The Year of the Stunner: The Chaos Fold’s Gaming Year in Review (Part One)

2007 has been a banner year for video games. The titles that have bombarded store-shelves month after month continue to impress even the most jaded of critics. We have seen beloved franchises leap forward, new franchises born, and new developers rise to prominence.

In particular, 2007 has seen a stunning leap forward in the world of interactive storytelling. As film matured from silent clips of ribald comedy into spectacles of visual splendor and daring innovation, so too is gaming finding its own unique voice, and its own unique language for storytelling. As the Year of the Stunner, 2007 will not soon be forgotten.

In February it began. World of Warcraft, perennial MMO titan, saw its first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Utilizing vastly-improved techniques for storytelling in a persistent world, The Burning Crusade made many players feel as heroic as their mighty avatars. From Illidan Stormrage’s first battlecry during the opening cutscene, to the epic final raid-encounter, The Burning Crusade provided millions of players with an immersive world heretofore unseen in an MMO.

Later, the PlayStation 2 saw an epic send-off in the form of God of War II. The aging system’s last big “Wow!” goes up in a fury of blades, sex, and blood so tremendous it drew respect from even the most talented competition. Taking the Shenmue Q-T-E gameplay to heights never imagined by Yu Suzuki’s team, God of War II wove a story that did not remove the player from control during climactic fights and set-pieces.

In August, Bioshock landed. A game that many called revolutionary, Bioshock brought players to the world of Rapture. The famous mid-game twist did something that no game had done before: controlled the player. Bioshock proves the first of the stunners, by making the player feel betrayed. In the mocking tone of the game’s antagonist during the pivotal scene, the player becomes the played, and goes out for revenge. The drive to get even dominates the back half of the game, never being unsure of what you are doing and why you are doing it.

As the year went on, hits bombarded the consoles and PC. The Orange Box, was a hard product to sell. Made up of Half-Life 2, its two marginally-episodic expansions, Team Fortress 2, and Portal, Valve Software finds three critical darlings. Episode Two, following the latest adventures of armored-mute Gordon Freeman and his increasingly iconic partner Alyx Vance, incorporates a new feature to Half-Life: A brilliant narrative. The game builds tension and urgency through a climactic battle, and the shocking denouement and stark credits. The game’s characterization surpasses all that has been seen before, with an ending that leaves the player not just amazed, but shaken to their very cores.

Call of Duty 4 arrived to much fanfare, the long-awaited modernization of the World War II franchise. CoD4’s heavily-scripted gameplay made for an intense and inventive game, taking the first-person viewpoint to bold new places in storytelling. From the opening sequence, casting you as the deposed leader of a middle-eastern country, as the military coup destroys all around you, to the “one last shot” of the final set-piece, Call of Duty 4 perfects storytelling in scripted-shooters to a science.

Lastly, Mass Effect, which can perhaps be called gaming’s first truly unique fiction. A fiction without influences does not exist, but Mass Effect’s vibrant galaxy evokes a wonderment all its own. Bioware, masters of the PC-RPG have followed up their effort in the Star Wars universe, by creating a universe that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with film’s epic space-opera.

2007 may have seen many releases slip, and titles disappoint, though none can truly contest the excellence of this year’s output. The Next-Generation systems, and storytelling in gaming as a whole, are entering maturity, now. Writers like Erik Wolpaw of Portal and Episode 2 will continue to push the boundaries of storytelling, just as designers such as Ken Levine and his team at 2K Boston will continue to push the boundaries of immersion.

Storytelling in gaming is a difficult proposition. As film struggled for its own voice in those early years of silence, gaming is now discovering how to speak.

More and more people, are listening.

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