1. Battlefield 3 (20)
2. Face Raiders (20)
3. Minecraft (15)
4. Wii Play Motion (15)
5. Inside a Star-filled Sky (5)
6. The Cat and the Coup (5)
At the end of every year in videogame land I wind up in conflict with myself. I have a self-aggrandizing desire to order the games I’d played in the preceding 12 months, simultaneously canonizing their importance and proving myself irreplaceable as an observer of them. Against this desire, I feel a revulsion for the idea that I might be creating a false impression of zeitgeist, deludedly reducing the million loose threads of creativity into a singular clump of trendy yarn. In preparing this list, I have indulged the latter aversion and decline the chance to aggrandize myself as a seer of zeitgeists. Instead I aggrandize myself as an assembler, in appreciation of the disparate games that, to me, will be worth remembering. I leave it to the reader to perceive what, if any, larger spirit lies beneath this collection, but otherwise I hope it will be enough to say the one thing these games had in common was me.
Battlefield 3’s single-player mode is as brilliant heightening of sensory experiences: the slowed movement speed, the momentary blinding of bright lights, the obscuring dust that kicks up from bullet fire, the echoing disorientation of hearing gunfire but having no idea where it’s coming from. The gunfights are hauntingly distant and play against a thick blanket of silence that is always there in between shouts and the cracking of automatic weaponry. Being 30 feet from my other squad mates, crouching behind a brick fence in front of a Tehran apartment building, a strange city, with a strange language on its signs, enemies off in the darkness, enemies visible only as thin beams of light coming from flashlights or the momentary brightening of their muzzle flare–I have never felt more emotionally involved in the circumstances of a game. It is not realism, per say, but a dramatic recreation of subconscious sensory details that give one a feeling of a place–being vulnerable, holding a gun, taking fire, and having no idea what to do next. It’s story–three of Russia’s unaccounted for “suitcase nukes” are sold to an Iranian government agent, prompting Russian and American forces into a race to track them down–is a fantasy, but it’s also an order of magnitude more plausible and frightening than any other military shooter I’ve played. I criticized DICE earlier this year for not including more civilian casualties in the game–and I still wish they had–but having played the whole story from start to finish, Battlefield 3 is, in spite of that criticism, the best game of the year and one of the best military shooters ever made.
In three decades of playing videogames I’ve come to realize there is an inescapable friction between a game’s inward and outward qualities. Games very often look stupid when you play them–almost always, in fact. They lack editing and their scripted moments are, even in the best cases, obvious sleights of hand. Yet one builds a relationship with these stupid-seeming contraptions, and the negotiated relationship between player and machine more often than not contains the purest beauty the form can offer. So then, Face Raiders struck me as rapturous when I played it for the first time. The game has you using the 3DS’s screen as an aiming portal that you rotate around any room you’re in, as if you were taking a picture. The game then animates little floating orbs into the picture which you must shoot by rotating the 3DS. Miraculously–and it is a creative miracle in every way–these enemies are given the faces of people whose pictures you’ve taken using the 3DS camera. For me, the effect was a kind of floating playpen of all of the people I’m closest to in the world, accessible in simulated dimensionality at any time. Nintendo has devised a way for the game to exaggerate the basic photographs to make my friends seem angry or happy or sad. The effect is joyous and playful, while also containing a nostalgic thread of intimacy and sadness for moment’s passed. One remembers by instinct the circumstances of the photograph taken, the conversation it took to convince the person to pose, and the shared moments of laughter when that captured face was first animated into the game. Outwardly, it appears like a game of spinning in circles and shooting tennis balls at blurry faces, but inwardly it reverberates with a much larger web of experiences and relationships, the silliness of the representation becomes all the more poignant and delightful given the truth one knows is beneath it.
