Portal 2

Some GOATs

I’ve started playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on the Nintendo Switch. As this is Skyrim‘s first appearance on a Nintendo platform, this is my first time playing Skyrim. I don’t know if you guys have heard, but Skyrim is an amazing game. Holy shnikes.

I’m going to be writing a lot more about Skyrim in future posts. I’m only twenty hours into my first-ever playthrough (maybe more; time moves differently in Skyrim) and I’m already planning for not just my NEXT playthrough, but for my next THREE playthroughs.

Playing Skyrim has gotten me thinking on the topic of Greatest Games of All-Time. Is Skyrim on the list of Greatest Games of All-Time? Is Skyrim the greatest RPG of all time? Can anyone objectively make the case one way or the other for such a claim?

No. No they cannot. So I’m going to do it subjectively, instead, across a bunch of different genres and platforms. A note: this is not a definitive list of games. Mostly these are games I’ve played, so lots of Nintendo games appear on this list… though I’ll willingly put a game I never played on this list if I think it’s the definitively the greatest game in its genre. I should point out, though, that this is also not a definitive list of genres. In fact, I’m more than admitting to making up some of my own genres. And finally: if a genre seems to be missing, I either didn’t think of it or, more likely, don’t have a strong feeling on any one specific game being the GOAT in that particular genre. And finally finally: I’m painting with a very broad brush.

So don’t take this too seriously. Lord knows I didn’t. (Also: this may not be serious, BUT IT’S RIGHT. <– don’t take that seriously, either.)

The Obvious GOATs

Simulation: The Sims – I’ve never played The Sims. I was always afraid that if I started, I’d never stop. Still: it’s the only choice in this category, obviously.

MMORPG: World of Warcraft – I’ve never played World of Warcraft. I was always afraid that if I started, I’d never stop. Still: it’s the only choice in this category, obviously.

2D Puzzle: Tetris – How many puzzle games since the Russian industry-buster are just riffs on Tetris, anyway?

Sandbox: Minecraft – There doesn’t even need to be a conversation here. There is no competition. Next question.

Fighting: Street Fighter 2 – I was going to do two separate fighting game categories, 2D and 3D. But Street Fighter 2, in all of its forms, is the single greatest fighting game of all time. This pains me to say as one who personally prefers Smash Bros. as a franchise. But it’s the truth. In the fighting genre, there’s Street Fighter 2, and then there’s everything else.

The Not-As-Obvious GOATs

3D Platforming Game: Super Mario Odyssey – Yes, I know it’s brand new. It doesn’t meant that it’s NOT the greatest 3D platformer of all time. I’m of the mind that 3D Mario platformers stand alone as the nominees in this category, and the broadly applicable “Cap”-ture mechanic of Super Mario Odyssey (which results in dozens of platforming styles being included in one game), not to mention the giant playground of each level and the 999 hidden moons to find, puts SMO above Galaxy and 64.

2D Action-Adventure: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the PastZelda games set the standard for the action-adventuring genre, and A Link to the Past set the Zelda template that would be followed for twenty years, both in 2D and in 3D. Some revisionist historians will tell you Link’s Awakening or Minish Cap are superior games, but those people would be wrong. Shout-out to Super Metroid, which almost took this spot instead.

3D Action-Adventure: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Is it the size of the world? Is it the gorgeous art design? Is it the mobility of this game’s version of Link? Is it the dirt bike? Well, yes. All of these things help… but what truly places Breath of the Wild in this spot over, say, Horizon: Zero Dawn or Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider or any number of amazing games, is the physics system. Stop time and power up environmental objects with kinetic energy, or swing metallic objects with magnetic powers and use them to conduct electricity, or pay attention to the curvature of the hill you’re on to suss out which direction your bomb will roll in, or use ice blocks to change the path of a falling boulder or lift up a rusted old gate. Breath of the Wild asks you to think about and then manipulate the amazing world around you in ways heretofore unseen in the action-adventure genre, and if the way YOU’VE chosen to interact with your environment is not the way Nintendo’s developers meant for you to interact with the environment? Well, that’s okay, because the game is DESIGNED that way. The developers created puzzles with specific solutions, while at the same time handing players the environment manipulating abilities they’d need to shortcut those solutions. People have been saying Breath of the Wild forever changes how we’ll play open world games, but it seems more likely that it will forever change how we interact with puzzles and obstacles in open world games, closed world games, and every game world in between.

