2010 – “A Year in Review” pt. 1
A year of videogames has gone by. A wasted year in many a way. Not that there weren’t enough groundbreaking videogames released for the past 12 months, no, there surely were. But, following old habits, the problem with this year lies in the narrative that has been shaped by media, the semantic skeleton that has become inexorably imprinted in people’s minds. Most will look back at 2010 as the year of “Mass Effect 2” and “Red Dead Redemption” (review forthcoming) and “Super Mario Galaxy 2” and “God of War III” – the triumphant year of this brave new age of videogames, so perfectly produced, so unanimously revered… so much so that they could only be as elegant as their harmlessness and voidness of purpose and content. The reason there is so little debate when choosing the very best of this year is remarkably simple – the criteria for the valorization of these pieces have become unanimous and ubiquitous, embodied in a cold, vapid rhetoric ellaborated by the very industry that invests millions in these productions. To talk of interactive arts and even entertainment in these consensualist terms is not only degrading, as downright absurd. Whilst the games that dominate the airwaves (and which we have been occasionally guilty of giving more attention than they probably deserve) are worthy of merit in their own way – as heralds of an increasingly stable and effective industry, capable of alluring millions and delighting them in ways unimaginable outside videogames – they are also symptomatic of the lack of creativity, craftmanship and sheer artistry that should govern an expressive medium such as this. They don’t touch people as much as arouse them. They don’t convey a message. They don’t address any facet of human life. As such, these will not be the games we’ve chosen to give merit to in regards to the past year. As we will try to show, the following titles are the very few we believe propelled the medium further, deepening its expressive pendant and actually communicate with those who were lucky enough to experience them. Most of them do not fit the art bill, by any means, showing only small symbolic strides in the great journey that lies ahead of our potentially powerful medium, but since they are the sole worthy of merit, they must be mentioned. So here go, the best games of 2010, in chronological order, according to yours truly.
“Bayonetta” inaugurated the year with a full-frontal blast of unfettered aesthetic virtuosity, driven by the videogame-loving insanity of Hideki Kamiya. Considering the small scale of his entrepreneurship side by side with the giants of Santa Monica, the end-result is astoundingly high profile: the graphical prowess, the refined elegance and complete maximalist outstretch of the combat system, not forgetting the various gameplay schemas which so devilishly evoked classic gaming memories. And, unlike its peers, it actually has the clinical and cynical distance to both elevate and parody this flawed medium, adding subtlety and depth of discourse to an otherwise apparently hollow artifact. Not to mention its historical deconstruction (debauchery?) of christian culture and history, in one of the most venomous and insidious discourses videogames have seen in the past decade. “Bayonetta” deserves to be remembered for its wit and craftmanship, for its seductiveness and charm, for its hidden sub-texts and dashingly sexy body.
February saw two seemingly distant artifacts released: “Vanitas” and “Heavy Rain“. The first represents one of the few art ventures to receive the attention it deserves. A “Tale of Tales” piece created with the iPhone in mind, it underpins the vain egotistical logic that governs consumerist society, one which finds its greatest of symbols in the very platform Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn chose to express themselves. With the beauty and aesthetic care that they have been known for, they present a calm, introspective experience, which entices players not only to deconstruct the artifact, but their very psyche and behavior. The metaphysical ponderings that must emerge from its interactions – on the elusiveness of beauty and the unstoppable decay of life – have been the most meaningful and delightful this year. Seldom have we smiled with such pleasure and irony at an interactive artifact.
“Heavy Rain“, of course, is an altogether different beast, a mammoth interactive neo-noir narrative about a man’s quest to save his son. Too much has been said of its plot-holes and inconsistencies (as if other games fared any better on that end, alas!), and too little has been mentioned of its emotional core, its vanguardist, perhaps even somewhat foolish attempt to connect with digital characters, through actual human feelings and veritable ‘pathos’. We admit it, we loved its cast of archetypal characters, we felt empathy, sadness, despair, anger, fear and moral doubt alongside them. For when questioning “Heavy Rain“, we must also question which mainstream game has done more to address the human condition! Which other title touched on such issues as the real-life considerations of a father, from his love for his children, to his parenting and morals when faced with a tragedy? Which game invested so much in creating interactive templates for all the little actions in life, like taking a shower, inhaling asthma medicine or taking care of a wound? This, as opposed to shooting guns and waging war with swords and chains! Which game tried so hard to deliver convincing character modelling and animation? To design such intricate virtual sets and props that made you feel as if inside a real-life set? No, it wasn’t the supposedly deep narrative of “Mass Effect 2” with its cartoonish, overly brawnish and sexualized characters, nor the brutish ugly renders of the supposedly tragic epic of “Red Dead Redemption”, so daft and unemotional on account of its creators not even being able to capture a man’s sternness without making him look like an ape or a women’s beauty and delicateness without making her look like a monster. Yes, yes, David Cage might be guilty of the sin of extremely poor references, of generic Hollywood class writing, and might even be so utterly daft not to understand he is fighting an unwinnable battle in a dead genre, but unlike everyone else he is going in the right direction with the right tools. Towards human drama, through emotion. And no matter what everyone keeps saying, he is alone.
[To be continued…]