The Game(s) of The Year

I love video games. But….

I realized recently that just about everything I write about games could start that way. I write about games because I find them so interesting to play and to analyze, but as any of my friends will tell you, I am one of the most cantankerous and critical entertainment consumers you will ever meet. I’m the guy who complains on the way out of the epic movie we just watched together because of that plot hole in act 2, or who watches every episode of Lost just to pick apart every foreshadowed plot point that never comes up again, or who tells you in one conversation that he loved Red Dead Redemption and then will go write an entire blog post about its flaws.

I am hard to please, and even when I am pleased, I’ll probably still criticize. This is why I don’t really reflect much on the “Game of the Year.” I can’t pick one; I’m too picky.

I do read other people’s (and publications’) “game of the year” lists, though. One of my favorites each year is Slate’s “Gaming Club” roundup, which is what got me thinking about the topic for this post. You see, I was a little surprised to read the overwhelming consensus among this year’s contributors that Red Dead Redemption was the game of the year. There’s a lot I loved about that game, of course, despite all the griping in my last post. Still, I was a bit surprised that the repetitive gameplay was so easily forgiven.

Sure, the world was great, the characters interesting, the story thoughtful—but did all those critics really love following the same old Grand Theft Auto formula over and over again? As my friend Tony likes to say, video games often boil down to “running errands for psychopaths”: go to place, talk to someone, kill people, repeat. Red Dead Redemption did some things better than every other game last year, maybe than any other game ever, but in other areas, I’d call it sorely lacking. Personally, I had to put the game down for a few months because I got so bored of the gameplay. It was only after playing Fallout New Vegas into the ground that I was able to return to Red Dead Redemption with renewed appreciation for its gorgeous graphics, believable character animation, and rich environment—but I still rushed through the rest of the plot missions because “running errands for psychopaths” never really got any more interesting.

To be honest, though, I can’t really think of a game from 2010 that I’d call better than Red Dead Redemption. I wouldn’t call the game I enjoyed playing the most (probably Mass Effect 2), or even the game I spent the most time playing (definitely Fallout New Vegas), the “Game of the Year.” Objectively speaking, these had even more glaring flaws than Red Dead Redemption in many ways, from Mass Effect 2‘s ridiculous plot points and equally repetitive gameplay (but of a kind I just don’t mind repeating as much) to New Vegas‘s graphical inferiority and unforgivable bugginess (which many of us will play through even if we won’t forgive it).

When I look back on the games of 2010, then, I don’t see a single “Game of the Year.” I see a bunch of innovations that excited me, and old conventions I wish we’d move past. I suppose my view is more like an awards show than a top 10 list, a list of ways in which games raised the bar this past year for the games that will follow.

Red Dead Redemption, for instance, wins hands-down for the most realistic game world. Running over dusty paths kicks up dust; staying out in the rain gets you wet; hanging around wild animals gets you killed (or pelts, if you’re careful). The game isn’t just set in “the old West”—it’s about the old West. “Open world” games with vast, outdoor environments, but without changes in weather, will be a little disappointing from now on.

Mass Effect 2, meanwhile, wins for best acting and cinematography in interactive dialog. I don’t mean the voice acting (which was fine, but may have been outdone elsewhere), but the way the digital actors themselves interacted on the screen, and the way the camera moved with them. Staring at blank-faced mannequins in Fallout games (or even the characters in the first Mass Effect) no longer feels acceptable. I might also credit Mass Effect 2 as the best serialized story in gaming, but it wasn’t actually presented in pieces; it just felt that way. Many felt the plot was lacking, focusing on “side missions” rather than the overarching plot about facing a galactic menace, but I’d say it turned the idea of “side missions” on its head, replacing pointless fetch quests with television-quality, episodic sci-fi.

Heavy Rain deserves credit for conceiving of conflict beyond combat in a story-driven game. I’m quick to admit that the controls impeded immersion, the plot was riddled with holes, and the developer’s idea of female empowerment is accidentally insulting at best. Still, I think it demonstrated that it’s possible to tell a story in a video game that doesn’t take place in space, or in the old West, or in a Tolkienesque fantasy world, where killing another human being is not the expected norm, but a rare and major turning point in plot and character development.

In my own retrospective, even the lowly Alpha Protocol deserves credit for the best fusing of gameplay and narrative elements in a dialog system that I’ve ever seen. As I wrote about here months ago, dialog in Alpha Protocol isn’t just a choose-your-own-adventure mechanic to decide whether your character is a good guy or a jerk, but is both a narrative element and a game mechanic in itself, an exercise in social interaction (and, sometimes, psychological manipulation). I’ve found myself wanting more from other games’ dialog systems since playing this, and I’m pretty excited to see previews and speculation indicating that L.A. Noire is taking a similar approach, even playing up the need to read facial expressions.

I can’t help but notice that even in the course of praising these games, I’m pointing out what’s wrong about them, or how they show other games to be lacking. To me, I suppose, the real Game of the Year may be the game of next year, the game that I hope was implied by the advances I saw made in 2010. It’s the game that learned from Heavy Rain‘s successes and failures in emotional realism, Mass Effect 2‘s cinematic dialog, Red Dead Redemption‘s rich environment. It’s the game that you briefly mistake for a movie when you walk by GameStop in the mall, and that makes your relatives admit that while they don’t play games (except on the Wii, of course), they heard interesting things about this one. It’s the game that I’ll gripe about in a blog post because the walk cycles looked a bit off, or the inventory management was more complex than it needed to be, or the controls felt a bit laggy—but I’ll sure be looking forward to what it inspires in the year to come.

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