3D Puzzle: Portal 2 – Name a true 3D puzzle game that’s better than Portal 2. I’ll wait. Fine, yes, specifically, this is probably an action-puzzle game, or a puzzle-platformer. But it would top those categories, too, so I’m just going to roll them all together under the “3D puzzle” label and crown Portal 2 the champ.

JRPG: Final Fantasy VI – There’ll be a lot of 16 bit SNES bias in this list. The SNES is still probably my favorite console of all time. But the quintessential JRPG series is Final Fantasy, and the most JRPG-y of the Final Fantasy games are the 16 bit SNES games: IV, V, and VI. IV gives you set characters with set jobs. Cecil is a Dark Knight who becomes a Paladin; Rosa is a White Mage who becomes a White Wizard; Rydia is a Black Mage/Summoner, and that’s that. I enjoy that approach. V implemented the best version of the famed FF Job System, which allowed you to assign jobs to your four template characters as you saw fit. FF VI managed to do both at once: your characters had job specific actions and abilities, but could also learn skills across the spectrum of FF jobs via magicite equip. Sabin, for example, is a martial artist… but if equipped with the right magicite shards, he can also become a White Mage. It’s an extra level of JRPG-y planning (do you grant your 14 playable characters abilities that match their innate abilities, or do you try and turn them into jack-of-all-trade characters) that FFVI does better than any JRPG before or since.

Western RPG: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Here’s something that happened in my first ten hours playing Skyrim: I returned to Riverwood, the first small town I’d encountered in the game as an escaped prisoner, to do some smithing and shopping. I stepped out of the trader’s shop only to hear a familiar roar and screech: the town was being attacked by a dragon. After heroically slaying the dragon, I realized that the two NPC’s who had given me shelter back when I’d first come to town, the blacksmith and his wife, had been killed in the battle; their daughter, a little girl, another NPC, was fully aware that she was now an orphan. It then became one of my in-game goals to save up enough money to buy a house and adopt this little girl whose parents had died because I wasn’t clean enough in my kill.

This was not a planned event. It is not part of an in-game quest. It is just a thing that happened.

That’s Skyrim.

Beat ‘Em Up: TMNT: Turtles in Time – I’m disproportionately fond of mindless beat ’em ups, but I’ve got some standards: 1.) They need to be fun. 2.) They can’t be impossible. 3.) They need dope moves. 4.) The soundtrack needs to wail. 5.) They’ve got to move quickly. River City Ransom is great, but has too many RPG elements and asks you to think too much. Double Dragon is a classic, but chugs along a little bit too slowly. Lots of the mid-90’s arcade brawlers are awesome, (The Simpsons, X-Men, etc.) but are designed to suck down quarters at a ridiculous pace. Turtles in Time is a 90’s arcade brawler designed for home consoles. It’s fun, it’s fast, it isn’t overly difficult, and the soundtrack is the TMNT theme remixed over and over (which might sound tedious, but is actually amazing.)

Level Builder: Super Mario Maker – The competition here isn’t stiff, save for one other game. Lots of level-builders are overcomplicated and hold a high barrier to entrance; Disney Infinity, for example, and though I’ve not played it I’ve heard the same about LittleBigPlanet. Super Mario Maker has the benefit of existing on the Wii U, crazily enough: an HD console with a stylus + touchscreen interface, perfect for a level builder. Mario Maker is built around a drag-and-drop graphical interface that speaks the language of the most popular gaming series of all time. It’s a near-universally appealing combination that lowers the barrier of entry to practically non-existent. And though the Wii U is far less ubiquitous than the Nintendo 3DS, the Wii U version of Mario Maker is obviously the superior version. Nintendo’s decision to leave online sharing out of the 3DS version of the game is one of the most terrible ideas they’ve ever had. It’s, like, Virtual Boy-bad. So why isn’t this in the “obvious” list? Because of one game that almost tops Mario Maker, and that game… is Lode Runner. Anyone who played it and built levels for it on IBM-compatible PC’s back in the early 80’s understands why.

