So, I’m leaving this to last possible moment this year…again. But I have a better excuse than last time of not being able to decide. This time it’s because my time has been filled with other projects, the most notable, or at least the one that has been revealed was the rebirth of the Critical Distance podcast.
Suffice to say I also haven’t played all that many games from this year. I missed out on most if not all of the major releases and most of the secondary releases. This is all depending on your deification of AAA release and AA or A release. I also had a bit of trouble deciding on which game I thought was the best. There was no supreme standout like ’08 or at least a powerful shortlist like in ’09. As I said on the CDC podcast, this year seemed to be a bunch of lackluster releases. All had great promise and all seemed to trip over themselves in some way or another. Even those that some have said didn’t, I haven’t got around to playing yet. I’m still waiting for a laptop with a dedicated graphics card so I can play the Mass Effects and Metro 2033. Bayonetta, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Red Dead are all sitting in my play next pile having got them over the Christmas break.
It’s not surprising since I was broke for a good amount of the year and spent 3 full months getting reading for and taking a language class to graduate. Now it just sounds like I’m making excuses, let’s get on with it. There won’t be a long set up and handing out of awards, but before I announce my game of the year I’d like to get talk about my honorable mention.
Minecraft was the breakout hit of the year, literally coming out of nowhere to being a million dollar seller. The fact that or most of the year it was is alpha is absolutely incredible. The creative force behind the game comes from the player almost if not more so than the creator. Both the creative and the survival aspects of the game create a special sort of game that creates a unique and personal experience for every individual. There are many things about the game that subvert many of the notions of modern AAA gaming. There is no instruction manual requiring you either to figure it out before night falls or search the internet for only the most basic of facts about what can and needs to be done. There is no real goal once you create a basic shelter; you make your own fun. It’s the digital equivalent of going to the park. There are monkey bars, there are slides, there are swings, but the fun you get out of it is only what you put into it.
Before the October 31st update, I created two worlds and spent most of my time in large dungeons/cave complexes I found. In the second world I found a mountain and started to dig a D&D style dungeon before digging straight down and hit a large cave complex. I spent days exploring and ended up getting lost in circles and then three dimensional figure eights. I went further into the system where figure eights blended with more figure eights. Eventually I hit bedrock in several locations. I nicknamed it Barad dur. I didn’t even get to finish exploring it. I failed at building a bridge across a lake of lava.
I built another world after the October 31st update to see the new biomes and other features Notch had coded into the game. Unfortunately for all the universal praise I could give the game’s design, creation and otherwise soul it came with a memory leak. A basic, 16 bit game after a few minutes eventually monopolizes over half of my computer’s processor and third of my ram, over a full gig. I can play only with every other nonessential program turned off and few of the essential programs and only for a limited amount of time before the frame rate makes it unplayable. I wish I could still play the game and maybe it will be fixed by some update in the future. I hope so, because I’d like to continue extending my Barad dur and build my great wall. Because of this major technical hiccup I can’t really rate the game. Without this issue, it would have been my runner up, or maybe even my game of the year.
Heavy Rain was and is a game plagued with problems and issues. The walking is stilted, the story is full of holes, actions scenes come and go that make little or no sense, characters are stupid and the dialogue wasn’t written or translated by a native English speaker. I think the game is great despite it’s flaws. For all that it does bad, it creates a world and sinks you into it. All modern AAA talk about immersion, Heavy Rain succeeds by having a story and set pieces that are quiet. Explosions and gunfights are not the word here, in fact when these things happen it breaks the immersion somewhat. The best scenes are those that allow quiet contemplation about what you are making these characters do.
The third trial is the most talked about scene in the game, so I’m sure no one minds if I go on about it as well. I cannot tell you the tension this scene filled me with. I can’t think of any movie or book made me feel so terrified or shaking by watching a man sitting in a chair. That’s really all you are looking at while you manage his breathing. Just so the screen will stop it’s slight shaking. If you succeed you are give a clean opportunity to cut off your own finger. The fact that the game sets this up, so you would okay with it, but became complicit. Yes, Metal Gear Solid 3 broke this ground, but that’s all it did. It broke the ground and it took a lot of people off their guard. The impact of the scene was inherited not really because of the story or action, but its impact is from the realization the game is making you pull the trigger. It crosses that line from QTE to moment, by virtue it was a basic mechanic of the game you spent hours mastering. In Heavy Rain, it is the same mechanic used for a large variety of actions. With this setup context is everything. The abstract and representational nature of the mechanics amplified the context and the actions we were taking.
The game also had something almost no other game had, which I was grateful for: quiet and slow moments. Many have unrightfully called the beginning boring. It was slow, that is not the same as boring. Modern gaming has set us up with certain expectations and when a game defies even one of them, everyone claims it is bad this or that without even looking at what the game was doing. Heavy Rain was giving us contrast. Action heavy scenes only have meaning if they can be contrasted with slower scenes of quiet intensity. For all the details that were Heavy Rain’s failing, its structure, something I’ve been harping on nearly all year, is excellent. It’s pacing is right on point to tell the story it was trying to tell and matched mechanics to suit it. Everything flowed together and builds a solid super structure on which they could hang the dressings. Pity they chose moth eaten rags, nearly pretty and shiny rags, but rags nonetheless.
It’s the complicity that I loved in Heavy Rain more than anything else. It create a situation where failure wasn’t the end all be all. Every ending was legitimate, from the saccharine sweet to the soul crushingly depraved and everything in between. It really was a what-if mystery. Maybe not so much with whodunit, if you were paying attention (I wasn’t paying close attention), but rather in what will happen next. It is a roller coaster, but not the Michael Bay type and thank goodness for that.
Game of the Year
Neptune’s Pride is an online real time strategy game that takes about a month to complete. It is slow moving RTS, with ships taking hours if not days to travel between stars. It’s rather bare bones with only you only able to upgrade the three attributes of a star: economy, industry and science. The first gives you more money in the daily pay out; the second gives you more ships per day and science, which makes research towards tech, go faster. Combat automatically happens and can be calculated ahead of time. There are no random chances to any part of this game. I’d call it the chess of RTS, but you aren’t given full or perfect information. You can only see the space with scanning range of your stars. You can contact the other players and can trade with them. This is where the game takes itself to the next level.
This is a game where you can lose friends or come to hate strangers. The game becomes more an exercise in trust and betrayal than it is strategy. You can get through the early game with strategy alone, maybe, but if you haven’t set something up, something in the wings you will be destroyed. I lost a game today, because I didn’t foster any sort of relationships with my neighbors and went first in everything to 5th place behind two opponents who had been put under AI for inactivity. No video game makes you so nervous to be away from your computer. No game so simple or basic pulls you win and gets you so invested in your empire’s survival.
The ludodecahedron set up a few games in the summer to duke it out. No game caused so much battling on twitter or googlewave as the virtual fighting we did in Neptune’s Pride. Only a rule system as deep as Neptune’s Pride with the added benefit of human cunning mix to create a truly personal and memorable experience. I mastered the strategy, but my undoing is when it comes to betrayal. When it’s time to invade my neighbor, I set up too late. On the other hand I have come in first in two games, with tactics I could regale you with like the master generals.
Neptune’s Pride, a game with real people pit against real people, with no flash or complexity is my game of the year.