The past ten years of gaming has taken us to many places

The past ten years of gaming has taken us to many places

As we prepare to for the new wave of console hardware, its hard to quantify how important the Seventh Console Generation has been to the gaming community. It was long (It started in 2005! I was still in high school!) and it brought with it many new advancements in hardware, software, and really pushed forward the general philosophy of interactive entertainment. As exciting it is to think what the next generation will bring, I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor to look back on where we’ve been, and how it will ultimately shape where we may end up.

In this multi-part series, I am going to look at the games and hardware of the past 8(ish) years in the game space and offer my insight (for whatever it is worth) into the thing’s we’ve seen, the characters we’ve met, and the places we’ve been. Of course, it is impossible to cover everything… there’s simply been too much to see and do. For each of the topics I will cover, I will try to limit myself to a handful of items and a few honorable mentions. This is not a top ten list or some sort of ranking mechanism… just a selection of things that impacted me while I was gaming during this generation. Feel free to list your own ideas in the comments!

Fair warning: This will probably tend to run a little long (like most of my writing, frankly) so… pour yourself a beverage.

Part I
Oh, The Places We’ve Been

 

In the first part of this series, I thought we’d talk about the one part of every game that really sets a tone for your experience: Setting. Often, the setting is merely a playground for the player. It can be generic, memorable, or even become a character itself during the story that is being told. The Seventh Generation brought with it a more detail oriented set of locations to play in, and the immersion they offered was unseen before this time. Sure, you had your selection of PC titles that mirrored – or often surpassed – the level of imagination I’m about to detail, but the sometimes expensive barrier of entry in the PC world, not to mention the accessibility of a game console, brought a lot more players into this level of detail for the first time.

For me, it wasn’t until this generation that I started to view the setting of a game as a character itself. There were inklings of this in the Sixth generation, like the first Halo on the original Xbox, but until I started playing games like Bioshock and Mass Effect, I didn’t really view them as such. Now, it’s a critical part of how I judge a game. Often, it’s the first thing I take notice of because getting to know the characters takes time, but you’re pushed into an environment from the get go. A boring or uninspired setting can ruin my appetite to continue playing.

Below are a few of the standouts I feel are worth noting. There are many, many more than I have listed here, and If I would type with my mind, this post would cover every one of them.

 

The Ark

First Appearance: Halo 3
Most Intriguing aspect: The pure mystery of it’s purpose

Ark-Large

Why the Ark, of Course!

I’ve been a big Halo fan from the beginning of the series, so there was no way I was making any sort of list of favorite locations without pulling one from the series. It was hard to pick The Ark over other iconic locations, however. We have Reach, the great tragedy of the series… and Requiem, our new playground. Hell… even a Halo installation itself hearkens back to the mystery and majesty of the locations Bungie (and now 343 Industries) crafted over the past 13 years. That being said, a Halo ring was more heavily featured in the first game, and it wasn’t until Halo 3 that we got some Master Chief action on the Xbox 360. The first half of the game was classic Halo… but it took place on Earth. Not bad, but nothing out of the ordinary either.

halo3_45972651_Medium

Then we followed the Prophet of Truth through the portal above Africa and found it. The Ark. The bright flower in dark space. It was unlike anything we’ve seen in a Halo game until this point, and ever since its mention at the end of Halo 2, we really didn’t know what it was. In fact, for a sizable chunk of time leading up to the release of Halo 3, it was assumed the Ark was buried beneath the plains of Africa. The marketing for the game suggested as much, and it wasn’t until we played through the pivotal scene above Voi that we knew exactly what was going on. This mystery is why I found the Ark so compelling… the mystery of what it was transcended the game itself… from marketing to execution, the Ark was an interesting location that until the very end of the game, kept us asking questions.

From a fictional standpoint, The Ark was an even greater achievement of their creators, The Forerunners. The Halos were daunting places… capable of destroying all life in the Galaxy. The Ark, however, was built to create and preserve. It housed all known life for the purpose of reseeding the galaxy. At the same time, it was also capable of manufacturing the galaxy’s greatest weapons. On the surface were deserts, lakes, oceans, forests, islands, and icecaps. It was many times larger than a normal planet, but totally artificial.

