2011 Game of the Year Awards: Numbers 3 and 2

Only three games are left to cap-off 2011's best of the best. Well, we should be more specific and write that only one game is left after you finish reading this entry. And no, number one is not Minecraft.

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#3 - Bastion

July 2011 | Developer: Supergiant Games | Xbox Live Arcade, Windows, Chrome

The "games as art" debate is a perpetual absurdity, a sort of an inevitable occurrence as the gaming community is dragged, kicking and screaming, toward something resembling maturity. Self-appointed defenders screech that games must be art, crusaders and conservative parents screech that games must not be art, and the majority of us just shuffle about trying to ignore both sides.

The honest truth is that games are an art form, one that can range (like every other art form) from low-brow to high and pure. And yes, many games are low-brow: I defy anyone to say that most film tie-in games are particularly inspired, or that most action games are masterworks of fiction. The high end is relatively sparse, relatively unpublicized, as gaming grows and progresses – it’s easy to get caught up in the now-pedestrian scenes of “yet another modern first person shooter” and lose sight of the artistry involved.

Every so often, though, a game comes along that reminds us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that yes, games are art, and they can be every bit as beautiful and compelling as the finest films or celebrated paintings. In 2008, Braid reminded me of this fact, and this year, Bastion reminded me with greater fervor.

Bastion wasn’t even on my radar at the 2010 PAX10, nor did it catch my eye during this year’s Xbox Live Summer of Arcade promotion. I heard some rumblings about its quality around its August release on Steam, but I didn’t even buy it until it went on sale around October. When I finally played it, I began to resent my prior, ignorant self – so beautiful, so well created, it went from an idly-discussed name to my pick for Game of the Year – a position so firm that it did not exactly ingratiate me with our other panelists.

By genre, Bastion is an “action role-playing game,” a broad category that, comparing camera angles, might have it hastily dismissed as a Diablo clone. But the gameplay, while excellent, merely contributes to the game’s wonder. Bastion’s art and graphics, much like the story, is the offspring of Braid and Firefly; beautiful, oil painting-like colors, with hints of eastern influence. From the very start of the game, the sights, by way of their quality, immediately allude to everything that makes it so special.

The gimmick that put Bastion on the map for many was the narration system, but being so well executed, one could hardly consider it gimmicky. In most (if not all) games, the story is tucked around the edges of missions, crammed in via cutscenes, or provided through dialog mid-mission. But in Bastion, your very actions are narrated. Rather than playing a game with a good story, you play nothing less than the story itself –nothing I’ve encountered to date is more captivating.

And then there’s the music. Many games have good soundtracks, but I’ve listened to Bastion’s soundtrack more than any other album this year. Darren Korb, the composer and performer, took the setting and tale of the game and made an incomparable accompaniment. Ranging from country twang guitar to mid-eastern mizmar, and always arriving at just the right time throughout the campaign – be it a quiet moment or a frantic battle – the music expertly meshes with the rest of the game.

Bastion is a very good game. It has its flaws, sure – the lack of multiplayer was considered a severe oversight by many – and it’s not the best game of 2011 (according to this site’s assessment, and others). However, as an experience, taking into account the superb, varied action-RPG mechanics, the lovely art, the unique and compelling narration system, the wonderful story, and the undeniably inspired music, Bastion is perfect. It is, beyond a doubt, the best experience I’ve had this past year, and if you have a head for games, an ear for music, and a heart for stories, it may well be the same for you.

Developers Supergiant recently released cheap-or-free (per platform) DLC, encouraging people to play through their game again.

The truth is, I’ll never need an excuse to return to Bastion. -- Spencer Tordoff

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#2 - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

November 2011 | Developer: Nintendo | Wii

Over the last few years, Nintendo fans like myself felt exhausted by the Zelda franchise. It’s a frustrating conundrum that a game like Twilight Princess was better-produced than most titles, but still failed to be more than hollow and incomplete in many ways. I, along with others, threw up my hands at this Wolf Link concept and said “It’s good, but it isn’t Zelda.” But what is a Zelda game? Is it Ocarina of Time? Is it a Link to the Past? Maybe the idea of a perfect adventure alongside Link is a hazy nostalgia picking away at objectivity to make us insist (or hope) that every Zelda released has to be the best game ever, because at one time in our youth they were.

At this point the beloved franchise is too much a part of this industry’s history to be looked at with such objectivity: all of us have been influenced by one of these games directly or indirectly – lock-on action targeting says hello. But Skyward Sword somehow came at the perfect time. I was scared of another disappointment, but I was going to play it anyway. My expectations had been set low at the end of the Wii’s lifecycle. Yet what I played of this final Zelda on the Wii, from the first minute to the thousandth, was magical. And that's truthfully the best word to describe The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: magic, of a purely Nintendo variety -- a game that was so sorely missing since 2006.

What makes Skyward Sword nearly the best game of 2011 was how it took 25 year-old tropes and finally did something constructive with them. Link is a hero and Zelda is a maiden in trouble – we all expect that. But what I never expected was to see a deep, moving friendship develop between these two iconic characters. Even more amazing is how the game pulled it off without Link saying a word, as is customary. The animation and facial expressions in this game were near the quality of Pixar, and that is extremely impressive. Someone at Nintendo finally took the time to develop a sensible backstory and flesh out its characters to give players a reason for the quest, and not just because it’s expected of them.

This is a game any current or one-time fan of Zelda should play. It’s a wish list from your childhood: sweeping orchestral scores, paintings come to life, living characters with real emotion, fighting that requires skill and strategy and, most amazingly, a true beginning for the entire Zelda mythos. The plot is well-written and lends a truly epic feel to a series that always tried to be like a storybook, but let itself become constricted by its videogame nature. I’m happy to say that Skyward Sword fulfilled and then exceeded all of my gripes and guffaws about the series – what was stagnant is now stupendous, and I haven’t been so excited for the future of Zelda since I put the Master Sword to rest at the end of Ocarina.

Put aside your jaded skepticism and pick this one up: It’s the Zelda you’ve wanted to play for a very long time. -- Aaron Thayer