Our Game of the Year list is taking shape. I don’t remember the previous year being so full of nauseating dilemmas. “Mass Effect 2! DONE.”
—Ludwig Kietzmann (@ludwigk), Senior Editor, joystiq.com
It’s not clear yet exactly what 2011 will mean for video games once we gain the perspective of hindsight. It could be that the increased quality of independent and digitally-distributed games is blurring the lines of what are considered truly great game experiences; it could also be that the most highly anticipated offerings from the most revered franchises in gaming uniformly underwhelmed. Much anticipated entries from triple-A franchises are still the kings and queens of pure sales figures, but the games that truly ingrained themselves into our hearts and minds came from a ridiculously diverse range of places. Independent games, iPhone games, action games, puzzle games, portable games, console games, and yes, even a few of the big franchises are all fair game for Game of the Year mentions this year; never, in the short history of the medium, has the apparent quality of a given game seemed so subjective.
Of course, this has led to much navel gazing in the critical community as writer after writer tries to come to terms with what the word “review” means, what the word “criticism” means, and how those things interact with each other. Should a review always be purely evaluative of the game’s objective merits, or is there room for “feel” in a review? Is a review considered criticism? Must criticism be critical? Are review scores too low, too high, just right, or utterly useless?
There are nuanced, individualized answers to all of these questions, answers that help to shape the ways that we evaluate the games we play.
Today, we debate a new option for 2011 GOTY: nothing.
—Stephen Totilo (@stephentotilo), Deputy Editor, kotaku.com
Trying to wrap all of the great games together into a single comprehensive list for the sake of a definitive answer to the question of “What was the best game that came out this year?” is folly. We do not evaluate games as they exist on the shelf of the local big box, we evaluate games as we ourselves play them, and as such, there is a personal element to the experience that cannot be avoided. Unlike films, music, and books, the experience of a game could well be very different from one person to the next; while the rule set will stay the same from player to player, the experiences within that rule set can vary wildly.
What makes these lists interesting isn’t the finality of picking the “best” games, what makes them interesting is seeing whether the readers’ tastes and experiences align with the writers, whether there are any surprises that might inspire a second look at a game that might not have gotten a fair shake the first time around.
While this has always been true, outlets such as Steam, Kongregate, the various App Stores, and even Xbox Live Arcade are facilitating the mainstreaming of the best of the independents—all it takes is a little bit of buzz and one of Steam’s ridiculous sales, for example, and a game that had been bubbling under the radar suddenly becomes a hit. People find things to love about it that even the developers never imagined, and suddenly, it’s a phenomenon, ripe for just the sort of list that we’re trying to make here. It’s actually kind of beautiful to be watching as the organic and largely word-of-mouth publicity cycle of independent games starts to compete with the corporate publicity cycle of the year’s Big Sequels. It doesn’t speak to the relative quality of one type of game to the other, but it certainly makes for sentimental favorites.
What you may notice right off the bat is that the writers here at PopMatters apparently don’t own any portable gaming devices. That said, it’s clear that the varied interests, experiences, and preferences here at PopMatters have resulted in a list that very well encapsulates the year in gaming. This year was a year when something called Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars can be celebrated alongside the latest Gears of War game. This was a year in which one of the most reviled games is also one of the most revered (Dragon Age II).
It’s kind of a conventional list in some ways and kind of a weird list in others.
—G. Christopher Williams, Multimedia Editor, popmatters.com
Let’s get down to it, then.
Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars
(Adult Swim Games; US: 7 Apr 2011)
Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars
Let’s be honest: by their very nature, video games are a bit sadomasochistic. Players willingly subject themselves to challenging situations in which they possess limited control. This is especially true in Anna Anthropy’s Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars, a game that delights in teaching painful lessons.
Much like the 1980s arcade classics after which it is modeled, Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars punishes failure as much as it rewards skill. As the Spider Queen, players must navigate a top-down maze while reeling in hordes of rebelling slaves. The queen’s web slowly draws captives towards her, but the copious number of escapees gives you a good incentive to keep moving. One false move, one random knife, or one unfortunate turn in the maze will cost you one precious life. Losing all of your lives yields a humiliating choice: while controlling a rope-bound Spider Queen, you can choose to squirm your way to freedom and forfeit your score or retreat back to the title screen in shame. Either way, you are physically linked to the choice.
Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars is an 8-bit homage with sexploitation sensibilities that will deal out as much punishment as the player wants. However, like the any healthy sadomasochistic relationship, you remain in control: you can either tap out or learn to overcome the game’s challenges. Racking up a huge score or discovering a new tactic to capture those impudent slaves is stressful but immensely satisfying. It sounds glib, but it’s true: Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars just hurts so good. Scott Juster
(Deep Silver; US: 6 Sep 2011)
Dead Island is a hybrid of an FPS and an RPG, and it’s also more than the sum of its parts since all of its mechanics work to emphasize horror. Combat demands that you get up close to enemies that can easily kill you, and since the zombies level up with you, there’s a never a moment when you feel powerful.
But the best thing about Dead Island is that it’s actually two games in one. Its single player experience is a brutal horror game that makes you feel weak even as you collect better and better weapons. Its cooperative multiplayer combines the action of Left 4 Dead with the random chaos of Borderlands. One moment you’ll have to decide whether to risk your life to save a friend or leave him to die, the next moment you and that same friend will be jousting with trucks. The game works either way and that makes Dead Island one of the most surprising games of the year as well as one of the best. Nick Dinicola