A comparison of the Ark with other locations. It's quite big.

A comparison of the Ark with other locations. It’s quite big. Click to enlarge.

It was a lot of fun to explore the Ark in the limited quantities the game permitted. There were many times, as were there in all Halo games, to stop and admire the scenery. Very few games prior to this gave us opportunity to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Reach and Requiem were great too, but on the 360, the Ark was one place I fondly remember stopping and acknowledging that it was just as much a character as the Master Chief or Cortana. It was inspiring, and I’m glad it exists.

Rapture

First Appearance: Bioshock
Most Intriguing aspect: The Fictional History and Visuals

Welcome to Rapture

Welcome to Rapture

At the time of Bioshock’s initial release, I would argue Rapture was one of the most imaginative, unique, and original locations in the history of gaming. There is plenty of debate to be had here, but when you descend into the city from within the Bathysphere for that first time, it was tough not to be awestruck by what you saw. A sprawling metropolis under the sea. Window lights aplenty, moving spotlights, whales maneuvering down city streets, and fish flocking like birds along the darkened skyline.

It was as majestic a moment as I can remember in a video game’s opening minutes, and while the Critically-acclaimed Bioshock: Infinite came close with Columbia, it never quite recaptured that first moment in Rapture. Immediately following this first view of the city, you’re greeted with a statue of the man who envisioned Rapture, Business man Andrew Ryan, holding a banner that speaks volumes to the depth of story and the concepts that the game’s creators wished to portray. “No Gods Or Kings. Only Man.”

No Gods or Kings. Only Man. And some whales. And Fish. And probably algae build up all over the damn place.

No Gods or Kings. Only Man. And some whales. And Fish. And probably algae build up all over the damn place.

The story of Rapture revolves around the idea that mankind’s advancement should have no limits. Be it technology, government, religious dogma, or economic limitations, Ryan’s vision for Rapture would be free of these things. Ethically speaking, there were also few lines that could not be crossed. Don’t be fooled by the neon signs here… the theaters, bars, casinos, and other aspects of the perceived requirements of high society. All of these to distract the visitor of the city’s true purpose: skirt the laws of gods and men. Fitting that the underwater setting essentially regulates the skies above Rapture to darkness… it sets the tone perfectly. This is not a kind place. Andrew Ryan’s manifesto says it perfectly:

I am Andrew Ryan and I am here to ask you a question:
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?

No, says the man in Washington; it belongs to the poor.
No, says the man in the Vatican; it belongs to God.
No, says the man in Moscow; it belongs to everyone.

I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something
different. I chose the impossible. I chose…

Rapture.

A city where the artist would not fear the censor.
Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.
Where the great would not be constrained by the small.
And with the sweat of your brow,
Rapture can become your city as well.

It’s a bold statement that is befitting of Rapture. No rules. No limits on Human potential. It all plays out perfectly in the end… the downfall of the city is the very ideals Ryan brought to the table when creating it. Playing through the city after the fall is haunting at times. Not ruins, but ruined. I can’t recall a location that ever achieved this sort of dystopian outlook quite like Rapture.

Liberty City

First Appearance: Grand Theft Auto (1997), but we are looking at the fifth iteration of it, featured in Grand Theft Auto 4 (2008)
Most Intriguing aspect: “The Worst Place In America”

3757_gta_iv

I fee like I’ve actually lived in Liberty City. Really. I’ve spent more time in this fictional location than any other, even if you exclude all the versions prior to Grand Theft Auto IV. The city is as developed as any real city, down to the very manhole covers having local water companies stamped into the steel. No hyperbole here: It is a living, breathing city from the moment you boot up the game.

That being said, the motto of the city is absolutely correct. It is the worst place in America. It’s so horrific there that Rockstar Games actually trademarked the phrase. “The Worst Place In America” is owned by them. Its actually on real-world license plate frames.

