Determining what is the “Game of the Year”, the best video game to be released in twelve calendar months, is an inherently unfair process. Lets say that in 20XX, despite vital utilities being compromised due to the vile progenitors of Mavericks, a game came out that was the best one-touch iOS game that had ever been. It’s a great time waster and you might even want to spend some of your time when not in a long line playing it. The graphics are great, the music is catchy and smooth and it makes great use of a set of in-game physics that is easy to learn and takes a lot of practice to master. An amazingly fantastic, almost perfect game. However, when compared to deeper, more complex and traditional home releases, it cannot really stack up against them because it would be difficult to compare the two on an equal level as the home game is so much more than the time waster. Basically, Tiny Wings is the definition of a great iOS game, but I cannot say that it is “the best game of 2011” without some massive qualifiers.
So beginning from the position that the process to determine the “best” game is unfair the question becomes how to deal with that. Many decide to go the route of creating a bunch of categories and qualifiers to avoid the unfairness. In this system, Tiny Wings might win best iOS game or best handheld game, but it wouldn’t be game of the year. But people that do this probably realize that if they were to take all of the content of the games together, the little iPhone game wasn’t going to stack up to the newest Call of Duty. It was never going to happen on an even field, and there has to be an even field for the prize that is awarded to the best overall game. The categories are a venue for discussion and a reflection or perhaps even a consolation prize to the person that made the best ninety-nine cents release of the year.
Instead, I choose to embrace the unfairness. We make comparisons of apples and oranges in our everyday lives, fair or no, so I shall do this here. I made a list of some of the best games I played this year and that list is:
– The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
– Portal 2
– L.A. Noire
– Saints Row: The Third
– The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
– Dead Space 2
– Deus Ex: Human Revolution
– Super Mario 3D Land
Honorable mentions (games I fretted over placing on the list of eight or crossed off and put back on several times): Infamous 2, RAGE, Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3, Ultimate Marvel versus Capcom 3, Battlefield 3, Bastion, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Dragon Age 2 and The Witcher 2.
In order to compare these games in the least fair manner possible, I took a page out of the tankobons of Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball) and Yoshihiro Togashi (YuYu Hakusho) and threw my contenders into a tournament. You too can play at home. All you need is a group of sixteen games–eight if you’re like me and don’t want to spend twenty thousand plus words on the topic–and a dice or some other random way to determine who goes where in the bracket. What follows is a discussion of how I’ve decided which is the best out of the pairings that pop up, which ultimately will lead to a grand champion. You might think differently about which is better, so feel free to let me know if I screwed up. All of these are great games that you should play if’n ya like vidja games.
(Side note: Now that I look at the list, I have no idea which one is going to win. Oddly, I can say that if one’s only deciding factor is original IP, LA Noire wins just because it’s the only game that is not the newest in a series. But this is a sequel driven industry, and just because something is unique or new does not mean it’s good. So I cannot just call it now.)
Match 1: Super Mario 3D Land vs. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
This matchup exemplifies the problem of game of the year debate and coverage. The easy solution would be to make different categories so that they did not have to be weighed against one another and just avoid further reflection. But such a system can virtually guarantee that a great handheld game will not make the final cut given the massive host of impressive console games. While Nintendo’s Mario franchise has about a decade on the Maryland based developer’s best known series, both titles are the latest in a series that many people love. A group that includes yours truly. There is obviously a pretty radical difference in the scope of the two games. One game is a grand fantasy adventure filled with hundreds of hours of content and the other can be cleared in a Sunday. Skyrim has the ability to jump, but the Dragonborn does not have the same flair for it that Mario has. When taking into account all the different aspects of the games, there is at least one area that they can be compared: execution.
In terms of scope, Skyrim wins this contest hands down. The mountainous province of Tambriel is filled with vast amounts of lore and detail just waiting to be discovered. The Mushroom Kingdom is a confined set of areas. Although it would lose a great amount of its charm, Mario could be replaced with an anonymous stick man and the cartoonish and iconic enemies could be made into moving boxes or balls and it would still be a well made platformer. But scope and design aspirations mean nothing if the execution isn’t there. It is the difference between theory and practice. In theory, at the start of the 1899 season, the Cleveland Spiders were the best baseball team ever put together. 154 games later, they actually turned out to be not just the worst team that year, but arguably the worst major league team of all time.
To enjoy the Elder Scrolls, you have to ignore all of the bad AI, repetitive fetch quests, bugs and hard crashes. Just like diehard Spiders fans probably ignored 134 losses and truly savored those 20 wins. Now Skyrim is a good game, and it might be a little unfair to compare it to the worst baseball team of all time. But what is not unfair is to say that buggy games cannot be games of the year because in the final analysis, games are software. When accounting software has so many bugs that it is noticeable to the user and actually affects the system running it negatively, no one recommends that you buy it. Games are products you buy and when there is a huge team involved, there is no reason consumers should have to tolerate unpolished games. Never once when I was playing with my 3DS did I have to cope with jank.
