In the last 10 years, video games went in search of Citizen Kane.
The seminal Orson Welles movie was the metaphor of choice for the quest for the singular title that would grant the fledgling medium cultural legitimacy in the eyes of the enemy (most notably film critic Roger Ebert, who in 2005 flatly declared that games were “inherently inferior to films and literature”).
For some, this was an exercise in futility. Games, as Ebert pointed out, weren’t movies or books—they were fun diversions, enormously successful playthings that were bringing in, at the end of 2008, more than $32 billion (Rs1.5 trillion) worldwide. Why play pretenders to the legacy of other mediums when you could occupy a new place—an area of human expression hitherto unexplored?
Game on: Characters such as Half Life 2’s Alyx Vance (right, with gun) and Solid Snake (below) became as big as the games they were to
For others, games were a cultural product capable of saying something meaningful, offering more to the player than mere adrenalin rush and escapist fantasy.
This was the decade these two views collided as games tried to grow up. A grammar of design, of what made games unique, began to be discussed and understood. Books and academia began to take notice. It was a decade that brought The Beatles to a video game (The Beatles: Rock Band), and Grand Theft Auto to the news.
It was the decade of the “auteur”—the flamboyant personalities that brought their unique fantastic visions to the medium, from the postmodern experimentation of Hideo Kojima to the whacky genius of Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto. It was the decade of diversity and inclusiveness as games began to tackle issues of gender representation, sexuality and stereotype.
Each game in this list of 10 represents a different kind of experience. The mention of an entire series instead of an individual title may seem like a cop-out, but in game development, iteration is just as important as an idea. The oeuvre that some game designers represent is often just as influential as their individual games.
The list looks forward as well as back. Some of these games have made a permanent impact on the history of the medium. Others have left us open to promises that will define gaming in the decade to come.
Harmonix Inc., 2007
If there’s one game that even the most vehement non-gamer would agree to try, it’s the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series. Call it a rhythm game, an interactive music player, or a motivational tool to learn music—there’s no denying the sheer addictiveness of the title and the fascination with which one encounters this game. When the first title came out in 2005, few believed that a plastic guitar would take off in a big way. Four years later, The Beatles came calling.
The work of Hideo Kojima
Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001), 3 (2004) and 4 (2008)
The Metal Gear Solid series, in which you play covert operative Solid Snake in pursuit of shadowy terrorist groups, is often described as a muddled work of indulgent excess. With its heavy-handed exposition, ponderous philosophizing and confusing canon, it is—but it is also a work of sheer genius. Kojima revels in this divisiveness that his work brings—and his games, arguably, are better for it. The epic spy film-meets-postmodern philosophy textbook—the Metal Gear universe—is proof.
Krish Raghav played his first video game—a two-player title that involved flinging bananas—when he was 8, and has been trigger-happy ever since
World of Warcraft
Blizzard Inc., 2004
Most people think of Second Life when asked to imagine a realistically possible futuristic virtual community. Those people are misguided—World of Warcraft, in the last five years, has seen its community of around 11 million people deal with strange epidemics, the politics of uncertain alliances and even the US elections.
Jonathan Blow, 2008
Braid, an independent title from outspoken game designer Jonathan Blow, showed that games, like any other medium, could be a personal statement. Braid tells a deceptively simple story of a man in search of a princess, but turns this common video game cliche on its head in a stunning conclusion. It’s the closest gaming has got to an autobiographical novel.
Half Life 2
Valve Inc., 2004
Of all the games that hand us a gun and ask us to shoot things, Half Life 2 stands out. It creates a rich world with nuanced characters, instead of merely a shooting gallery. It tells a story the way a game can, instead of copying how movies do. It’s a testament to how well the game is designed that a title essentially about firing a weapon manages to seem so intelligent.
The work of Keita Takahashi
Katamari Damacy (2004) and Noby Noby Boy (2009)
Keita Takahashi’s games combine whimsy and playfulness to create endearing experiences more than affecting ones. Katamari Damacy is about a diminutive prince who has to rebuild the stars after they’re destroyed in a drunken binge by his father, The King of All Cosmos. Noby Noby Boy is about an infinitely stretchable boy-like creature. Both are often surreal and utterly memorable.
Valve Inc., 2007
Portal broke the trend of spiralling budgets and bloaty titles in favour of a sharp, taut three-hour experience with a madcap story and a brilliant script. At its heart, it’s a simple physics puzzle game, but it showed us that games can never go wrong with a combination of tight narrative, intelligent level design and evil computers.
The work of Fumito Ueda
Ico (2001); Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
Gaming’s resident minimalist, Fumito Ueda’s games are drenched in melancholy and loneliness, and powered by a riveting emotional core. In both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, a sense of impending dread hangs over the desolate worlds he creates. How often have you heard games described thus?
Electronic Arts, 2000
In early 2000, designer Will Wright was interested in exploring the idea of “possibility space”—the different possibilities of expression that an interactive work allows. He wanted to create a “dollhouse sim”—a game that would crudely attempt to model human interactions, and see the kind of stories these virtual characters could create if just left to their devices. That idea became The Sims. The results—half soap opera, half virtual Schadenfreude—are, like anything Wright designs, flawed but fascinating.
The work of Jason Rohrer
Passage (2007), Gravitation (2008), Between (2008)
Jason Rohrer is an acclaimed indie game designer whose games are ciphers—they favour retro, simplistic graphics and focus on singular themes such as death, forgiveness and memory. Most are simple to play. Some find his games pointless. Others find in his work the future of games as art.