Games of the Decade: Ambition

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It was important for me to immediately follow up my elegance sub-list with one on ambition. There’s a simple reason for this: these two are often incompatible.

The games on here are among the most rough-hewn of all the games I’m listing. In terms of visuals and audio, I would have to admit that two of them are outright ugly and grating. In terms of features, there are parts of these games that just don’t quite work. They don’t always succeed in doing what they set out to do.

But what they set out to do is something utterly fantastic, and their failures are, at the very least, interesting.


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Consortium

Developer: Interdimensional Games
Released: 2014
Platforms: Windows

Sometimes, I lie awake at night, and think to myself: “Smoking Car Productions made The Last Express in 1997. Nintendo made The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in 2000. What went wrong? Why aren’t we up to our elbows today in games that plop you down in a constrained space, inhabited by non-player characters with set routines, and ask you to solve a problem in a limited amount of real time? Why aren’t there more games that you can boot up, follow a character around for a 48-hour period, eavesdropping on their conversations, and then start the whole thing up again following a different character? Did people not realize that this kind of learn-your-neighbors’-schedule immersive sim was the greatest thing ever? Am I utterly alone in this realization?”

Thankfully, I am not. Game developers are now finally catching up to The Last Express and Majora’s Mask. 2017, actually, is shaping up to be an astoundingly good year for real-time investigatory games, giving us the triple-whammy of The Sexy Brutale (Cavalier Game Studios, 2017), Twelve Minutes (2017), and The Occupation (White Paper Games, 2017). The past two decades, though, have been lean on this front. I must admit, then, that I tend to be a bit over-excited when new games have come down the pipe. Perhaps, with hindsight, and the benefit of a genuine new generation of real-time adventure/immersive sim games, I will no longer value some of these games as much. As things stand now, though, they scratched an itch this decade that few other games scratched.

And so: Consortium. Consortium is, like The Last Express, a game in which you solve a murder on a tight time schedule, constrained on a moving vehicle as it travels inexorably toward its destination. (This time, it is not the Orient Express, but a giant military-grade jet, in a cyberpunk future in which factionalism between profoundly amoral AI-helmed corporations has redrawn geopolitical boundaries.) But it’s not enough for Consortium to crib from The Last Express. It also has to crib from Omikron: The Nomad Soul (Quantic Dream, 1999). And so, you’re not just investigating a murder on a plane: you’re also doing so while the game’s fiction acknowledges that you are a player of a videogame, taking control of the body of a person who you yourself are not, poking around in a world that is unfamiliar to you.

And so Consortium is a game in which you can follow your fellow officers around, learning their schedule and trying to piece together who was where when a murder occurred. But it’s so much more than that. It’s also a game that, if you ask people to explain things to you that your character should by all rights know, in that dopey videogame exposition-gathering way, you might be sent in for psych evaluation. It’s a game where, early on, you can admit that you’re just someone playing a videogame, and other characters will react accordingly from that point on. It’s a game in which, like Adam Cadre’s classic interactive fiction piece 9:05 (2001), the question of who this character you’re playing as is, what they know that you don’t before your abruptly stepped into their body and started awkwardly piloting it, is as essential to the proceedings as the motivation of any other character.

It is a fun, wild ride. It also bites off far more than it can chew. Its world-building is about eight times more ambitious than it needs to be, spending resources building up an elaborate external world when the game really could have just used some more polish in the immediate environment of the plane. It could have offered some saves in more convenient places, so that players could more easily explore its branches. It is, on top of this, sinfully ugly, with a color scheme that looks like a fourth grade pageant’s attempt to build a space opera.

But, who cares? It’s a trip, and if more people play it, then hopefully we’ll make up for a 20-year drought, and finally have some more games where you spy on your neighbors over a slice of real-time.


