Video games, 2000 - 2009: Decade of decadence


This past decade, video games have pulled off a stunning transformation. On the one hand, gaming made huge strides as an artform to the point where the "are games art?" discussion now has to be taken seriously. But at the same time, games are no longer solely the domain of basement-dwelling geeks; they're now just another medium like movies, books, or television -- one that different people enjoy for different reasons. Some like to grind away at World of Warcraft, some like gloating over curb-stompings in Gears of War, some like to unwind after work with a round of Rock Band, and others like to admire the visuals of a game like BioShock. The net result of all of this is that rather than existing as a niche hobby, gaming is now a wide-reaching, diverse realm filled with numerous smaller microcosms that cater to virtually any taste -- and yes, it's been that way since the days of Nobunaga's Ambition on the NES, but we've got even more choices out there now.

It's fitting, then, that games have started to reflect this: one of the things that characterized a huge swath of the commonly accepted canon of noteworthy games of this past decade has been their emphasis on player choice -- or at least the illusion thereof. Examples range from the much-discussed dilemma over whether to save or harvest Little Sisters in BioShock to the free-form exploration of Fallout 3. The Grand Theft Auto series became so popular in part because of the way gave gamers the freedom to ignore the missions entirely and just drive around aimlessly (or act out their sociopathic fantasies). Even the eternally expanding Rock Band's tracklist has now grown through downloadable content to the point where someone could play for hours without repeating anything or having to resort to playing the terrible songs like "Down with the Sickness" or "Keep on Rock'n Me." Many games have offered optional content, but these all take it a step further: here, the player drives the narrative -- and, in a way, creates it.

BioShock also emphasized artistry, which is something else it has in common with a lot of the best games of this decade. BioShock presented a decaying Art Deco city so intriguing and detailed that you'd forget about the deranged bandits roaming the halls. Okami created a world straight out of a Japanese watercolor. Braid earned its artistic bona fides by virtue of its pervasive mood, evoking a genuine mournfulness from a story told mostly via implication about a man who made an undefined mistake that has caused him to be separated from his "princess" -- the brain-bending, time-shifting puzzles were almost secondary. Shadow of the Colossus managed to both impress with the amazing visual construction of its titular beasts and tell a poignant, tragic story. It was also my personal favorite game of the last ten years.

But all of the advances in plot and style did not necessarily equal commercial success in the gaming world. Other than Grand Theft Auto IV, most of these have sold just well enough to merit sequels, but not enough to reach the level of juggernauts like Guitar Hero III or first-person shooters Halo and Call of Duty. These games can all be counted among the most popular of the decade. And they all have a few things in common. In each case, gameplay focuses on a skill that can be refined with practice. And each game has tapped into a social aspect of competitive gaming by promoting their multiplayer components -- multiplayer components made more robust in many cases by current-gen consoles' online capabilities.

In other words, they turned into sports games. It would seem that for all the discussion of innovative storytelling and aesthetic improvements in gaming, ultimately, people just want something they can beat their friends (and strangers) at. Even World of Warcraft could probably be stretched to fit this definition -- certainly the social aspect is there, and what is level-grinding if not the gaming equivalent of two-a-day practice drills? Nowhere is the game-as-sports motif -- coincidentally being discussed at the moment by both Slate's Chris Suellentrop, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander, the Wall Street Journal's Jamin Brophy-Warren, and, uh, the Phoenix's Mitch Krpata in Slate's annual year-end round-up -- more clear than with the success of the Wii. WiiSports is now the biggest-selling game of all time. People are not buying that system for its impressive technical capabilities or for any creative achievements. They're not compelled to pontificate the significance of something esoteric like No More Heroes or even something straightforward like Fable. They're buying it because they want to play tennis.

Not that these games are inherently "bad" or anything like that. Certainly, their success isn't unique among artistic media. GI Joe made a lot more money than The Hurt Locker. More people watched Khloe Kardashian's wedding on E! than last season's finale of Mad Men. And I'm not even really begrudging that sort of behavior. If people would rather spend their days with Halo or Warcraft or WiiSports Resort, then more power to them. But what I think is missing to a degree in gaming as opposed to other media is some form of gamer rebellion: gamers with discerning tastes will still buy something like Modern Warfare 2, even as they know they'd prefer something closer to Psychonauts or Ico. Looking around the internet, it's clear that there are people interested in playing games to experience something other than the thrill of seeing themselves on some leaderboard. Despite a decent-sized indie gaming community out there (getting a big boost these days from the iPhone), there still has yet to be a significant segment of the gaming population asserting itself in opposition to the gaming establishment. Maybe people just aren't aware of what's out there. And I believe it's just because the big breakthrough -- the "Nirvana moment," if you will -- is still yet to come in the next decade.

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