningful. Beautiful game.

  • David,
    Probably the number one moment that gives me hope for the medium is when developers like yourself so sincerely express their desire that the medium is advanced in such a way. I did indeed finish it, though I haven’t been quite the completionist that Seth has.

  • Hey Seth & Richard,
    We were afforded an amazing opportunity by LucasArts to create something with an incredible amount of artistic freedom. It can be all to rare in our industry but I’m encouraged by the amazing growth in recent years of the independent games scene.

    Flower was a title that I loved, I haven’t played Machinarium but its on my list of games to play when I find time. I’m a sucker for hand drawn art.

    I’ll pass on your notes and this article to the team. Finding people who enjoyed our game is truly the best reward for all the hard work people put in!

    Thank you

  • This year was quite “artful” for me because I picked up some games I passed up on in previous years and have been impressed.

    I am know I am way behind on the times, but I finally picked up Fallout 3 and am almost finished. I know everyone says it doesn’t look good on PS3 and I can understand that, but nonetheless it was a visually stunning game–the DC Ruins really feel like a vast wasteland yet the world is not so big as to make everything in seem trivial to your quest. In fact the various side quests you engage in the little communities in the wasteland were the most engaging part of the game to me–I have actually found the main quest to be rather predictable (I haven’t finished it yet though–I think I am on the second to last quest). Anyway, the many difficult moral decisions the game presents along with their far reaching effects made for a very interesting gaming experience.

    Playing Fallout 3 has been kind of like reading a really interesting novel, only I get to blast Super Mutants and Slavers with a Combat Shotgun and Lincoln’s Repeater in the process which in many ways is more interesting (I know I sound like a geek)! I think games this compelling are few and far between, but here is to hoping that next year will bring more meaningful gaming experiences!

  • @The Dane–actually I have wanted to try WoW for some time, but I think there is this fear in me about MMORPGs that they will consume inordinate amounts of my time.

    Anyway, I hope to check out some of these games you mention–I actually just upgraded my PC a little–its still a bit of dinosaur but I should be able to have some fun with it now. Anyway, thanks for the recommendations.

  • @Drew:
    Fallout 3 definitely had some good moments in it for me. Probably The Moment in the game (for me) came when I was wandering through Arlington Cemetery and came across a lone flower growing in front of a tombstone. Amidst all the death, mutation, and dried out husks, there was this growing, living thing. And it was beautiful and spoke of an earth that would eventually renew itself despite the fury of man.

    MMORPGs really aren’t necessarily any more time-consuming or addictive than regular RPGs. I can spend as much time playing WoW as I can playing Morrowind. I spent close to a hundred hours on both GTA:SA and Persona 3, so total time played isn’t much of an issue.

    The real problem facing WoW gamers is how to moderate their time. If you’re comfortable playing a couple hours of video games a few nights a week or on a Saturday morning, just make sure to allot the same amount of time to WoW instead. When I was at the height of enjoying WoW, I would typically play for about forty minutes in the morning before work and maybe an hour before bed at night. If I knew that I had a quest that would take up to two hours to accomplish, I’d save that for a time when I had time—or I’d skip it altogether.

    The people you hear about who sound thoroughly addicted are not the casual players who make up most of WoW‘s user base but the people who must have nothing but time and join raiding guilds that challenge the end-game content in highly organized 25-man groups. These people are hardcore and you don’t want to be one of them unless maybe you’re in highschool or on an extended disability leave.

    Really, WoW is fine unless you have an addictive personality. And if you have one of those, you should probably stay away from videogames altogether anyway.

  • @The Dane/Seth – Probably the two biggest reasons I haven’t tried WoW: A subscriber based pay model (just to play one game!), and it’s a PC/Mac game.

    @David – I remember being really impressed at Lucas Arts for allowing that game to be made. Is this something you think will continue, not just in LucasArts’ case, but in the industry as a whole? Is there anything coming out in particular that you are looking forward to in this regard?

    @Drew – Yeah, I think we’re getting to a point where people are starting to discover that some of the games that came out a couple years ago are becoming “classics” in a very real sense. Things like Fallout 3, Bioshock, Far Cry 2 – they just don’t go away because people can’t stop talking about them. They’re so well thought out and dense that you truly can start to mark them down as examples of true classics in an artistic sense.

    Also, my advice is to beat the game, then buy Broken Steel and beat the game again. And don’t get too hung up on the ending. It’s obviously not the point.

  • @Rich – Yeah, I thought that would be a big deal at first too, but after playing I found that it was worth the cost. Granted, I unsubscribe the minute I feel like I’ve reached the end of a particular era of play, but so far as cost of entertainment goes, it’s really not a super high ceiling.

    You get a two month subscription for free with the game. Then, if you’re still enjoying it, you pay no more than $15 a month for however many hours you plan to invest in what will amount to being the only game you’ll be playing during that month. Portal retailed for $20 and no one spent more than six hours with it. The cost seems high, but its way more entertainment per dollar than a) most games or b) any movie ever.

    Aaaaaaaand… You can play a 10-day free trial just to see if it’s something you’d ever be interested in. With absolutely no requirement to go further. For some people, obviously, $15/month is going to be high but for others (those who enjoy the game and its wealth of versatile play styles, storylines, etc.) $15 is obviously well worth the price of admission.

    I think I definitely spend more money on games when I’m not subscribed to WoW, so in a way, the subscription saves me money.

  • @The Dane–I completely agree with you about WoW. I think that just like any other game, people can abuse it by playing it for inordinate amounts of time–my initial comment was actually just a concession that you are right about and I shouldn’t be afraid to play it if I am disciplined with my time already.

    My beef with MMORPG’s is that they were so open-ended that I never really connected with the quest I was doing. From what you have said about WoW, I am assuming it is different. I would say the same thing about most “choose your own path” type RPGs with the exception of Fallout 3 (of course I stopped playing RPG in recent years, the last RPG I finished was probably Final Fantasy X). In Fallout 3, I really connected with the world. It was so messed up, that I really wanted to go out and try to change it by saving slaves, disarming bombs and wiping out slavers! Anyway, Fallout 3 made me want to check out some RPGs I passed up on the past because of how interesting the world was.

    Any recommendations? I just updated my computer, so I can actually play games on it now.

    @Rich–I finished Fallout 3 over the Weekend. I thought about either going back and doing the side quests I didn’t do or buying Broken Steel. Buying Broken Steel allows you to go back into the Wasteland and do any quests you didn’t before right? And then adds some new quests too right?

  • @Richard – I think its a great time for the industry.

    I think the most promising development is the growth of digital platforms such as XBLA, PSN, Flash, iPhone, coupled with the broadening audience that continues to include more and more of the general population. It’s so great to see an industry that can support 2-3 people getting together and making games again.

    Smaller budgets and teams allow people to take more risks and can more easily facilitate a creators unique voice.

  • I lover your articles there awesome.