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Game of the Year Needs to Deliver a Sense of Wonder

To assess the best video game of the year is an impossible task, as fruitless as an apple-picking basket during a famine. Every medium and their critics share in this annual rite of passage, and every year’s stampede of lists amount to a cacophony of guesses tinged with a hope, now in this age of public outrage, that their choices won’t trigger an outcry from a group of besieged fans who will call for the editor’s resignation. Such a climate breeds homogenization of taste. And so perhaps it is against this coalescing of preference that these lists are needed now more than ever.

The first year I was asked to contribute my list to a publication’s Game of the Year round-up, I felt a twinge of horror. “Oh no,” I thought, “they’ll find me out. My choices will be laughed at and my card will be revoked.” But I steeled my courage and picked the eight best games I could think of. This was a year remembered for “Elder Scrolls’” dragon shouts and Nathan Drakes’ third stolen fortune and Batman’s second Arkham excursion. On my list were none of these. Instead, I chose “FreakyForms,” a geometric DIY monster creation tool, and “Find Mii,” a built-in Street Pass app on the Nintendo 3DS, and “Army of Darkness Defense,” a licensed mobile tower defense game.

I was not besmirched or kicked out of the club. Truth be told, few people likely noticed my list at all. But I still felt weirdly laid bare. This simple act of making a preference known made me feel as vulnerable as walking into the street without clothes on.

No other editors had picked those same games, and so I assumed I was wrong. Only after another site published the favorites of notable developers, and Level-5 president Akihiro Hino named “Army of Darkness” as his game of the year, did my imposter syndrome fade. But even this momentary pride was based on consensus. Why had I felt bad? And why did I feel better knowing a complete stranger, albeit one with industry clout, chose similarly? That gravitational pull towards acceptance is the force which causes all ills in the world.

“It’s true that numbers don’t lie,” wrote Ryan Kuo, former editor of Kill Screen, as he introduced that 2011 round-up. “What they do instead is cover up our humanity. Our individual tics and momentary whims. Our personal meanings and our meaningless preferences.” The only way our preferences become truly without meaning is when they meld into one.

It is not yet December as I write these words but the Best Of lists are bubbling up from the annual ooze already. And it is almost guaranteed that at least one of a handful of games will be on each list. These are surely great games worthy of commending. But how do you account for such continuity of choice when sifting through the mountain of games released this and every year?

Last year, 7,672 games released on Steam alone. With 25% of mobile apps being games, and an average of 1,343 apps released every day, the number of mobile games released this year alone balloons to over 130,000. Add the more traditional console games to the pile and an adventurous and prolific critic, whose doctor hopefully prescribes her anticoagulants, would be overwhelmed playing 1/100th of the year’s content. Yet somehow a handful of games will be crowned time and again. The end result feels limited and coerced.  

Perhaps it’s a mere survival tactic. To consume and assess the entirety of a medium would be to forgo food and drink and intimate relations. So we pay attention to those lucky few with the spotlight already sweeping across its title.

These GOTY decisions also seem feeble: a myopic, subjective-by-default objectivity that unfairly equates relevance with newness. But in time these choices age and ossify, creating a time capsule of taste that, if anything, streamlines the year’s unhearable symphony into a few resounding notes.

Ten years ago, the enthusiast press was near-unanimous in its crowning of “Grand Theft Auto IV” as the year’s best: EDGE, Electronic Gaming Monthly, Spike Video Game Awards, Game Informer, Giant Bomb, and Kotaku all named Rockstar’s gangster opus. Even TIME Magazine and the New York Times joined in the accolades. But one outlet, Entertainment Weekly, voted for a fascinating outlier: “Wii Fit.”

Suddenly the year is not boiled down to the echoing report of gunfire and screeching tires. Now the era comes swirling back in long-dormant memories: my wife’s grandmother buying a console for the first time since the Atari 2600; thinkpieces about nursing home tennis tournaments. Indie games were about to break out. Barack was about to be sworn in. We see the vast range of experience that was codified as “gaming” then. But only in the difference between these GOTY choices does a useful barometer of the moment exist.

Did an exercise game deserve the plaudits? Heck yes, it did, introducing a new input mechanism, a new population of players, and a franchise that has sold over 40 million copies, out-selling more hardcore series such as Uncharted, Street Fighter, Guitar Hero, and Fallout. I can say I’ve spent more time on a plastic balance board than I have in the streets of Liberty City. Does that make me unqualified to judge? Where does the line between taste and evaluation lie? If a game is our favorite, is it not also the best? Why are we meant to assess work based on the cold articulation of technical achievement when our experience is the more telling indicator of greatness: more fluid and warm and volatile?

Critical consensus and personal preference are separate, but related, battlegrounds. Earlier this year, a student of mine at university said Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of “The Shining,” a film I love and have watched many times, quote-unquote ‘sucked.’ The admission shook me. Before I shook him, I remembered my own professor during undergrad fifteen years earlier. He explained how language changes. It’s elastic, bending to our use of it. Taste is much the same. We like what we need.

And so let me tell you, in the year of our Lord 2018, what I need.

The best game of the year needs to make me feel good. This could mean it’s fun to play. Or satisfying to move around and explore. Or endowed with a rich narrative about compelling characters that I yearn to know.

The best game of the year needs to challenge me. There is friction in this space. There is something to overcome.

The best game of the year needs to let me experience it alone or with someone.

The best game of the year needs to give me a sense of wonder, to be reminded that I don’t already know everything, that there still lies beyond the corner something unforeseen.

There has been one gaming experience in 2018 that thrilled me like no other. That made me laugh out loud and shake my head. That forced me into spaces I’d never before been asked to escape from. That let me share and show off this exquisite medium with others who wouldn’t otherwise find it themselves. That made me gape in awe at each fresh surprise and wonder at the ingenuity of those who put this brand-new world in my hands, creating something exhilarating out of familiar, common parts.

The best game of the year is “Nintendo Labo: Toy-Con #1.”

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