Point-and-Click/Graphical Adventure: Sam & Max Hit the Road – There are lots of more famous LucasArts graphical adventure games. Day of the Tentacle, Fate of Atlantis, and Grim Fandango might all be better known, but Sam & Max Hit the Road holds the distinction of being a beautifully illustrated, brilliantly written, and legitimately great point-and-click adventure game… that is fully aware of how ridiculous point-and-click adventure games are. Besides: King’s Quest is the runner up in this category before any of those other aforementioned titles.

Star Wars: Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader – This is the only IP to get its own category, and rightfully so. There’ve been so many Star Wars game of such varying quality. Knights of the Old Republic could have taken this spot, of course, as could have Super Return of the Jedi or X-Wing. But few games drop you into the Star Wars saga quite like the arcade action of this early GameCube title, and it’s the game that initially sold me on the GameCube, to boot.

First-Person Action-Adventure: Metroid Prime – I’m cheating a little by including this on a list that already includes 3D Action-Adventure, but I wanted to give the perfection that is Metroid Prime its due, and yes, Metroid Prime IS better than either of its sequels.

Classic Arcade: Ms. Pac-Man – Are you a Pac-Man person, or a Space Invader person? The correct answer is, “a Pac-Man person,” and Ms. Pac-Man and its multiple maze styles is far-and-away the best game of the entire Pac-Man franchise.

Arena Shooter: Splatoon 2 – Shut up, yes it is.

Strategy: Codename S.T.E.A.M. – #SorryNotSorry

The Too-Close-To-Call GOATs

2D Platforming: Super Mario World or New Super Mario Bros. 2Super Mario World is the obvious overall better experience… BUT New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the quintessential classic Super Mario experience: a 2D platformer that speaks the clearly established rules of the Super Mario universe (Mario World riffed on those rules quite a bit) that includes the key extra elements that have since defined the franchise, including fireballs, raccoon flight, Star Coin collection, and wall-jumping. Mario World is a unique, exciting experience, but New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a perfect distillation of everything that makes the franchise work. It’s not groundbreaking in the least (and therefore sometimes comes across as slightly boring) but it’s the Super Mario formula polished to an immaculate shine.

Racing: Mario Kart 8 or FORZA – I suppose I could have done two categories: arcade racing and sim racing. But I’m splitting the difference because although I don’t have a lot of experience with FORZA, the little bit I’ve played has been revelatory: it’s easily the best simulation franchise out there, as far as I’m concerned. Mario Kart 8, on the other hand, is the greatest game in the greatest arcade racing franchise of all time. Essentially, I don’t know enough about sim racing to do a whole separate category for it, but I wanted to acknowledge FORZA‘s greatness.

2D Action Platformer: Mega Man 2 0r Mega Man X or Ducktales or The Magical Quest Starring Micky Mouse or Aladdin (SNES) or… – Such a huge library of great games exist in this genre, and Capcom was the undisputed master of the form back in its heyday, as illustrated that my entire “can’t decide” list is made up of Capcom titles.

First-Person Shooter – See, my favorite FPS ever is the original Star Wars: Dark Forces, but even the guy who keeps insisting Codename S.T.E.A.M. is a top-ten all-time game isn’t silly enough to think Dark Forces is the best FPS of all-time.

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The Second Person

As a fiction writer, I spend far too much time thinking and talking about stories and how they’re constructed. A lot of people do this, of course; the Internet has fostered an entire culture, barely even a subculture anymore, of armchair storyboard analysts. I’m old enough to remember when Cracked.com actually published articles aside from “5 Ways I’d Have Written This Movie Better.”

