By MarkWahlberg 3 Comments
Well, we’re coming up on the end of the year (and for all you folks not on the Gregorian calendar: deal with it). And you know what that means: it’s time for self-indulgent retrospectives that attempt to glean some meaning from the largely unrelated events of the past 12 months! YAAAAYY
Before I begin here, I just want to come clean on something I feel you should know: I have played zero games that were released in 2012. What follows is not based on my personal experience, but rather on what I have learned from browsing the interwebs. And as with everything on the internet, YES OPINIONS ARE OPINIONS. So with that out of the way, here goes.
As far as I can tell, the major releases of 2012 seem to fall into to categories: the narrative-based ones, and the emergent-gameplay based ones. Now, story vs. gameplay is probably the most over-discussed topic ever in regards to video games, but what I found interesting about this year is how heavily the attention games received seemed to fall into one of those two categories. Sure, some games like Sleeping Dogs, Dragon’s Dogma, or Max Payne fall into the more standard ‘game is fun, story ok for what it is’ categories. Forza Horizon and the new Need for Speed are pure play. And I’m honestly not sure where Journey would fall in this debate. But that said, there was a peculiar dichotomy in many of this years releases.
What I call the narrative games are not necessarily those that deliberately put their story at the forefront, but rather the ones where it became a major talking point in their reception. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was more common for these narratives to be criticized rather than praised. More surprising is that this category consists of most of the AAA releases. Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3, Hitman: Absolution are all games where the peculiar nature of their narrative thread garnered a perhaps surprising level of attention. The outrage over ME3’s ending has been well documented, and ACIII got a fair amount of lambasting as well.
Spec Ops: The Line went out of its way to push the story in its PR, something that almost never happens. That emphasis was apparent in every discussion of the game; however, the consensus on Spec Ops was that it was an interesting attempt that failed in the execution (nopunintended), both in terms of narrative and gameplay. Hitman: Absolution was also often criticized because not only was the narrative weak, but the demands of that story seemed to be behind the more lacking aspects of the gameplay itself. The overall reception for the games in this category is best summed up by Alec Meer. In his review of AC III, he faulted the story for
“... indulging someone’s movie writing aspirations at the expense of player engagement and freedom.”
There are exceptions, of course. The Walking Dead is almost universally beloved, and just got VGA’s GOTY award (I'm waiting for someone to describe it as the video game equivalent of Oscar bait) and that particular game puts such an emphasis on story that any gameplay is arguably negligible. Far Cry has been criticized for being nothing more than tepid White Man’s Burden silliness, but has also received praise for its strong characterization. Black Ops II got flak for what some saw as hyperviolent neo-fascism, but our own Mr. Gerstmann thought the narrative branching was a clever addition.
"Emergent gameplay" is a word that gets thrown around now and again, but for our purposes all I mean by it is that the events that occur as a result of playing the game itself form their own little anecdotes, become stories of themselves. The games that fall under this category are quite diverse. Everything from Dark Souls, with its infamously brutal combat, to XCOM, with it’s semi-randomized turn-based encounters. Smaller titles fared quite well in this category as well. Crusader Kings II had players forge their own dynasty and set their own goals, and FTL’s random encounters allowed for each player to face their own unique journey through space. Arma II became enormously popular with the release of DayZ, a zombie mod that tasks you simply with survival. Even Dishonoured might be considered to fall in this category, with its emphasis on going through the game the way you want to. While the basic structure in each of these games is set, and some do have a strict, overarching narrative, the stories that people remember from each game are what happened as they played it, not what the game writers had created. After all, Far Cry 3 managed a 5 star review from Brad purely on the strength of its open-world, anything-can happen gameplay.
I don’t really want to draw any big conclusions from all this. I just found it interesting that a year where some of the most well-received titles were those that had unique, emergent playstyles, was also the year that many other releases got what seemed like more attention than usual for how they handled their 'written' narratives. Like I said, plenty of games don't fit fully into either category, and again, I’ve played none of these, so I’m curious if you all noticed this as well or if I’m just reading too much something that happens every year.