It’s been a great year for games, hasn’t it? A feast most exquisite by most accounts. Regardless of your particular poison there’s something for you. In the tail end of 2016 we had plenty wonderful games that likely overflowed into this year for many people. With Final Fantasy 15, Pokemon Sun & Moon, The Last Guardian, Titanfall 2, Dragon Quest Builders, Gears of War 4, the entire PSVR platform, Civilization 6, Battlefield 1… No one can really blame you for not being able to put a nice crisp bow on last year and walk clean into this one. Aside from the launch of Nintendo’s Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we still had a flurry of critical or cult hits like Gravity Rush 2, Resident Evil 7, Yakuza 0, Horizon Zero Dawn, Nioh, Torment:Tides of Numenara, Nier: Automata, Persona 5, Mass Effect Andromeda, Yooka-Laylee, so on and so forth. Hopefully you’re catching my drift of there are simply too few of hours in the day, week, month, and year to keep up with all of this. Sure quality can be called into question with the likes of items like Mass Effect Andromeda or The Last Guardian. End of the day though they’re not bad games that clearly have their supporters… The larger part of us just lost them in the deluge of video game releases since then. So really where do you even begin if you’re wanting to pick something up to play? Some sort by game completion times to get the best bang for their buck. Others stick to their franchises or genres of choice. Maybe cruise down to Metacritic and start with the highest rated? Perhaps the road less traveled and grabbing whichever you’ve heard the least about?
I’m really not hear to talk about creating a priority list for tackling down all these games though. What’s been nagging on my brain lately is impact of a game on us as individuals. Why is it that something like Kingdom Hearts 0.2 ~ A fragmentary passage can create such an impact on me to the point of being one of my favorite experiences of the year. Compared to games like Destiny 2 which is a hotly anticipated reset, acting as a much needed reset to create a fresh jump point for new fans… KH 0.2 could be considered a glorified tech demo for Kingdom Hearts 3 with about 2 hours of content alongside an intro cinematic retelling the stories thus far in the erratically organized series. I’ve spent near 70 hours with Destiny 2 this point yet at the end of the day I rather have that snippet of KH in my life. It’s weird, isn’t it? Or is it?
I feel as if it’s been well established that Avatar (2009) generated huge bank, but left no cultural footprint on the world. No one quotes it. No one remembers the character names. You’d be hard-pressed to remember details beyond army dude’s twin dies and his brother takes his place to pilot an organic recreation of the native species. Sigourney Weaver is in there somewhere too. Much like the avatars they pilot in the film, Avatar itself is dead inside. I sincerely doubt decades from now we’ll have a Stranger Things level derivative looking back fondly at what was an SFX focused remake of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.
I don’t mean to kick a blue man when he’s down though. I actually enjoyed Avatar in the theater, and eventually bought it on Blu-Ray when a big box retailer collapsed and nabbed it on clearance. So what’s the what that I’m getting at then? There’s media you can enjoy that’s varying degrees of good. Then there’s media that goes beyond that into that special tier of greatness. I believe this really comes down to recognizing what’s entertainment and what’s inspiration. Star Wars inspired a generation. Avatar entertained one. Captivated for hours while it was rolling, but gone from thought the next day. The same can go for music, books, television, and of course video games. I can’t accurately state that I did not enjoy Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and Korn from 1999-2003. I was entertained thoroughly when listening to their performances. However it’s entirely true that none of that has carried with me over the years or brought much out of me since then. Nobuo Uematsu’s work from that same point in my life has fueled countless words to digital ink since then, both fictional and non. As of this moment I’m listening to a 10 hour extended play of To Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X. I think that’s why as much as Oasis always wished they were The Beatles by aping their style, really they could never come close to The Beatles.
Now that we’ve established the baseline of great games inspire, while good games entertain. It seems simple saying it like that. Really how do you start to break it down and quantify that though?
For starters you’re going to have to break away from the social newsmedia’s influences over how you perceive a game. As sly as you think you are against the marketing machine it’s not that simple. Reading others impressions even in passing on Twitter or forums will begin to shape your understanding of what the game is and can be. Others picking apart details or explaining their impressions will seep into your assembly of understanding the experience. “Dark Souls is a hard game and I do not like hard games” is something that pushed me away from the series before even seeing screenshots of it. Thankfully since then I’ve come to realize just how amazing those games can be. Earlier this year I noticed a lot of people that went on Breath of the Wild blackouts going in and having a significantly better time with the game versus players that wanted to be well informed before their purchase. I also think that played a major role with the runaway success of Nier: Automata, a game series that has been largely invisible up to most until this release despite being five(ish) games deep now. So many were clueless for what to expect going in as far as story, gameplay, or even narrative structure. Points like hearing multiple endings instantly triggers in newcomers’ minds the idea of divergent story lines or optional viewpoints of the same events, myself included. Nearly quitting after reaching the first ending feeling content with my purchase I carried on until completing the second and third acts of the game. Only then did I realize what they meant by multiple endings was far from the traditional understanding. They were new segments of story taking place chronologically after the events of what I knew as the final ending. An intricate weave of character paths, events, and lore to create an experience that would go on to leave me thinking about it months after completion. Inspiration. My mind churned with possibilities. My emotions teeming every time I return to the soundtrack. Always eager to hear others reactions or choices during their play. It made me want to put thoughts, conversations, and more stories into the world. This is what I mean by great games inspire.
