Note: A shorter, more coherent, less self-indulgent version of this piece ran in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now. Click here for our full list of the 10 best videogames of 2015.
We used to talk about the Citizen Kane of videogames. Or, some of us did. If one thing has become clear in the last couple of years, it’s that any notion of the videogame-playing community as an even remotely unified demographic of humans is outdated, maybe even mythic. This is a good thing, for a lot of reasons. Everyone is a gamer now: A smartphone is just a Game Boy with more social utility. This also means that it has become harder to define, precisely, what we are talking about when we talk about videogames.
Like, it sounds weird to use a phrase like “the Citizen Kane of videogames” in the era when lots of major videogame franchises are in the process of adjusting forward into a new reality. Halo 5 isn’t a game the way Halo was a game, because Halo didn’t have any online multiplayer and Halo 5 wants to be a platform for eSports. In this context, talking about “the Citizen Kane of videogames” is kind of like talking about “the Casablanca of football,” or maybe “The Godfather of Jenga.”
Roll with me for a moment, and assume that we care about the idea of videogames as some kind of artistic endeavor — something that isn’t just for escapist entertainment, something that isn’t just designed to figure out exciting new ways to take your money. (How much did you pay for Star Wars Battlefront? How much will you pay for the DLC? How much will you pay to fill the hole in your heart that can never be filled?)
Maybe we’ll see the Citizen Kane of videogames someday. Maybe it already happened, and we didn’t notice. Maybe it was Shadow of the Colossus. Maybe it was Super Mario 64. Maybe it was Horde Mode in Gears of War 2. One thing’s for sure: In 2015, we finally saw the Apocalypse Now of videogames. Director Hideo Kojima spent three decades making Metal Gear games. I played three of those games all the way through. Metal Gear Solid was one of the purest religious experiences pop culture has ever given me. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was one of the best days of my life. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is the source of at least four dreams I have every night.
Does this make me an expert in Metal Gear Solid? Or even a knowledgeable amateur? I never played Kojima’s earlier, 2D Metal Gears, couldn’t get through an hour of Metal Gear Solid 4. I barely knew Peace Walker was a game, and it sounds awesome. Fair to say I knew a bit about Metal Gear Solid, though — and still, nothing prepared me for The Phantom Pain.
The Phantom Pain is generally described as an “open-world” game. It sets you down in two large landscapes — rock-desert Afghanistan and swamp-jungle Africa — and lets you run rampant. With a few noteworthy exceptions, the war zones remove any notion of innocent bystanders. This isn’t Grand Theft Auto, where the point is that there’s a vibrant world around you. Phantom Pain is more a riff on the Far Cry series: Everyone is an enemy soldier, everywhere is an outpost to invade. It’s a tactical toybox, with infinite variations. You can play Phantom Pain as a silent stealth-ninja, and you can play as a rocket launching demon-murder war god.
I just described a lot of games, but there’s something special about Phantom Pain. Kojima is a rarity in videogames: A prankster auteur. The technical perfection of his games should feel bland somehow, but he lives for madcap flourishes. Lots of games have collectibles; in Phantom Pain, you’re collecting cassette tapes that comprise a beautiful junk-pop ’80s soundtrack, Billy Idol and Kajagoogoo, Spandau Ballet and Thomas Dolby, Asia and A-Ha.
You can pick up Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” For a long time, I had that set as my official helicopter music. Which meant every mission started with Ian Curtis singing “When routine bites hard/And ambitions are low,” and that killer guitar playing over those swooning melancholy synthesizers — while I jumped out of a helicopter to check my map and see if there were any outposts nearby where I could steal fuel resources.
That might be my favorite thing that has ever happened to me, in a videogame.
Phantom Pain starts with you as Snake, waking up from a nine-year coma. You’ve got a piece of shrapnel jutting out of your forehead like a devil’s horn; if you kill people, that horn gets bigger. I did my best not to kill too many people playing Phantom Pain. When I played the earlier Metal Gear Solids, I was simultaneously too lazy and too interested in the story to play carefully. This go-round, I loved the opportunity for slowness. In a typical Phantom Pain mission, you look down on an outpost for a long time, trying to track every bad guy, monitoring their movements, figuring out a plan of attack. It’s a gameplay method that encourages OCD. Nothing made me happier than going through an entire outpost, without being spotted, knocking out every single soldier and sending them back to my base via rocket-balloon, where they would become proud members of my army.
