Lord knows I've been looking forward to writing a list of this sort since I started up this doubtful venture. I love to shower hierarchically organized favor and disfavor on cultural objects. We all know the business of affixing a rank to the calendar-year's achievements is the antithesis of criticism, but I revel in the stuff. In addition to entertainment and heuristic values of list-making (for a period of time, whenever I was searching for a new book to read, I would just flip to the Modern Library's list of the best 100 novels of the 20th century on the inside cover of my copy of The Secret Agent and pick something out. I never would've gotten to read A High Wind in Jamaica without this policy), there is a shred of critical function in the whole enterprise. Games are a young medium, a number of things are being attempted, and a year-end list is a way to bestow praise the things we think praiseworthy.
I've had this question in mind-- the question about what I'd like to see more of-- ever since I read Sean Sands' short but pointed assessment of this year's crop of games over on Gamers with Jobs: “I appreciate a fun game as much as the next guy, and this year has been positively choked with safe bets and easy playtime. I walk away from 2008 with some nice memories of time spent happily indulging my pastime, but few moments of gaming that challenged me on anything but a functional and mechanical level.” Now, this is a judgment that could apply to any year in the history of games. There is also a certain date before which such an evaluation wouldn't even make sense. But he's right. We desperately want to see game creators break new ground, make games we could both enjoy and care about. We deserve more than we're getting.
There are exceptions, and chief among them is Grand Theft Auto 4. GTA4 isn't the most fun game this year, and it's not the most compelling game. But it's the most problematic game, the game with the highest highs, and the game I think about the most. Sands concurs: “the most challenging gaming phenomenon of the year was the moral dissonance that is Grand Theft Auto IV... This is about the ways that games can challenge expectations, norms and mores. When I say GTA IV’s moral complexity was challenging, I’m talking about the compelling simulation of a character that both regrets and revels in the violence he dispatches... Though the execution was imperfect credit, has to go to Rockstar for trying to create a morally complex character in a world that simulated a spiral of inescapable violence despite illusions of freedom.”
Make no mistake; as a game, Grand Theft Auto 4 has some significant problems. Far Cry 2's narrative designer Patrick Redding untentionally gave the perfect description of Grand Theft Auto 4 in an interview with Gamasutra's Chris Remo and Brandon Sheffield this fall: “ Clint [Hocking] and I always said, 'Let's fail as big as we can on this." Let's take such a radical swing at this... let's put it all in and bet on red 12. And honestly, if we mess this up, it will be one of the most useful epic failures of all time, because the shrapnel will be useful.” Grand Theft Auto 4 is sublime shrapnel, a monument to creative failure. Rockstar attempted to wed open-world banditry, social simulation, and emotionally subtle storytelling together, but the more the player moved through the game the more they blew apart into fragments. The individual elements (especially, sweet jezus, the city, a city so beautiful that it was enjoyable to just look at it.) were superlative--each of them is well-conceived in its own right-- but they didn't harmonize well. (Miyamoto compares game design to cookery, and this seems a case were the ingredients didn't play off each other in the right way.) GTAIV is less than the sum of its parts. It contradicts itself; it contains multitudes.
But for all of this, GTA4 is a classic, and stands head and shoulders above its previous iterations and nearly every other game released this year. It was compared to The Godfather on release, but a better point of comparison is another internally riven American classic: Moby Dick. Melville was torn between writing a ripping nautical yarn and a metaphysical odyssey, and it shows. Rockstar was torn between constructing a sandbox and a stage, and it shows. The result was a tenuously fused work of genuine Americana: a disorderly paean to the American city, a bit of ultraviolence, a stonkingly beautiful soundtrack, a fable, a simulation, a gonzo critique of capitalism. It's a game we deserve.