Small Spoilers for Multiple Games – You Have Been Warned
If you had told me a year ago that the two games that would stick in my mind, as the best of the year, would be downloadable titles, I don’t think I would have believed you. The year was stacked with blockbusters determined to get our attention; Mass Effect 3, Halo 4, Borderlands 2, and Assassin’s Creed 3. Any one of those games had the potential to be the “Game of the Year.” Each had their own hype train rolling behind them, and the gaming public ate it up. We were so excited to see how Shepherd’s story would end, how Master Chief would confront this new threat, or how many new guns we could find on Pandora. They were known quantities. We knew that we would love all of these, the question was simply, “how much?”
thatgamecompany had made some amazing games before Journey had ever came out. Both flow and Flower were unique experiences but neither had set the world on fire. flow was a game about evolution, and Flower was a beautiful silent narrative about nature versus industry. Similar to the creatures in flow, you could tell that thatgamecompany was going somewhere with their projects; that they too, were evolving. Jenova Chen, as lead designer, had set a precedent with their first two titles; that they were trying to create emotional experiences unlike anything that had come before. They were lofty words, yet with their third project, Journey, that dream was realized.
Journey was simply that, a journey. You play the part of a traveler; but you are not alone. The game pairs you up with another player as soon as you start the game. There is no loading screen, no matchmaking menu; you simply just see them in the distance, and there they are. There is no mic support; the only communication you have is through the in-game “chirps” that have the secondary purpose of restoring the other player’s power. It is through this mostly silent relationship that the game’s more emotional moments occur. Nothing is more terrifying than losing your partner in the middle of level; as you call out to him/her, and realizing that you are completely alone again. There is a legitimate feeling of loss, or maybe anger, as you may have been left behind by a more pragmatic player. This is all elevated by the amazing soundtrack, that ebbs and flows with the action, or lack thereof, on the screen. The game is a metaphor; yet the narrative is created by the player. What happened to you on your journey will not be what happened in mine. You might have had multiple travel partners, while I made it through with just one. Your emotional response will be completely different than mine based on how you played through your experience. When you finally reach the ending; after about three hours or so of play, you have experienced a whole spectrum of emotion, and probably a tear or two.
Similarly, Telltale games wasn’t completely unknown before this year. They were singly responsible for saving the “point and click” or “adventure” genre from complete extinction. They brought back classic franchises like Sam and Max and Monkey Island, and had created new experiences based on the likes of Wallace and Gromit, Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park. All of these had varying levels of success, and in some cases failure, but they were on the map for their solid puzzles and lighthearted humor. When it was announced that they would be adapting The Walking Dead, it was met with a sense of trepidation. Nothing in their back catalog could suggest that they could handle the serious and dark subject material; let alone in the confines of an adventure game. Nonetheless, when episode one launched those concerns were put to rest.
The Walking Dead created an amazing narrative experience that was guided by the player while still telling a cohesive story. Revolving around the tale of Lee Everett, the game explored the darkness of humanity at the end of the world. Yes, there were the occasional puzzle segment that adventure games were known for; yet The Walking Dead chose to focus more on the character interactions and player reactions to intense situations. The natural tension of those moments were amped up by the addition of a timer to most situations; giving the player only a small amount of time to make key decisions; more that occasionally resulting in another character’s death. It gave gravitas to every decision; made you think on your feet, and more importantly, reminded you that there was no “right” choice. The world of The Walking Dead is a terrible place, full of terrible people; and even when you are trying to do your best that doesn’t mean that you will get anything remotely resembling a “happy ending.” Though the endgame is the same; how you got there, the people you lost, and the choices you made will be different than mine. Did a character die in your game; did you pull the trigger; did you take the supplies? All of these add up and create the emotional resonance needed to reach through the screen and into the player’s heart. The crux of that emotional connection is in the character Clementine. A small girl you meet at the beginning of episode one; what you do to protect her and the relationship that grows between her and Lee is the main reason The Walking Dead has become the success that it is. You know that your game has reached incredible heights when the hashtag #forclementine becomes one of the biggest trending tags on twitter. The game found its way into the hearts of many, and all because of this little girl.
It would almost be a crime to compare the two games. They are in different genres, are trying to do different things, but the question is asked, like it is every year; “If you’re to recommend one game this year, what would it be?” I’ve poured over it that thought the last couple of weeks, talking with colleagues, friends, and looking through other critics’ thoughts; yet in the end just went with my gut.
For as much as I loved The Walking Dead, Journey stole my heart. The music, the moment to moment emotional roller-coaster, and the pure joy felt at the end of the game is unrivaled. That is not to say that The Walking Dead is not to be played; quite the contrary. It, too, takes you through a well crafted series of highs and lows; that elicited reactions from me that I had never experienced in any game before. Yet, it struggles from the occasional technical issue and a weak final act. Nonetheless, you would be doing a disservice to yourself if you didn’t at least play both.
And so, unexpectedly, two smaller games usurped the big budget blockbusters and became the two games that players and the industry are talking about. The Spike VGAs named The Walking Dead their Game of the Year, while IGN gave it to Journey. Both games are incredibly worthy of the accolades they are receiving across the board, and it is amazing to be living in a time when you can see an art form maturing. Looking back, this could be a turning point for the games industry. Only time will tell if that is to be true; but this could be signs of things to come; and that would not be a bad thing.
Other Fantastic Games This Year: XCOM, Dishonored, FTL, Hotline Miami, and yes, Borderlands 2, Mass Effect 3, and Halo 4