Whether it was through Schoolhouse Rock, De La Soul’s debut album, or the Planescape setting of Dungeons & Dragons, we were taught that three is the magic number. That is sort of the case here on Extra Life as well. Specifically, 3/10 is that highest score a game can get without me being able to recommend it. The main difference between this grade and the two that preceded it is that I can imagine people liking the following games in a non-ironic fashion. I would suggest several alternatives, but I can see why they would garner a fanbase, as there’s enough to like about them.
Shadowgate is a product of its time – plain and simple. It’s an adventure game rife with instant-death traps you won’t see coming and puzzles whose solutions make no sense even in context. It’s slightly merciful in that it’s difficult to render the game unwinnable and dying only sends you back one room, but considering how many times you will be staring at the Grim Reaper, it almost doesn’t matter.
81. Gone Home
Going into the 2010s, the medium exuded a lot of confidence. Among many great accomplishments, Planescape: Torment had received its rightful vindication as a peerless, ahead-of-its-time storytelling experience, Braid helped convince many skeptics of the medium’s artistic qualities, and BioShock proved that there was room for intellectual discourse in video games. That bubble was then deftly burst in 2010 when esteemed film critic Roger Ebert wrote an article to make a case as to why video games could never be art. Now, it doesn’t take much effort to realize that his thesis was more than a little flimsy. It’s less of a culture critic offering an objective, end-all answer to an ongoing debate and more of an influential person overstepping their boundaries by commenting on a field in which they’re not an expert. It would be like a chemist feeling their knowledge and expertise gave them carte blanche to comment on social issues because they believe sociology to be a lesser science. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter, and the damage was done. Partially owing to having been written after gaming enthusiasts spent the greater part of two decades defending themselves from politicians who wished to censor the medium, his screed dealt a gigantic blow to the self-esteem of developers and fans alike.
Correlation does not imply causation, but I do feel his words had a negative impact on both the indie and AAA scenes in how they went about game creation. One problem that arose in the indie scene came in the form of what is called the environmental narrative game (sometimes derisively called walking simulators). As suggested by their name, they were typically first-person games with minimalistic (sometimes nonexistent) gameplay. Your goal instead is to wander around the environment and gather bits and pieces of a story from the various breadcrumbs, which can come in the form of audio logs, journal entries, or even posters. The inherit problem with environmental narrative games is that there’s no challenge – and that goes far beyond the issue of not having any gameplay to speak of. An ideal story should have the protagonists overcoming some kind of adversity (or failing to in dark works), but with environmental narrative games, you’re invariably guiding some unimportant character through a situation that has already occurred to someone else. There are no stakes involved, which means any semblance of engagement is tossed out the window. This in turn defeats the purpose of most mediums – not just this one.
A lot of people praise the environmental narrative game for being such a profound revolution in video game storytelling, and that experiments are important for the medium’s growth. I wouldn’t argue the latter point. What I would argue is that the environmental narrative game comes across as a very defeated revolution. It’s as though the creators have resigned that games in their current form can never be art, so they try to distance themselves from the “game” aspect by removing any semblance of fun or engagement.
The critical reception of Gone Home was ultimately helped by the unsaid “it’s good for a game” connotation, and the themes it tries to cover were handled better in non-interactive mediums prior to 2013. What is the most notable aspect about its reception is that it was well received by critics, yet there was a major backlash against it once enthusiasts realized there wasn’t nearly enough substance to justify paying $20 for it – especially considering that superior alternatives could be purchased for half that price or less. As odious as certain elements behind the backlash were, The Fullbright Company brought at least part of it on themselves when they or whoever was in charge of marketing the game falsely implied that it was a horror title. Though it has been argued that the horrors within the game are real to one character, it was still a shady stunt to pull, denoting a cynical attitude that runs counter to the game’s message. That it ultimately failed to rally the gaming community behind their message is, in hindsight, unsurprising. After all, if The Fullbright Company themselves didn’t have faith in their own concept, what chance did the gaming community have?
Limbo is a lot like Shadowgate in that it features an annoying trail-and-error approach to game design. As an actual platformer, it feels behind the times, as plenty of games from the genre’s heyday surpass it handily. Having been released in the wake of Mr. Ebert’s essay, I feel Limbo could have been one of the very first beneficiaries of the critics’ newfound desire to bring cultural legitimacy to the medium. It’s a lot like Braid in that its art style was a selling point, and a major reason it garnered so much praise. However, as problematic as Braid was, it at least had a reasonably innovative concept. Limbo doesn’t really have anything practical going for it. The original Portal offered much more meaningful content in the same amount of time, and Shadow of the Colossus was far more adept at weaving a minimalistic narrative because it actually provided a foundation on which fan theories could reasonably be formed on top of being far more cohesive.
