Cody’s Games of the Generation
This generation started for me when, at age 19, I decided to use some of my student loan money left over after paying tuition and rent to purchase a brand new Xbox 360. It came with Lego Indiana Jones and Kung Fu Panda. Sadly, neither of those games made it onto my list. There were several others that could have made it on a different day. I’m still not entirely convinced that Dark Souls was as good as Demon’s Souls, for instance. The Last of Us is as good as that kind of cinematic action/adventure game gets. Portal is a delight. I probably spent far more time with NBA 2k11 than any other game. But this is list is how I feel at the moment – or at least how I felt at another moment. It was a long generation. Capital-I Important things happened in my life and video games were there to witness most of them. For example: I was playing Bayonetta when my girlfriend went into labor with our daughter.
That didn’t make the list either. Sorry, Sweetie!
5) Analogue: A Hate Story
Christine Love’s sordid visual novel is a sci-fi spin on the oppressive patriarchy of Korea’s Joseon dynasty. If there’s another example of a game that so effortlessly provides a history lesson while still providing a gripping experience, well, I haven’t played it and probably will never acknowledge its existence.
You play as an investigator sent from Earth to a derelict interstellar colony – the Mugunghwa. Despite the lack of human life, there are two AIs still functioning on board. It’s your responsibility to find out what happened to the generations of people aboard the ship and why this experiment was such a catastrophic failure. To do this, you read dozens upon dozens of logs, interact with the AI, and slowly uncover exactly what life aboard the Mugunghwa was like. You see how different expectations, rules, and hard-set gender roles intersect to disenfranchise and humiliate the populace.
It’s a short, powerful piece of interactive feminist story-telling and I look forward to playing the sequel.
4) Fallout 3
This was a tough one. I mean, I probably enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas just as much. The writing’s better and the quests are more interesting. New Vegas is deeper and more conducive to good ol’ fashioned role-playing. But Fallout 3‘s Washington, D.C., while less immediately open to explore than the Mohave Desert, made for a much more compelling place to walk around in. I try to limit my use of Fast Travel in Bethesda’s open-worlds, because few games reward Slow Travel as thoroughly they do.
In the prologue in Vault 101, your character is born, you learn to walk as she does as a toddler in her play-pen, reading SPECIAL sense-of-self board books that double as classic role-playing attribute descriptors. From there – you have a birthday party, grow up, get bullied, are abruptly abandoned by your father, and take your first steps outside of the privileged sterilility of the Vault into the irradiated chaos of the bulk of humanity. That one moment is one of my all-time favorites in video games. What’s most impressive to me now, five years later, is how regularly Fallout 3 was able to replicate this feeling.
3) Gone Home
The Fullbright Company’s exploratory narrative mystery set in the Pacific Northwest is my game of the year. I often see people writing about the capabilities of videogames. Like Gone Home‘s protagonist Sam, the videogames medium is going through its adolescence and may indeed be coming of age. We try to figure out what videogames are saying, where they’re going. We wring our hands about them and the – always fanatic, frequently embarrassing – culture we’re all a part of.
Here’s a game, developed by former Bioshock add-on producers, in which you walk through a house that is, at once, abandoned and lived-in. It uses classic horror tropes (the abandoned mansion, the oppressive storm beating on the windows, the spotty lighting, the red liquid all over the bath tub, etc.) to heighten awareness and get us to raise our defenses before subverting our expectations. Instead of being met with the usual violence and death, we’re treated to an interwoven narrative of love, family, and identity.
Though it’s more than just subverting expectations. The horror elements don’t have the predictable slasher-flick/Dead Space scares. Instead, they work more like the horror of David Cronenberg’s “body horror” or Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole. It worms its way under your skin and stays there. It’s just, in this case, what’s under your skin can be pretty darn lovely. If we are in fact experiencing the adolescence of videogames, Gone Home makes me excited to to see what she’ll be like when she’s all growed up.
2) Dark Souls
After 70 hours, Dark Souls became the longest game I’ve completed in years. By the end, it was an act of attrition. The last fifth of the game blurs together for me, I remember the areas I passed through and the undoubtedly inspired and plain old weird monsters that I fought and sprinted past with such a vague, blurred-together recollection that feels more like a dream upon waking than an epic undertaking. Upon reaching the end, there was no feeling of triumph and little feeling of pride after a hard-fought victory. In its place was the sort of exhausted relief you get after loading a moving truck, driving 7 hours in the middle of summer, and unloadingpacking all of your old shit into a new home. We did it. Yay.
Dark Souls is intimidating. It pokes and prods at your pride. “Prepare to die” is printed on the back of the box, taunting you. You die easily and often. There were several times where I could swear the developers were being openly hostile to me. But I learned. It taught me good. The game was always balanced, I believed, I just had to figure out the right method, get to the right level, dodge at the right time, practice my parrying, and I’d be able to press on. It was teaching me to be disciplined, patient, and resilient. Mostly, it taught me to abandon the idea that I needed to persevere by myself. I started summoning other players for help. I stopped hording my humanity and instead spent it all willy-nilly. Anonymous strangers rose up from the ground, bowed silently, and helped me get to where I needed to be. Also, I found God:
I didn’t like thatgamecompany’s previous game, Flower, much at all. I remember telling my girlfriend that despite its zen-like aspirations, it never really did much more for me than a simple walk outside in reality could. I kept missing the damn flowers I was aiming for, my trajectory never being quite perfect enough to glide through every flower in a particular pattern. I thought it was supposed to be calming, but I found it frustrating.
The first time I played Journey, I was lucky enough to meet up with a real gem of a person. By that I mean, he or she was most definitely not an asshole. Half of their red robe was emblazoned with golden thread – proof they’d already completed the game at least once. Whoever it was, they lead me patiently from the very first area to the tip-top of the mountain top ending. It wasn’t like following a walk-through, either. I would go off on my own, searching for more scraps of fabric to add to my scarf to allow for more joyous floaty-flight. My friend would be off doing her own thing, chirping at me from time to time with the game’s poetic, rudimentary form of verbal communication – the hiccup. If I was about to miss something important, she’d get my attention with a flourish of twirling jumps before showing me the way. When it was time to surf down the sunset-soaked sparkling sand covered ruins, the camera abruptly switched angles, the orange sun directly in front, with only our silhouettes moving horizontally. We jumped up and floated back to the sand before lifting off again. I would be lifting off just as she was floating down and vise versa. We were singing and dancing.
This sort of thing happened consistently throughout Journey’s two hour duration, but I was hooked before I even met that faceless stud of a soul. I was hooked by my first scrap of enchanted scarf fabric.
Each bit of fabric is added to your scarf, which indicates the amount of time you’ll be able to float in the air after jumping. You hold down the ‘X’ button to stay up, or release it to fall back to the ground. At the start, you have little to no control over when you land. That first moment of flight, complete with barely-there flap of gold-trimmed red scarf, ends with the kind of abrupt disappointment reminiscent of seeing a too-brief green light flipping to yellow and red in stop-start traffic after idling 7 cars back. But in traffic, you’re always anticipating that next light, it’s only a matter of time before progress is halted again, and again, and again. In Journey, your scarf keeps growing – the green lights last longer. Upon landing you know it’s only a matter of time until your next prolonged flight. There’s no cause for concern. Journey restricts your movement early on and slowly opens up as it goes. The end is like being shot out of a cannon, if you were a flower petal and the cannon was powered by renewable wind energy, and your new friend is there to finally show you that thing you’d traveled all this way to see.