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High Horse: The games of next year, today!

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High Horse is a rotating opinion column in which GamesRadar editors and guest writers are invited to express their personal thoughts on games, the people who play them and the industry at large.

Game of the Year. Hefty praise, and something the developers of most AAA titles strive for. The award, as given by a variety of publications, is recognition of the developer’s mastery of the medium. It’s a celebration of the culmination of the best elements of game design coming together to create the best experience possible that year.

This year, the big winners among the major publications were Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Portal 2, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Last year, the big winners were Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and Mass Effect 2.

Notice a trend? Yup, they’re all sequels (at least spiritually). But it’s deeper than that. They’re all titles that have utilized formulas that have been around forever. They’ve perfected tropes and concepts that were invented years and years ago to create a perfect, well-crafted experience. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We should be recognizing the finest craftsmen of our medium.

But, man. Yawn. With the exception of a few folks, pretty much everyone accepts those games as great. General consensus is boring. It also encourages complacency. Why bother trying something new if we’re only willing to celebrate what’s been perfected over years and years of testing at the hands of consumers?

We should be discussing what I’d like to refer as “important” games. Before I get into that, we should probably define what I mean by important. I’m not talking about games that sell millions upon millions of copies, thereby encouraging a flood of copycats and commercial trends in games. I’m talking about games that potentially point toward what games could become. For the sake of argument, most of the games I’d like to discuss are either flawed in some way, or have niche appeal for one reason or another.

More often than not, the games that garner the most discussion are those that will end up being the most important when it comes to the future. My personal favorite example (which I’ve discussed a lot in this very column) is Dark Souls. It may have sold well, but its niche gameplay and technical issues kept it from becoming lauded as a Game of the Year contender. Yet its focus on minimal storytelling, combat designed for only the most game-literate players and demanding save system are elements I can guarantee will start popping up elsewhere.

One of the most divisive games of the year was LA Noire. It caught a lot of flak for its plodding storyline, not-so-open world and highly questionable interrogation system. Cole Phelps, though, is one of the most interesting game protagonists to come along in a while. In fact, I’d hesitate to even call him a protagonist. He’s a fairly despicable man, prone to heated outbursts and hateful speech. He’s also the best example of an unreliable narrator we’ve seen in gaming, so unreliable that we can’t even be sure what he’s going to do when he’s under our control. That feeling of discomfort due to being unsure what Phelps is going to do when you hit that Doubt button is a powerful feeling, and one that is undeniably interesting.

Along the same lines, The Witcher 2 explores choice in a way most games aren’t willing to do. Making a choice may lead you down one path in which you’ll miss huge swaths of the game without even knowing the other direction was available to you. Many players get upset about being unable to see everything a game has to offer (LA Noire was also criticized for this), but in order for player choice to really carry weight, it has to have consequences. And no game has consequences quite as big as The Witcher 2.

In the land of the indie titles, there’s Frozen Synapse and the BIT.TRIP collection. Both are examples of developers taking old-school genres and completely changing them up to create something really interesting. Frozen Synapse tweaks the turn-based strategy genre by simply having each player’s turns happen at the same time. Add not being able to see an opponent’s soldiers unless they’re in the line of sight of your friends, and Frozen Synapse becomes a wonderful, occasionally terrifying expression of the uncertainty of violent combat.

The BIT.TRIP series may not have all come out this year, but they were released as a collection, so cut me a break here. Just like Frozen Synapse, they take old-school genres and subvert them to do something previously unexplored. Through six games, they subtly tell the story of Commander Video’s life through abstract storytelling and gameplay mechanics. With no written words or voice-overs, they manage to express his story of the joy of life, rage, failure, and ultimately redemption. Both of these indie titles hint that there’s more to be explored with these “retro” genres if developers are willing to diverge from the expected path.

In order to fully appreciate what these games have to offer, we’ll have to get past the obsession with the “perfect” game. Making the fans happy has never been what advanced an artistic medium. As fans, as critics, we should certainly praise games that have reached the pinnacle of their genre, but we can’t forget those that are breaking them down and putting them back together in new, interesting ways. Even if they fail, they often offer something others haven’t tried yet, and that’s incredibly important. I’m rarely inspired by games that simply perfect ideas that are already out there. And I imagine that there’s more out there like me.

So let’s keep these Game of the Year awards, but let’s toss in some new categories. The Witcher 2 Award for Most Interesting New Choice Element. The Far Cry 2 Award for Best Attempted Subversion of Videogame Tropes. The Deadly Premonition Award for Worst Game That Could Change It All. The LA Noire Award for Most Interesting Protagonist That We Kind of Hate. Why not? Let’s celebrate attempts and failures, not just sure things.

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28 comments

  • Zeipher - January 17, 2012 4:14 p.m.

