And then... nothing. Sega released an excellent little follow-up to the Saturn; it had the biggest launch of any console in history. For a year and a half, Sega and its third parties kept pumping out some of the best software on any system ever – and nobody really cared.
Sony told them to wait, because the PS2 would be so much better – so they waited. And Sega disappeared under a rock. And the PS2 hit, and at first it... kind of sucked. It wasn't really any more powerful than the Dreamcast. There weren't many games, and what games it did have were either ugly, terrible, or both. Sony began to bleed money as everyone in Japan bought the PS2 as a cheap DVD player and ignored any actual game software out for it. Sega fans caught up on the dozens of games they'd been missing; Sony fans drummed their fingers, waiting for the fun to start.
In 2001, that began to happen – albeit in a form nobody quite predicted. While Microsoft and Nintendo dumped their systems on the market, to middling reception, and Sega set about shooting off its remaining toes, a handful of... strange games began to creep onto the market, practically under the radar compared to what everyone was meant to care about.
Toward the end of the year, Sony managed to sneak a little gem called Ico out the door. Critics loved it; nobody bought it. Though not exactly fun, it was really observant. It took Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider, then stripped it down to the barest essence of its design, with the intent that each element of design needed to somehow support the basic themes and emotions that the game was trying to express.
There were no hit points, no gamey devices, because fighting and getting hurt wasn't the point. The levels were constructed more to give a feeling of scope than for convenience. The result was a subdued, understated, game – high on the concept, low on the game design. The development community collectively said "hmm", raised an eyebrow, and jotted down the name Fumito Ueda.
On the exact same day, the PS2 received a sequel to the late-era PlayStation horror game Silent Hill. The original game was renowned for its subjective approach to horror, and for how its uses the hardware's limitations as a strength. Under the guidance of Takayoshi Sato, the sequel seemed like more of the same. If anything, it seemed to kind of miss the point of Silent Hill. And yet, even more so than Ico, there was more going on.
Every element in the game, from the inventory to the monsters, reflected an element of the main character's personality. Every action the player took – even inaction – was tracked and analyzed in psychological terms. Depending on what the player's actions said about the main character's state of mind, the game ultimately read a different motive for the protagonist, therefore gave him a different conclusion to his journey.
Sega's own Tetsuya Mizuguchi produced one of Sega's first cross-platform games since the early '80s, taking what he saw as the most fundamental form of a videogame – the rail shooter – and building on top of it, in attempt to see how complex a concept he could explore within as simplistic a framework as possible. The result, Rez, uses music, rhythm, force feedback, and visual cues to produce a sense of euphoria and "oneness" in the player. Thematically, the game explores the evolution of life and the human mind from primordial soup, through the great civilizations of Earth, to enlightnment – and all the player does is move a cursor around the screen.
Even the one immense blockbuster game – the game, if any game, that convinced people to hold off on the Dreamcast for Sony's wonderbox – turned out differently from anyone's expectations. It turned out that, for over a year, Konami's Hideo Kojima had misrepresented the contents of Metal Gear Solid 2 – for much the same reason behind many of his design decisions within the game: he wanted to mess with people's perceptions.
The original Metal Gear Solid was already kind of silly – intentionally so. It did everything it could to break the fourth wall and force its audience to notice how absurd it was. The problem was, nobody noticed; the existing gaming audience simply accepted the game at face value and thought it was awesome. For his sequel, therefore, Kojima simply turned up the heat. He put the player in the role of an effete, emasculated "gamer" who yearns to meet up with Snake. He put far more polygons than necessary into Snake's buttocks. He put Snake in a questionable relationship with his scientific advisor Otacon, and turned Otacon into a complete weirdo. Fans screamed bloody murder and stormed out of the building. Kojima began to attract a completely new base of fans.
Those new fans were mostly made up of people who had been growing restless with the brainless, essentially unquestioning nature of videogames to date – those Nintendo fans who had grown older still and now were looking for some deeper meaning in their hobby – not so much legitimacy as an art form, as just some kind of actual inspiration – some emotional or intellectual meat to keep them interested. And this was the year that they started to get their wish; that, in place of real hardware or design innovations, videogames began to innovate in the realm of mature expression.
People started to think differently of videogames: thus the (frankly kind of misguided) "games as art" and "new games journalism" movements. People began to write about them differently, analyze them differently. Take them more seriously – because games were starting to appear that were worth taking seriously. And there was much conflict.
The gaming community – players, developers, the press – began to split into two camps: the "technologists", who wanted videogames to remain essentially as they were – except bigger, better, more awesome – and the "expressionists", who continued to look for ways videogames could better convey meaning, however unconventional the method.
At the same time, MMO games began to go nuts. Phantasy Star Online introduced online multiplayer to game consoles, while EverQuest became the bane of hard-working spouses across the world.
Also, the Game Boy Advance seemed pretty neat at first.