“but wait, what does that have to do with blocking out other’s opinions? Shouldn’t a great game always be great?” Not so fast, infomercial voice. What’s great to me may not necessarily be great to all. That’s where personal tastes come into play… also known as that dirty word of subjectivity. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is another release like Nier: Automata that I went into blindly. Personally this was one of the best games I’ve played in years due to the nature of the game and a respect for the mature themes it covered alongside it’s approach to addressing them. I could relate to a lot of thoughts that fueled the heroine throughout regarding her own struggles. I’ve never had issues nearly as vivid as her psychosis portrayed throughout, but the thoughts that fuel her lack of self-worth and isolationist defense mechanisms are things I’ve recognized and dealt with myself in real life. This created a personal link for me that (what I believe to be) mentally healthy people will overlook in favor of the interesting characters or maybe just the combat of the game. This elevates the experience for me to something great versus just being a visually impressive exploration and combat driven action game for others. After I finished playing glancing around reviews and seeing others scoring it from a 6 to 8 made me realize just maybe this won’t be many other’s GotY… For me thought it’s easily one of the best games available on my PS4.
Small sidebar – How many players has Call of Duty seen over the years? What percentage of players do you think went on to seek jobs within the game industry after their time with it? Now what about Chrono Trigger? Maniac Mansion? Sim City 2000? Legend of Zelda? I’d never accuse Call of Duty of being a bad game, but if it never existed what would have changed really? Now imagine if Final Fantasy 7 never existed. RPGs as we know it may not even exist today.
Entertainment is also another valuable quantifier that should not be dismissed as something to miss out on experiencing though. It just ends up being relegated to a different rung in my pantheon of what I consider a must-play game. A good instance of this is once again, Destiny 2. I’m enjoying my time with it as it creates a shared world where I can play with friends. The game mechanics are liquid smooth and the campaign forges through like a river this time around. It’s a blast when you run through it as you’re compelled and delighted to see it to the story’s end. When all’s said and done though what I remember is really just the joy of playing versus anything about it – especially in the case of meeting up with friends to run missions together. I can’t think of anything technically wrong with the game, but Destiny 1 was something far more special for me. It had me crawling through subreddits for information about the lore of the world. I wanted to know who were all these characters in the world important enough to have items and locations named after them. Hearing mentions of names like Saint-14, Osiris, Praedyth, or Toland… It left echoes of something larger at play in the world and that tantalized my mind. Discovering how the designers carved out structure for the players was even something that had me deeply engrossed in the experience. Let’s look at how much interest it generated for me just in the form of blogs here, not including the countless times I’ve mentioned it in unfocused posts:
- Studying the damage numbers
- Examining it’s core issues (twice)
- Player guides for returning players and the Kingsfall raid
- “Guardian Down”, a short fiction story in two pieces.
Needless to say Destiny was on my mind a lot during it’s 18 months of it’s life. Stepping beyond Destiny I’ve had all sorts of games that have inspired me throughout my life. Persona 5 pushes me to challenge injustice a bit more than I have historically. Final Fantasy 7 encouraged me to seek out the truth and be myself instead of hiding in the image others see me as…. which was also reverberated in Persona 4 Golden. Nier: Automata has had me questioning how we treat each other and the value of life. Life is Strange made me realize that outcomes are irrelevant if you don’t have conviction behind your choices. Jeremy Soule’s Icewind Dale soundtrack helped me write countless stories to share with friends. Uematsu’s contributions to Final Fantasy (again) have helped me focus myself at times of struggle by both being there in concert among other fans touched by the music as well or when the night has taken me to those emotional valleys best left unspoken of out loud. A good game track will keep you in the game, a great track will draw you back to those sensational, empowering, or poignant moments you first found it in.
Great games will make that connection with you. They’re personal experiences that you want to talk or write about. Perhaps you wonder if you could make something like it or even for a slight second perhaps dream about changing your career path. Maybe get a tattoo of a character within the world. Teach yourself guitar using sheet music from Frog’s Theme. The key here is they matter because they’ve inspired you to look at the world through a new lens or maybe pushed you to give something back to the world instead of simply consuming it and moving on. Speaking of giving back, games like the aforementioned Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger don’t exist within their own bubble. Those creators took inspiration from sources like Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. We need these founts of push the next generation in order to continue the cycle. Moments like this keep giving us a way to share experiences, understanding, feelings, and connect with one another. After all, that’s the point isn’t it?