Back in 2014, Tony Zhou, of Every Frame A Painting fame, wrote a blog post about the best films of 2004. It wasn’t stating what they were, but rather a survey of what the critics said they were, a glance at the box office and then comparing the two against what films stood the test of time a decade hence. He went on to use that data to explain why certain films lasted and why they did over certain other films in the same year. I took inspiration from the first part of that effort.
That same year, I did the same for 2004 video games and have done so every December since. Unfortunately, all of those previous efforts were on Twitter and before threading became a thing, so unless some enterprising person wants to extract those tweets, they are lost to time.
I was really looking forward to this one. 2007 is held up as landmark, great year in video games, right up there with 1998 and 2005. Not sure I’d personally go that far, but yes it was good. Needless to say I was excited to do my little fun look back survey in 2017.
I didn’t have time this past December to do it, however. I starting the TYIVGB project a little late and had a lot more work to do this time around having not read much of it. In the end, this little ditty got shelved. However, nothing says I can’t do it now in blog post form.
A few quick things first:
I don’t remember if I ever mentioned it previous 10 year surveys, but the video game industry is notoriously poor in keeping track of accolades that aren’t completely recent. Also, very few sites have a continuity that lasts for a decade. Unless, you’re an IGN or Gamespot, the sites I’m looking at aren’t really around anymore and the big critic centered sites of today weren’t born yet.
Speaking of continuity, this is about sites, individual critics doing game of the year lists wasn’t a thing yet. That is a fairly recent development. All of these are the collective wisdom of whatever groups the accolades are representing, which means that the people deciding for a given site also don’t have continuity. People change jobs, but the label of the award will stay the same from year to year. Tastes of the sites can change based on the moving of individuals and there would be no way to know.
One last note, Top 10 lists are also very rare. Looking at my notes, only 4 sites in 2007 did a Top 10 list, most of the rest are only Top 5s. Additionally, unlike nowadays, game sites back then did Game of the Year like award shows, so you have a 1st place winner and 4 games tied for 2nd. Also, there was a bunch of sites I could only find the Game of the Year winner for and nothing else, because either the article or entire site didn’t exist anymore. Several of those were pulled from press releases, old forum posts and wiki entries.
Sufficed to say, this is not an academic survey analysis. This is not authoritative. This is me spending a few hours trawling through the wayback machine and giving my thoughts on some of the results. So, let’s have some fun!
2007: A Waltz Through the Numbers
Given that most sites only did what amounts to a Top 5 instead of a Top 10, one thing becomes immediately apparent. As great as 2007 may have been, its Game of the Year lists are incredibly boring. Yeah, if you weren’t Bioshock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Mass Effect, Super Mario Galaxy or Portal (The Orange Box for some sites) you weren’t winning. These titles came up over and over across the nearly 30 sites and publications I managed to find data on.
In fact, it’s when my expectations were subverted, even slightly, that I perked up. I’m not sure how much mileage I’m going to get from talking about all the kudos those 5 games received. Don’t get me wrong, they are historic, but this still might end up being mostly about the outliers.
Actually, I say 5 historic games, but I do have a question. Is Super Mario Galaxy still considered an all time great or has its star waned with a direct sequel and several other 3D Mario entries, including Super Mario Odyssey? This isn’t a rhetorical backhand, I legitimately don’t know. I never owned a Wii.
Bioshock took home 10 GotYs.
Super Mario Galaxy won 6.
Portal nabbed 5.
CoD4 got 3.
And poor Mass Effect only earned 1, from the New York Times of all places.
Actually, only one other game managed to earn a Game of the Year award: Halo 3. If there was a 6th Game of the Year contender in 2007, I’d probably say it was Halo 3 as it shows up more than any other game. Its win came from Time Magazine. Interesting how the 2 mainstream publications gave their top spot to games other than the massive winning 4 games above. Not sure what that says, because I don’t know who was behind those publications choosing and they still both went to really hardcore gamer titles anyway.
This list of awards also reveals that maybe the reason Portal “underperformed” is that a lot of sites were working out if they wanted to count it. Indie games were not yet a thing in the industry. In fact, they really got their kick off with the Xbox Live Arcade in the following year. The industry wasn’t sure what to do with short games, even if many games journalists at the time were calling it perfect. Being short was considered an inherent negative and Portal only wasn’t pilloried because it came packaged in with 4 other games, 2 of which weren’t new and just a repackaging. I can imagine a lot of hemming and hawing about that issue. At least as much as there was about PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds this year. Though Eurogamer said screw it and really went out there to put Team Fortress 2 in its top 10.
Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass showed up a bit too, mostly making its presence known in the Top 10 lists. However, it’s worth noting, that of the 3 ranked Top 10 lists, it ranked within the Top 5 in most of them. I wonder if because of the committee nature of most of these lists that for those lists without the space, they listed the games they “ought to” have listed rather than what the individuals felt were the best games.
I mean, if you see a Top 5 of 2007 consisting of Bioshock, Portal, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Mass Effect and Super Mario Galaxy, do you think there would be massive amounts of complaints?
I like the more space equals more diversity and stranger rankings theory. Eurogamer’s Top 10 is downright bizarre when compared to the rest of the field (Crackdown at 4? STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl at 10?). I think that’s because they don’t do a Top 10. They do a Top 50.