Every little detail from the decrepit curbs on the streets to rusty street signs is amazing.

Every little detail from the decrepit curbs on the streets to rusty street signs is amazing.

The city is heavily based on New York City, from the shape and scope of it to actual landmarks, but they are all dysfunctional takes. The game’s creators ignored Jersey entirely, because they felt it was “Just damn shitty.” The Statue of Happiness (there take on the Statue of Liberty) is a man in a dress holding a coffee cup, with his back turned to the harbor, as if telling people “Stay the fuck out.” There’s the “Getalife” (Metlife) building, Middle Park, The WTF Center (Their take on the World Financial Center)…. the list goes on. And it looks beautiful. It’s the most detailed and quasi-faithful recreation of any real city in gaming. The people and culture are highly developed, albeit massively screwed up. It’s the perfect place for a game that involves stealing cars and shooting cops to take place.

The city is stunningly beautiful. It's easy to get lost in the view.

The city is stunningly beautiful. It’s easy to get lost in the view.

Liberty City is the personification of the worst aspects of the modern world. Crime, greed, sex, drugs… its all here. There’s very little Rockstar held back when creating this city. It has it’s on culture that is easy to get caught up in while playing the game. After awhile, you’ll start moving about the streets as if you lived there for years. You’ll treat computer controlled characters with a level of respect that they deserve (for better or worse). For large periods of time you’ll traverse and live the digital life in the city while never leaving your chair. There’s more to do and more to see in this city than in most real cities… from comedy clubs to helicopter tours and even museums. There are plenty of life-simulators in the gaming world, but few come close to the amount of detail that Grand Theft Auto IV offered with Liberty City.

What’s amazing is that the next GTA iteration will be coming out in September for the 360/PS3, promising a world even more diverse, detailed, and almost ten times the physical size of Liberty City. Talk about sending out this generation with a bang… If it’s even half of what Liberty City was, its still a technological achievement.

That being said, I wouldn’t want to actually live there. Maybe that’s the appeal?

Roma (as seen in Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood)

First Appearance:Assassin’s Creed II, but fully fleshed out in the sequel/expansion “Brotherhood”
Most Intriguing aspect: Historical Realism

Rome_E3

I love history. It was my second major in college, and while I didn’t pursue a career in the field, I do still consider myself a student of it. Perhaps that is the most obvious reason I enjoy the Assassin’s Creed series… the historical detail offered by Ubisoft is frightening to think about. The amount of time doing research and fact-checking while still crafting a fictional story that transcends many eras in history is clearly a huge task. There have been five Assassin’s Creed games so far, all released during the current Console Generation, and they each have offered fascinating (and very accurate) portrayals of cities all over the world. From Jerusalem to Venice, Constantinople, New York, and Havana (in the coming sequel), the series would be nothing without these open world locations to hunt down your enemies in. They are all great in their own way, but the one that really stood out to me most was the series’ portrayal of Rome in “Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood.”

I didn't mention it in the body text, but damn did Rome look good too.

I didn’t mention it in the body text, but damn did Rome look good too.

Rome was the largest individual city in the series (I think it still is, if you don’t count the frontier region of the third game) and the most well developed. Each Roman district was represented here in a way that no other interactive simulation has done. Each of the Seven Hills of Rome was carefully laid out and populated with actual buildings, monuments, and ruins. Set in 1503, Rome was already pretty old. The city’s history transcends almost three thousand years of written and archaeological history. To pick a semi-recent point in time and recreate it in the way Ubisoft did was very impressive, and because a lot of the specific locations still exist, one can really relate to what they see on screen, should they decide to visit.

