Skyrim. My choice was going to be Skyrim. This entry was going to be about Skyrim, and this entry was going to be the one point of optimism and hope in this otherwise cynical wasteland of bitterness and profanity. But you know what happened?
Michael Swaim is way better about checking his email, so he got to pick it first. Therefore, for game of 2011, I choose Diablo III, which isn't even coming out this year. Why? Let's run down some of its killer new features:
*Always-on DRM means you can play the game anywhere there's an Internet connection! And nowhere there isn't.
*Sick of the pressure that customizing, improving and personalizing PC games comes with? Diablo III's got your back: New security measures prevent all modding!
*Tired of real-world problems breaking the flow and action of game play? Not anymore: Diablo III does away with that horrible pause function. Now nothing's going to stop you from gaming -- even your own wants and needs!
*Tired of multiplayer games hogging all the server issues and connectivity problems? Don't worry! Diablo III requires a working Internet connection ... even for single-player games!
*Want added adventure, excitement and intrigue? If Blizzard servers crash during game play, you can lose all of your progress! Real action requires real consequences. You want to be real, don't you?
So real you put your fist through the monitor and throw your mouse at the kids.
If somebody wants to call shenanigans on me for griping about a game that hasn't even been released yet, that's fine. You can mentally change my pick to Driver: San Francisco, or literally any other Ubisoft game. They all have pretty much the same "features" this year. My general point doesn't change with the specific property chosen to represent it. I'm just saying that the publishers are pushing a new theme for 2011 PC games, and that theme is:
Hey, why don't you stop playing PC games?
In an episode of 30 Rock that aired in March of 2011, Aaron Sorkin complained that "Our craft is dying while people are playing Angry Birds." Normally, this would have scanned to me as "Our craft is dying while [VIDEO GAME REFERENCE]." I've been video game abstinent since my Mario 64 habit caused the saddest intervention anyone has ever had to organize for a high school student.
This year, I found my wife playing Angry Birds on her phone and decided I could handle this, and soon after realized I was wrong. I've seen entire nights disappear while I tried to kill what I have to imagine are the least intimidating video game villains of all time (are there other video games where the bad guy is a limbless, paralyzed blinking torso? I honestly don't know).
This is what the mainstream looks like, gamers.
After a decade of video games occupying a collection of niche markets that I'd managed to slalom between, Angry Birds made me feel like I was missing out on something. I think there's a reason this happened. Angry Birds is not just another video game. My wife was playing the game because my wife is a person, and Angry Birds officially conquered that demographic this year.
The head of Rovio, the company that makes the game, believes they can be bigger than Mario and Mickey Mouse, and I half believe him. (The Mario half.) They gave smartphones an adorable mascot the way Mario became the first mascot for home gaming. Mickey Mouse would seem to have a pretty giant advantage over anything born these days, the same way George Washington is always going to be the most popular president. Then again, if Mickey Mouse was released today, he'd be just another cartoon character. Angry Birds' ability to dominate a world of cartoon characters, apps and touch screen games all engineered to addict us might mean that they're a superior species.
They certainly translate into cupcakes better than the cast of StarCraft II.
Any attempts to expand them into a feature length film (in the works) or anywhere off our smartphones could be disastrous. But whether they become the new Mario or the future California Raisins, they will always have the past few years. Just ask the most unflappable player in the NBA, Kevin Durant, who is apparently way more flappable when he's trying to kill non-ambulatory, cartoon pigs.
I've included Dead Island on this list not for its game play, its beautiful locations or its staggeringly well-made trailer, but because I'm declaring it the last breath of zombie fanaticism. After this, we're allowed to retire zombies as a cultural meme. We've finally gone as far as we can with the undead, and all that's left for us to do is slide back down the pile of headless corpses and move on with our lives.
In a slightly slower, shambling way.
At the end of any pop culture frenzy, the object of obsession has to outwear its welcome. If zombies were a house guest, then Dead Island would be the day you catch it wearing a pair of your underwear because it ran out of clean clothes. Our relationship with the undead has gotten so stale that no one is sincerely excited about the prospect of a zombie apocalypse anymore.
I say "aargh," you say "urrgh," let's call the whole thing off.
We've found every conceivable way to kill zombies; we've put them in every conceivable scenario, and now their ubiquity is getting annoying. But Dead Island marks the first time I've seen a really great zombie story ruined because it's just retreading old ground. There's no new angle on zombies that wasn't already covered in Left 4 Dead or Dead Rising or countless other games and movies, so the whole thing seems pointless. I even partially suspect that the reason the game trailer bore no resemblance to the actual game was because it was frantically trying to find an untapped quadrant of the zombie craze just to keep people interested. We've crossed a line in 2011 -- it's time to move on to some other generalized terror we can all enjoy together, like nanobots or Eskimos or something.
It's probably symbolic of global warming.
My status as a lapsed gamer/non-gamer has been documented on this site before, so I admit that I'm not the best candidate to talk about video games. The only gaming system I have is a Wii, and I only use it to play New Super Mario Bros. Wii because it reminds me of a time when I understood gaming. Things were simpler then.
That said, my friends are much better at keeping up with the world than I am, and my buddy bought the new Batman: Arkham City game and was kind enough to let me come over and watch him play it. I had one reaction: We're not making video games anymore.
The critically and commercially successful Arkham City is not a video game; it's a series of badass Batman-related scenes that require a limited amount of effort on the part of the guy holding the controller. The game is cinematically beautiful and has a fine story, but I wouldn't describe what you do with the game as "playing." You're pressing the buttons that move the game's plot along. The entire game is like the fatalities in Mortal Kombat: You type in a series of buttons and then the character on your screen does a complex move that you could never come up with.
In Mario, you press "jump" to jump on a guy, and when you jump on the guy he gets smashed. In Arkham City, you'll press a single button and instead of, say, jumping, you'll do a totally badass uppercut and leg sweep combination in slow motion! Every single button is "Batman does a cool Batman thing and you sit back and watch." They don't want you to play the game and fight bad guys, they want you to watch their video game movie and occasionally press buttons that make Batman do really cool, well-choreographed moves. That game is based around the idea that people don't want to play as Batman, they want to watch him elegantly mow down a bunch of thugs, over and over again.
And that's what the game delivers. I mean, just watch a few minutes of game play. The instructions aren't "Press 'X' to jump [or] punch," they're "Press 'A' to CRACK SAFE [or] JUMP OFF THIS BUILDING AND FLY AROUND." You press a button and suddenly you're jumping on someone's back, wrapping your legs around his neck and flipping him into a wall. That's what "B" does!
This is the future of gaming. We're not making games anymore. We're making interactive movies.