2013 in Video Games

2013 was a pivotal year for the art and commerce of video games.

The financial model has become increasingly crass and more tightly controlled by interests who see only the dollar signs removed from any other context.  Over the course of the last console generation, we've seen the compulsive consumers not-merely cede, but outright throw away any notion of demand-based economics or sanity-based purchasing.  Online has become The All, and the heavy hitters like that just fine because it gives them more opportunities to nickel-and-dime the customers, while assuring that prices remain high and play-life becomes shortened.  In the true soul of insecurity, gamers are only validated when playing with other gamers.  Everything must be scored, measured ad ranked.  The single-player narrative experience certainly reached some high creative marks this year, but it's also been commercially marginalized in favor of the economics of compulsion.

On top of this, the new consoles came out, which lock-in the changes of the past generation and lay the groundwork for even more drastic changes.  Microsoft, in particular, overplayed their hand.  Their proposed plans for the Xbox One made it clear that it was designed first with the executive wish-list in mind.  The most drastic power-grab was the intention to lock game discs to specific consoles, thus ending the used-game market.  This would allow them to keep game prices artificially inflated for as long as possible.  The idea is that they should call all the shots, and the consumer should do what they're told.  That is not true capitalism, my friend.  Coupled with corporately driven legislation, that is fascism defined.  A low level fascism, sure, but also symptomatic of the direction of most American industry.  In a show of disgust that I frankly didn't believe them capable of, video game consumers balked at Microsoft's plans, and the company had to walk back a few of its "features."  But the hand has been shown, and one would have to be a fool not to see that these represent their goals for the next five years.  Whatever they don't phase back into the Xbox One, we can be sure they will do that and more with whatever follows it.

So my choice for Game of the Year comes as an antidote to these depressing industry trends...

A new Grand Theft Auto would always be in the running for Game of the Year, in any year it comes out, but GTAV wins this time not ONLY for the way its stepped up its game, but also for the way that it bucks and repurposes industry trends.

When GTAIII came out, it satirized American life through our crime movies.  But it's been 12 years since then, and GTA is now as much a part of American culture as the films to which it paid homage.  GTAV now goes directly for the jugular without any misdirection.  Thanks to its new 3-character narrative, this is the most intelligent, mature and nuanced GTA yet... and the most over-the-top.  It breaks further away from the traditional structure where missions are doled out by a series of crime bosses.  The missions are more directly tied to a narrative based on the characters' needs and desires.  They're more emotionally motivated and add up to a more authentic experience.  The world is also the most immersive and livable yet, and I keep catching myself, realizing that I can't do all the things it seems like I should be able to do.  Here's hoping the next game goes deeper rather than bigger.

While the series places the highest priority on continuing to be itself despite trends, GTAV does include an online element.  This too refuses to be "just another" and rather than a strictly controlled and monetized experience, it's offered for free and designed to empower players to create their own gameplay experiences to share with others.  It was unfortunate that so many entitled punk-ass brats threw such a mighty tantrum when it wasn't instantly perfect upon launch.  The beautifully stupid irony of it is that the game satirizes them mercilessly, and they respond in true ignorance.

On a personal note, I'm really hoping that Rockstar doesn't take us back to Liberty City anytime soon.  Since GTAIII, we've had 4 games set in their version of New York City, and I'm ready for something else.  I've written to them to say as much, and to plead with them to consider a 1970s San Francisco (San Fiero in GTAmerica).  Outside of LA and NYC, SF is our most unique city, and it was fertile ground for crime stories, both real and fictive, throughout the 70s.

My Disappointment of The Year #1 (other than the industry itself) was Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.  I'm not one of those people who lives to bitch about COD online.  I have really enjoyed their post-WWII games, and the first Black Ops has been my favorite of the series, so I was really looking forward to Black Ops 2.  Sadly, it seems to have taken criticisms of the series as a wish list.  Despite claims of more choice, this is the most funneled gameplay yet, and despite being funneled, it often does a poor job of heading you in the right direction.  It doesn't feel like a game often enough, and scripted moments pop up far too often and progress far too slowly, which really puts a dent in the narrative and the experiential flow of things.  Furthermore, it suffers from more of the same crappy scripting that made Black Ops irritating in places, only worse.  Also, the new "non-linear" RTS portion is terrible, and comes with the least intuitive control scheme of this console generation.

The thing that really damages the game as a whole, however, is that when one does get to play, there are several sections (if not whole levels) where there is just far, FAR too much shit on screen.  It gets hard to know what you're even supposed to be doing or who you're supposed to be shooting.  The level design, the interface and the scripting just do not work together here the way that they did in the first Black Ops.

And on top of all that, it's a stupid story (I use "story" loosely) terribly told.  It's also a grave insult to the lead character from Black Ops.  So, so disappointed.  Shame on you, Treyarch and Activision.

Disappointment of the Year #2

Ouch, this one hurts even more, but Assassin's Creed III is just a crime against the series.  The mission design, scripting and control interface are at war with each other, and the player gets caught in the middle.  Now, past AC games have certainly had their problems with glitchy code and occasional stupid deaths from things failing to work as they should were the price one paid for having such beautiful, code-rich open worlds with so many places to climb.  AC3 takes that as free license not to give a shit.  Every single mission I have played so far has included mission-busting code and/or design.

For example, let me tell you about what should have been a very simple mission requiring one to escort John Adams a few blocks across town.  First, he tells you to follow him... except he will only follow you.  Then, when you find that there are Redcoat checkpoints set up, he tells you that he will show you how to use underground tunnels... only he will still only follow you.  Lead character, Connor, says that he can get where they're going quickly by rooftop, which Adams specifically tells him not to do.  As it turns out, rooftop is the only way to get to the tunnel entrance without getting attacked by guards -- something that you are rewarded for avoiding.  Furthermore, while testing ways of getting to my goal while following the orders I was given by Adams, I did happen to get mobbed by soldiers and killed because the attacks that were supposed to come with a warning symbol, giving me the opportunity to counter.  No warning came and I took a thrashing. 

That's just one example of how the design, the scripting and the code completely failed to work together, but it's hardly an isolated incident.  There has been something wrong in every single mission I've played so far.  Without actually knowing, I'm just going to guess that this is one of those games that Ubisoft developed at multiple studios, splitting up tasks between people who spent very little time in contact with one another, assuming they even spoke the same languages.

In addition to magnifying the flaws of previous ACs, they attempted to tweak the controls and ended up making them even more problematic. Functions are oddly mapped, and sometimes double-mapped.  Escort missions map the Stay/Follow command to the same button one uses to drop from a ledge, so you can lead someone to a rooftop, but if you have to take them back down again, you'd best plan on getting creative.  Yes, it's as stupid as it sounds, and it's that flavor of stupidity that one will find throughout.

Finally, aesthetically, Colonial America is sun-baked ass next to Renaissance Italy & Turkey and the Medieval Middle East.  Tree climbing in the wild is nowhere near as fun as it should be, and too few trees are climbable at all.  It's really a damned shame, because it seems like there might have been a pretty decent story somewhere in there.  Shame on YOU, Ubisoft.  This is a vastly profitable series.  You can afford to treat it with some effin' respect.

There's more than one turkey in this photo

So, 2013 may very well have been the beginning of the end of video games (as we know them).  There's obviously some creative passion out there, but one really has to question whether that will continue to find fertile ground, untainted by chemicals fertilizers and genetically modified greed.

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