The best education a writer can ever have, bar none, is to teach literature, which I’ve done on the middle school, high school, and collegiate level. When you’re the one up in front of the classroom expected to have all the answers, it really forces you to pay attention to the boring class-assigned book you’re reading (particularly since you’re the boring teacher who assigned it). It really hammers home the foundational layers of what makes storytelling work, and how similar most stories are at their core.

Being a quote-unquote gamer as well as a writer, I’ve used the language of video games more than once to illustrate my point. (FUN FACT: the portal onto the factory floor of Magrathea in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is best explained to a room full of 8th graders as a Warp Pipe from Super Mario Bros.) If you know anything about literary form, you’ll know that one of the most elementary elements discussed in the beginner classroom is “point-of-view”. First person point-of-view is when the narration of a story refers to the main character as “I”, and third person point-of-view is when the narration of a story refers to the main character as “he” or “she”, or some form of such. As I happily and effectively described in both junior high and high school literatures courses, video games are also described in terms of being in either first or third person. A first person game puts you directly into the head of the avatar, and you see the world through their eyes. A third person game puts you outside of the avatar you’re controlling, often directly over their shoulder. It is a model I have used to illustrate point of view on many occasions.

And I’ve recently realized just how terribly inaccurate it is.

Lesser known, and even lesser used in literature, is SECOND person point-of-view. A story told in second person is one where the narration refers to the main character as “you”. Now, you see where that could be confusing or limited in its use. It is the ultimate example of the author turning the mirror on the reader. There really is only so much one can do with the form. The most famous application of second person POV, for my money, is in old school Choose Your Own Adventure stories. You know, the ones that start with a passage like, “You wake up in an abandoned mine shaft. After dusting off dirt, debris, and spiders, you look around. To your left, the shaft heads towards a light. To you right: darkness. Which way will you go?” The text then offers the reader an option: “To go left, turn to page 28. To go right, turn to page 33,” and the rest of the story unfolds in this manner, inviting the reader to go back and re-read the book many times over, experiencing a different story each time. The virtual world in the pages of the books is laid out by the author, and you, the reader, get to decide how you experience that world.

I’m wondering if you’re starting to see the connection.

It is a connection that clicked for me when I was playing a non-Nintendo game that 1.) I’ve been playing recently, 3.) I’m way too late to the party on, and D.) is awesome. The game in question: Portal 2. Valve’s greatest game, IMO (never-minding that the only other Valve game I’ve ever played is Portal), Portal 2 features the greatest video game character every created. No, not the player avatar. The player avatar is a silent protagonist named Chell, about whom very little is actually revealed or known. She’s importantly unimportant, though, so we’ll come back to her in just a bit. I’m speaking, of course, of GLaDOS, the wickedly scripted and voiced AI character who runs the dead lab where Chell is imprisoned. GLaDOS is deliciously insane, and her history and past (and yes, no spoilers, but “her” is an applicable descriptor) are really at the heart of the world of Portal.

Consider, then, the sort of storytelling that GLaDOS and Chell represent. GLaDOS is decidedly NOT the player character. In the first game, she is the clear-cut antagonist; in the second, she could still be called such (although more shades of grey certainly exist in that story as it unfolds.) As you, the player, in the person of Chell, puzzles your way through Aperture Labs, GLaDOS taunts you and leads you astray, all the time referring to you, as “you”.

That alone doesn’t mean, “Hey! Video games are all told in the second person!” Just because the antagonist refers to you as “you” isn’t enough to determine that, but it was enough to turn on a light bulb for me. While Portal games aren’t necessarily Choose Your Own Adventure books, and are actually pretty linear in their progression, they present a story told through the characters in front of you and the world around you. The main character, Chell, is a cipher. Her character appearance is set, but she’s a blank slate for you to write on, a vessel through which you experience the game’s adventure. She is a, and it couldn’t be more obvious in retrospect, a literal shell. That’s right. Chell is a shell. Valve isn’t being subtle here, but we all kind of missed it, didn’t we? Just like Half-Life‘s Gordan Freeman is a free man.

