2010’s Most Interesting Game Spaces
I played a lot of games in 2010, and I have no interest in ‘Best Ofs’ or ‘GOTYs’. What I am interested in, certainly for the purposes of this blog, are the spaces I found most interesting in the games I played during the year. And because this isn’t a ‘Best Of’, I’m going to look at them in order of release:
The sequel to the game that gave us one of 2007’s most interesting places was always going to be fascinating, even if it was just more of the same place. And it wasn’t. BioShock 2’s Rapture isn’t just more of what we saw in BioShock. And it’s not just the extra barnacles and abundant sea-life that it make it different. In the sequel we get to see more of the places where the poor and down-trodden of the city lived, and still live, and other parts of the city that the power-brokers of Rapture we met in the first game would rather have kept out of sight and out of mind. Justin Keverne’s fantastic multi-part close reading of one of these spaces, Pauper’s Drop, is a great exploration of what makes these spaces tick. But more than that, BioShock 2’s spaces are different in terms of gameplay affordances, in some interesting ways. For example, spaces like the atrium of the Sinclair Tenements in Pauper’s Drop, and the balcony-lined streets of Siren Alley are multi-level spaces, where most of BioShock’s spaces simply weren’t. And through the mechanic of defending Little Sisters while they harvest Adam, BioShock 2 pushed players to make use of the environment in gameplay far more than the original did. And the late-game vision of Rapture through the eyes of a Little Sister is just icing on the cake. Even better, at the end of August we got Minerva’s Den, a mini-expansion as DLC, adding a whole new set of spaces, through which an engaging and moving story was told, providing a spatial experience even more interesting than the main game itself.
Just Cause 2
The archipelago nation of Panau in Just Cause 2 has a fair few distinctive locations, but what really makes this game’s space impressive is its sheer size and scale, the variety of its environments, and the extreme freedom the player has to explore it, from fairly early on in the game. From an analogue to the island from Lost, complete with magnetic disruption field and familiar-looking hatch, to the towers of the casinos and hotels, and the dome of Baby Panay’s base, there are a lot of unique and memorable locations within the game-world. But most of it is just a huge playground, for you to cause havoc across however you choose. This is a space where you can have a whole lot of fun, and there’s always more of it to roam around in, and more stuff to blow up.
Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption gave us all the different versions of the Old West we’ve seen in dozens, if not hundreds of Western films, and a lot of things to do in those wide open spaces. The way it presented these spaces is also noteworthy: anyone who played the game long enough to get to Mexico will remember the haunting ride to the tune of Jose Gonzales’ ‘Far Away’, contextualising the space in a way that compelled many players to experience through a very particular performance of the space. While the actual story missions were theme park rides through the game-world, between missions the Old West gave players ample opportunities to explore and make their own stories in the space, enhanced by the random encounters (even if the variety of encounters was somewhat lacking). And the multiplayer Free Roam mode gave them the opportunity to share the space with other players.
Fallout: New Vegas
Given my intense focus on Fallout 3 and its spaces, my interest in the promise of New Vegas was pretty high. What’s interesting to me in New Vegas, though, is the ways it uses space differently than Fallout 3 did. Where Fallout 3 presented a trackless wasteland with roads only featuring as ruins of a bygone civilization, the experience of New Vegas’ space is heavily tied to the road. The first third to half of the game is built around the journey to New Vegas, almost in the manner of a road movie, with the player-character encountering various characters and adventures along the way. The player’s experience of the space in that section of the game is informed by that structure. When the player does roam more freely, they’ll discover that New Vegas uses less of the spatial abbreviation that characterises the spaces of Bethesda’s RPGs, and this creates a very different impression of the space. Many players complained that despite having a game-world roughly the same size as that of Fallout 3, New Vegas felt smaller. It’s my belief that New Vegas’ diversion from this approach to space is what creates this impression, and I hope to elaborate on this in a future post.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
I’ve always found the way player-characters perform spatiality in the Assassin’s Creed series fascinating, and Brotherhood presented a quite different approach than previous games by focusing on a single city. The exceptions to this rule are equally interesting, with flashbacks presenting a much younger Ezio in Florence, and the ability to exit the animus and roam a contemporary version of Monteriggioni. Those who played the previous game (likely a majority of Brotherhood players) will have substantial experience with Monteriggioni in particular, and the redressed, re-contextualised and de-populated contemporary version is particularly meaningful for its contrast. Brotherhood’s Rome sprawls over the Seven Hills, providing a large variety of open and densely-packed spaces the player can explore, and the new system of property-buying and destroying Borgia towers gives new ways to interact with the space. The historical content of Brotherhood should also not be overlooked, considering how many notable historical landmarks are featured prominently in storyline and other missions (if not always strictly historically accurately).
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Azeroth is a place that has a lot of meaning to a whole lot of people. Over 12 million people currently play World of Warcraft, visiting Azeroth on a regular basis – that’s one in every 584 people on the planet – , and that number only includes current subscribers, not the uncountable millions more who’ve played in the past but aren’t currently subscribed. Even if each subscriber only logs in once a month, more people visit Azeroth on a monthly basis than visit the top ten theme parks in the world, combined. And on the 23rd of November 2010, Azeroth changed on a huge and dramatic scale. Previous expansions have added new spaces for players to explore, and minor changes to existing zones have been made before. But Cataclysm’s Shattering brought enormous changes to every single zone that those millions of players had known and played in for six years (to the day, in fact). Zones with a well-established place in player culture like The Barrens and Westfall have been literally torn apart, changed forever. And that’s without even considering the impact of the ability for players to use flying mounts in Azeroth’s major continents, or the new zones Cataclysm has added, certain of which (Vashj’ir and Deepholm) are dramatically different from any of those seen before in the game. If I were forced at gunpoint to name a Most Interesting Game Space of 2010, I’d have no choice but to name the changes to Azeroth brought on by World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion.
Even though I played a lot of games this year, there are a lot more I just haven’t gotten around to playing much of, and therefore can’t assess in terms of the interestingness of their spaces. In particular, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, Metro 2033, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent seem, from what little I’ve played of them, to be particularly interesting in terms of spatiality, and I’m looking forward to exploring them some more.