Art critics rarely study art criticism as a subject, they usually study art history. Same for criticism of literature or film: critics spend their school years studying the chronicles of each form and write reviews that focus on the historical context of each production. Criticism tells you how a work of art fits with the past much more often than what it implies for the future.
As a result, art criticism often lags far behind the art itself. Film criticism did not enter most universities and mainstream outlets until the 1960s, half a century after feature movies exploded as a medium. In 1999, long after TV revenues surpassed the box office, critics were arguing whether The Sopranos is “great because it’s actually cinema” or “is just another TV show”.
In 2020, video games are set to surpass television in revenue, both having left a slumping and uncreative Hollywood far behind. And revenue numbers massively understate the time and mind-share dominance of video games, which cost less per hour than most entertainment. In the last year, 26.5 million people have purchased Red Dead Redemption 2 and have played it for about 30-40 hours each, for a total of roughly a billion hours spent. Longer and more popular games like Minecraft or GTA V are clocking in the tens of billions. That’s an order of magnitude more than the 200 million people who sat through the 3 hours of Avengers: TheGameIsFinallyEnding, the highest grossing movie of all time.
Still, good video game criticism is hard to find. You can read thousands of words about the tedious feminism of Captain Marvel but only a smattering of blog posts about Jesse Faden who is equally adept at navigating organizational politics and shattering glass ceilings with telekinetic explosions.
This has a lot to do with the history of video games. Early video games, like Tetris, were made of pure gameplay. The was no narrative or purpose to stacking bricks of various shapes into lines, you simply did it because it was an enjoyable skill you could improve at. This is still the combination at the heart of good gameplay everywhere.
As games progressed they started adding stories that could be delivered through dialogue, cutscenes, pieces of “lore” scattered around the game, and more. A game’s story was the setting in which the gameplay took place but it often had little to do with the gameplay itself — players were stomping mushrooms as Super Mario for the joy and the challenge of it, not because you really cared about a mushroom princess.
The disconnect was clearly visible in the arbitrariness of the characters controlled by the player. You could replace an Italian plumber with an azure hedgehog and nothing about the game would have to change. The same could be said of the endless parade of tough/sexy white guys/girls with a gun/sword that graced three decades of video game boxes.
Since Mario came out in 1985 there have been massive improvements to the graphics quality, innovation and refinements of gameplay, and an explosion in the sheer size and scope of the games. But what went somewhat unremarked was the revolution in video game writing. Red Dead Redemption 2 has 500,000 lines of dialogue delivered by 1,200 professional actors and thousands of pages of script. This revolution made video games into the epic narrative art form of today.
Great stories allow for games to be not just fun, but meaningful. A fully realized character inhabiting a believable world has their own emotions and motivations, as real as those we project on anyone outside of ourselves. When the character’s emotions and motivations align with those of the player a game becomes truly immersive and often transformative.
I decided to write about my 10 favorite character-driven games of the Playstation 4 era through this lens – the game as an immersive story art form. These will not be comprehensive reviews of the gameplay as there are plenty of those online. I will focus on the fit between how both the player and the player character feel about the world the inhabit and what I took away from each game besides the fun of playing it. These will contain mild spoilers, though nothing that should diminish your joy of playing any of these games in the future.
Uncharted 4 – Just missed the cut. Treasure hunting is fun, but there wasn’t enough depth to the story and the constrained linearity of the game made me feel I was tagging along with Nathan Drake, not being him.
Assassin’s Creeds Black Flag, Syndicate, and Odyssey – The assassin’s creed is “assassinating people is fun”, and that’s all there is to these games. I played each one for just as long as it took to get tired of stabbing folk since the stories (especially the modern day vignettes) are too ridiculous to take seriously. These games are pretty and polished, but they lack inspiration.
Grand Theft Auto V – Yes, the most popular Playstation title ever is not in my top 10. It’s a very entertaining sandbox, but it didn’t grip me.
Dishonored 1 and 2– I have no idea why everyone loved these games. They are quite ambitious, but the level construction and play mechanics always seemed to interfere with what I wanted to do in the world rather than enable it. I actually enjoyed Styx: Shards of Darkness better in the same genre, and that’s a game where you vomit in people’s cups to kill them.
Destiny – The game that almost made everyone hate Peter Dinklage.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – I’m not sure why so many games that start with “D” are bad.
Questionable Mentions That Also Start With “D”
Diablo III – I played this through, which took about three weeks and 20-30 hours. I literally can’t recall a single thing about it. I don’t even remember which class I played, or who the bosses were, or how I felt when I finished it. It’s crazy.
Death Stranding – A game about walking, peeing, staying on top of your email, and getting likes — all things that are about as fun to do away from the Playstation as they are in Death Stranding. It’s also about death, solitude, connection, and the human condition. I have no idea if this game is the worst or the best, and neither does anyone else.
