December 19, 2007 8:00 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
With the march of time, the games we remember from years past are those defined by a pivotal moment wherein we made a transition, even briefly, from players in the seat of control to people at the mercy of a revelation. If games were just toys, we’d still love them, but we follow them as a medium because they affect us. The question of emotional, personal engagement continues to persist this year, widely discussed in industry circles – just how essential it is, how to create it in an authentic way.
In a banner year, what will we remember about this year’s slate of titles? The answers are largely personal and subjective, but here are the Aberrant Gamer’s top five most affecting moments in games. It should be noted that while a couple of game endings are indisputable candidates, they were not included here -- endings are naturally affecting by virtue of being conclusions, and also, simply to avoid spoiling. Nonetheless, spoilers proliferate, so we suggest a quick eye-scan of the header titles before reading.
5. The Rivalry Lives (Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games)
Our schoolyard factions from an era past never thought they’d live to see the day. While the Genesis and Super Nintendo once ran neck-in-neck, years later, one of the ongoing console wars’ most significant casualties eventually made its final departure from the battle, cemented with the defeat of the widely beloved Dreamcast. Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games resurrects one of the oldest and most significant rivalries in gaming, as the plumber and the Hedgehog go head to head for the very first time in history on Nintendo’s revolutionary, wildly successful console.
The Sega-loving eight-year-old in you stirs, quietly affronted, and those children of the Nintendo camp, now adults, extend the hand of magnanimity with this indisputable proof of their victory. And those for whom the rivalry still lives can battle for the banner of their youth, the Olympic competition presented in the game invested with just a little bit more for that old, old grudge. The fate of platforming mascots might be relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things -- but with this title, we're placed squarely in mind of a younger time, when it meant quite a lot.
4. To Kill A Mockingbird (The Darkness)
The Darkness is perhaps a lesson in the perils of over-ambitiousness, but the fateful, grim allegory of Jackie Estacado gets one thing right – early on in the game, you have the opportunity to merely exist with girlfriend Jenny. No button sequences, dialogue pickers or elaborate cutscenes – it’s simple human bonding on the player’s terms. When has gameplay ever incorporated watching an entire film with a girl’s head in your lap? The poignancy of the mundane stands out here in sharp contrast to a largely overwrought and comic-bookish theme, and this undecorated scene alone provides a lens of sincerity through which to interpret the rest of the game, a context for real human motivation – and later, devastation.
3. Let’s Get It On (Mass Effect)
Mass Effect contains enough player-driven story elements to occupy invested players for as long as they like – the lore alone could equate to hours of gleeful reading for sci-fi buffs. And the character creation screen alone is a delightfully liberating exercise, one which it’s easy to conceive of repeating over and over, just because you can. We’ve never quite been able to shape a character in our mind’s eye in a console title the way Mass Effect permitted us to, imbuing Shepard with a sense of personalized humanity before the game even begins.
But it doesn’t stop there. Shepard can make like humans do with one of his or her comrades – as we know, because we’ve watched it on YouTube a million times. Though there’s much more to the game than an alien lesbian sex scene, you can customize a female character down to the most minute of details, and then have her get it on with a female alien – and it’s not a hentai game. Of course, gamers love visual thrills, but hopefully it’s not too generous to say that the real feat is that Mass Effect is the first to understand our need for intimacy with our characters and their worlds, and to grant it to us to such an extent – to give us a choice of partner, and to give us the option of declining those relations altogether (are you crazy?)
2. A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys (BioShock)
Scenes that take control away from the player are nothing new. But in this pivotal situation, control is the crux of the issue – having just realized that you are little more than the puppet of forces who want you to kill your own father, being able to take control might have saved you. Morally – and probably physically – unable to fight his unfortunate son, Andrew Ryan makes the bequeathing of his principles his final act.
It isn’t the Little Sister choice or your inability to achieve redemption should you wish it that makes BioShock a linear game – it’s this moment, where both those wicked ones high on their plasmid-enhanced power and those careful agents of salvation must face their complete helplessness. The fact that you have no choice here is precisely why it's so emotional -- accustomed to attacking, resolving situations, we've naught to do here but to sit and take it. BioShock’s real thought-provoking question isn’t “harvest or rescue” – would you have let Ryan live, if you could have?
1. Please Take Care Of It (Portal)
A simple instruction from a schizophrenic computer, and a few pink hearts. It survives for one single level, and yet the Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube has attained memetic, unforgettable status. While game designers and gamers alike struggle to pin down the formula for creating true emotional connection, an utterly inanimate object achieves it with all the ease of an accident. No one wanted to drop the beloved little block into a fire, and a good majority of us struggled to find some way, any way to carry it with us.
And perhaps if we’d been able to bring it along until level design simply forced us to discard it, or until we accidentally dropped it into that greenish-brown swampy water, we’d feel a pang of regret and then move on, as we have with many portable support objects, from Yoshi to hypnotized Big Daddies to simple protective items. But GLaDOS, who we named character of the year for exactly this brand of manipulation, enforces our engagement by mocking our sentimentality, highlighting as irrational our attachment to the only decidedly non-hostile object we had on the bizarre testing course.
Losing the cube in this particular way makes us as responsible for it as we were when it was given us. GLaDOS is still alive, but you incinerated your faithful companion cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations.
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer