Year-end Bests and Worsts in the Video Game Landscape

It’s almost the end of the year, so why not wrap things up by partaking in two of the Internet’s most time-honored traditions: ranting and list-making?!? Yes, it is time for year-end retrospectives. This year, current events and big fall releases have provided plenty of topics to shout about, so I’ll take advantage of my modest little soapbox to broadcast a few of my personal diatribes. In the interest of giving equal time to my curmudgeonly and cheery sides, I’ll make sure make sure to balance positive and negative trends I see as we close out 2013.

Let’s start with the worst:

1. “Worst of” lists are the worst

Optimistic spite prevents me from linking to any examples, but the annual “worst games of the year” lists are starting to trickle out. I get the appeal and understand the fun. It’s fun being snarky on the Internet and every year sees its share of rough releases, but I wish people would reign it in. On a purely practical level, these “worst of” lists are usually misnomers — most would be more accurately described as “most disappointing triple-A games of the year” or “Games that got rushed out the door” lists.

As my ever-wise creative partner Jorge once argued, you probably didn’t play the worst game of the year because it either got buried for it’s deficiencies or you had the good sense to avoid it. Did you play every licensed game shoved onto Toys R Us’s shelves? Did you comb Kongregate for every terrible runner clone? Did you play something that refused to boot? “Worst” is a weasel word.

Criticism is great and identifying true weaknesses is immensely valuable, but we’re in the midst of the release of an unprecedented number of amazing games from all parts of the publishing and price spectrum. It might be harder to describe why a game is a joy to play, but I would always rather err on the side of spotlighting great games rather than terrible ones.

2. Stop talking about the VGX

No, the irony of this request is not lost on me, but I’ll try to keep this brief. Unless it’s to criticize mock corporate shills, putting stock in the VGX as something beyond a glorified infomercial is pointless. We have dozens of press outlets that give out awards. We have organizations like GDC and the D.I.C.E. We have a worldwide information network that companies can use as a platform to host their own promotional material. We don’t need a shallow, juvenile, poorly planned awards show that apes the outdated idea of the Academy Awards while stirring people into a hype frenzy. This leads me to my final dour comment…

3. Jump off the hype train

Yes, No Man’s Sky looks cool (I guess, if you’re into pretty generic-looking sci-fi stuff). I like sci-fi stuff and I like procedurally generated games, but I don’t think that the promise of a game justifies abandoning critical thought. Why does everyone think the game is outstanding? Because it purports to be? Because the trailer was dramatic? Because the developers seem earnest? I honestly hope it’s great, but I have one word for those already hailing it as the next huge gaming event: Spore.

Again, this isn’t to say that I wish it ill; I think there’s great potential in it. That doesn’t change the fact that, like Watch Dogs, Destiny, or any other ad for any other big game in history, its highly scripted, exquisitely cut trailer says nothing about what it will actually feel like to play it. Let’s focus on getting excited about the games we can actually touch.

And with that, let’s lighten the mood with some high notes:

1. Normal people games

Jorge and I talked about this on our last podcast, but 2013 was a good year for “normal people” in games. Of course, the scene is still dominated by galaxy-wide clashes and fantasy battles, but recognition for games like Gone Home, Hate Plus, and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a refreshing departure for the industry. A dramatic conflict doesn’t have to involve the whole world in order to feel meaningful. If the characters are portrayed with empathy and honesty, the challenges they face have weight. Obligations to family, growing into adulthood, and defining your relationships are more personally dramatic than saving a universe full of characters whose only function is to act as set dressing and vending machines.

It helps that the three games that I mentioned, along with plenty of others, also go out of their way to make use of the medium itself. An interactive decision, or perhaps even the suggestion of a decision, allows themes to be communicated to our eyes, ears, and thumbs all at once. We all play through these games slightly differently, forming our own experiences and then sharing them with others to create a larger narrative whose many different threads trend in the same general direction: a better understanding of those other weird humans with whom we share the planet.

2. Streaming actually works on consoles

Speaking of sharing with weird humans, I’ll state again that the single most important aspect of the new consoles is the ability to easily share your play experiences. On a practical level, I am still astounded that Twitch integration on the PS4 works as well as it does. As someone who has fumbled around with streaming games on the PC for some time, this strikes me as an inflection point. Just as the Web brought a host of new people onto the Internet, the ease of use and accessibility of streaming will usher in a new group of amateur game archivists.

We are in the dawn of a new era of how we record, share, and analyze games, as we are now able to document and share the experience. Publisher rhetoric can now be challenged by anyone who presses the share button. The history of particular games or even entire genres has the potential to expand exponentially and be captured with unprecedented detail. Games will fade in and out of popularity, but we will have more evidence of their existence than ever before, and a good chunk of this evidence will have been created by the players themselves.

3. Cultural democratization

All these positive trends are part of a larger movement towards more diversity of experience and inclusiveness. Without a doubt, it is still difficult and expensive to buy games, run a website, or make your own games. However, it has never been cheaper or easier for individuals and small groups to influence video game culture. Established media outlets can be challenged by amateur blogs, official marketing can be supplanted by live streaming, and traditional publisher agreements disrupted by free tools and unorthodox funding schemes.

There were a few weird decades in between, but we’re finally getting back to the kind of environment we were in when id Software was mailing shareware to people. This time, however, the technology available to outsiders is better, the cost associated with it is lower, and the means to spread your message broadly is more powerful.

It’s an exciting time to be making things, and the new year is another opportunity to leave 2013’s “worsts” behind while holding on to the “bests.”