Mr. Gerardi’s 2010 Game of the Year Spectacular, Part 4: The Top 10 (2-1)
February 15, 2011 Leave a comment
And I’m finally done with this. Sorry it took so long, but here it is.
You can check out the honorable mentions here, numbers 10-6 here and numbers 5-3 here.
Red Dead Redemption
(Rockstar San Diego, Rockstar Games – 360, PS3)
I remember watching the classic Once Upon a Time in the West a few years ago and wondering why no one had made an open-world game set in the old west. It’s really a perfect combination offering tons of options for stories, characters and gameplay scenarios. Then in 2010 Rockstar released Red Dead Redemption and realized what was essentially my dream game.
The press makes it seem impossible to talk about Red Dead without mentioning the dearth of western-based games and asking why we haven’t been seeing more. The answer to that question is pretty obvious: technology and money. Prior to this generation of consoles building a game of this scope and depth would have been impossible. Additionally, the budget necessary to produce something that takes advantage of the setting’s scope is immense and only a developer of Rockstar’s size can afford it. So in many ways, it feels like the game the company was destined to make and a culmination of all their prior efforts.
The open-world concept has yielded two types of games: the narrative-driven journey and the play-driven sandbox. The sandbox offers hours of fun through open-ended action, but lacks substance (a perfect 2010 example is Just Cause 2). The journey may not offer the same fun through widespread chaos, but it’s narrative and characters become the focal point of player attention.
RDR is the pinnacle of the journey thus far. The narrative in place is a fantastic tale of Western tropes, but never reminiscent enough of a single film to feel like a rip-off. John Marston’s adventure leads him through a cast of strange and always interesting characters. Marston himself is an interesting protagonist in search of the titular redemption from his outlaw past.
Setting is a matter of place and time, but the latter half of that definition often gets short shrift. The thematic core of RDR, however, is based just as much on its location as the time period it encompasses. This isn’t the wild west most people know. It’s a west facing the reality of modernity and order and Marston is not long for that reality. The game explores concepts unheard of in the medium, such as the effects of government expansion. The citizens of RDR’s world are aware of the coming changes and they’re not happy about it. They just want to make a living and reap the full benefits of their hard work.
Out of the large cast of compelling characters, the wilderness Rockstar has created really steals the show. The fast travel is a great tool, but a telling fact is that I hardly used it to get around. The wild is filled with things to do and marvel at. Grizzly bear knife fights. Nuff said.
Red Dead Redemption is a masterpiece. The story stands as one of the greatest ever told in the medium with (literally) mature themes, a satisfying arc for the protagonist and a well crafted ending that fits the game both cathartically and thematically. In most years it would have taken the top spot of this list and along with my number one will surely be remembered as a medium-redefining classic.
Mass Effect 2 (Bioware, EA – 360, PC, PS3 [as of 2011])
I’m sick and tired of film critics facetiously comparing action movies to video games. This tends to be a dig on simplistic narrative or characters, but the truth is video games have been outdoing movies in many aspects for years now. In Mass Effect 2 Bioware has put on a clinic in developing character and mythology. I can think of only a handful of film series – or ongoing series in any medium for that matter – that has a mythology as detailed and deep as the one Bioware has created.
A major part of it is the history they have developed for the universe. Each species has deeply defined history, values and culture that often manifest themselves in characters to great effect, such as Mordin’s struggle with the Salarians’ decision to release the genophage upon the Krogans. Then there are the painstakingly written descriptions for each and every planet in the galaxy. What really sells it, however, are the details. Walking through the Citadel the player is privy to a number of fascinating conversations. A Salarian “bachelor party” is host to a discussion of that species marital traditions. Across the way a Turian and Quarian discuss the tragedies of their romantic relationship (a dilemma the player can face for themselves if they choose to romantically pursue Tali). It’s this kind of careful attention to world building, particularly because it occurs within gameplay, rather than in text or cinematic, that makes the Mass Effect universe one of the most interesting and well defined in any medium.
The mythology Bioware created for the franchise is certainly an accomplishment but it’s not worthy of praise as a video game work. Someone could have created this for a book or television series. The achievement I find most important from a game medium perspective is the sense of consequence they have been able to build within the world. There are tons of games that offer the player choices in how situations play out, but none imbue them with a real sense that your chosen actions have a meaning not just for the way the narrative plays out, but for this galaxy and more importantly these characters.
And the characters are the key. You come to care about them and pretty quickly. Come the end game, the lives of your team members are in your hands. Make the wrong choice and they’re dead. Like for real. Forever. It builds some really intense drama and it’s a sensation I’ve never felt before in a game. I cared about these murderers and aliens and their lives were in my hands. Like Heavy Rain it gives meaning to play, but in a different way. In Heavy Rain it’s based on gameplay failure. In ME2 it’s based on making decisions and is a more natural extension of the game’s core tenants and a more impressive feat.
Mass Effect 2 is a landmark in interactive storytelling – and the game part is pretty fun too – that, along with the rest of the franchise and its hundreds of carried over data points, sets the bar for how players should interact with and change the world around them. It’s hard to imagine a year, for me, where this would not be my favorite game released. It’s definitely become one of my all time favorites, probably my favorite of this console generation. You owe it to yourself to play it and now that it’s available on PS3 there’s really no excuse.