Well folks, it’s getting towards the end of another year, and that means not only holidays and gift giving but a proliferation of lists across the internet. You know the ones I’m talking about- The Top Ten Best whatever lists, along with those Worst lists that often accompany them. With the next generation of gaming hitting store shelves across the world, we’ve also seen many lists talking about the best games of the last (yet still current) generation. Of course, that gen is not dead yet, despite many having nice, new shiny toys to play with. Both Microsoft and Sony plan on supporting the PS3 and Xbox 360 for at least another 2-3 years, and with plenty of good games on the horizon, it might be a bit premature to finalize those best of generation lists.
But this article is not about those best of generation lists, though certainly some of the same parameters would apply. This is about those GOTY lists that both gamers and those of us who write about games tend to come up with around this time of year, and soon to be coming to a site near you. But, what exactly qualifies a game to be worthy of the honor of being named Game of the Year? And what is that honor worth, anyway?
That second question is a bit easier to answer, so I’ll tackle that one first. Let’s face it: People like awards. And they like awards shows. It’s always nice to have that justification for that movie, game, or latest CD we love get honored and show that our love of said piece wasn’t misplaced. Even those who eschew such things, saying they’ll like what they want and everyone else’s opinions be damned, get a touch of satisfaction when their favorite gets rewarded (It’s okay. You don’t have to deny it. But we won’t tell anyone, okay?). As videogames have grown in popularity, they, along with movies, television shows, and music, have been granted their very own televised awards show in the form of the VGAs carried on the cable channel Spike TV. It’s grown enough to attract some popular Hollywood talent to host the shows, among them Jack Black, Zachary Levi, and Nick Fury himself, Samuel L. Jackson. This year the show has been renamed VGX and has been extended in length to three hours, ostensibly for game developers to hawk their new, shiny upcoming next-gen games for the new consoles.
Game of the Year gives developers and publishers some bragging rights, doing for games what the Academy Awards do for movies or what the Grammys do for music. After all, if a creative work wins an award, it has to be good. Right? Of course it does. At least that’s what studio heads would like people to believe. And, to an extent, they have a point, as award winners often notice an uptick in sales. For those who work on the award winning films, shows, or games may find themselves with new job offers or have an easier time obtaining financial backing for future projects. Award winners get the prestige of being recorded into the history books (at least in their respective industry) and get to use the honor as a selling point on all future copies of the work. Advertisers try to get the most mileage that they can from awards, even using it as a selling point even if the work was simply nominated but didn’t win.
So, that’s what it may be worth to those in the entertainment industry. Of course, awards aren’t always necessary to generate huge sales. There are quite a few franchises that are hugely popular but almost never win anything or even get nominated, and they sell bucket loads of copies. Still, an award win or nomination can increase public interest, and lead to a positive financial gain. But in the end, what exactly makes a creative work worthy of an award? That’s a trickier question, and while this article’s main focus is on videogames, some of the factors can apply to all forms of entertainment. Understand that these are the factors I use to determine what makes a GOTY, and my opinions certainly may differ from others, though I think many of my points would find themselves on common ground. So, let’s get to those points, shall we?
Is it as easy as just being a number?
Everything nowadays gets some sort of rating from someone, whether it be a toaster or a big budget action flick rocking your local cinema. Games are no exception, and each new release generally is reviewed and granted some sort of rating, whether it be alphabetical, numerical, or something as simple as a thumbs up/thumbs down verdict. These ratings are used by many to determine whether a game is worth your time and money, to figure out how to separate the good from those better off as drink coasters.
Ratings are arrived at in different manners, and there is no real set standard on how to do that. In a perfect world that deciding factors would be wholly objective in nature, and for many writers we do strive to be as objective as possible. However, when it comes to creative works, complete objectivity is rarely the only thing that affects review scores. Opinions are bound to creep in, and more often than not do. Of course, some reviews are more opinion than others, especially if the reviewer has a particular bias towards something (for example, a movie critic who despises horror movies is unlikely to reward any horror film with a decent score). Also, even when people feel they are being objective, they may not be doing so. One person may think they’re objectively stating that a game’s controls are smooth and intuitive, while another person may completely disagree, finding instead that those same controls felt more clumsy in their hands. Great graphics in the eyes of one reviewer might be more pedestrian in the eyes of another. And so on. Then how does one arrive at the correct interpretation? Perhaps the best way is to take in multiple reviews, and see where the consensus lies.
So how important is that rating then? For many, it can be the deciding factor between a purchase or a rental. Some use it to decide whether the game should even be played at all. For most people, especially as gamers have gotten older and now have other life commitments to attend to, both time and money may be in shorter supply, and they want to make the best use of both. Others may use the ratings to determine how quickly they’ll get to a title, be it a must have and a day one purchase or something that can be waited for to hit the bargain bin.
So can a rating, be it a letter or a simple number, be used solely in choosing a GOTY? In one sense, no, because how would you then differentiate between titles that end up with similar numbers? Certainly, it can be one factor. But for many it won’t be the only one.
How about sales figures?
This too can be taken into account, and often is. After all, it’s easier to award a movie or game that the public has gobbled up en masse, rather than a title few have seen or played. But do those huge blockbusters deserve the honor? In many cases, no. Few would argue that anything from the Twilight franchise is worthy of an award, and many gamers might feel the same way about the Call of Duty series. Both have enormous sales figures, and both are derided both online and off. Yet for many, these works bring joy to their lives, and they can’t wait for the next installment. So, once again, a number can’t be he sole factor, though it certainly could figure into the final decision.