Hey, did you remember Rock Band came out in 2007? Well only Gamespot, TIME, Gamasutra (all Top 10s), NAVGTR, AIAS, GDCA (all industry run award shows) and the Australian TV Show Good Game did. Though, it didn’t fair as poorly as God of War II did, which only the aforementioned Good Game, Gamespot and TIME remembered. Crysis got two nods, while Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune only had one nod apiece.
Actually, this is kind of hard to parse, because Kotaku did their awards weird. They gave out 3 GotY’s claiming they all tied. Super Mario Galaxy, Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. They didn’t mention any other games, making it sound like this was an all or nothing award and this was an aberration.
Also, I’m not sure I should count the BAFTAs in this. They gave their award to Bioshock, but apart from Crysis, every other game on their list is from 2006. I don’t think they work on a calendar schedule.
All in all, looking back on the 2007 Game of the Year lists, no, 2007 was not a great year in gaming. It was a really strong year, no doubt. It just doesn’t have the critical mass of games I think of when I think of a great year in gaming.
However, I would put it alongside the likes of 1993 and 1998 in one other respect. Its games dictated the direction of the industry for the next decade. 2007 wasn’t great; it was influential.
Bioshock basically created the critical communities as we know them. Portal laid the groundwork for the smaller games to come, as well as solidified Steam’s dominance in the PC market. Super Mario Galaxy cemented Nintendo’s dominance for the console cycle and behind the scenes was a change up of how the design teams there operated. Mass Effect’s morality based choice system and way of doing conversations would find its way into so many games. And what is there to say about Modern Warfare’s effect on the FPS genre in both mechanics and aesthetics that hasn’t already been said.
Even the other games that weren’t at the top of heap had their effect. It’s difficult to remember, but Assassin’s Creed was this experimental risk for Ubisoft, not the safe, status quo juggernaut it has become. And maybe rhythm games didn’t last the full decade, but Rock Band dominated DLC charts and was the mainstream party game of choice while it was still kicking.
On the other hand, 2007 was kind of boring to go back through. It didn’t have the “well what you gonna do” casual nature of 2004, the artful choices of 2005, or the quirky, desperate choices of 2006. 2007, by comparison, was kind of homogeneous with the entire industry in lockstep. On the one hand, you could argue that’s just due to the high quality of the games that rose to the top, yet on the other, you can argue that’s because of the lower quality of their competitors.
Halo: Combat Evolved gets retrospectives. Halo 2 is remembered for it revolutionizing online play. Halo 3? I’m sure its generally well regarded, if its ever regarded at all. I can’t recall anyone ever saying anything about Halo 3 in the past decade.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass was a Legend of Zelda game on a handheld. Which means it remembered as well as a Legend of Zelda game on a handheld gets remembered and gets talked about just as much as you’d expect them to. Again, outside of Mark Brown doing a series on all of the Zelda games, I haven’t heard anyone say anything about it.
God of War II? Outside of IGN, I don’t know anyone that considers the God of War franchise to still be a thing to care about. I mean I still consider the original to be an all time great and I’m interested to see where Sony takes the new one, but the second one? It was more, but not necessarily better.
And I’m probably the only person that actually likes the original Uncharted game more than its sequels, so enough said about that.
Overall, I don’t feel like I understand 2007 from this experiment. Most of the year feels shrouded in the shadows of a few titans. Instead, I feel like I better understand the following decade by seeing the inception of so many of the design and business decisions going forward.
Maybe it’s not the fault of the games. The lack of individual lists means the lists are crafted by committee. The award show style presentations means that all the contenders must be a viable and acceptable winner. The smaller list size cuts out space for more titles to get recognized and ultimately remembered. And that’s before I get into the problems of internet archiving.
In considering 2007 10 years later, maybe saying that the critics back then nailed it isn’t the most useful thing to say. I mean, they did nail the great games that stand the test of time, but is that putting the cart before the horse? Did they stand the test of time because they were that great or because everyone remained in lockstep eschewing other titles from the spotlight? The more I look at these lists, the more I think of them as a referendum on the year itself, not the games that came out that year, but of where games were as a culture. It may or may not be a good reflection of the video games from that year, but it is a great reflection of the thinking that pervaded gamers and game critics.
It’s a rather startling cold splash of water in the face. There’s a fallacy in human experience, where we look at the how things are and subconsciously think this is how they’ve always been. As times and the world around us changes, so does our mental model of how the world has always worked. Looking back at this data and it is rather stark how different 2007 is to 2017 in some fundamental things we take for granted.
There are the little things, like there being no independent games, no mobile games, online connectivity still something of a novelty, open world games still very rare, Valve actually releasing game, etc. But seeing all of these lists together on one sheet of paper, reveals a drastic difference in basic thinking about games. Variety is far more coveted in 2017 and homogeneity considered a poor showing for a year. We are excited to see things we didn’t expect on a year end list. We expect more thorough examinations of the year’s releases represented in our lists. Listing only the biggest AAA games in a GotY list has become somewhat taboo. It’s something that isn’t done to the point that it’s no longer thought about.
I’d like to say if we as we are now were to redo 2007 as a year, that maybe our lists would look a lot different than they do, but then again, maybe not. Maybe 2007 didn’t have the games to support the ability to do something different. Maybe thinking like this is also putting the cart before the horse. Maybe the cultural and industry changes that came in the wake of 2007 were needed to facilitate the changes in thinking that came over the next decade. Maybe the Bioshocks and Portals and Modern Warfares of the world were the vanguard that caused the changes in how we think as video game critics to begin with.
So many maybes and so few data points.