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When I look back on 2013, it’s not the new generation of consoles I’ll remember most fondly. I’ll probably forget all about whatever journalism trends have been making waves and annoying people. Maybe, I’ll even block out half the horrible things I’ve read in comment sections throughout the year. What I’ll remember are the games that have significantly altered, for better or worse, what I’ve come to expect from the medium. I’ll remember the watersheds.
For my part, I want to look at a few titles this year that were more than just “good games” in the traditional, almost useless sense of that category. At this point, it’s impossible to tell what these games will ultimately represent, but for now, we can at least take stock of the questions they implicitly or explicitly pose.
Of all the great titles released this year, BioShock Infinite has proved the most perplexing—and not (exclusively) because of its intricate, brilliant-meets-boastful metanarrative. In fact, it begins and ends almost perfectly, hearkening to its more cohesive (if less mechanically competent) predecessor. Infinite is a game so confident and self-assured that it warrants praise for gumption alone. Ambition, however, can so often override execution, and that’s what makes Infinite one of the most troubling and significant games this year.
BioShock Infinite purports to be a game about many things. It’s about the recursive power of the past, American exceptionalism, grotesque violence hidden beneath a utopian veneer. It tells a story of redemption and damnation, of rescue and failure. It approaches the horrors of the Machine Age in a way that makes interacting with a game deeply meaningful. It’s about physics and metaphysics colliding as only games can make them. It does all these things and more, all while staring down the barrel of a gun.
Here’s where the game stretches me. It’s not dissonant, not with its shooting anyway. It’s a violent game about a violent place. The problem I see (and “problem” runs the risk of overstatement) is that the game reveals, if by intention or accident, that maybe shooters have nothing more to say about shooting when the initial shock of explosive violence becomes mundane. In BioShock Infinite, I cannot change the environment at all except through shooting, maybe pull the occasional lever, and as a result, Columbia feels less like a place and more like a funhouse; a carnival ride that gives an impression of depth but limits how we experience it. It never finds footing to explain why the game had to be a shooter other than “because people are trying to kill you and because that what our brand does.”
Perhaps Columbia’s supposed to feel like an imitation of a place and myself like a tourist in its crumbling streets. But that’s what makes the game’s more grandiose concepts of multiple universes, complex social structures, and the long shadow of the past seem equally plastic. It’s hard to buy that Columbia is the product of a complex world when I can only inhabit it as a firearm. In the midst of its wonderful ideas, I felt bound by the gun, which is not exactly incongruous with its message about violence, but it’s one that was already delivered more effectively in the first BioShock. It’s quite possible that Booker and Elizabeth’s journey found the limits of what its genre can do. Maybe a shooter that tries to be about something other than shooting will inevitably stumble. Maybe that’s not a problem at all. I’ll nevertheless always approach a game that uses a gun as camera with a newfound understanding of the limits of such a perspective.
Something similar occurs in The Last of Us, though not necessarily so strictly tied to its genre. When I reviewed the game, I mentioned how it stands as a prime example of totalizing game design; an almost perfectly congruent game. Desperate battles tell desperate stories, and, somewhere in the darkened hallways of some dilapidated hotel, I found a moment where a man armed with nothing but a brick, a few rounds for a revolver, and a rusty pipe brutally broke a team of bandits in the most violent way possible.
If The Last of Us stands as any sort of watershed it’s not because its story is great, its atmosphere dense, or its characters believable. It made killing disturbing and uncomfortable and miserable in ways reserved for games like the Metro series, Kane and Lynch, and the critically underrated Far Cry 2 while providing a curiously restrained narrative (especially when taking Naughty Dog’s flagship Uncharted series into account). The truth is, the game provides such a complete experience that game elements like conveniently accessible pallets and ladders, health-restoring food items, and inconsistent AI are all the more problematic.
The Last of Us suffers from a bit of an “uncanny valley” syndrome in that the closer it is to perfection, the more obvious its missteps become, and it’s here we find the true potency of the game. Do we acknowledge such “gamisms” for what they are and pass them off as ways to make the text more mechanically sound? Or, do we consider this inconsistency a mark against narrative consistency, especially when a game attempts — and largely succeeds — a stark realism. Much like with BioShock Infinite, I don’t have an answer. But the game poses the question, and we can’t go back.
Other mainstream releases offered similar problems, like Grand Theft Auto V and the curious intersection of proposed satire and digital nihilism, or the hurdles of transforming Tomb Raider from an antiquated sex symbol to a marketable and relevant character. But the indie game scene proved its worth in watersheds. Gone Home transformed a seemingly simple conceit of entering an empty house into a wonderful exploration of what it means to tell a story about familiar ghosts in a “haunted” house. Papers, Please offered a disturbing, satirical look into bureaucracy and how it can make for an uncomfortably addictive puzzle game. These titles attack our ideas of what games are by presenting established gameplay systems with subversive alterity.
The key moment, though, came in the form of The Stanley Parable, a twisted, bizarre game in which the player gets to test the limits of mechanical interaction and narrative authority. As difficult to describe as it is to discuss, The Stanley Parable pulls no punches in what it sets out to accomplish. Interaction is limited, and, consequently, and so are the paths we tread, each providing stranger insight into the relationship between the player and narrator.
In fact, I do not know what else another game can say about the struggle between the impetus to fulfill a narrative script and the ever present draw of the path untraveled. The kicker is that each deviation is already written, given that the game’s narrator already has programmed responses for any “choice” you make. The game posits not a medium constructed around meaningful player agency but a confining system that reduces human choice to a pre-written script, making gamespace a Sisyphean hell rather than an escapist paradise.
The one commonality each of these games shares is that they each pose, whether implicitly or explicitly, the central question of “Where do we go from here?” Can a shooter say anything worthwhile mechanically about something other than violence? How do we implement or move beyond strange “gameisms” in a text that tries so hard for cohesive realism? Will we continue exploring the well of narrative/mechanical tension, or has it been tapped dry? These questions and many more stand on the precipice of a new console generation — whether or not that means anything moving forward will remain to be seen.
That’s the peculiar thing about watersheds, though. They’re not marks in time where a clear outcome is immediately discernible, nor should they pretend to be. They propose more problems than solutions, more possible courses of change than ends. One aspect of the past 365 days remains abundantly clear: this tradition we call “gaming” and those who partake have learned, rejected, embraced, questioned, and changed a lot. And as much as I abhor the idea of ending any article on a tone of ambiguity (even if it is tinged with cautious optimism), I cannot reflect on 2013 with any type of closed, cemented certainty.
So, when I look back on this year, I’m going to forget about console and PC fanboysism or the unapologetic industry politics. I’ll likely laugh about the noisy, petty wars that rage in comment sections. No, I’m going to recall the conceptual changes and challenges in the medium, the titles that were as progressive as they were fascinatingly troubling. I’ll take stock of the games that will ultimately steer the course of the medium to God knows where. I’ll remember the watersheds.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!