And with that, it’s time for the top 10 (well 10-6, I’m breaking this post into two parts). The ranks are not that important, I put them to organize my thoughts and because clickbait. Each of the games below is many people’s number 1 favorite and deservedly so. I preferred all of them to any movie or TV show that came out since the Playstation 4 launched in late 2013.
I picked the best trailer for each game in the links below, I recommend watching them if you’re not familiar with the setup and story.
10 – NieR: Automata
Humanity is gone from the Earth, leaving it to serve as a battleground for the alien machine invaders and the sexy sexy androids we created to reconquer the planet. In fact, the open world of NieR: Automata looks more like a parody of Earth: houses and highways and theme parks that look designed less for human use and more for maximizing the joy of jumping around and slicing your giant swords through waves of iron enemies. Not an ounce of that joy is sacrificed for dull considerations like realism; combat is fast-paced, responsive, and encourages rhythmic button mashing rather than deliberate planning. The impeccable core combat is mixed up with special levels that play like platforming side-scrollers or arcade-style shooters so that chopping up machines never gets boring.
And then, out of nowhere, philosophy kicks in. The machines that were built for nothing but mindless destruction start imitating human behavior recorded in the Earth’s remains, and a few appear to have bootstrapped themselves to awareness. You discover that the humans may in fact not be hiding on the moon but simply extinct, the charade maintained to keep up android morale. After all, they were designed for a sole purpose of fighting the machines — and what good is life without purpose? The symbolically named 2B and the two other playable android characters struggle with these questions: How can you tell who is self-aware and who is merely imitating consciousness? And is consciousness even worth it when it comes with pain, fear, and grief?
NieR: Automata achieves the incredible feat of putting the player philosophically at odds with the player character. The androids want a break from the senseless cycle of violence, a pause to reflect on humanity lost and found. But I wanted to do no such thing: killing machines in NieR is perfect flow while every other part of the game is dull and grating.
A game about machines yearning to be human taught me how nice it is for an hour a day to be nothing more than a killing machine doing what it was made for.
9 – BioShock Infinite
The first two games in the BioShock series built a compelling world underwater: an objectivist utopia turned dys as the citizen’s collective avarice outpaced their collective wisdom. Both games earned praise for the depth of their world-building, but instead of resting on their laurels BioShock’s developers let their ambitions soar. Infinite takes place in a floating cyberpunk city run by a mad prophet, industry barons, and American exceptionalism turned to 11. There is time travel, alternate realities, and repressed memories. And somehow, incredibly, this not only all makes sense but delivers a poignant and emotionally resonant story — all because of the girl.
It’s a given in practically all games that the character controlled by the player is the main one, especially in a game like BioShock that plays in the first person. The game begins with Booker DeWitt sent on a mission to “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”, but when said girl is met it becomes clear that she is the one who will take DeWitt places and not the other way around. In most games the character grows in power and importance as the story unfolds; the common trope is that you are center of some prophecy or conspiracy that explains why in the first hour of gameplay you’re gathering 5 rabbit pelts and by hour 40 you’re slaying gods. But DeWitt discovers that he is not as powerful as he thought, not as important, and certainly not the hero — that’s the girl, Elizabeth. The best Booker can do is to avoid becoming the villain.
While the macro design of the game is atmospheric and visually gorgeous, the detailed level design is often clunky. Mechanically, BioShock Infinite is a slightly above-average shooter with a standard arsenal of guns supplemented by sundry magicks and a cool grappling hook. I didn’t shoot, explore, and bleed my way through the city in the sky because of the mechanics of the game. I did it for the same reason Booker did: for Elizabeth.
8 – Marvel’s Spider-Man
There are two player characters in this game: Spider-Man, and Peter Parker. Spider-Man likes swinging around Manhattan, webbing bad guys to walls, making puns, and kicking ass. Peter Parker likes worrying about his aunt, worrying about his ex-girlfriend, worrying about his science mentor, worrying about paying rent…
The game’s excellent story (why can’t the Spider-Man movies just hire this team of writers?) is all about Spidey’s world colliding with Peter’s as every character that knows one of them soon meets the other. And this means that “just doing the right thing” is not always easy — the right thing in whose world? Unlike anything else with “Marvel” in the title, the moral stakes in this story are earned, not fabricated. Peter Parker is as close to a true Effective Altruist as I’ve seen depicted in media, from his explicit utilitarianism to him being a young New Yorker with a STEM education constantly worrying that taking a pizza break is letting the world down (I have a dozen friends like that, minus the superpowers). His dilemmas are actually dilemmic.