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Deadly Premonition

Developer: Access Games
Released: 2010
Platforms: Xbox 360 (original version); PlayStation 3, Windows (Director’s Cut edition)

It is July 2014. I am enjoying some of my last bits of summertime freedom, before the 2014–2015 school year winds up, and I am thrown into a hellscape of finishing my dissertation while teaching while organizing a conference while doing my first year on the academic job market. And I am spending this free time playing Deadly Premonition, for truly astounding numbers of hours on end.

In the game, I am pursuing sidequest #8, “Memorable Cooking.” This requires me to visit my co-worker Emily at her house. Emily is only at her house from 6 PM to 8 PM on rainy evenings. It hasn’t been raining lately. I need to pass the time until it rains. And so I hole up in a tiny shack in the woods, right next to what was previously a gory crime scene. And I sleep. I sleep until afternoon, and check the weather. If it’s not raining, I run behind my shack, break a crate, and eat some canned pickles. Then I go back to bed, and sleep until morning. I eat that can of pickles again (which magically, endlessly respawns). Repeat, ad nauseam, until it finally rains during the desired hours. And that rain is simply not coming.

So, for weeks on end, I remain holed up in this shack, eating nothing but canned pickles and sleeping all day and night, like some sort of clinically depressed brain damaged somnambulist. I haven’t changed clothes in all this time. I’m way past the famed “stinky agent” demerit. Francis York Morgan’s clothes are visibly soiled. He is growing a ratty beard. Flies buzz about his head in woozy circles. Under my guidance, he has transformed from one of the Bureau’s top agents into a crazed hobo. And all because he wanted to teach Emily how to make eggs Benedict.

Staring at my TV with bloodshot eyes, I realize: this is me. I have never before had my relationship to a videogame be so fully realized in my character. But here I am, obsessively pursuing a stupid sidequest for hours of my life. And here Francis York Morgan is, his physical dishevelment a stark reminder of my fruitless obsession. Come to think about it, have I showered today? When’s the last time I changed clothes? What is this game trying to tell me?

Eventually, I succeeded. The rain came, when I need it to. I rush over to Emily’s place. I just barely make it. And, for the first time in weeks, I eat something other than pickles. I make eggs Benedict with Emily. Our friendship blossoms as I teach her some new cooking skills, and we eat eggs Benedict together. It’s a touching scene, but I’m embarrassed because I haven’t had a chance to clean up. Flies still buzz over Morgan’s head as our gentle, chaste quasi-office-romance blossoms. She rewards me with a shamanistic doll that can instantaneously change the weather. Ah, the irony.

Deadly Premonition can be cringe-inducing. The endless moans of “don’t want to diiieee…” let out by every single one of its enemies upon being shot are guffaw-inspiring. Its visuals are a muddy, colorless mess. Its profoundly inappropriate musical cues are seasoned by glitches and pops on the audio tracks. Its framerate chugs and churns when it is merely throwing up a pre-canned animation of spinning pickles. Your car handles like a wooden-toy and sounds like a box of bees. (Seriously, driving in the game will make you laugh like a madman and then snap your controller in half with your bare hands.) It was not ready to ship. And they not only shipped it, they shipped it again, three years later, when the “Director’s Cut” came out. (This is the only version I’ve played, and apparently it’s legitimately improved over the previous version?!?!?)

And yet Deadly Premonition is magical.

Like Majora’s Mask, it gives us a town full of people, moving about on their little clockwork schedules, offering themselves up to be investigated as you try to solve a string of murders of young women. Like Twin Peaks—a major source of inspiration, which it cribs enormous amounts of imagery and characterization from—it somehow finds a tonal balance between goofiness, creepiness, and a deep, unnerving sense of sadness.

It’s the goofiness that pulled me in. (That “stinky agent” demerit!) But it is the sadness that has stuck with me. Deadly Premonition‘s story has enough strange and borderline-inscrutable twists that it should, by all rights, go off the rails. But as I reached its conclusion, I found that the reason that I had stuck with it was because its melancholic core keeps everything grounded. I’ve never known something as strange as Deadly Premonition to be so sad, and as sad as Deadly Premonition to be so strange.

