'Red Dead,' 'Ocarina of Time' and the New Measure of a Classic

Twenty years ago, the 'Legend of Zelda' game was hailed as the greatest of all time, but is that a distinction that even makes sense in today's landscape?

What’s the best video game of all time? The answer isn’t necessarily an easy one to arrive at. So much depends on how many games you’ve played, how frequently you played, what age you were when you played it, whether you played by yourself or with others, and even what console you own and still play today. Arguably more than any other entertainment medium, video games have the most variables in terms of how we experience them, and ultimately this defines our version of “best.” Every year, some title gets a “Game of the Year” edition. The title “Game of Year” may differ between publications, resulting in prestige that isn’t broadly cited as official, at least not in the way something like the Oscar for best picture or the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is, but a combination of strong reviews and even stronger sales make the case for “Game of the Year.” While that accolade is often something immediate, and tied to sales, perhaps time, and where a game fits into the evolution of video gaming, is the true defining factor in our personal decision in naming “the best video game of all time.”

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the Nintendo 64 game cited by many gamers across age and gender to be the greatest video game. During the last month and a half of 1998, Ocarina of Time made $150 million, surpassing any Hollywood film release during that year’s final weeks. Ocarina of Time, and the earlier 1998 release Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation, marked a shift not only within the video game industry, but for everyone keeping tabs on the pulse of entertainment. Video games weren’t simply an alternate form of media, but the most bankable form of entertainment. Twenty years later, video game sales surpassing movie box-office profits is no longer news. This year alone, the PS4’s God of War and Spider-Man turned heads in the industry and led a number of game players and critics to declare that these games offered a better experience than any blockbuster found in theaters. Both God of War and Spider-Man are some of the best games of their generation, but the distinction of “all time great” would be awarded to another, perhaps preemptively.

Last week saw the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, the PS4/Xbox One open-world Western game that made $725 million in sales from its opening-weekend launch alone. That number is staggering, especially when considering that Hollywood can rarely get a modern Western film to cross $10 million at the box office. Yet Red Dead Redemption 2 offers a hands-on experience that films like The Sisters Brothers (2018) or Bone Tomahawk (2015) cannot, along with an ability to decide the tone of your narrative. Already, many critics and game players are heralding it as “the best video game of all time,” despite the fact that few, if any, have completed the game’s extensive run time and side missions. But unlike films, novels or comic books, it’s not so much the completion of a narrative or even the strength of one that determines the totality of labels like of “best” and “greatest.” Instead, it’s about how immersive an experience game play can create. Ocarina of Time and Red Dead Redemption 2 both raise interesting questions over the labels of merit we place on games and how “best game” isn’t easily determined by a singular component, and perhaps is not a useful form of measurement that carries any real weight anymore.

If I had any doubt about the continued popularity of Ocarina of Time, a quick survey conducted from my Twitter account asking gamers to name the best game of all time saw Ocarina as the most repeated response, along with my personal favorite, Mass Effect 2. There’s something to the fact that this game, the fifth in The Legend of Zelda series, despite being dated by modern graphic standards, still has such a hold. Perhaps a significant factor stems from the fact that an N64 was the first console many modern gamers ever owned, and thus set the standard for their love of video games. While so much attention is placed on graphics, take Red Dead Redemption 2’s landscape, which reacts naturally to changes in the wind and weather patterns, it’s not the deciding factor of greatness. Sure, Ocarina of Time has undergone a number of remasters and updates that have improved graphics and game play, but those editions don’t take away from the appeal of the N64 original, rather they broaden the game’s reach and allow players to latch on to what may be its important factor: an expansive open world.

When it comes to RPGs, a massive world in which to move around and explore may truly be the central deciding factor in how we measure the greatness of a game. Ocarina is considered by a number of game critics to be revolutionary in that regard. It didn’t create the open-world aaproach, but its 3D landscapes and level of interactivity provided gamers with an experience few had witnessed. In the time since Ocarina, many games have left behind the straightforward game-play route that relies on only one way to play, in favor of side quests, decision-making and upgrades that change the style of how you play. Celebrated games like Batman: Arkham City, Bioshock: Infinite, Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, God of War and Spider-Man have all taken a page from the standards set by Ocarina and Grand Theft Auto III (2001). But as expansive as these games are, there remains the fact that their narratives all lead to the same conclusion regardless of who plays it, how it's played, or whether or not you collect all the trophies. These games may be great but the “greatest of all-time” distinction currently relies on how much the game gives players the most interactive experience, an experience that isn’t ubiquitous.

For me, this level of interactivity started with BioWare. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) and its dialogue wheel, which shapes relationships and ultimately allows you to choose the dark side or the light, and thus changes the entire dynamic of the game, was a highpoint for video games and the first time I became truly aware of how engaging these games could be as experiences. Bioware later perfected this art with Mass Effect 2 (2010), which allows players to truly feel like protagonist Shepard and earn the loyalty, or betrayal, of squad mates through dialogue and decision-making. It’s the personal experience and the control of narrative that makes this in my estimation the “greatest game of all time.” And it’s undoubtedly these aspects that made it the most popular response to my Twitter question, second only to Ocarina. But going back to the question raised at the beginning, so much of how we define the “best video game” is a result of our personal experiences. Halo and its sequels, GoldenEye for the N64,and Modern Warfare 3 also proved popular responses to my question, and that undoubtedly has something to do with the multiplayer and online aspects that make video gaming a community. Community, and who we play with online, are just as important factors in determining the best game as anything, but because that community is so fickle, so dependent on who’s online, the experience we create as a result isn’t as consistent and easy to categorize. Whether we’re playing alone or with others, the merits of a video game, outside of basic mechanics and graphic engines, has become nebulous. So does the label of “greatest of all time” work for Red Dead Redemption 2 in the same way that label works for Ocarina?

It’s easy to see why Red Dead Redemption 2 has received such early praise, because it’s entirely dependent on the story the players create, the relationships they form, and how many hours they spend fishing, or hunting, or really settling into this world and creating a digital life for themselves among the NPCs. Even with a multiplayer component, the game is founded on the individual experience – more so than any other game of its kind has been before. But there’s no way to measure what exactly makes it the best game of all time. With Ocarina, it’s simple to point to a certain plot point, its ending, or its fixed characterizations. But as video games, like Red Dead Redemption 2, begin introducing more and more variables, it becomes increasingly difficult to find common ground in determining universal appeal. As a result “best game of all time” becomes an odd concept, an accolade that rarely has meaning outside of one’s personal experience. Where video games once felt charted, easily traceable and built on common ground, now they’re broad, immersive and founded on the individual’s sense of completion. It may be too early to determine whether or not Red Dead Redemption 2 can stand alongside Ocarina of Time as the “best game of all time,” but if it can, then it’s an admission that the metrics through which we grade games is changing and taking on new meaning. It’s the Wild West out there.