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A Change from the Norm

November 29th, 2012 by

The nominations for the VGA nominees have been announced, and whilst there are numerous “Game of the Year” lists out there, all with varying degrees of bias and accuracy, what stuck out for me in the VGA list was that two of the games up for consideration are smaller, downloadable games. I’ve always wondered when a downloadable title would be seen by many as an unequivocal game of the year.

The past few years, the choice has been, relatively, unanimous. In 2011, we had Skyrim, before that in 2010, there was Mass Effect 2, and in 2009, it was Uncharted 2. Each year, these games dominated these lists.  Last year however, I truly felt Supergiant Games’ Bastion might have broken through on a few sites and lists, and whilst it placed high on many, it didn’t manage to take any top spots.

This year it might just happen. thatgamecompany’s Journey and Telltale’s The Walking Dead are two of the five VGA nominees, and whatever your stance on the VGA’s or your own personal opinions on the merits of these games, there can be no denying that they deserve their place. These two games have received a mass of praise from both industry and community websites and podcasts, and as we get to the end of the year, their names are cropping up repeatedly again.

This isn’t an interrogation about the validity of game of the year lists or the attributes of the various games on them, but it just got me thinking about the increased profile of smaller, indie and downloadable titles that has occurred this year.

On XBLA, Fez lived up to the hype of its long development cycle, becoming a strong community and meta-experience as well as a mind bending puzzler. 2D platformer Mark of the Ninja successfully granted the player complete control and freedom in a stealth environment to a greater extent than the vast majority of 3D efforts have ever done. On PlayStation 3, I cannot wait to try DYAD and am eagerly awaiting the EU release of Retro City Rampage.

Some of the best games I have played on the PC have been smaller downloadable titles. Home, Legend of Grimrock, Lone Survivor and FTL have grabbed me and given me more of a unique experience than several higher profile titles released this year, which are increasingly not living up to expectations. Assassin’s Creed 3 and Mass Effect 3, whilst solid games, just haven’t had the impact of Home’s open ended narrative structure or FTL’s capacity to create individual stories and scenarios each time you play. The two downloadable titles on the VGA list also offer something much deeper and richer, without just throwing content at the player in the name of depth and value. Are they serious contenders to do what Bastion couldn’t? I think so.

Journey is a unique experience. Quiet, slow placed and incredibly personal and intimate, it created a world both visually stunning and emotionally effective, with no need for an intrusive HUD, screen splattered explosions or ridiculous QTE’s to deliver a breathless experience. It’s progressive and seamless implementation of co-op is something for future developers to think about.

The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead. And one more time, The Walking Dead. I feel that is all that needs to be said. PR for many of the more bombastic game is littered with words such as emotional or visceral, but this experience is unlike any in terms of storytelling and character. You can argue that the game part is static and very conventional, but it is still an experience that can only be mediated through games, and it has pulled of the not exceptional feat of creating a child character that you both believe in and care deeply about.  I can’t remember a gaming experience that has felt so real emotionally, delivering not just the usual standard fare of fear, trepidation and anxiety, but also more subtle emotions such as genuine distrust and even shame.  This is the one that I feel is a genuine contender. I am writing this the day before the release of the final episode, and unless they really drop the ball, Telltale should be expecting their work to be gathering up GOTY awards all over the internet.

The success and appeal of indie and downloadable games might be the subject of a future article, but for now, like me, I hope that you have your fingers firmly crossed for the success of the games to appear at the top of many lists at the end this year. It might make a refreshing change.

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