Deadly Premonition is a fever dream transformed into outsider art. It is a game with production values below a good many student projects, that somehow also involves some of the most ambitious simulation and storytelling of the 2010s. There really isn’t anything else like it. You should play it. You might come out of the experience hating it. But I have a hunch that, even if you hate it, you’ll still thank me for the recommendation.


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The Stanley Parable

Developer: Galactic Café
Released: Original Half-Life 2 mod version 2011, standalone commercially-released remake 2013
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

A spoiler: Neither BioShock (Irrational Games, 2007) nor Spec Ops: The Line (Yager, 2012) are going to appear on this list.

I have no doubt that these two games would be on others’ “games of the decade” list. And I certainly wouldn’t hold that against them. I won’t deny that these two games are epoch-defining. They signaled a shift in game storytelling, inaugurating an era in which developers were willing to use twists in their stories to critique the violence of their gameplay, interrogating players’ willingness to follow orders.

They were important. But they are also much more flawed than some remember them.

When I think of BioShock, I remember the twist, yes. But I also remember that Rapture promised so much, and delivered so little. The production design was lovely, and the lore was solid, but there was barely an interaction with another person in the entire game that didn’t involve shooting them in the face. On top of this, getting around the city was a chore. In place of the gold-standard level design of System Shock 2 (Looking Glass Studios/Irrational Games, 2001), Rapture was a linear slog through doors that unlocked at arbitrary pre-determined intervals, a design decision that de-incentivized exploration and made players utterly beholden to the “go here now” arrow. And then there was the last quarter or so of the game, after the twist. In order for the game to be philosophically coherent, it needed to break the mold the game had established until then, transforming into something radically different. It needed to buck the entire logic of what came before it. But the game was too conservative to actually follow through on its own critique. And so, after a profound revelation, what we get is more of the same, with a different voice on the radio.

But if BioShock is too hamstrung to properly deliver its points, The Line is too ham-fisted. (Hmm, I know what I’m having for lunch.) In attempting to undo decades worth of military fantasy games in the span of a few hours, it buckles under the sheer weight of what it’s taken on. Its points are so overt in their conception, so hyperbolic in their delivery, and so piled on through multiple avenues in its story, that the game nearly comes back around to a pro-war stance, as a jingoistic camp parody of heavy-handed anti-war propaganda.

So, yes. These two games were epoch-defining. But, in the end, I agree with Mattie Brice on the limits of game satire of this type: “The ‘gotchya!’ is easy to formulate and punctuate an otherwise typical game. But letting business as usual carry on until the final stages serves no one any good.” These games may have wanted to interrogate our willingness to obey when acting out violent fantasies, but they awkwardly inserted this critique into games that, due to commercial imperatives, had to still consistently operate as shooters. As a result, we just do the same things we always do in shooters, but just get lectured about them as we do them. (Or between bouts of doing them. Oof, those didactic load screens in The Line.) The critiques they offered deserved better vehicles.

Which brings us to The Stanley Parable. It is smarter, funnier, and shorter than both BioShock and Spec Ops: The Line. It also involves a whole lot less shooting people repeatedly in the face. (None at all, in fact!)

In fact, The Stanley Parable involves so little shooting people in the face that you might be wondering why I would talk about it in the context of BioShock or The Line at all. And it is true that the former drops the critique of videogame violence present to varying extent in both of the latter. What three games all share, though, is a critique not simply game violence in particular, but game storytelling in general.

All three games serve as a lament for the lost possibilities of interactive narrative. Videogame hype has long promised us “complete freedom,” the ability for meaningful interaction, to author our own stories in some way. But so often, all do in games is complete tasks assigned to us, for reasons that are poorly explained. We are told that there is no choice but to jettison the Beta Grove, no choice but to play both sides of a Mexican rebellion, no choice but to have Old Snake himself crawl through the radiation-soaked corridor (rather than simply sending Metal Gear Mk. III through it).

