Sunday, December 23, 2007

Year in Preview: 2008

It’s that time of year, again… time for columnists to look back at the hefty bastard of a year that was, look forward to the terrifying vortex of the year ahead, manufacture quickie best/worst lists padded out with cheap jokes. Vacation time, wine-numbed… money for nothing, cheques for free…

So let’s do this timeslip-style, next things first. With which electronic diversions are we going to be desperately digitally anaesthetizing ourselves as the Historical Inevitability of 2008 force-marches the world toward another Republican American presidency?

I actually said the following in a phone conversation last week: “I don’t know… I can’t think of anything I’m really looking forward to next year, other than maybe LittleBigPlanet.”

Long-distance silence from the other end, then: “Um… dude? Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Oh, right! Grand Theft Auto IV. Sure! Yeah! I’m super hot in the pants for the next installment in my all-time favorite series of sandbox urban – and sometimes rural; nothing like taking out competing thugs combine-style – gangland mayhem! Some Eastern European flava this time, too, all ex-KGB and Russian Mafia, sleazy tracksuits in unlicensed NYC backroom clubs with no name and armored front doors, flippin’ souped-up Maserati-analogues off suspension bridges in hi-def, ragdoll rocket-launchering everything in sight…

… by myself.

The heartbreak of the small-town gamer who is not also a high-school student! What the hell good is a GTA game to me without a cackling couchful of Stoney Drinkichuks passing the controller around, entertaining each other (endlessly!) with exciting new feats of virtual erring-do? Screwdriver rampage! Three-tanker freeway explosion pileup! Helicopter decapitation! Ha-HAAA-hahahahaHa-ha…haaahhhhh… It’s not going to be the same. I’m thinking of putting a GAME BUDDIES WANTED poster up on the tavern bulletin board alongside the ads for horse trailers, mobile homes and tax revolt. Or, you know, just kicking it online…

… with the foulmouthed, trash-talking, callow, suburban idiot hordes of the “gamer community.” No, thanks. Is it any wonder I let time and chemistry rinse dreams of a new GTA i.v. from my forebrain, replacing them with fuzzy fantasies of little burlap munchkins cavorting cooperatively in a user-created Smurfland of whimsical soft-sculpted challenges? LittleBigPlanet looks like meets Super Mario Bros. by way of The Lost Vikings; if any online scene is going to be free of OMG LOL NOOB FAGGOT BITCH, might it be this one? I could see myself trading Murder Simulation for hours of caring and sharing, taking out Frowny Freddies with my cuddlethrower, hug grenades and full-auto OK-47.

Another option: Culdcept Saga, the newest in a (relatively) obscure Japanese series of Monopoly-meets-Magic: The Gathering games. This is seriously crunchy-nerd territory, The Eye of Judgment without the bonus humiliation of having to go out and buy physical trading cards. Playing Culdcept might be – as most of my journeys into online Fantasy are – a sort of desperate replacement for the kind of tabletop social gaming I’m half a lifetime away from, in this case maybe taking the place of all-time-fave daywaster Talisman. Did you all see that Talisman’s back in print?! To think I almost dropped $US 250 for a used copy on eBay…

Oh, wait… check it out! How did I forget about this? Talisman’s coming to XBox Live and the PS Network. Sorry, Culdcept Saga, false alarm. Nevermind.

Also in 2008, we’re going to see Fable 2. Am I looking forward to this? Only in the literal sense that, if I’m looking at it at all, “forward” is the direction I must face – because, looking back, I only see how pissed off I got playing the first Fable three years ago. Not that it was a bad game in absolute terms, but in the vicious context of over-promise/under-deliver it was an astounding kick in the balls. Somewhere in the haze of development, this epic, genre-changing, cradle-to-grave, boy-to-man, living-world, moral-choice fantasy masterpiece became a two-sitting, genre-confirming, over-beautified, trivial action RPG. But, check it out! in Fable 2, you have a dog! Awesome! My math here is simple: low expectations = pleasant surprises.

Actually, that’s a pretty good New Year equation in any case; is it too late to get it made up in to one of these festive banners made up of glittery metallic letters, something I can string up over the punchbowl? Bionic Commando, Too Human, Iron Man, No More Heroes… LO.EX=PS.

But Spore? Super Smash Bros. Brawl? Fallout 3? Those will all be fantastic, right? Right?? Right; because with some games there’s a (high) threshold below which expectations cannot be pushed without sacrificing one’s humanity.