Winner: Super Mario 3D Land
Match 2: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword vs. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Maybe it is because I am no longer twelve, or maybe it’s because I have seen the other incarnations of the Link-With-A-Thousand-Faces, but I had a very hard time caring about the narrative in 2011’s Zelda. The carrot at all times was of the “you’re going to see some new Zelda hotness if you stick with this” variety. In contrast, the near future, cyberpunk setting of Deus Ex was very relatable and I wanted to help Jensen solve the mystery of his lady friend’s abduction. I also knew that there was the ability to unlock crazy cyborg abilities by playing, but I would have wanted to keep playing even if all implants and augmentations were active for the whole game.
Deus Ex manages to create a believable alternate world (if you can believe that the entire planet decides to switch to a black and gold color scheme in the mid ‘90s) filled with complex, human characters and a wealth of story and emails that give a greater context to the sometimes less than stellar action. Skyward Sword’s another Zelda game. Link is again a young elf guy on the verge of a big rite of passage, just about to start a grand adventure. At this point, from the next Zelda game I want a world like the one in the NES original: a largely unpopulated place where the focus is on collection, exploration, combat and using new tools to explore old areas – what the Zelda series does well. I would rather have zero narrative than a tired, uninspired, safe, bland storyline which makes me want to not play the game.
Winner: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Match 3: Portal 2 vs. Saints Row: The Third
Both of these games are refinements of games that came before them. Portal uses its portal mechanic to allow players to solve puzzles and dodge obstacles by creating two gateways to two different surfaces. This alone is a great idea that was well implemented in the first game, but it is even more fun with the ability to use the preservation of momentum to fling the player great distances. “Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” It is beyond surprising to me that more developers have not tried to appropriate this general mechanic. The Saints Row series is just another in a long line of games that have come in the wake of Grand Theft Auto 3. You play a person that can run around and shoot things, but also get into different cars and shoot them.
Portal 2 is certainly a better game than the original (when judgment is divorced from the narrative elements). Velocity alteration and light bridges really lead to a couple of head scratchers on my part. Comparatively, driving around Steelport is a far more accessible experience. The traditional motorcycles and cars all handle well, and even the helicopters are more manageable this time around. To a degree, I’m glad there is no effective cover system in Saints Row, because if you are not blowing up half a dozen cop cars at the same time, getting head and nut shots off while moving around all over the place, maybe jacking a car mid-firefight, you’re doing something wrong.
I like the way that Saints Row continues to up the ante in its strength: silly action. Portal 2 cannot do that without making the puzzles virtually impossible to solve. Also, I was a bit disappointed to get dropped back into experiment chambers. I unequivocally love GLaDOS and the writing in Portal and its sequel, but I also want to see what would happen when all of the gameplay elements are taken out of the test chambers. Grappling hooks are fun, but they are way more fun when you can mess with the world in strange and unpredicted ways like you could in Just Cause 2. While nothing as crazy as a portal gun, there is plenty of crazy to be had in the virtual out of doors in Saints Row. This contest was exceedingly close, and maybe it’s a product of playing a lot of it recently, but I just think I had more basic fun with the refined gameplay of this year’s headline GTA clone.
Winner: Saints Row: The Third
Match 4: LA Noire vs. Dead Space 2
Both of these games came out earlier in the year, and it is likely that a lot of people forgot all about them when thinking of the year in review. Which is a shame because they are both amazing games that were all the more enjoyable because there were not tons of new releases of merit in the winter and early spring.
On a gameplay level, Dead Space 2 wins hands down. There is a great variety of weapons and abilities to use to solve puzzles and kill space [not]zombies. The limb severing mechanic from the first game is just as memorable and fun as it was when the original came out. Once again I had to train myself to not shoot enemies in the head, but in their oversized scythe-like appendages. There was also a fair amount of replay value given the different modes in EA’s horror title. Contrasted with the dull, kind of clunky, basic pre-Gears of War cover based shooting in LA Noire, if the sole deciding factor was fun factor, the win goes to Visceral Games.
Unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, the handling of the game is not what made LA Noire special. If it was just a GTA clone where players play as a cop, the game wouldn’t even be on my list. The thing that is so impressive about the tale of Detective Phelps is that it is better characterized as an adventure game than an action game. A lot of titles claim to be “action-adventure”, this actually pulls it off. Collecting evidence to use against people in an interrogation has been seen before, but actually having to read the face of a person to tell if they are lying, just like real cops have to, is something altogether different. At first the suspects and witnesses are fairly easy to read, but as things progress one really has to look at someone and the evidence to see if a witness is hiding anything.
The only thing that breaks the immersion is the little jingle that tells players if they selected the right dialogue option. I wish there was a way to turn this off as hearing the twisted, out of tune Wrong Choice music always made me want to restart a case. Even with this annoyance, this is a leap ahead for adventure games and raises the bar significantly on what it can mean to interact with a character in a video game. A representation of a person that in this game is literally a digital actor. Mere dialogue trees now seem a little hollow after LA Noire. Hopefully 2012 will have a few more games where it doesn’t just matter what an NPC says, but how they say it.
Winner: LA Noire
Check back Wednesday for the semifinal match-ups!