The Stanley Parable takes this lament and purifies it into distilled satire. It parodies “voice on the radio” game design while simultaneously parodying players’ well-documented propensity to fuck around with game systems. It is no longer than it needs to be, and yet offers seemingly endless secrets for those willing to poke around with it for a few hours.

The Stanley Parable, like everything in this sub-list, isn’t perfect. It is fairly incoherent, to the point of sometimes being outright self-defeating. But it’s not incoherent and self-defeating in a boringly obvious way, à la BioShock. It takes time to reveal its fault lines. Is the game’s narrator an implicit critiques of game designer’s insistence on laying down linear stories, despite the fact that the medium allows for robust branching narratives if only one devotes the resources to them? Or is it in fact a critique of the branching narrative structure itself, pointing out the fact that such structures don’t really offer “freedom,” but rather just choices between many previously-authored, set paths? Or is it a critique of players’ desire for ill-defined “freedom,” in general (as this parody trailer seems to indicate)?

I don’t think these three critiques are necessarily mutually incompatible, but too often The Stanley Parable goes for an easy joke that undermines its own credibility. I don’t think this is a deal-breaker, by any means: the game is, after all, a comedy first and foremost, and a pice of interactive theory about the failed promise of interactive narrative secondly.

And, hey: you can experience everything the game has to offer without shooting anyone in the face. That, in itself, is worth celebrating.


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Walden, a game

Developer: Tracy Fullerton and the USC Game Innovation Lab Walden Team
Released: 2017
Platforms: Windows, Mac

Way back in 2005, in his book Half-Real, Jesper Juul offered up some imagined advertising copy for a videogame based on Hamlet: “Your father has been murdered! With much effort, fail to avenge him and die a meaningless death!”[i]

Juul’s farce made a point about the constraints on game narrative: since the outcomes of games need to align with goals and motivations that players would conceivably hold, the pleasures of tragedy don’t come easily to games. In the years since Juul first made his joke, there has been a wave of videogame adaptations of serious literature, principally comic in nature. Ryan North, the creator of Dinosaur Comics, fleshed out Juul’s jape in To Be or Not To Be (Tin Man Games, 2015). We have not one but two separate parody Waiting for Godot games (VictorBelly, 2010 / Zoë Quinn, 2014). There is a silly Great Gatsby game (Charlie Hoey and Pete Smith, 2012). And, although not technically a parody, the whole world collectively groaned and guffawed when Visceral Games translated Dante’s Inferno into a trashy hack ‘n slash in 2010.

This makes Walden, a game is a rare bird: it is a videogame that treats the matter of literary adaptation with complete earnestness.

And it is a bird with quite a pedigree! Tracy Fullerton is one of the elder statesmen of the indie game/art game scene. In 2005, she advised on Cloud, a USC project made by students who would go on to become the core members of thatgamecompany. In 2007, she debuted The Night Journey, an experimental collaboration with video artist Bill Viola that has toured galleries over the past decade, and may yet see a commercial release.

So does the medium finally have a serious literary adaptation it can point to with pride? Sort of. I don’t think Walden is the sort of unqualified success that would win over lifelong skeptics of videogames. But I deeply admire it for its insistence on being a game. It is right there, in its unassuming but firmly-stated title: Walden, a game.

Fullerton and her team could have easily mocked up a virtual version of Walden pond for players to wander through, and called it a day. The end result might have been something not quite so different from Aspen Movie Map (Architecture Machine Group, 1979). Maybe a few choice quotes from Thoreau’s essay could have been thrown in, as icing on the cake. Done and done. Interactive media! The digital humanities!