    I'll be the first one to say it: A lot of parts of Darks Souls are irritating, repetitive, and bullshit. I bought the game, and enjoyed it, but there are a million ways they could have made it better. Better level design. Better enemy design. Better shortcuts. Better weapons and abilities. More lore. LESS BACKTRACKING is the main one. There are a lot of reasons it didn't win, and they were a lot more than technical issues. Technical issues is why Skyrim won't win.
  • closer2192 - January 17, 2012 12:32 a.m.

    "Cole Phelps, though, is one of the most interesting game protagonists to come along in a while." I can't even partially agree with this - Cole Phelps was a boring character. He fit a couple of typical stereotype characters - stressed war vet, checkered secrets in the past, fresh/naive new detective, everyman - (he can shoot, tell when you're lying, brawl with fists, and is unusually literate), the list goes on. LA Noire does a poor job of developing him as a character - we're told he has a family, but we only see them once, when he's being thrown out by his wife. He has no personal life outside of cheating on his wife and avoiding Jack. The only major changes are when he goes from one desk to another.
  • InFeRnOg - January 16, 2012 3:10 p.m.

    Frozen Synapse is awesome, and I highly recommend fans of strategy pick it up, but I just want to point out that Vandal Hearts II used a turn-based system where your actions were played out at the same time as the opponents', so the idea itself is not new.
  • Burdmayn - January 14, 2012 8:59 a.m.

    I came here not to read this article, but to express my dissatisfaction that a feature titled "High Horse" isn't written by Buttercup. How do you justify having this article written by a human and not your very own equestrian writer? Quite frankly I find it extremely insulting that such an opportunity wasn't offered to the person, or rather the horse, that it so rightfully belongs to. Boo on you Gamesradar, get your shit together.
  • deadbrownrabbit - January 14, 2012 10:14 a.m.

    I believe "equestrian" means "horse rider". I think the word you're looking for is "equine".
  • Calcree - January 14, 2012 8:42 a.m.

    Dark souls: revolutionary and a sequel then why not Portal 2: as revolutionary and a sequel Not sure that Dark souls is a good argument anyway. I'm a little older and remember when games were hard as nails (C64, SNES, Amiga, Pentium 75 and onwards). Dark souls is widely praised along these lines, but it's not new, just a return to old fashioned challenges. Additionally what makes LA Noire so different? Ok protaganist doesn't quite feel under our control, but thats it. Detective work and multi stranded dialog has been around for years. The facial expression stuff is a technical step forward, but time will tell if this is going to be used again (GTA V?) As has been mentioned Evolution is easier than Revolution and often these are things only seen in hindsight. True originality is barely possible now. Genres are defined, markets need to be tapped and costs balanced. The indie games may help, but there are many many pale imitators. Besides look at the cinema: every time you get something new and original such as Blair Witch Project, its copied endlessly (bet you don't even think much of it now as a result) and the genius creators showed that given money that meant they didn't have to develop an original approach to filming they'd just make crap....What would the creators of Limbo do with Halo's budget (I'd like to think amazing things but I don't know.
  • BladedFalcon - January 15, 2012 7:50 a.m.

    It's pretty obvious you've never played Dark Souls, or even demon souls for that matter. Difficulty is only a part of what really defines the series. It's often what most people talk about, but it's not what makes it innovative. The gameplay itself is different and not really similar to anything else on the market, a single hour of play and you could understand this perfectly. It's true innovation lies in it's integration of online gameplay that again, no other games have done it like that. So basically... before you make such claims as "Dark souls is not really original" At least play the game so you can know what you are talking about.
  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - January 15, 2012 1:23 p.m.

    I can assure you that the L.A. Noire facial tech will be used again somewhere, probably in multiple games come the new console generation. All big budget games will most likely use that type of tech in the future, as graphics get better and even more realistic.
  • ItBurnsWhenIWii - January 14, 2012 12:01 a.m.

    I blame all the Future Inc. employees, your all to blame!
  • MetroidPrimeRib - January 13, 2012 8:54 p.m.

    It's hard to tell what kind of game will be "innovative" right when it comes out. But I think L.A. Noire and Dark Souls are games that have potential to change the industry.
  • quincytheodore - January 13, 2012 8:10 p.m.