But as Manhattan is being overrun by progressively crazier villains, Peter goes sick with worry while Spider-Man is having a blast. The web-swinging is as good a traversal system as exists in any game. The combat, both in the open world and in set pieces with the big-bads, is immensely satisfying. New York is alive (fans take selfies and tweet about you!) and easily recognizable from real-life. The more chaos takes over the city, the more the world needs Spider-Man instead of Peter Parker.
But just as you’re getting into the swing of things, the game interrupts the spider-fun with a Mary Jane-controlled stealth mission or a stretch of story exposition in Peter’s research lab or homeless shelter. These add the necessary narrative and moral weight to the game, turning a mere spider simulator into a comic-worthy tale, but I often wished I could ditch all that weight and just endlessly soar above New York with the pigeons. I wonder if Peter Parker ever feels the same.
7 – Control
The agents of the Federal Bureau of Control are having a tough day at the office. The building is invaded by a “hiss” that possesses their colleagues and redecorates the lounge room in blood colors. A dimension of mold is leaking all over the lower levels. The floating anchor is spitting out wooden clocks and the refrigerator hurts you when you look away from it. The bureau’s director just shot himself with a shape-shifting gun. And so as Jesse Faden drops by the FBC to find her brother and hang out with the janitor, everyone is suddenly looking at her expectantly.
Control is a thrilling game: you run, gun, float, launch, and control minds as you fight a variety of possessed agents, monsters, and household appliances. It’s creepy, intense, and very hard. I’m often on the PlayStation late at night, but I had to turn off Control at least an hour before bedtime so that I could fall asleep without being haunted by the hiss. It’s the only game I’ve ever played where both I and the main character fought on reluctantly. And we both pressed on for the same reason: we just had to find out.
Control delivers an impeccable mystery tale. You’re struggling to figure out everything from where did the teleporting rubber duck go? to which laws of physics I can count on and which are up for debate? You constantly feel like you’d have the answers within your grasp if only, as the former director tells you after he dies, you could replace logic with dream-logic. I often ignore the lore in games, but I read every research report and bureaucratic memo, listened to every recording, watched every video of Dr. Darling being a nerd.
And this brings me to the great mystery of Control: who the hell are the maniacs who work at the FBC? It’s bad enough when the building shifts dimensions and now the nearest men’s room is on another floor, but how about the part when an alien resonance makes you chant an eerie mantra while floating above the cubicles? And someone should really check in with the guy on fridge-watching duty, he’s not doing so well.
But then again, is this much worse than five decades of 9-5 that doesn’t even offer glimpses of the secrets hidden behind the veil of our perceived reality? Burning curiosity is a good reason to show up at the office, and it’s a great reason to play a game.
6 – God of War
The hero of the original trilogy of God of War games (2006-2012) is a relatively one-dimensional character: angry, sadistic, brutal for the sake of brutality. While the games were accused of indulging a teenage hyperviolence fantasy, Kratos’ exploits and personality are quite consistent with heroes of Greek myth like Herakles and Achilles. Heroism in ancient Greece was not about virtue: if you claim divine heritage and are good at killing, you qualify. Kratos, son of Zeus, is very good at killing.
And of course, like all Greek heroes, Kratos was profoundly lonely.
Sensing that the old story has run its course, the developers decided to reboot the series with a hero that fights for something other than bloodlust. They made Kratos a father who has to face the real cost of his violent past when he sees it reflected in his young son, Atreus. For the first time, Kratos fights not to perpetuate the cycle of violence (and patricide), but to break it.
How meaningful God of War’s story is depends critically on the difficulty level the game is set to. When the game is too easy it lacks any gravitas — Atreus is a mere nuisance, and fighting is not a dilemma when it’s the easy solution to everything. This all changes when the game is played on Souls-like difficulty, which I did, dying and reloading often. On hard mode, Kratos’ vigilance and paranoia are justified when death is a realistic possibility in every encounter. Atreus’ progression from mere distraction to a capable fighter is consequential and slightly frightening. Barely surviving another beautiful and chaotic battle with your son makes the subsequent break for conversation and story progression a welcome respite rather than an annoyance.
God of War does an amazing job marrying gameplay with narrative, most memorably in a sequence where Kratos temporarily loses his son and goes on a rampage that puts him literally and figuratively in touch with his past self. It took a character who was a mere vehicle for pixelated violence and turned him into someone the player, more likely to be in their 30s and 40s these days, can fully inhabit. It turns out that even in video games, fatherhood is as interesting as slaying gods.
Since this post is running long in both the writing and the reading, I am leaving my favorite 5 games for a subsequent post (you can try to guess them in the comments, and offer your own lists). In the meantime, you can check out the wonderful Philosophy and Video Games blog. Or spend some time with your family this Thanksgiving instead of being on the internet. Or play video games. Your call.