Minecraft is a wonderfully comprehensive improvement on the massively multiplayer online game, one that replaces volume-based combat for the simple joys of resource gathering in an environment where the time is limited. It’s loveliest moments come not from the freedom of being able to build anything you want, but in realizing how much work and planning you’re going to have to do just to build something. In that way it becomes a simulated reverie wherein the process of bringing something to life is a co-equal to the final prize of having it done. The further you progress, discovering the strange monuments–products of commitment, creativity, and love–made by other people and all of the strange randomly generated caves and mountains that appear, the game builds toward a near-perfect sublimity. You can glimpse a small shadow of what will remain in your wake, and almost inhabit the shoes of some other person who’s come across your monument, seeing in it an alien strangeness, a labor of love that possessed your own little lifespan.
Videogames are the first creative form that benefits from distinguishing between narrative and story. In fiction, cinema, and theater, the words are interchangeable, but in videogames the distinction between the two is essential. We cannot understand the form without understanding the difference between a record of dramatic events that happen through the determination of an author (story), and a record of dramatic events that happen as a result of our own action (narrative). Wii Play Motion is a narratively rich game without any story whatsoever. It’s 11 different motion games are drawn in a cartoonish sense of dream logic–racing with an umbrella on a strong gust of wind, balancing a tower of ice cream scoops that literally reach into outer space–acted out by a cast of all the old and forgotten Miis left behind in your Wii’s memory. It overflows with the illogical urgency of childhood games while its backdrop is quietly animated by old friends and the forgotten nights spent together making little video game personas of one another. The confluence of sentimental beauty and simple play are the result not of specific story choices, but instead creative blank spots left for players to consider their own narratives.
Forever is a stupid idea. Not because there’s no such thing but because whatever the word means, it is by nature beyond our ability of description. Inside a Star-Filled Sky, Jason Rohrer’s first shooting game since Transcend, is built on the idea of forever, and its correlate in an infinite material equivalence–merging the microscopic with the cosmological. One starts the game as a randomly generated creature in an abstract space, surrounded by enemies, powerups, and a distant exit portal. Reaching the portal sends you up a level through an effect that reveals the previous level was taking place inside the body of the character you’re now inhabiting in Level 2. The abilities of your character in Level 2 correspond to the powerups you collected in Level 1. Dying only sends you back to the lower level, and in the same way that you can level up and up and up, you can also die and die and die without ever reaching the end. There is great variety in the enemy types, level structure, and powerups, but it all feels purposeless and entropic without a pre-fabricated story to give it meaning. Saying something is purposeless and entropic is, of course, just another way of waving a white flag over one’s own ignorance. This is the end point we all reach when we follow questions of time and infinity out into the ether. The better an understanding of “forever” we come to, the smaller we become, inconsequential mites on the lumbering hide of the infinite.
“If voting could change anything it would be illegal,” one of the more memorable picket sign slogans from Occupy Wall Street read when I passed through in early October. American idealism is, of course, founded on the opposite principle: elections do matter and can change things. One doesn’t need urgent revolt but only patience and persistence. The case of Mohammed Mossadegh’s overthrow as Iranian Prime Minister in 1953 is a horrible example of the American government’s betrayal of its own core idealism. Mossadegh’s political career was defined by his democratic sense of justice and Iranian self-determination. The intervening forces of Western colonialism and its unwillingness to let the price of oil dampen economic growth in the developed world became a persistent obstacle. Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad’s The Cat and the Coup tells the story of how the CIA and Mi6 colluded to overthrow Mossadegh because he insisted the British government transfer its oil extraction project to the Iranian government.The game retells the story of how the U.S. and Britain manipulated Iranian politics, paid for street mobs of apolitical mercenaries, and eventually overthrew Mossadegh, leaving him to spend the rest of his life under house arrest, while BP’s authority to set its own terms for Iranian oil continued unchecked. Players control Mossadegh’s cat and use his movements to coerce the aged politician through a series of rooms designed as metaphoric vignettes of each step that led up to the coup. Making indirect manipulation of Mossadegh the central mechanic is a heartbreaking precise metaphor. The game does not make you feel good for progressing, opening new puzzle rooms. Instead, each step forward is a sad advancement a shameful act in American foreign policy, a game that could only be won by sacrificing its hero and convincing everyone around him that he was the enemy.
Back to High Scores 2011