But that’s not the approach she took. Walden is, in fact, full of systems. Some are on the surface; some are hidden. But they are most definitely there, chugging away in all of they “gamey” glory. Walden has bona-fide sidequests (returning Ralph Waldo Emerson’s misplaced books). Walden has minigames (carpentry, fishing). Walden has meters and statistics. As you play it, you make numbers go up and down. And these robust procedural layers are all tuned toward the goal of making one appreciate the unhurried life lived in balance with nature. In a videogame, no less!

And yes, of course: the whole enterprise of communicating Thoreau’s philosophy of voluntary poverty and living close to nature through an electronic screen reeks of perversity. But the sheer chutzpah of it is so astounding as to demand our attention. This is a game with Things To Say. It might not say them perfectly. But I’ll be damned if Fullerton didn’t give it her all.

Is Walden a success? Maybe, maybe not. I would encourage you to play it, and decide for yourself, by seeing if it moves you. But I will say one thing for sure: I would gladly take one Walden over a hundred literary parody games. Games that mock the medium’s limitations are cheap and easy. Games that actively attempt to transcend those limitations, to re-mold the contours of the medium’s possibility space: those are what we need more of.


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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4

Developer: Atlus
Released: 2008
Platforms: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 (via PS2 Classic emulation), PlayStation Vita (“Golden” edition)

One commonality of of the games presented so far on this list is that they pretty much came out of nowhere. Interdimensional Games whipped itself into existence through a combination of Kickstarter money and a grant from the Canada Media Fund, then immediately helmed the ambitious one-two punch of Consortium and its attendant alternate reality game. Davey Wreden and William Pugh didn’t have long resumés before they decided to make an elaborately parodic treatise on the failed potential game storytelling with The Stanley Parable. Deadly Premonition wasn’t the debut game of Access Games and its resident auteur Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro, but nothing they had made before could have prepared players for the elaborateness of its simulations, and the intensity of its weirdness. The USC Game Innovation Lab had mainly churned out educational games before Walden (which is itself an educational game, in a sense, but one that feels utterly different from what came before it).

Persona 4, by contrast, stands as a success of iteration. In Revelations: Persona and the two different chapters of Persona 2, developers Atlus riffed on the mechanics of their already-established Shin Megami Tensei mega-franchise. Persona 3 shook this formula up, transforming the series into a strange and intoxicating melange: one-third turn-based JRPG battles, one-third card-collecting monster-breeding game, and one-third high school time management simulation.

Persona 4 is a refinement of everything that was already in place with Persona 3. It might seem odd that it is on this list, then: careful refinement, after all, doesn’t seem immediately compatible with freewheeling ambition.

And it is true that the ambition on display in Persona 4 is not as “freewheeling” as the other games on this list. But it would be short-sighted to not recognize it as an enormously ambitious game. Persona 4 attempts to re-make the JRPG from the ground up, choosing a central core and jettisoning unrelated cruft. It is as if Atlus began with the central theme of solidarity with one’s friends (the most clichéd theme of JRPGs and anime alike, it must be said), and then proceeded to relentlessly question everything else. Why must a JRPG only present this theme through its stories? Why can’t it be presented mechanically, by taking time out of your schedule to spend time with friends? Why is saving the world from an ancient evil always the end goal of JRPGs? Couldn’t other goals be more interesting at this point? Couldn’t we tell different stories? What about a murder mystery in a small backwater town, which students at the local high school have come to believe has occult influences? Why the hell not?

And so Persona 4 becomes a rich tale with compelling characters, all taking place in a setting that is utterly unique for the genre. It carries over everything that was already strong in Persona 3 (a game that I have tremendous affection for, to the point where the fight for my favorite entry in the series becomes a draw), but ditches the remaining aspects of blatant save-the-world-ism that were still encrusted on that game.

One gripe, that has been stated many times before: Persona 4‘s character roster includes some astonishingly progressive stabs at representing sexual minorities. One character is a delinquent tough guy with a secret love for sewing, harboring some sincere questions about his sexual orientation that are complicated by internalized homophobia and a deep-seated defensiveness about his masculinity. Another character is in the midst of questioning their gender identity and gender presentation, wavering between identifying as a butch genderqueer woman or a trans man. But although these characters themselves are commendable, the way they are ultimately treated is not. A stifling sense of conformism wins out in Persona 4.

