Experimental, accessible, creative; for games, the best is yet to come
This year has seen an industry in turmoil - but has sown the seeds of a truly brilliant future for videogames
Each of us has our own deeply conditioned responses to December. Here in Britain, some curl up into a foetal ball and wait for all the Christmas music to go away; some engage in joyous gluttony or extensive retail therapy. Northern Europeans find themselves curiously inspired to adulterate the nearest bottle of red wine with spices and fruit; North Americans find not one but two excuses to engage in artery-busting turkey dinners. Elsewhere in the world, almost every culture finds some grounds for homecoming, over-eating and gift-giving.
"The vast majority of things I'll remember from 2012 are moments from games developed on much more modest budgets, by more modest teams"
Anyone who has worked in the games media, though, has a slightly different programmed response to December. The arrival of this month, ominously ticking over on our calendars and clocks, precipitates a frantic shuffle through our memories as we try to figure out our "top games of the year". A light flurry of emails, like a hopeful dusting of early morning snow, gently request our voting input into end-of-year lists. Panic ensues; what if we've missed out on playing a huge game this year, and everyone laughs at us? What if all the games we like are rubbish, and everyone laughs at us? More importantly, why can't I actually remember any games that came out this year? Is this a sign of very early onset Alzheimers?
The resulting lists aren't terribly useful, of course - they largely serve to try and drive traffic to otherwise dormant websites over the Christmas and New Year period by riling up frantic commenters whose frontal lobes still can't quite grasp the distinction between personal viewpoints and absolute fact. The process itself, however, is a fun little exercise for the writer. Casting your mind back over 12 months of games and thinking about what really stood out for you is something we rarely get a chance to do. Divorced of hype, excitement and marketing clout, the moments that really sparkled for you shine more clearly, creating a little constellation of memories and movements which, if you squint a little bit, seems to say something about where gaming is, and where it's going.
I've declined to vote in any end-of-year lists this year, for the simple reason that I know I haven't played enough of the year's big hits (so everyone would laugh at me). Games like Dishonored, Halo 4 and X-Com will be waiting for my attention come 2013; I'm running on something like a year-long timelag at the moment, having just finished Mass Effect 3, wrapped up my affairs in Skyrim and moved on to Dark Souls. (The only reasonable response to anyone still mouthing the bizarre "games are all rubbish at the moment" whinge is to point in mute silence at this immense backlog of extraordinary entertainment.)
"This medium, from the tiniest and most simple puzzle game to the grandest RPG, is, in truth, more than the sum of its parts"
I do, however, have high points of 2012, and I do think that their sparkle makes some kind of constellation, a portent in gaming's sky. The message is easy to read, too; not obscure in the slightest. Some of the truly memorable points of my year of gaming have been from big budget, AAA titles - but looking back with unjaundiced eye, the vast majority of things I'll remember from 2012 are moments from games developed on much more modest budgets, by more modest teams and even, in some cases, on far more modest platforms.
There were the little moments of sweet triumph or utterly disgusted defeat afforded by games like Letterpress, Hero Academy and their ilk on my iPhone; games at the forefront of a revolution in asynchronous head to head gaming that's seen challenges rolling in from friends who rarely played games at all in the past. There were the moments of connection and empathy I felt while experiencing some of the things creators at the fringes of interactive narrative are experimenting with; Dear Esther, 30 Flights of Loving, and many other extraordinary ideas given form. Dozens of hours - entire days, I'm sure - plugged into building and planning extraordinary things with online friends in the Xbox version of Minecraft. The emotional roller-coaster of Telltale Games' absolutely extraordinary take on The Walking Dead (I've not done the final chapter yet - no spoilers in the comments, please). The utterly ludicrous, completely unique and simply unforgettable experience of physical gaming experiment Johann Sebastian Joust played drunkenly in the dark. Not to mention Journey, probably my game of the year, if I were forced to pick one; a game which applies big ideas and enormous ambition with a deft, light touch, whose very simplicity belies its emotional resonance and incredibly personal impact on each player.
These - among others I've forgotten - are the games, in 2012, which told me that I'm still in love with games. They reminded me why I play. I love the bombast and the adrenaline of the AAA blockbuster as much as the next person, but that cannot be - must not be - the full range of this medium. Videogames are, in a sense, an apex medium, perhaps the first medium for which the now-outdated term "multimedia" actually makes sense; using vast technological and engineering prowess to combine the interactivity and agency of traditional games and play with the craft and artistry of every narrative, visual and audio medium humanity has ever dabbled in over the years. The innate power of such a combination can, of course, deliver a pretty impressive degree of military death-dealing in crumbling cities, but it can also do so much more. This medium, from the tiniest and most simple puzzle game to the grandest RPG, is, in truth, more than the sum of its parts, while so many AAA blockbusters (and their fans) insist on pretending that it is vastly less.
That's why it's personally exciting, to me, that so many of the things I loved and committed to memory in 2012 came from something outside the existing, traditional business model - a model whose absolute aversion to risk has left it largely fossilised, terrified to build products that don't focus their appeal on the self-styled "core" audience of teenage boys and young men. We knew this would happen, of course. We knew that digital would break the hegemony of boxed game distribution, tearing down the barriers to entry which prevented new ideas from flowing into game creation. We could see that more powerful and accessible creative tools would open the floodgates of experimentation, just as the arrival of cheap, consumer-grade video recording equipment made independent film into a reality several decades ago. We might even have guessed that a generation of creative people who grew up playing games would want to focus their energies on creating games, not music or film, and would find a way to do so. It's not so surprising that it's actually happening; it's just delightful and exciting.
"That's the future that still awaits gaming; the coming of age of a generation of creators who cut their teeth in a time of true experimentation and accessibility"
Let me be clear, though - I don't think the rise of this diverse, experimental, independent-minded ecosystem of games development heralds the end of AAA, the death of big-budget titles or doomsday for the multi-million dollar franchise. Quite the opposite. This isn't a zero-sum game; it's an expansion of the whole industry, a blossoming of grass-roots talent and experimentation on a scale we've never seen before, even back in the heady days of the 1980s' home computer revolution. Film provides a good reference point. The rise of indie film didn't destroy the blockbuster - in fact, it made it better than ever. The appearance of tools that allowed people to experiment and create cheaply and easily actually produced the generations of directors who have made some of cinema's most successful and extraordinary blockbuster movies, from Star Wars or Indiana Jones through to Pulp Fiction or The Avengers. That's the future that still awaits gaming; the coming of age of a generation of creators who cut their teeth in a time of true experimentation and accessibility. Looking back over 2012, I recalled a lot of great moments - however, the overriding feeling wasn't nostalgia for the past 12 months, but immense excitement for the next 12 years.