At this time of the year the internet is awash in lists. Lists of the best things, lists of the worst things and, ultimately, lists of lists. Looking at all the game related run-downs it becomes obvious what games are the most lauded. The majority of the lists contain Portal, Bioshock, Super Mario Galaxy and some combination of Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Rockband and some arbitrary other game to be unique.
During the compilation of my annual list I realized that I didn’t deviate from that pattern. The only difference with my list is the absence of Rock Band, which has little to do with the game or developer but everything to do with being in Canada. Repeating what everyone else said is rather boring so I started to thing about specific moments that stood out this year. The top experiences in games of 2007. The things that, irrespective of the games that contained them, showed the promise and potential of this medium.
It turned out that all those experiences were in those very same “best games” anyway, which goes to show how equal in import experience design is in relation to game design. So, here’s my list:
Guitar Hero II. It’s easy to forget, with the excitement for Guitar Hero 3 and Rock Band, that Guitar Hero Two first hit the next-generation this year. The PS2 version might have been first but the 360 port was the complete package so it’s worthy of consideration for game of the year in 2007. Especially since it’s exceptionally better than its Neversoft-developed sequel. It had better songs too even if most were covers.
Guitar Hero 3 ends on an irritating and annoying “boss fight” to the tune of “The Devil Went to Georgia” and it pales in comparison to the experience of playing “Free Bird” to a screaming crowd at Stonehedge. Harmonix gets it. I’m not sure that Red Octane/Neversoft does.
A lot can be said about the flaws of Bioshock. Someone can point out its concessions in game design and morality, its all too frequent fetch quests and the all too clichéd final encounter, and they won’t hear an argument from me. Despite all those faults few games delivered the kind of atmosphere you had when you explored the sunken city of Rapture. With the city falling apart at the seams you confront its creator and architect, Andrew Ryan. In that one moment — that one speech — your world, the world of the main character, breaks into pieces. It’s one of those moments that will often be cited by those studying games because of how it deals with agency and how it declares the protagonist of a video game as, essentially, a tool.
After 587 online games of Halo 3 there are bound to be numerous instances of intense close matches, gratifying come from behind victories, embarrassing blow-outs and funny glitches or errors. You can expect those kinds of things in pretty much any multiplayer game given the same amount of time. However, what stands out with Halo is being able to save screenshots and videos of all those moments for posterity. It gives those experiences a longevity beyond the confines of one, single game.
Call of Duty 4 is a great multiplayer game, better than Halo even, but every game there is a temporary stat builder. After a game is over your heroics (and seventeen kill and zero death performance) is lost to the ether. Sure, you can recall it and you can even take screenshots of the game when a camera is handy, but it doesn’t compare to Halo‘s memory. It keeps all those little things that happen so that I can can show-off the time I scored an “extermination” for killing an entire four person team with one grenade or that stupid suicide thanks to the game’s physics. I also have come-from-behind victories saved and impressive (often the opponent’s) teamwork and I can always go back to it to see what strategies work and what doesn’t. These are the things that make Halo 3 that much more compelling.
Super Mario Galaxy is a game almost philosophically in tune with the idea of experience design. Wikipedia’s page, in typical Wikipedia awkward English, describes “commercial experience design” as being
driven by consideration of the “moments of engagement” — touchpoints — between people and brands, and the ideas,emotions, and memories that these moments create. In some ways you can consider each level, each galaxy, in SMG to be a touchpoint. Each and every one is different, they represent different ideas and concepts, they introduce different mechanics and gameplay devices, they are all little tiny pieces of the larger Mario brand.
There are many of those little moments in Galaxy. The first time in “Space Junk Galaxy” and watching the floating bits of debris assemble and disassemble themselves into a path right in front of Mario. Going to the cake-filled “Sweet Sweet Galaxy” and hearing that classic Super Mario Bros 3 music kick in. The first Shadow of the Colossus-like boss encounter. Any of the Bowser battles with the surprisingly epic musical score. Hearing the music speed up as you accelerate in the Super Monkey Ball-esque galaxy. Climbing and unscrewing, piece by piece, the giant robot toy in the “Toy Time” galaxy. The gauntlet of pain that is the final stage. There’s so much to discover in Super Mario Galaxy that it’s hard to consider it anything but the best game of 2007.