It is possible—and, indeed, commendable!—to posit all three of the following, simultaneously: 1) Having interests outside of the normative boundaries of “masculinity” has no inherent correlation with sexual orientation. 2) Being gay is not antithetical to being “tough” and stereotypically masculine. 3) There is nothing wrong with holding any sexual orientation. Persona 4, though, stumbles badly while walking the line between these points, ending up somewhere much more homophobic than it ought to. It is a terrible shame, too, because games need more characters like Kanji Tatsumi and Naoto Shirogane, characters who aren’t archetypes, but people, still trying to figure themselves out as they navigate confusing the waters of identity. You know: like high schoolers.

And yet, even in its considerable failures when it comes to the representation of gender presentation and sexual orientation, there is something endearing about Persona 4. Its flaws, in the end, are human flaws. Its characters act in insensitive ways, but the game itself does not seem to be acting in bad faith. Persona 4 is like you ex-hippy boomer uncle: eager to tout his laissez-faire acceptance of everyone, but also coming to some misguided conclusions about how to best accept minority groups. You want to roll your eyes and give it some gentle course correction, not pick a fight with it. (As an American, it is also difficult to tell how much of the game’s insensitivity stems from Japanese cultural norms.)

In my introduction, I wrote that the games on this list would be “games worth being disappointed in when they fail, rather than just indifferent.” From a political perspective, Persona 4 falls squarely in that corner for me. I wish it could do better, but I also know that it is a product of its cultural context, as is all art.


Honorable Mentions

I did not include any honorable mentions in my “elegance” category, because that would have been, well … inelegant. But I will be including them in every category from here on in.

You can think of these honorable of “further recommendations, if you’re interested in the category in question.” It is often the case that they share similar strengths with those games that made it onto the list “proper,” but for whatever reason struck me as not quite as groundbreaking, or otherwise not quite as successful in their innovations.

So, first up: You know what I said about Persona 4? How it is a triumph of refinement, one that successfully takes the general theme of companionship and solidarity and successfully transforms it into a central mechanic of the game? You can copy/paste all of that to Fire Emblem: Awakening (Intelligent Systems, 2012). Faced with the commercial decline of their long-running tactical JRPG franchise, Intelligent Systems pulled out all of the stops, marrying tactical combat to an intergenerational breeding game, where placing soldiers together on the battlefield can birth friendships, which gradually transform into courtships, which transform into spousal partners, which beget offspring and the inheritance of stats. This mechanic first appeared in Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War (Intelligent Systems, 1996), released long before the series made its way outside of Japan. But it was a revelation for North American players, and has since been adopted in other tactical RPGs, including Massive Chalice (Double Fine Productions, 2015) and Intelligent System’s own follow-up to Awakening, the three-part Fire Emblem Fates (2015). It is not hard to see why it caught on: In place of the usual JRPG mouth-flapping about love and friendship, Awakening is game in which relationships have concrete mechanical effect, in which playing house is a necessary step in playing war, and in which the delights of fan fiction-esque “shipping” become a strict requirement of military success.

Next, I will somewhat begrudgingly add Spec Ops: The Line, as an honorable mention. It is a rather silly game, in which you do terrible things because the game forces you to, and then are lectured about your actions in loading screens. But I will acknowledge that it was a necessary step toward more interesting endeavors.

However, BioShock can’t be on this list, even as an honorable mention, for one simple reason: it came out in August 2007, before the October 10 start-date of this decade-long retrospective. The fact that I chose to craft this list around the 10th anniversary of Portal‘s release, and not the release of BioShock a couple months earlier, was itself a tip-off to some of my feelings about it.

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Fire Emblem: Awakening

[i]. Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005. Pg 161.

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