Every major Roman point of interest that still existed in the 1500's was there, and had an informative menu entry so you could learn about it

Major Roman buildings that still existed in the 1500’s were there, and had an encyclopedic entry so you could learn about them

What really made this game’s version of Rome special for me actually involves my dad. Recently, as he began to move into his retirement days, he and my mother started traveling around Europe in the summer. Rome was one of his lengthy visits, as well as a few of the places also seen in the second Assassin’s Creed game, such as Florence and Venice. I played a lot of the second game with him watching, and to my surprise, he was very into it. He was never much of a gamer, it was really fun playing it in front of him. He loved seeing Florence and Venice on the screen because he could identify with the setting. He had been to those places. Watching me interact with places he knew so vividly was entertainment in its own right. Rome in the following game was even more of a return trip for him. He recognized and knew the history of every little monument and relic I came across. He even remembered the layout of the city as I ran around, murdering people. Having never been there myself, I found his input very interesting and often useful, believe it or not. Perhaps this is why Rome was so memorable a setting for me… not so much my longstanding fascination with it’s history, but instead the time I spent with my Dad while goofing around in the Assassin’s Creed sandbox.

The Island Nation of Panau

First Appearance: Just Cause II
Most Intriguing aspect: Visuals and Scope

Panau: Beautiful and Vast

Panau: Beautiful and Vast

Some of you may never heard of Panau (pronounced “Pahn-ow”) or the game it was featured in, Just Cause II. The game was critically acclaimed and I think it was commercially successful, but I don’t have many friends that have played it. I’m not sure why, because its fun, and Panau is the golden egg. Panau is an fictional nation in the South Pacific, and is the largest virtual game world with actual metrics on size I can find. 400 Square miles total, if you don’t count all the endless ocean on the borders. By comparison, Skyrim is 16 square miles, Red Dead redemption’s territory is 28 square miles, and Azeroth is 80 square miles. So yeah… 400 Square miles is beyond massive. I can’t wait to see how they one-up themselves in the inevitable sequel.

There are multiple cities in the game, and all are bigger than Liberty City in size and just as detailed in some respects

There are multiple cities in the game, and all are bigger than Liberty City in size and just as detailed in some respects

What’s amazing technically about Panau is that there are no loading times. The entire maps is open to you from the start, and you are free to roam. Did I say it was 400 Square miles? Keep that in mind. Panau is a series of islands that are diverse and populated. Cities, Villages, ancient ruins, secret military bases, rest stops, a night club on a blimp, an amusement park, The island from TV’s “Lost”, A space shuttle launch facility, underwater ruins, Airports, Casino-towns, Endless stretches of highway, un-navigable jungles, snow-capped mountain ranges, never-ending deserts, swamps, marshes, and a huge network of caves and caverns… I could go on, but I think you get the point. The scope of this place dwarfs everything I’ve ever seen and there are millions of points-of-interest (An achievement requires you to visit every single one of them. Holy Hell).

Your character has a parachute and grappling hook, allowing a fresh and effective travel mechanic.

Your character has a parachute and grappling hook, allowing a fresh and effective travel mechanic.

Panau is also quite wacky. Not dark wacky, like Liberty City, but more silly wacky. It’s run by a stereotypical Asian dictator that is largely incompetent. He has built up a MASSIVE military spread throughout the islands, but most of the soldiers he employs are absolute morons (note: not bad A.I., but purposefully stupid). This makes the game charming in a way, as the focus is less on difficulty and more on exploration and asks you to focus on causing as much chaos as you can to enrage the Asian leader. You are basically tasked with blowing up as much government property as possible, as they are oppressing the otherwise docile population. There are factions to deal with as well, each occupying a large section of territory you must reclaim for the people of Panau. Over the course of the story you visit most of the notable locations, including a mountain military base built into the back of stone-carved face of their emperor. Very Dr. Evil like!

The game is stunning. It came out in 2009, and I think its the best looking game on the 360/PS3. Easily.

The game is stunning. It came out in 2010, and I think its the best looking game on the 360/PS3. Easily.

Why is this place so important to me? It is mostly the scope. It’s so damn big and there is so much to do… the freedom given to the player is unparalleled and It made the game exceptionally enjoyable for me. If you want to get lost in a game for awhile, pick Just Cause II up. It’s delightful and doesn’t take itself so seriously. The game desperately needs multiplayer in the next one. Co-op in a world like this would be a blast. Check out the tour in the video below.