Phantom Pain has a story. That story is absolute bongo drums. And maybe not that important. Like, I could tell you everything that happens in the first Metal Gear Solid: The vaguely superpowered bosses, the Act-2-twist clone-brother nemesis, the reanimated cyborg mentor long thought dead, the nerdy scientist who loves the deadly sniper assassin. I could quote Metal Gear Solid to you: “Snake, do you think love can bloom even in the battlefield?” “Hurt me more!” “Snake, what happened? Snake? SNAAAAAAAKE?”
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that with Phantom Pain. Mind you, this a game that I loved, that I am currently describing as the best game of 2015. I only barely understand what it’s all about. You play a super-soldier building a private army, and you’re fighting a different private army that’s trying to destroy the world with language-viruses and Brobdingnagian détente-bots, and there’s a Zorro-masked burn victim Transylvanian supervillain named Skull Face, and there’s a twist-surprise clone-son child soldier, and a mutant mute sniper who breathes through her skin because photosynthesis makes her dress in revealing lingerie on a battlefield. Also, war is hell; also, war is fun.
When I say Phantom Pain is the Apocalypse Now of videogames, I mean that as high praise and also as an acceptance of its flaws. Apocalypse Now is technically brilliant and is constantly in danger of flying off the rails; it actually does fly off the rails toward the end, when Martin Sheen finds Marlon Brando leading a hippie-military utopia fortress into suicidal torpor. Coincidentally the whole point of Phantom Pain is building your own hippie-military utopian fortress into a floating stateless wonderland. At one point in Phantom Pain — when you realize that some of your allies are probably evil, when you remember that one of your allies is a bad guy in two Metal Gear Solid games, when you suddenly remember that you are playing as the ultimate bad guy from the very first Metal Gear game — I started to wonder if Phantom Pain was actually a portrait of how scrappy rebel heroes inevitably become totalitarian emperor villains.
It’s hard to tell, and any reading of “themes” in Phantom Pain ultimately run up against two facts. First: The soul of Metal Gear Solid is fundamentally soap operatic. Second: Phantom Pain is maybe less coherent than the earlier games, but it’s much more fun. And more finished, somehow. It should have been weird, bringing Metal Gear Solid to the open-world. The earlier games were linear narratives: We used to call them “cinematic,” when we thought videogames were becoming more like movies. But the sprawl of Phantom Pain feels purposeful. It’s as if — having been The Guy who made videogames more linear, more story-focused, more all-around serious — Kojima is trying to bring back all the playfulness, the experimentation, the strangeness of the medium’s early days.
Like — not to keep going to Halo, but to keep going to Halo — this fascinating piece by Bloomberg talks all about how the new Halo was architected to be an extension of the Halo mythology. (There is, we learn, a Halo story bible which runs 1000 pages.) Like most major franchises in videogames — and movies; blockbuster movies have actually become more like videogames than vice versa, in the sense that movie franchises now have an annual release strategy and the titles are all terrible — Halo is first and foremost a hugely important corporate product, its orginal creators long departed.
Kojima didn’t invent the whole idea of Metal Gear; he took over the first game after production had already started. And that first game was supposed to be an action game; Kojima made it more focused on stealth, at least partially as a workaround to the game’s technical limitations. Kojima said that Metal Gear Solid 3 was his last Metal Gear game, and said the same about Metal Gear Solid 4. When I talked to him at E3 2014, I asked him why he kept coming back to the series. His answer didn’t quite make sense — I had phrased the question poorly, and we were speaking through a translator — but it sounded to me as if he partially stuck around making Metal Gear Solid games because those games let him play with such a large budget.
