I didn’t get to play everything I wanted to this year. That’s par for the course for someone undergoing such a big transition in life. In August, I quit my job, moved out, and went back to San Francisco State University to finish my Cinema degree. It’s a move I’m still reconciling in my brain with my extreme distaste for the city of San Francisco and my new appreciation for interactive art that has quietly surpassed my love of film. It’s also a move that’s left me without an income and less reasons to buy games, but I managed to finagle some before and after the move that really stuck with me. So, here they are. Enjoy, bitches.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
To call this a “no-frills” shooter undersells it, for Gunslinger is full of frills. It’s just that the frills are outstandingly clever and complement the core shooting experience in ways that add to the cohesion of the game, instead of diminish it. A linear corridor shooter set in the Old West, Gunslinger contains an assured sense of style that elevates it above other shooters of its type. From the presentation to the active shooting mechanics, Gunslinger is all about riotous fun. My personal favorite way to play was to rock two six-shooters and kick down doors using the slow-motion mechanic, blasting enemies in the face to yield vibrantly-red cel-shaded blood spatters.
While that makes for an exciting shooter in and of itself, the narrative conceit of Gunslinger makes it an uncommonly smart shooter. Techland showcases an uncanny understanding of American mythmaking. Riffing on the legendary and romanticized nature of the American West, the developer simultaneously indulges in the legend and undermines it. Silas Greaves, the main character, acts as the framing device, telling of his bounty hunting exploits in a Kansas saloon. He bends the truth, refutes others’ testimony, and drunkenly amps up the stakes of his flashbacks to ridiculous levels. Greaves builds up the myth and the fiction as you play through it and realize how crazy killing hundreds of people is. But since Greaves is such an unreliable narrator, it all fits into a cohesive whole that textures the character and his world better than games 10x this size.
I knew literally nothing about this game when I played it, except for its high review scores. I was skeptical; it seemed like another case of critics lapping praise onto a small independent title for being “emotional” and not necessarily good. Playing Gone Home illustrated why I should never be so presumptuous and disrespectful of the opinions of those critics. Gone Home isn’t just emotional, it’s unique. Taking you through an empty, upscale, suburban house, the game places you as Katie Greenbriar, a college student just coming back from a year abroad.
The main character of the game is arguably the sister Sam, whose story mirrors the real struggles of millions of men and women around the world. Her love affair, told through diary entries accompanied by superb voice-over acting (think BioShock audio diaries), provides the main anchor through the game, but if you scour the house enough, you’ll also learn about Katie’s parents, both of whom are struggling with their own issues. Exploration and narrative are the components of the minimalist ethos of Gone Home, and it provides a truly touching story in a mere two hours. It’s an anomaly in the gaming landscape, avoiding genre trappings and focusing on realism in a way that no game has ever dared to focus.
Creating a work of art in high-profile commercial industries is the realm of few artists. Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are two filmmakers who can basically do whatever they want with high budgets and create great films. In the games industry, Ken Levine stands as one of gaming’s best working auteurs thanks to his work on the BioShock franchise. And BioShock Infinite, his first game as Creative Director, cements that status. Infinite is bold, daring, provocative game-making. It’s relentlessly violent and endlessly inventive. It throws out new ideas on the fly throughout its 10-12 hour campaign. Shooting isn’t the best part in Infinite; at times it feels like filler. But at other times, it’s the most exhilarating ride of the year, especially when skyhooks get involved. Jumping on and off those rails to get different perspectives on the battlefield, as well as access to different tears, create a dynamic rarely seen in modern shooters.
But the writing really is the main draw here, and it’s fantastic. Racism, revolution, religious zealotry, patriarchy, and patriotism all get explored and drenched in blood, as Levine and the team at Irrational Games construct a beautiful, sun soaked paradise…if you’re white.
And when the oppressed, mostly colored working class of Columbia takes up arms for the revolution, they turn out to be just as vicious as the oppressors. Irrational pissed people off with this decision, but that’s the kind of “fuck you” game and narrative design that doesn’t get much traction in $200 million epics. It also speaks to what might be the core theme of the entire BioShock series: violence begets violence. Extreme ideologies like religion, patriotism, and racism fuel the endless cycle and ruin lives. And amidst all of this, Levine and his writers explore choice and consequence with interdimensional travel and a man and a woman whose relationship elicits utter shock. Uncompromising and unconventional as hell, Infinite compelled me more than any game this year.