THE video game industry has never been more reliable in producing high-quality mass entertainment for a variety of audiences with a variety of tastes. Three years into the current generation of game systems, developers are ceding nothing to other entertainment media in terms of high-end production values and overall attention to detail.
Gaming’s exploding worldwide popularity has forced developers to become at once more humble and more ambitious. More humble in recognizing that gamers demand quality and will not be bamboozled into throwing away their money on an undercooked product. More ambitious in recognizing that the technical resources are now available to create true high-definition interactive entertainment and in recognizing that the mainstream game audience is now sophisticated enough to appreciate nuanced, involved storytelling.
That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with just wanting to shoot stuff sometimes. The great strength of the video game business these days is that it is catering to everyone, something I’ve seen both in the games and in the people who play them. Here then are some of the most interesting and revealing games, gaming moments and gaming trends of 2008.
BEST ZOMBIES: LEFT 4 DEAD It was a big year for the undead. I enjoyed strategically dismembering the spooky space zombies in Dead Space, but Valve, with Left 4 Dead, demonstrated why it is the premier developer of first-person shooters (sorry Id, sorry Bungie). The pacing is taut, and the game is built around the ludicrous fun of its multiplayer modes. There few extraneous design features, allowing the game to bask in the purity of the adrenaline rush it provides. (For Xbox 360 and PC.)
BEST EXPLANATION OF WHY NINTENDO HARDLY NEEDS BIG GAMES ANYMORE: THE WII The only constituency of gamer with a legitimate gripe for feeling a bit neglected this holiday season is the hard-core Nintendo fan: you know, the Zelda expert, the Mario savant. Those players are finally coming to realize that Nintendo does not need to fawn over them anymore because the rest of the planet, which has never even heard of Zelda, is still clamoring for the Wii. I’ve seen it all year. My middle-age downstairs neighbor asked me to help her find two copies of Wii Fit so she could send them to relatives in Puerto Rico. Over a rainy summer weekend on Long Island, an entire house full of highly paid finance professionals spent almost every waking moment in a rotating Wii bowling and tennis tournament. (I could make any number of jokes about the September crash but will refrain.) These kinds of people don’t even consider themselves gamers, but they are why Nintendo can get away with neglecting its core fans. For now.
BEST EMBRACE OF DEMOCRACY, FLAWED AS IT IS: EVE ONLINE This year CCP of Iceland (another potential finance joke sidestepped) invited the more than 200,000 players of Eve Online to vote for nine representatives from around the world to convey their concerns and suggestions about the game to the company. That alone was innovative. Then the company flew them to Iceland to sit down for a few days with the game’s developers. The company has committed to repeating the process about every six months, which makes this an idea that ought to spread beyond the game world. Maybe Microsoft should allow Windows users to vote for an officially recognized gripe committee. Maybe the airlines could have their chief executives sit down with an elected panel of frequent flyers twice a year. Hey, who says games can’t make the world a better place?