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.

Latest comments (7)

Rodrigo Contreras General Manager, Gamaga5 years ago
I'm sorry, but half of the article was something like "Why am I gonna talk about something that you still don't know anything about". I see this more often now.
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Stephen Woollard Online Infrastructure Specialist, Electronic Arts5 years ago
I loved Dear Esther. The funny thing for me was the first ten minutes while I was fearfully creeping about, waiting for Something Badô to happen and finally realising it wasn't going to. Once I crossed that hump and understood the nature of the game it was a real pleasure to play, just wandering around the island, poking around and letting the narrative unfold. The only thing I was slightly disappointed about was the lack of complete freedom to wander around the entire island, but I understand why it was the way it was.

Having said that, I'm also thoroughly enjoying Far Cry 3 (aside from the irritating UI) but it's interesting to note that, like Rob, if you were to ask me all the games I've really enjoyed playing this year it would involve a lot of head scratching. I know I've played loads of really good games this year, but short of the last few (Dishonoured, NFSMW for example), I'd be hard pressed to name them all.

As for excitement for the next 12 years, I'm more excited about the next couple of months. Crysis 3, BioShock Infinite and a whole host of others just around the corner, plus the promise of new consoles and new IP to go with them - 2013 is going to be a good time to be a gamer :-)
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 5 years ago
Until authorship is forwarded in games - all games - it will be an industry of pulp.
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Aaron Brown BA Computer Science Student, Carnegie Mellon University5 years ago
The title of the article says it all. The future of gaming is truly up in the air. And I believe that we should vote not only on the Game of he Year but also the Most Innovative Title of the Year.
When voting on the game of the year there are clear winners and losers, and there have to be.
IMO some of this years winners-Dishonored, Halo 4, COD Black OPS- Big Budget AAA titles
Though there were many great indie, non-genre, super innovative titles this year as a collective they were more like gratifying treats scattered throughout the year, but they didn't offer the sort of depth and immersive capabilities that a of Game of the Year candidate has to exhibit.
The only non genre title that has ever had the credentials to be called the Game of the Year is Portal II.
But the future is brighter than ever.
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Jeffrey Ates Critic/Writer/Enthusiast 5 years ago
All I can do is nod REALLY REALLY HARD at how true it is. This year has been AMAZING for gaming in the indie scene, I mean with games like Tiny and Big, FTL, Natural Selection 2, Chivalry, Space Pirates and Zombies, Mark of the Ninja,, Gas Guzzlers, Xenonauts, Journey, Rocket Birds, Miner Wars 2018 and many more, no hardcore gamer (On PC at least) can say this was a bad year. Its was beautiful and it's only going to get better!
And on a side note, the democratization of gaming is really starting to take form with Steam's Greenlight System which does have its kinks but does what people want, allow them to choose what they want!

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jeffrey Ates on 7th December 2012 6:35pm

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Adrian Herber5 years ago
I couldn't agree more, the future for games is very bright.

This year the exciting developments from my perspective have been: Kickstarter allowing the revisiting of many classic genres with new technology; Steam Greenlight and success stories like Mojang running their own online sales opening up online distribution options; Steam for Linux and Unity for Linux paving the way Linux to become a game platform competitor should Windows become too restrictive; Steam big picture mode and Ouya opening the doors for Indie games to finally get into the lounge room; and lastly iPad gaming starting to grow into a destination for serious games with the development of Republique, and the release of realMyst and Baldur's Gate.

I think every single one of these developments has only shown the first glimpse of their effect so far and could be the start of a much bigger shift in the industry in the years to come.
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Pascal Pimpare Writer/Blogger 5 years ago
I think this was a great article. I myself have sometimes been angry at things happening in our beloved industry, but reading this makes me hopeful for the future.
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