This week in Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee examines a recent frivolous award that calls Dark Souls the ultimate game of all time and then more broadly discusses the nature of these “greatest game” or “greatest console” debates.
Extra Punctuation Transcript
Oh boy, it’s the end of the year, and you know what that means? Award season! That wonderfully excruciating big-knob mutual masturbation session that the gaming media obliges us to care about. I wonder what will win the “Most Anticipated Game” award this year, or as I prefer to call it, “whose overfunded marketing department most deserves a broken bottle in the face.” I haven’t even bothered to look up who ended up winning the Game Awards; I’m just going to assume it was whichever candidates were calculated most likely to annoy me. Frankly, I’m more interested in the fact that the Golden Joysticks awarded Dark Souls the title of “Ultimate Game of All Time.”
Now, award season must by nature bring with it a certain amount of hype but for me this is the point where hype becomes hyperbole. Did you like that sentence? I thought it turned out rather well. “Ultimate game of all time?” sounds less a serious acknowledgement than something that would be bellowed out by a platoon of drunken sports fans in front of a TV news camera. Semantic pedant that I am, I’m a little bit worried by the way the phrasing implies that we’ve reached the end of video games. “Ultimate” technically means “Final,” after all. So I guess video games are done, we’re wrapping it all up, weighing up everything we learned and figuring out which one was the best.
Maybe the Golden Joysticks know something we don’t. Maybe the apocalypse is nigh and the Earth is about to crack open and give birth to the flaming brood of the galactic chaos spider. More likely they’re setting themselves up to look stupid in about fifty years when Bloodborne 9 comes out for the Sony Direct Neural Interface Noggin Tube and our socks all get blown off anew. I mean, it wasn’t THAT long ago that everyone always cited Ocarina of Time as the best game ever and that didn’t even make Golden Joystick’s shortlist in today’s enlightened age. Breath of the Wild did, though. ‘Cos it’s newer, and therefore more valid, apparently. But let’s be less of a semantic pedant and assume that Golden Joystick meant in their sputtering, overcaffeinated way, that Dark Souls is the best game that’s ever come out SO FAR. Would I agree with that? Well, it’s worth analysing.
I mean, I like it. It’s a really good game. It has that rare combination of being both expansively broad and dizzyingly deep. Deep, rich, dark and gooey like how I like my chocolate brownies. I’ve let it bugger me across the banisters so many times over the years I probably can’t be objective on this. Then again, the Supermega Awesomest Game in the Universe award is always going to be a subjective matter. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t really get on with Dark Souls, it’s certainly not beyond criticism. I’ve always thought the level design goes downhill in the second half when the bonfire warp ability removes the obligation to make the areas all intricately connected and shit. And it is kind of stupid how it’s basically impossible to figure out how to craft the boss weapons without an FAQ open in the other window.
Going over the other games on the shortlist, I dunno if I’d say Dark Souls was my favourite overall experience with the highest density of good bits. I’d probably give that to Portal. I’d also say I had a generally more engaging experience with Undertale, which isn’t on the list because Undertale’s graphics couldn’t be used to flog Geforce GTXes to people and as such triple-A gaming media has little time for it.
But if I was asked to enshrine one and only one game to hold up as the exemplar of all gaming, I’d probably want something that was representative of as much of gaming as is possible. And Portal and Undertale aren’t that. Yes, both have a certain legacy within their respective niches but Dark Souls is a dragons and wizards fantasy hack and slash open world RPG, and there’s influence from absolutely bloody everything in there. It’s the culmination of decades of innovation and progress in the RPG and fantasy genres with a great combat system and really nice scenery to boot. You could even say it’s got first person shooter influence if you use a bow and sit with your face really, really close to the screen. And its own influence has been apparent in legions of action-adventure games ever since.
As a centrepiece for all gaming you could certainly do worse. Certainly feels more representative of how far gaming has come than fucking Space Invaders and Pac Man which were also on the shortlist presumably to appease the retro snobs. And while best game ever is subjective, you could determine what the most number of people say is the best game ever, and that would be objective. So, after all that, fine, I suppose with such considerations in mind I agree with the decision to award Dark Souls the most extreme super tubularest game in the entire history of anything award. But let’s broaden this topic a bit and get back to the earlier point that Ultimate literally means Final. Because the other thought I had when I heard the name of that award was an uncomfortable one, an insidious one, one that still nags at the back of my mind, and that’s this: has video gaming peaked?
Obviously video games aren’t literally finished and the apocalypse probably isn’t about to happen, or at least isn’t happening quickly enough to be dramatically interesting, but I worry that we’ve already had the best video games that will ever exist and it’s all downhill from here. Oh sure, they probably haven’t peaked technologically, there’s always room for more polygons and shaders and all that sort of bollocks, but despite what hardware manufacturers would have us believe, none of that necessarily leads to better games.
What I’m asking is, have video games peaked creatively? As I’ve said before, it feels like the age of craftsmanship and auteurism in games may very well be behind us. The whole industry has become mired in corporate committee thinking that would rather churn out identical jiminy cockthroats and ghost train rides if they project them earning a single sliver more cash than something innovative and risky.
See, I’ve always felt that the best console in history was the Playstation 2. Not for being the most powerful, but for being the last console where the tech was advanced enough to realise most artistic visions without being so advanced as to alienate smaller developers without so much money to throw about, so it had a very strong third party library full of quirky weird and innovative stuff like Katamari Damacy and Okami.
Yes, obviously there’s still indie games now and they’re still full of innovation and quirk, but it can be very discouraging making them these days, knowing they’ll probably be drowned out by the hundred million other indie games coming out on Steam every second of every day, where the ones getting the most attention are the ones with the biggest boobies flapping about. The PS2 was an age of equality when stuff like Viewtiful Joe could proudly sit side by side on the shelf with Call of Duty. There’s just not the same social mobility anymore. You either have all the money and all the spectacle and all the attention ‘cos you hire entire small towns worth of people and work them to death, or you get patronized rigid and struggle to escape obscurity.
There’s no middle class to act as a stepping stone. And that brings me to my next point. ‘Cos sure, maybe things could change in the future. Maybe I’m just an ageing curmudgeon blinded by nostalgia for the early aughts. Maybe someday video games will stop being designed primarily around the publishers demanding that they make all of the money that currently exists in the world. But the problem with that is that it would kinda hinge on the rest of society no longer being designed primarily around trying to make all of the money that currently exists in the world. And at this point the corporations are just too entrenched, and government too corrupt, to prevent society’s continued acceleration into inevitable collapse. And when that happens ain’t no one gonna be designing innovative new video games from a climate disaster blasted hellscape.
These are the dark thoughts that nag me and make me worry that gaming has already peaked. But what do you think, commenters? Maybe you think I’m wrong. Let us know because oh lordy would I very much like to be wrong. Sorry, I swear I’m not trying to make all of these end on a depressing note. Hey, you probably can’t escape the system but you could at least find your own way to get by within it. On an unrelated note, have I mentioned I’ve got a new book out?