    There's nothing new under the sun, it's new creativity based on old medium. I was a bit surprised you included Portal 2, it's by far one of the most innovative game to date. It singlehandedly created first person platformer genre... okay, Mirror's Edge too. There's also one major problem of trying something new; money. Honestly, devs make game to make money. So it's highly logical to make something with low risk and high pay, can we blame them? Would we try differently if we're in their shoes? I like Gamesradar because you see stuffs than can easily be neglected and also your crusade for Okami, but it still didn't sell well, did it? How about Nier, great story, amazing OST (I daresay it's the best OST this gen, almost rivaling Chrono Cross), yet Cavia got canned because it didn't sell well. SotD is such a tragic story. Catherine sold well, god bless them, i̶t̶ ̶s̶t̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶p̶r̶o̶c̶u̶r̶e̶d̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶A̶n̶t̶i̶-̶A̶w̶a̶r̶d̶, so it's normal to choose live rich than die a beautiful death. All we can hope is big budget titles dare to (at least try) improve and re-invent themselves, not like ME 2 mining. Changes can happen slowly, no one wants to risk outright revolution, that's why everyone has market analysis, strategical campaign and release date. If we progress enough, maybe we'll look back three years later and can say, "Wow, they've changed." But not in three weeks, or months.
  • Redeater - January 13, 2012 7:46 p.m.

    I loved L.A. Noire on its release and would have given it a 10 at the time. It was just so unlike anything else out there and I loved the period. Upon reflection though I think I would change that 10 to a 6 or 7. I finished that game 100% and while it was breathtaking to behold it sure had some bullshit flawed logic behind it. Why would you be given a wrong if you had 2 pieces of evidence and while both were valid proof if you picked the wrong one you were screwed??? Was it seriously that hard to have multiple rights?
  • Ubnoxish - January 13, 2012 7:22 p.m.

    I completely agree. My favorite game of all time was Chromehounds, a gamethathas never been matched in its need for cooperative play. It died because the comabt was brutally slow and difficult to master. I understand that this was unappealing to most gamers. But when you actually had a good squad, the game was like magic. On the edge of your seat for 15 minutes looking for the enemy, and two minutes of desperate combat where every move you made and word you said to your team had impact. It truly is a shame they cut the online support. Dark Souls and LA Noire both drew me because of their uniqueness. Ive been craving a game that can truly test my skills (and sanity) and despite what others say, I think that the gravivty of your mistakes in LA Noire is one of its selling points. That just means you need multiple playthroughs. I hope to pick those up when I get the spare cash and theyve dropped to a reasonable price for me. Thanks for speaking what I was thinking GR.
  • I'maCanadian! - January 13, 2012 7:14 p.m.

    There is nothing truly new. Developers add layers of complexity to previous works. Sometimes they trim the fat to appreciate the joy of the basic gameplay underneath. I don't care about originality. I just want to play good games. Lords of Shadow is singularly unoriginal, but fun. Limbo took basic platforming and presented it with a unique presentation.
  • BaraChat - January 14, 2012 3:03 p.m.

    If you truly didn't care about originality, you'd play the exact same games all over again for the rest of your life. That makes for a pretty boring gaming experience, doesn't it? And when you think about it, even the most common features in today's games were once original. Originality makes games memorable, even the most mainstream ones. You probably remember playing All Ghillied Up in CoD4 but none of the other "Stealth sniping missions" in following CoDs (I don't). And you can probably remember the Z-targeting in Ocarina of Time, but now you don't even notice if a game has lock-on targeting in a 3D world. Unoriginality can be fun, like Lord of Shadows or the latest MoH, but it doesn't make memorable games/moments at all. Anyway, that's how I see it.
  • I'maCanadian! - January 14, 2012 7:02 p.m.

    I prefered the sequels to Mass Effect, Uncharted, Left 4 Dead, Portal, The Witcher, Super Mario Galaxy. Point is, sequels often refine original ideas. Perfect example is Assassin's Creed. The exponential increase in game play quality from the first game to the second is remarkable. Of course the sequel factory also brought us Revelations. Sequels have the potential to expand upon the potential hinted at in the originals. The game engine, sounds, music and other time intensive details are largely carried over allowing for more focus on the game play aspects.
  • ninjaemperor - January 13, 2012 6:54 p.m.

    Taylor, this article was absolutely amazing, I don't think I've ever agreed more with a gaming article in my life. This is the precise reason I love indie gaming so much, they aren't the AAA games that sell super well, and are amazing in their own right, but instead experiment, and try to move the medium forward. Brilliantly well put.
  • smurfantista - January 13, 2012 6:19 p.m.

    Demon's Souls and Dark Souls should get a lot more credit for uniqueness and innovation. The concept of an immersive-single player RPG with an online mode that allows cross-communication and occasional interaction is one more games should have. Today's developers seem to think that it's okay to tack on deathmatch multiplayer modes to single-player games so they can put their "Multiplayer!" sticker on the back.
  • AuthorityFigure - January 13, 2012 5:45 p.m.

    It's the role of the game developer to explore the possibilities of their medium. If they stop doing that, then it will be up to a new generation of to push them out of the way with their new energy and ideas.
  • shawksta - January 13, 2012 5:06 p.m.

    Touche, nice point. Ghost Trick was also awesome and unique, too bad it sits next to Ace Attorney(same creators coincedently) as best unique game mechanic people underrate and forget about.

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