79. Adventures in the Magic Kingdom
When it came time to rank Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, I was originally going to place it just below Limbo because Capcom should’ve known better than to churn out a product like this in 1990. I reconsidered when I realized that Playdead should also have known better than to implement those annoying game design choices when everyone else mostly abandoned them nearly a decade prior. It’s still not much of an accomplishment because though I give Adventures in the Magic Kingdom credit for attempting to blend multiple genres together, they clearly went for a quantity-over-quality approach, and this effort was worse off for it.
78. Yoshi’s Story
Yoshi’s Island was one of the greatest 2D platformers of its day. Yoshi’s Story, on the other hand, was one of the most disappointing experiences I’ve ever had with a game, being the most insipid thing Nintendo has ever made. If I were to do a list of the worst title themes in gaming, I have little doubt the one for Yoshi’s Story would win the award with little effort (at best, it would have a secure spot in the bottom five). When I heard it for the first time, I knew I was going to have a bad time, and though I gave it a chance, my initial fears were confirmed. Between its bland level design and utter lack of incentive for players to do well, Yoshi’s Story should have a place on more “worst sequels” list, though admittedly, I don’t think it would win the #1 spot in such a scenario. Either way, it’s not a good sign when an eight-year-old dismisses it as a game for little kids.
77. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
The Call of Duty franchise started off as a reasonably introspective series showcasing the horrors of war before transforming into a laughing stock with its fans becoming the butt of every “bad/rude gamer” joke. When I witnessed a national monument being destroyed in Modern Warfare 3, its collapse almost seemed to symbolize the end of the series’ metamorphosis. If the original Modern Warfare was akin to classic war films in tone, Modern Warfare 3 isn’t dissimilar to the kind of mindless fare Roland Emmerich would direct to make boatloads of money in the box office. It was clear that Infinity Ward had played all of their best cards before making this game, as it’s a weak conclusion to a trilogy that had already taken a nosedive with the previous installment. Important characters disappear from the plot with no resolution, and the writer’s reliance on shock value reached a plateau wherein nothing’s shocking at all. I rank it higher than Yoshi’s Story because I was never really annoyed at any point, but I still say you should give this one a pass.
76. The Last of Us
Originally reviewed on: May 20, 2014
A particularly cacophonous faction of gaming enthusiasts voiced their outrage in 2013 when critics insinuated that The Last of Us and Gone Home were on the same level. However, I personally believe those two games are more similar than those particular fans were willing to admit. One incontestable advantage The Last of Us has over Gone Home is that it really is a game, which is a part of the reason why I ranked the former slightly higher than the latter. However, discounting the fact that I awarded both games the same grade, their most obvious similarity is that they are products of a time when the medium’s self-esteem was at an all-time low. Whereas Gone Home distanced itself from fun under the false impression that it’s to be avoided in order to make an artistic statement, The Last of Us, like a majority of the AAA industry at the time, decided to take cues from Hollywood in a misguided attempt to recreate their accomplishments for a new generation and scene. It was, for the most part, a lost cause because many of those iconic cinematic moments came about in utterly irreproducible ways (read up on how Apocalypse Now was produced for a good example). Instead, The Last of Us is, in my mind, a cynical product that plays all of the stereotypical Oscar bait tropes in the book without putting any meaningful spins on them in an attempt to sweep the award ceremonies with little effort.
Meanwhile, The Last of Us could take refuge in the fact that the games more than capable of matching its storytelling prowess were made before Roger Ebert wrote his infamous screed (Planescape: Torment, Grim Fandango, etc.), took an approach that would be considered massively out of step with the tried-and-true Hollywood method (Portal 2), or were otherwise easy to dismiss as lesser efforts due to critics at the time tending to not give anything heavily advertised or promoted the time of day (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, any given Ace Attorney installment, etc.). A lot of people consider it a masterpiece, but a switch to a more serious tone only ended up magnifying Naughty Dog’s weaknesses as writers. Exacerbating matters is that its lead utterly lacks any kind of charisma, and its lauded subtext amounts to preaching a naïve brand of cynicism that’s very dangerous when enough people believe it to be realistic.
About the only thing positive I can say about it is that it’s presented well, but it only serves to accent the style-over-substance approach that went into making it because as an actual game, it’s tepid with many design decisions that wouldn’t be so bad in a non-interactive medium but are untenable in this one. Also, I’m still unconvinced that any of the people who declared it “gaming’s Citizen Kane moment” have actually seen the film (or realize it’s a poor comparison given their wildly different receptions). However, even with everything bad about the experience laid bare, I can say it was worth playing for two reasons. The first is that it showed me just how much critics overhyped things in the 2010s, and why it was so detrimental to gaming discourse. The second is that it ended up being the first game I ever reviewed. Indeed, this game is arguably the most responsible for me deciding to become a critic myself, so now you know who you can thank.
