Game of the Year

I’m going to start this post by violating the main rule I set for myself when I first set up this blog: no personal stuff. There’s a valid editorial reason though. This year has been a bad one for me as far as gaming is concerned, money’s been tight, and I’ve not had as much free time as I’d like. There we go, personal stuff over.

Why did I include that? Well, as a result of those circumstances, I’ve not played all the releases in 2010 that I’ve been interested in. Compared with previous years my gaming consumption has been tame, to say the least. I’ve missed out on all sorts. Although barring the latest Castlevania title, and Vanquish, I’ve managed to play all the games I was seriously interested in. As a result of missing out on so many titles, my GotY is the best of a relatively slim bunch of this year’s releases. Although I’d like to think that that slim bunch represents the best this year has to offer. Anyway, you’ve had fair warning to take this with a pinch of salt.

Now that I think about it though, I may have been wrong about 2010 being a rubbish year, because in many ways this has actually been a good year for me in terms of gaming. I’ve played through some absolutely fantastic titles. I started off the year with Bayonetta; which any of you who pay attention to the mainstream games press will know scored incredibly well. For those of you that don’t know about how fantastic Bayonetta is: you should go buy it, right now. It’ll cost you about a fiver, which in my opinion is a criminally low amount of money to charge for such a masterpiece. Solid 10/10 game.

And that’s not the only amazing game I’ve played this year. Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver came out, sparking my fever for catching hundreds of varied monsters once again. Not only was it a fantastic remake of one of the premier gaming experiences of my youth, it also provided a brilliant expansion on the original. There were hours after hours of additional content contained within; and what was so brilliant about that was how organically interwoven into the body of the original that content was. It didn’t feel like a bunch of stuff that had been tacked on, it seemed like it had always been there. These days we’re seeing more and more remakes of games from years gone by, and HG/SS is the kind of remake that developers should pay attention to. It’s a remake done right.

But despite the huge pokemaniac I am, that is not my game of the year either. Nor is Bayonetta, despite the fact that I go absolutely nuts for anything Shinji Mikami makes, and those aren’t the other notable releases I enjoyed this year. I absolutely devoured Dead Rising 2, got sucked into Bungie’s epic and quite frankly thrilling final installment of the Halo series (at least until their next final installment of the Halo series), and nearly broke my controller several times in the mind bogglingly annoying, but ultimately satisfying Super Meat Boy.

None of these games make the cut.

There were two games that I was looking forward to this year. Two that were absolute must buys. One of them was Final Fantasy XIII, which I’ll come to in my next post. The other game I was looking forward to is my game of the year.

Red Dead Redemption

Before I get into the meat of this article of approbation towards Rockstar’s monolithic Western experience, let me make one thing clear: I love Westerns. So bare this in mind when I tell you that my anticipation for this game was nothing short of immense. A Rockstar developed sandbox in the wild west? Yes please! This may well have been the game I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little boy.

Now, I’d like to think that everyone at some point in their life has had an experience where something hasn’t been enjoyable because you’ve built up too high expectations for it, because it didn’t live up to the hype. Like when Machete finally came out this year, 3 years after the original trailer. Best trailer ever. Surely this would lead to the best film ever. And yet when it came out, it was good, but nowhere near what I’d hoped for. It kind of goes without saying that when you put such high expectations on something, it won’t ever live up to them. So given how high my expectations were for RDR, you think I’d be disappointed. You’d be totally wrong to think that.

RDR smashed my expectations in a spectacular fashion. Not only is it the best game I’ve played this year, it’s probably the best game I’ve played for the last 3 years.

It’s hard to start saying exactly why the game is so good, because there are just so many reasons. So I’m just going to pluck them out in random order.

The world that Rockstar has built for the game is absolutely phenomenal. Of course, given Rockstar’s pedigree for building rich, immersive worlds, this is what you’ll have come to expect from them by now. But RDR has a certain something more to it than the sprawling cityscapes you’re used to from a Grand Theft Auto game. To make a direct comparison, GTA4 is amazing, much like the first time you enter a big city in real life. It’s vibrant, and there’s a certain amont of sensory overload involved with it. Mostly though, it’s ostentatious, as a city really should be. RDR is stripped of that. RDR is huge, detailed, complex, but in terms of the environmental design the thing that it has going for it above all else is it’s understatedness.