Which sounds mercenary. And yet, Metal Gear Solid always felt personal to Kojima. He brought in Phantom Pain years late, miles over budget. Whatever happened with Phantom Pain has led to a uniquely public, messy split with Konami, the company where Kojima spent his career. Last week, Konami wouldn’t let Kojima attend the Game Awards. There are rumors that Konami wanted Kojima out because they want to focus more on lucrative, cheap mobile games.
After Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate, movie studios got suspicious of auteurs, and they learned to love blockbuster franchises. We live in that movie world now; most of us are too young to remember a different time. But if you’re a certain age, you can appreciate how Phantom Pain feels like a Viking funeral for everything we thought videogames were always going to be: big, weird, solitary, beautiful, crazy. A fairy tale that’s also a mathematical proof.
Phantom Pain tries to graft a kind of online multiplayer onto the game. That’s the one part of the game that doesn’t really work for me. Then again, if I made a list of my 100 favorite games, I don’t think any of them would be games I liked because of online multiplayer.
The first thing I ever wrote for Entertainment Weekly was about videogames. It was a blog post about a commercial for Batman: Arkham Asylum. At the time, I was just about to get back into playing videogames in a major way, after sitting out most of the mid-late 2000s. In late 2009, I got an Xbox 360 and played Assassin’s Creed II — another religious experience. It’s frustrating, writing about videogames. You’re not just talking about a thing that exists; you’re talking about a moment you had, or a series of moments. There are a lot of different things I could say about Assassin’s Creed II. The game’s graphics are BLANK, the game’s story is BLANK, the combat mechanics are BLANK. The truth is, all I really want to talk about is how it felt to climb across the rooftops of Venice, to feel like I was being transported to another world, to feel like that world had boundless opportunity. To feel, most of all, like I wanted to spend all of my time in that world. I didn’t sleep much in 2010.
I’ve been fortunate to cover the videogame industry for the last half-decade. “Cover the videogame industry” in this case means reviewing a lot of videogames and talking to a lot of game designers. It’s been an interesting time. A generation ended, a new one began. Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption promised a bold new mature direction for open-world videogames — “mature” as in grown-up, thoughtful, able to grapple with things like regret and parenthood and American tragedy, and make those things feel vividly alive — and then Rockstar produced Grand Theft Auto V, an utterly beautiful and utterly soulless bad-behavior cartoon.
Was Grand Theft Auto V the most expensive game ever? Or was it BioShock Infinite? The New York Times claimed Ken Levine spent over $200 million on that game. That number is disputed, but all numbers in the videogame industry get disputed. (Typical headlines from this past month: “Halo 5 is a huge success” and “Halo 5 is not a huge success.”) Just a couple years after its release, I already can’t believe Infinite ever got made. It’s a sequel to a popular game that has nothing to do with that popular game. It’s a wildly indulgent attempt to use a videogame to talk about big issues, and a hyper-violent shooter, and there’s a nice little moment when a lonely girl dances on a beach. Phantom Pain is a very different kind of game, but it feels like Kojima and Levine were after the same thing — two excellent game designers given the opportunity to unfurl all their wildest dreams in game form.
Will anyone ever get to do that again? Kojima has parted ways with Konami; Levine is working on something “smaller.” Games keep on getting bigger, but the actual ambition behind those big games has never felt smaller. BioWare boldly wrapped up their brilliant Mass Effect series with a totally weird ending that — whether you liked it or not — was an absolute choice. It was unequivocal, and not really happy. I loved it, but so many people didn’t; the Mass Effect ending is on par with the Lost ending for pure fan rage. “Fan rage” — you experience that a lot now. Never have so many people loved so many things so much, and never has it felt like that love could shift to weaponized loathing so quickly.
It’s been about five years since Tom Bissell published Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, still my personal pick for the best book about videogames. Bissell’s an interesting figure. He initially rose to a certain level of nerd prominence when he wrote an article directly comparing his addiction to Grand Theft Auto IV to cocaine. The weirdest and maybe best thing about that article is how you keep expecting him to pass some kind of moral judgment, and he never does. Cocaine is definitely bad, he decides. Videogames are… frustrating. He writes:
Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that pointed not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.
