Can the Best Game of the Year Barely be a Game?

The end of The Walking Dead has come, and its done about as much justice to the series as it possibly could have. The game finishes on the same straight path that it began on, with the illusion of player choice particularly strong throughout. You don't actually make a lot of decisions that affect the game, but you end up feeling like they do. That's why I don't think that Walking Dead would be nearly as much fun on a second playthrough, but for that first romp through the game, the effect is pretty staggering. The fact that choice is so limited sort of plays into one of the most interesting conundrums of the year: how does one rate the Walking Dead? In many ways, its without question the best game released all year. For my money, the writing, voice acting, and story stand head and shoulders above anything else released this year, and visuals, while technically simplistic, do a good job conveying the emotion needed to cary the story, even if the animation looks a bit stilted at times. However, and this could be important, in some ways The Walking Dead is barely a game at all. Beyond the dialog trees, all you have are a few simplistic puzzles and quick-time events. It may sound like a cop-out but enjoyment comes down to expectations: do you want a game or an experience, because as an experience, The Walking Dead places you at the center of a great story that you are free to become a part of, and in that respect, it works as well, if not better than any game ever has.

Thief: The Dark Project and the Evolution of the Stealth Genre

It is absolutely fascinating coming to Thief just after experiencing some of the newest innovations that have emerged in the stealth genre in this past year. I am of course referring to Mark of the Ninja and its attempts, and frankly brilliant successes, to provide the player with every last bit of information needed to stay silent and out of sight in every single moment in that game. I find it so interesting because Thief, one of the architects of the modern stealth genre, takes nearly the opposite approach. Instead of giving tons of information: radar, vision cones, seeing through walls, or anything else that modern stealth games have afforded players, Thief gives you one gauge, a meter that tells you how hard you are to spot, and no other info. By conventional wisdom, wisdom that gave us something as fun and frustration-free as Mark of the Ninja, it should be a total frustrating mess. But it isn't. You quickly learn to rely on your senses to figure out enemy placement: guards make a lot of noise and are easy to spot from a distance. Likewise you can stay reasonably hidden most of the time and the enemies naturally suffer from poor hearing and eyesight. The game also lacks any sort of scoring system, either in-game or post level, at least as far as I've gotten, which in my experience keeps me from feeling like I have to be perfect all the time. Whether it's Metal Gear Solid, Mark of the Ninja, or Hitman: Absolution, getting seen instinctively makes me want to reset and try again, but that's not entirely true in Thief. Without the game judging me, and with it being fairly easy to shake off a guard, I find myself trying to escape instead of simply reloading. What I'm trying to get at is that with the release of Mark of the Ninja, stealth gaming seems to be on the precipice of a major step forward, but looking back, all the way back, I can see that great experiences can still be had in a completely different way. Compared to what stealth games have become, Mark of the Ninja represents a significant step forward in reducing frustration and empowering the player, but compared to Thief, the game is so radically removed that I would call it a divergence: an equally valid take on the genre, but one that should not necessarily replace the other.
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