Another great example is this that new game that just came out on Switch. It’s called The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Ha ha, I’m funny, Skyrim is one of the biggest games of all time, though I’m just now beginning it because, as I’ve made clear many times on these pages, I’m a Nintendo-only gamer… more or less. In Skyrim you choose your race, your gender, your facial features, the literal and figurative paths you take, the disciplines you learn, the factions in the in-game world you’re going to team up with, which ones you’ll oppose, and which ones you’ll avoid altogether… everything. And you do it all without your avatar ever saying a word. Everything is a variable, and the world responds to and is shaped by your choices and actions. The game tends to get janky for that very reason (it needs to be a remarkably malleably piece of programming to try and predict for everything the player may choose to do), but that’s the price developer Bethesda Softworks was willing to  pay for developing an open-everything game. Spoiler warning: it totally worked out for them.

I have to get back to Nintendo here because of the nature of my blog (I’ve just started Skyrim but could already talk about it all day; some games obviously deserve their “all-time classic” label right from the word “go”), but environmental storytelling, storytelling that presents you, the player, with a world and then steps back to allow you to react to it… that’s a storytelling style Nintendo has embraced for a long time. Two big examples jump out at me. The first is, of course, The Legend of Zelda and series protagonist Link. Just as Chell is an empty shell that the player is invited to inhabit in order to experience the story, Link is the graphical avatar standing in as the link between the player and the world. Both Chell and Link are silent and seemingly emotionless, and this is so for a very particular reason: both Valve and Nintendo are asking you to react to the game worlds around these avatars with your OWN thoughts, feelings, and responses, not with pre-scripted ones voice-acted for you in cut scenes.

This is where the future of storytelling in video games lies, I think. Fully voiced cinematic cut-scenes are an awfully poor fit for a medium that is built around direct audience interaction, when you think about it. Why would you want to play a video game that takes control AWAY from you when the best stuff in the narrative is happening? It doesn’t make sense.

Consider, then, Portal and Breath of the Wild. Both are games with silent protagonists and incredibly deep and well-designed words. When I’m playing Portal and I stumble across some cryptic graffiti left behind in a cranny warning me not to trust GLaDOS, it’s far more effective for the game to sit back and let me respond emotionally and intellectually to this narrative turn, as opposed to cutting away to a scene that rips me out of Chell’s head and shows me a character I’ve been role-playing as reacting to the scenario in a way I never would. Same goes for Breath of the Wild. There’s two forms of storytelling in Breath of the Wild. There are traditional cut scenes that have been criticized and discussed and which sometimes feel awkward and out-of-character and out of place… and then there’s the atmospheric storytelling that unfolds over the course of hundreds of hours of gameplay. I don’t know about you, but I find exploring a field full of petrified Guardians in front of a rotting barricade to be a far more compelling narrative experience than a cut scene where Falco-lite makes snide comments at me.

(That’s not to say cinematic storytelling NEVER works. The four Divine Champions are given some much-needed fleshing out in Breath of the Wild’s DLC Champion’s Ballad, and all are given good time in new much-needed cinematics that show them interacting in the past with Princess Zelda.)

The best example of this all, though, might be in the Metroid franchise. Super Metroid and Metroid Prime tell amazing stories through atmosphere and environments, without series protagonist Samus Aran (or anyone else) saying a word. Metroid: Other M, though, turns a chatty Samus into a damaged little girl with daddy issues, and that whole game can just go and die in a fire for all I care.

I think, then, that the case is clear. The ideal storytelling in an interactive medium is interactive, not cinematic; in hindsight, this couldn’t be more obvious. So that’s the golden rule of storytelling in a video game, I think: flesh out your world, developers, as richly as you can… but when you drop me into, don’t signpost me to death. Don’t dictate to me how your game should make me think, feel, and react. Just let me run loose and tell me, “You can go left or you can go right. Which way will you go?”