You know when you visit somewhere really beautiful, and you have the urge to explore the place? I never thought I’d feel that within the confines of a videogame. But at times RDR can be nothing short of beautiful. Honestly, when I grow old instead of travelling the world I might just hook myself up to the game and retire there. This is amazing not only in terms of achieving something that games rarely do, but also in fulfilling something that is key to the source material.

One of the major themes of many Westerns has been the vast expanse of nature, and man’s innate desire to explore uncharted frontiers. Watch a Western and you only get to observe that exploration. RDR actually allows you to be the person exploring the frontier. When you take that fact on its own, it’s already pretty amazing. But if you look at it from a larger perspective, the very fact that RDR can make you feel like this is indicative of the wonderful heights that videogaming is capable of as a medium. I’ve watched dozens of Westerns growing up, and yet I find this one game to be the defining point of the genre. And that shows how far gaming has come, it’s no longer just a distraction, a way for kids to while away the time. We’re at the tipping point where games are capable of surpassing films and books as definitive entries in a particular genre.

And that’s not just down to the environmental design either. The storytelling is superb. And to be clear, let me focus on the telling part of the word storytelling. Because the story is good, but it’s nothing spectacular. In fact, the story is pretty much derivative of everything you’d ever expect from a Western. Rockstar have managed to splice together all the cliches, all the character stereotypes, and really everything you’d expect of a Western. As a fan of Westerns RDR isn’t anything I haven’t seen dozens of times before.

But despite that fact that, the presentation of the whole thing is to be applauded. Through the game you play as John Marston, a former outlaw trying to sort his life out, who’s found himself being blackmailed by the federal government. Nothing new there. But through the use of clever narrative devices, Rockstar has managed to turn the same old stuff we’ve seen before into a totally new experience. It’s not so much the story itself that’s so compelling, it’s the journey. John Marston isn’t anything new in terms of Westerns, but he is incredibly sympathetic in a way that I’ve never seen before.

Throughout the game you can feel yourself getting drawn into his world, and the developers have woven this wonderfully into the pacing you’d expect from a videogame. In the opening of the game you find yourself getting shot and nearly killed, following that the game begins, and you find yourself just trying to recover and get back on your feet, whilst the game itself is throwing you as a player very easy missions in order to get yourself on your feet.

Later, you find yourself in Mexico in pursuit of the men that you are trying to track down. You do mission upon mission for various factions who promise they’ll help you and don’t deliver. Within the narrative John gets frustrated by this, but what’s most effective is that as a player, you can feel yourself getting frustrated by the fact that you’re doing all these missions without the reward of any real progression within the storyline. But you’re never frustrated to the point that you want to put the game down. You’re always one mission away from getting what you want. And just like John Marston, even though you say you’re just trying to get the guys your after, fact is you’re probably enjoying going around killing a bunch of Mexican rebels.

And that’s where the game’s genius lies. At all times you’re feeling the same things as your character. Whenever you make some kind of big break within the story, there’s a potent feeling of catharsis that accompanies it. Whenever there’s some kind of setback, you’re drawn in enough to feel personally cheesed off. Ten hours into the game, it’s not John Marston that wants his family back. You want John Marston’s family back.

There’s this ongoing argument about whether games can be art or not. I’ve always been firmly on the side that games can be art, as are most gamers. But in honesty, there are few games that can actually stand true to that claim. Red Dead Redemption is one of them. It may even be one of the best of them. All of the arty games that I’ve played have been very restricted. You have a linear setting, a small number of options, you’re blurring the line between a video game and watching a film. RDR smashes that barrier. I never thought that you could make art in a sandbox. I was wrong. And I love RDR for that. That, and so much more. And that’s why it’s my game of the year.


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