The Continent of Tamriel

First Appearance: The Elder Scrolls Series – This generation saw it in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Most Intriguing aspect: Beauty and Lore

The Continent in 4E 201, during the setting of ESIV:Skyrim

The Continent in 4E 201, during the setting of ESIV:Skyrim

What can I say about the Elder Scrolls? It is (quite easily) the most successful, popular, and genre-defining Fantasy series in the history of the medium, and it reached a fever-pitch with the recent entry, Skyrim. The game play isn’t anything too groundbreaking, despite being tuned to perfection. My opinion of what makes these games so monumentally successful is their setting. Tamriel is the continent the whole series takes place on, with each game highlighting one section of it.

Oblivion, the hellish alter-world. Definitely got cues from Zelda's Dark World in "A Link to the Past:

Oblivion, the hellish alter-world. Definitely got cues from Zelda’s Dark World in “A Link to the Past:

 

Cyrodill and Skyrim (as seen in Oblivion and Skyrim respectively) were fleshed out thanks to the power of this generation’s hardware. They were vast, populated, and at the of their release were visually stunning. Just looking out into the wilderness that lied beyond your character immediately sparked excitement for adventure. There were dozens of races, factions, and locations that had already had developed lore and conflict… and you were just a player in the middle of it all. From mighty Imperial cities to small towns and castles entrenched in ice to the hellish realm of Oblivion, Tamriel as seen this generation barely got our feet wet when it comes to all the whole continent has to offer. Lucky for us, Skyrim had an expansion that allowed us to visit the most exotic location, Morrowind, which was a featured entry in the sixth console generation. With its giant mushrooms and red landscape, it offers one of the most unusual vistas in the fantasy genre of games, and we were fortunate to see it brought into modern graphical depictions this time.

The White Gold Tower - Capital of the Continent

The White Gold Tower – Capital of the Continent

It is easy to say that the Lord of the Rings universe was a huge inspiration for this series when it first started. Since the Elder Scrolls was created, the developers have poured mountains of time into crafting a Tolkein-esque history into the lore of Tamriel. From fictional languages, eons of war and power struggle, a huge line of kings and emperors with their own expansive stories… they have rivaled the detail of Tolkein’s world and in a way, surpassed it by making it interactive all these years. I would love to see Middle-Earth created in a game with the scope the the Elder Scrolls has now made standard.

Skyrim's Snowy mountains and frozen plains may be my favorite setting of the series

Skyrim’s Snowy mountains and frozen plains may be my favorite setting of the series

My favorite parts this gen, however, have to be the first time you see the White Gold Tower in Oblivion and the first glimpse from the top of Skyrim’s highest mountain,  “Throat of the World”. There is so much history written about these places, and when you get to see them in context, its pretty magical. Skyrim took this to new heights with its graphical achievements, and I look forward to the Elder Scrolls Online hitting Eighth-Gen consoles where we can traverse the whole continent in one game.

 

I’ll stop there, even though there are scores of other great places I could talk about. Honorable mentions perhaps include some of the locations from Mass Effect, or the destroyed world of Sera from Gears of War. The Mythical Greek locations in God of War, and the latest version of the Mushroom Kingdom are also worth noting, as they helped push forward things like story and graphics forward. I almost put the re-imagined Green Hill Zone from Sonic Generations in here, as it modernized one of the most important locations in gaming history, but I think the original should stand on it’s own in the Genesis era. The same goes for Hyrule from the Legend of Zelda and most of the seedy locations in the Metal Gear franchise. All of them are important, memorable, and defining in their own right, but I think the ones I mentioned above have plenty of merit too.

Feel free to list some of your own ideas in the comments! We all have stories to tell from our adventures this past generation, and I’d love to see some of them.
My next entry in this series will cover the characters we were introduced to in this generation of games, and how some will live forever because of these games. I’ll also cover some characters that are no longer with us. Check back later for it!

 

 

-Jim