75. Spec Ops: The Line
I’ve used the term “product of its time” to describe other entries on this list such as Shadowgate, Gone Home, and The Last of Us, but Spec Ops: The Line absolutely embodies the phrase. It’s a deconstruction of what is now a dated genre filled to the brim with nothing but contempt for its audience, going as far as charging them $60 so they could tell them at length how much they suck and why they shouldn’t finish the game they paid money for. The irony is that the stereotypical, cheese puff-eating, profanity-screaming, Xbox Live user who desperately needed to hear the message this game preached likely gave up in frustration long before they had a chance to be lectured. And you know what? Good for them for passing this game up. Whether they know it or not, they took the high road.
Spec Ops: The Line actually has an interesting story regarding its reception. When it was released in 2012, it appeared to get lost in the crowd among the numerous other modern military shooters. This changed when a certain internet personality from the Escapist made a favorable review of it, going on to declare it his game of the year. Though not on the same scale as Call of Duty or Battlefield, Spec Ops: The Line suddenly garnered a dedicated following. This was reinforced the following year when one of the personality’s peers on the same site declared it one of the greatest games of its console generation. I realized when playing this game that neither of them would have been nearly as kind to it had it not been for its story, and it demonstrates how detrimental confirmation bias can be when applied to criticism of any kind. The game is a total mess with your characters being extremely fragile, unpolished controls, boring level design, and on the PS3 version that I played, interminable load screens that feature passive-aggressive messages from the developers later on. Indeed, the only reason I myself didn’t place it on a lower tier is because the story, though wrong to believe the onus is on the player, rightly pointed out the many, many, many unfortunate implications with the modern military shooter.
As for why developers acted this way in the 2010s, I have formulated a tentative theory. I feel many creators were hung up on the question of whether or not their target audience deserved respect. When they decided they didn’t, they began to show contempt. It’s unhealthy, as it turns the relationship between developers and their audience into a zero-sum game. The former disrespected their audience because they felt it was the only way to balance out the latter’s perceived grievances. At one point, the resentment on both sides will reach critical mass, and when that happens, everyone loses. Developers need to have the good sense and humility to give up on this line of thinking and treat their audience with respect rather than obsessing over whether or not they deserve it.
74. The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is something of an anomaly among environmental narrative games in that it was enjoyed by people who normally despise the genre. Because of that, it’s not terribly surprising that it ended up being the first one I ever played. I became interested in trying it out when the internet was singing praises about it, saying that revealing too much would be a spoiler. Because I heard similar descriptions being used to describe games with particularly intriguing plots, I became interested. Once I finally got around to playing it, I was disappointed within a matter of hours. Though the writing is rather good, and unlike The Beginner’s Guide, it does get something out of being played, it ended up being an shallow commentary on games and the people who play them. Saying that gaming entails pushing buttons for different durations as per an omnipotent person’s instructions isn’t any more insightful than saying that by watching a movie, you’re viewing a bunch of pictures strung together in a sequential order or saying that by reading a book, you’re perceiving words printed on a page. Also, there’s a fair bit of cognitive dissonance in The Stanley Parable considering it was made by someone who obviously knows a lot about the medium and proceeded to dedicate a lot of time making a game wherein the narrative told the audience how mind-numbingly boring pushing buttons all day is. I do appreciate its potshots at AAA developers chewing players out when they’re only given one option to proceed because it really was one of the worst trends in gaming at the time. Otherwise, The Stanley Parable is a fairly interesting conversation piece, but it doesn’t have much value beyond that.
73. Final Fantasy II
Of any game I’ve discussed in this special so far, Final Fantasy II is the only one for which I hold a level of genuine admiration. As much credit as Final Fantasy IV gets for being a game-changer, Final Fantasy II was arguably even more responsible for the paradigm shift commonly associated with the former. Here we have a game in which developers devoted a lot of time and effort into developing the scenario when, even among JRPGs, stories rarely became more complicated than “save the world from the evil overlord”. While that is technically the premise of Final Fantasy II, it comes across as a brutal, ahead-of-its-time deconstruction, and it’s about as gritty as an 8-bit game can get. Unfortunately, actually trying to experience the story means playing the game, which in the original version, slowed the pacing to a crawl every time you wished to level up a character’s skill. I give Square credit for being ambitious and trying to come up with a new leveling system, but it was a failed experiment that, even in updated versions, makes for a game I couldn’t recommend to anyone other than hardcore JRPG fans – and I have the feeling even they would run into problems.