Does a story matter, or is it simply just about the gameplay?
Games have certainly grown up over the years, becoming more technically proficient and more mature in terms of content. Heavier subjects are now tackled in games, sometimes inspired by literature. Early shooters were just about getting through a level and shooting as many bad guys as possible, rarely concerned with anything more than you played a s a good guy who was taking on the bad guys. Of course, quite a few modern shooters boil down to the same basic concept. They’re just told in a more spectacular fashion, being akin to those big summer blockbuster movies in the theater. Hints of weightier themes can be found in such titles as Call of Duty: Black Ops or Battlefield: Bad Company. Others have taken a more literary route, as Spec Ops: The Line takes its main inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness, and explores the morality of war, giving players choices between not good or bad, but between bad and worse. Others have tackled themes dealing with the loss of a child (Heavy Rain), sexual relationships (Catherine), redemption (Red Dead Redemption), and madness created in the wake of trying to create a utopia for their fellow man (Bioshock).
Other games are a bit more lighthearted, choosing not to adopt such a serious tone. Yet these can have their moments as well, be they humorous in nature (the Ratchet & Clank series) or have the feel of a rollicking adventure (the Uncharted series). Strong characters are especially important in these stories, giving players someone to care about as they make their way through the games. Many recall the emotion they felt from Final Fantasy VII the first time they played it, as it gave you well constructed characters to play as, and in recent years that emotional tie has been used to great effect in games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us. Memorable characters make for more memorable games, with names like Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, Solid Snake, and Commander Shepard remaining in our memories well after the game has been put back in its case. These characters drive their respective stories, earning their place in our hearts as well as on our shelves.
Of course, even the greatest story in a game isn’t enough to carry it to greatness if the gameplay is lacking. And here’s where opinions can widely vary. Some will say that titles from studio Quantic Dream are more interactive experiences than actual games, as they are primarily made up of QTEs (Quick Time Events). But I would say they still qualify, because what’s the difference if you have to press a particular button to pull off a certain action from memory, or press it when the on screen prompt tells you to? In the end, you still have to press the button. But controls that are slow to respond or don’t respond at all can make a game go quickly from being fun to being frustrating. So good controls are essential, even though what constitutes those good controls may vary from person to person for a variety of reasons (skill level, age, etc.).
It’s not always enough to have great controls though, as gamers like to use those controls in a variety of ways. Repetitive gameplay, where you do the same thing over and over for hours on end, can quickly spoil a game for some players. Others may find the repetition fun, especially if the graphics give you cool looking animations. Bu games that give us a variety of things to do tend to stick with us longer, and keep our attentions rather than having us grow bored and go on to something else. Difficulty can be another factor for some players, as some bemoan the state of current games, saying they’re far too easy with things like regenerating health and generous checkpoints. For myself, choosing what difficulty level to play on is an individual choice, and there is no wrong choice in how difficult players want the game to be. Some gamers tend to forget that not all players have the same set or level of skills. More seasoned players may relish the harder difficulty levels, and praise games like Demons Souls and Contra for their crushing difficulty. Newer players or those that just want to experience everything the game has to offer in one playthrough may opt for easier difficulty levels, as not everyone has the patience to try defeating the same boss for the twentieth time. Also, difficulty should be fair, and not made to be overly hard just for the sake of being hard.
So if the gameplay and story is there, and the difficulty level is just right, what else can go in deciding if the game is GOTY material? Easily enough, our senses can tell us that, particularly those of sight and sound. And game can have a great story and awesome controls, but an ugly looking game and one that has sound cutting in and out can readily spoil the overall experience. Graphics have especially taking astounding leaps forward, especially in the incredible amount of detail that can be provided by the game’s artists and animators. Games like Grand Theft Auto V and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag have an incredible amount of detail that we can see in each frame. A good musical score helps to lift the game up as well, along with the ambient sounds of the game world, like birds singing in the trees, the sound of footsteps on stone, or the crashing of waves upon a shore. Voice acting has become equally important as games have become more cinematic in nature, needing those higher levels of performance that bring characters to life instead of them being flat. Many voice actors are easily recognized by games due to their impressive work, and that’s been a lot of crossover between film and games as actors opt to try performing in a different medium. Great voice acting and music, like gameplay, story, and graphics, combine to make those games a memorable experience.
The thing is, when it comes to what makes a game memorable and worthy of an honor like Game of the Year, there are a lot of factors to be considered. Not all of them can be arrived at objectively, as all artistic works affect people in different ways. Opinions come into play, whether we want them to or not. Sadly, the internet can seem to be completely lacking in its respect for opposing opinions, leading to the ridiculous fanboy wars over what game or system is better. Games need to remember that gaming should be an inclusive hobby, and not an exclusive one.
What makes a game worthy of being called Game of the Year? Quite a bit, as you can see. As I said before these are the factors I look at when making my own choices. Some may agree, some may not. And some may even have more criteria than I do. What factors do you consider for picking your GOTY? Or don’t you bother to worry about such things, and just enjoy games for what they are, having no interest in ranking them? let us know in the comments below, and keep an eye out for our writers’ individual lists to make their appearance over the next month. Until then, happy gaming!
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