The Onion AV Club posted our Best 15 Games of the Decade today tar. I contributed to the list, and I thought I’d share my personal list here:
3. Baldur’s Gate II
4. Rock Band 2
5. The Longest Journey
6. Fallout 3
7. Left 4 Dead
8. Burnout Takedown
9. Half-Life 2 (franchise)
10. Jets ‘N’ Guns GOLD
I’ll be doing an end-of-the-decade thing for my Edge column as well, but probably from a different angle.
In case you’re tracking bias, you can tell right away I’m not a huge fan of the FPS, RTS, sports, or MMO genres. But I was also surprised that neither my list nor the final slate included many indie titles. I’ve enjoyed a ton of great indies this decade, but somehow, the polished big-team games won out. And part of the blame lies with Valve – who hog my list at #’s 1 (Portal), 7 (Left 4 Dead) and 9 (Half-Life 2).
Time and again, we’ve tried to set up a dichotomy between the big, dumb commercial games that cost millions to build, and the smart, svelte indie titles that represent art, and culture, and original thinking. But Valve proves that’s silly. Every time I read an opinion piece arguing that games should be more adult, or more sophisticated – I think of Valve. As Play Like a Girl points out, every time a commercial game throws an extra-large pair of boobs at you on the pretense that that’s what gamers want to see? Look at Valve.
Valve has proven that you can make adult games with believable characters and a sophisticated atmosphere, that leverage or even create pop culture touchpoints, and still make a commercial game that’s fun to play. They embrace innovation, but they also polish and package it: while I’ve played other indies that were as clever as Portal, none of them had Mike Patton adding a voice or Jonathan Coulton writing the credits theme. And while I’ve talked to a lot of people who build worlds – sometimes voluminous, painfully well-documented worlds with nooks and crannies and lore and texts up the yoohoo – one of the case studies we all keep coming back to is Half-Life 2, which tells you more about its back story with a few clues and some grafitti than a lot of games manage in tens of thousands of words. (Note to BioWare: all those codex entries aren’t doing you much good if nobody bothers to read them.)
I’ve just barely started playing Left 4 Dead 2, so I reserve judgment on whether it lives up to the tradition. (In fact, so far, the daylight thing is bugging me.) But the decision to move it to the south and make four new believable characters – characters who feel real, but still don’t actually get in the way of your telling your own story, bullet by bullet – was a good one.
Braid is the highest-charting indie title on my list and the only that made the cut at the AV Club, but in a way, I think Jonathan Blow has transcended whatever “indie scene” we might be talking about. He’s not a brash new talent: he’s more like gaming’s Brian Eno. “He did it practically all by himself” is no longer necessary as an introduction to his work.
I’m looking forward to more games from Blow. But I also want more games from Valve, and I wish every mainstream game developer was more like them. I wish they were all as sophisticated, as stylish, as smart and as mature. I wish they gave a shit about story and characters to the same extent as Valve, by which I mean, I don’t need to drown in your 100,000-word script; I’m just asking that you get it right. After all, Valve did.
And it even made them some money.