Games, I have always believed, would benefit from acceptance into mainstream culture: once the stigma that video games entertained only troglodytic nerds disappears, the scope of what games are allowed to be would increase. This has started to happen, as, despite the whining and hand wringing of those who want games to remain in their and only their basements, gaming has expanded over the past several years. Part of this has been in the form of non-gamers picking up controllers, but my bet is that most of it is ex-gamers picking them up again, or twenty-somethings not putting them down as they (we) age.
This expansion has meant that the collective entity known as “gamers” now has much broader tastes: broader in terms of theme and maturity as well as content. I am not writing to dole out credit (or blame, if you prefer) to the Wii and DS, or even PS2 for doing this, but rather I am writing because among all the dreck that this expansion has created, it has provided a platform and audience for a couple of real gems that do not contain the worst trappings of games (but do not belong in the silly and ill defined non-category “non-games”).
I am not calling for an end to glossy, traditional, big budget blockbusters in the vein of Mass Effect (which I thoroughly enjoyed), but, in the same sense that the stereotypical Hollywood summer movie is a spectacle while the films of winter ask us to empathize with characters and contemplate the human condition, the best games may not be the shiniest and may instead be quite small. That’s why the theme of 2008 is the promise that democratization (even if it is happening in fits and starts) has brought in the form of smaller games that may be able to fill niches that do not exist on a scale large enough to warrant a multi-million dollar budget. The two games that best exemplify what 2008 meant to me are Braid and World of Goo.
Something important that these two have in common (besides great music, great art, great gameplay, low cost and accessibility) is that the thematic elements that made the games more fulfilling experiences for me are not forced on the player. In Braid, no one is forced to read any of the books, and in World of Goo, the cut scenes are short. You can enjoy the games as games without having to concern yourself with the idea that maybe they aspire to make you think; the art and music are ancillary, the gameplay is definitely good enough to stand on its own (although if you do not appreciate the music in World of Goo we can’t be friends anymore). More impressively, they manage to do much of the storytelling through the mechanics and gameplay. World of Goo made its comment on beauty by having us sort goo balls as pretty or plain and watching the result; merely playing the final level of Braid rends asunder any beliefs you may have had about your actions to that point.
But my point is not merely that these games are good; if I wanted to slobber all over them, I could have done so in a review rather than this brief essay on the promise they represent. They would have been made in years gone by, but they would likely have been relegated to that wild west of gaming that is the PC, where I would likely have missed them (I’ll accept this is a failing on my part, but not that it undermines my point). WiiWare and XBLA have provided a platform where small games, developed by tiny teams, can reach the hungry and diverse audience on consoles. These services, coupled with an aging and growing gamer population make me hopeful that more great, deep, and mature-but-not-in-a-gore-or-boobs-way games will follow the lead of what were two of the best games I played, bar none, in 2008.