Bissell writes so passionately about videogames in Extra Lives, and he is also very clear-eyed about the problems with videogames. A novelist and a journalist for a long time before he ever started writing about videogames, Bissell had a special focus on the idea of “story” in a videogame. (He later admitted that he tried writing a chapter about Shadow of the Colossus, a game with a plot you might call “buried” or even “abstract,” but he couldn’t figure out how to make it sound interesting.)
Bissell’s work had a big effect on me. He spent a couple years writing videogame pieces for Grantland. You can read all that stuff in order now: It forms a fascinating, funny, thoughtful, ultimately quite bleak sequel to Extra Lives. Not long after he reviewed Grand Theft Auto V, he appeared on the videogame podcast The Indoor Kids to announce his retirement from covering videogames.
This was for a few different reasons. Professional and creatively, his interests had shifted. Bissell crossed over from writing about videogames to writing videogames — a Gears of War prequel here, a somewhat-enjoyed horror curio there. He was, apparently, working on an Apocalypse Now videogame at one point, an experience he vaguely discussed in his review of Spec Ops: The Line, one of a spate of post-BioShock games that tried to combine very fun ultraviolent shooter mechanics with a radical grad-student deconstruction of ultraviolent shooter mechanics. That same year also saw Far Cry 3, a wonderful open-world which is also a hilariously pretentious Heart of Darkness riff. Far Cry 3‘s story is so nonsensical that the Far Cry 3 spinoff actually takes time to make fun of it — some scientists mutter overheard dialogue about a “White Savior Complex.” (Far Cry 4 is way less offensive, and much bigger, but also emptier. Offending people is bad, but struggling to make something completely inoffensive isn’t exactly good.)
At the beginning of his Indoor Kids guest appearance, Bissell also talks about a more straightforward reason for wanting to leave videogame coverage. “I’ve never seen a form of criticism — and I say this with a certain amount of love — that has its head further up its own ass than videogame criticism.” This is interesting, and the conversation that follows is interesting. Bissell and hosts Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani talk about the need to justify games: To demonstrate that all the time you’ve spent in digital gamescapes is somehow important. (Reminder: Bissell subtitled his book “Why Video Games Matter.”)
Speaking of heads up asses: I wrote 11,000 words about The Legend of Zelda once. I also wrote, maybe a little too much, about the idea of videogames as art. Is that me, trying to somehow “justify” the medium of videogames? Sometimes, I also think I’d be perfectly happy hooked up to a feeding tube playing Spelunky for the rest of my natural existence. Maybe that’s why, the more I’ve covered videogames, the more I’ve struggled with the idea that “story” and “character” are things that matter. I gave The Last of Us a B+, but mainly because I felt like every attempt to be “cinematic” lessened the game experience, that the game would have been better with less dialogue and less half-baking of the plot of Children of Men.
Conversely, I replay Journey once a year, and every time I feel like I see the face of God. (And Journey actually uses online multiplayer in an interesting way: The exception that proves the rule, since it makes it impossible to communicate with people except in the most basic, primitive, and utterly human ways.)
I’m taking a step back from videogame coverage now. Mainly because my colleagues Aaron Morales and Jonathon Dornbrush are much better at it than I ever was. Partially because videogames have been demoted in my own life from “insane passion” to “occasionally fervent hobby.” The world of videogames has gotten bigger, crazier, less easy to readily understand. Of all the truly terrible things powering the GamerGate movement last year, there a central notion that a lot of people could relate to: the idea that, somehow, everything was changing.
Lots of people are afraid of that change. (Lots of people are dumb.) But it’s a good change. When everyone is a gamer, then talking about videogames becomes as complicated and exciting as talking about life itself. Like, 30 years ago, Metal Gear started out as a clever riff on big, dumb, ’80s action movies. This year, one of the best pieces of videogame criticism I read was GayGamer’s playful, thoughtful, sharp look at Metal Gear Solid‘s surprisingly complex history of homosexual characters. “Queerness adds to these characters but never defines them as characters, a key distinction,” writes managing editor Sal Mattos. “Rather than serve as tokens, or shoe-horned attempts at diversity, they are multifaceted people existing in a complicated world….just like everybody else.” Word.