2012 Game of the Year Awards: Number 1

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Here we are at the dramatic precipice of our 2012 awards, a list that saw more diversity in our choices than previous years. The significance is not lost on us: This industry, ever in a state of flux, has shifted to the point that "indie" games and smaller, downloadable titles are repeatedly offering more substance to gamers than some of the big-budget titles that are marketed to us ad-nauseum.

And for our Game of the Year, classifying it as just a "really good" downloadable game would downplay its significance. Its developer, small, nimble, and historically innovative, embodies the idea of quality over quantity.

The Silicon Sasquatch staff unanimously chose its 2012 Game of the Year because instead of telling us, our number one game masterfully showed us what the medium is capable of. Read on to find out how:

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#1 - Journey

March 2012 | thatgamecompany | PlayStation Network

He floated across the sand, a distant white vapor obscured by waves of scorching heat. I barely saw his strange call to me: some faint, incomprehensible hieroglyph that chimed louder the closer I came; me, mesmerized by my thin form skating down a coral-colored dune with an ocean of sea foam hues its counterpart in the sky.

When I found the bottom, we stopped and stared at one another. His robe was white with a beautiful tail of a scarf that danced erratically in the wind. It was much longer than mine, and I became jealous of my standard red robes. Suddenly, as if this stranger had decided I could know his wardrobe secrets, he jumped 20 feet in the air and vaulted forward to glide into the sprawling wastelands that make up the landscape of Journey.

Beckoning me with a succession of glyphs and chimes, he spent the next two hours exhibiting patience and companionship without a single word, spoken or written.

That's what defined Journey to me: the inability to voice myself while traversing a world so gorgeous I wanted to scream out loud. The muted protgaonists, both me and some random stranger, endeared me to the point that I cried, happily, as everything faded to white and my journey ended. Journey is the best game of 2012 because, in many ways, it's undefinable as a traditional game. Truly this is an experience, one that deserves the crossover potential into the mainstream art collective that it seems to be garnering, at least thanks to the well-deserved Grammy nod for its soundtrack.

I liked Flower and flOw, thatgamecompany's two previous titles. But I didn't just like Journey -- I loved how human it made me feel. -- Aaron Thayer

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I played through Journey only once. Like watching a movie that unexpectedly grapples with your soul, the two hours I spent with Journey were such an undiluted and meaningful experience that I don't want to risk tarnishing it by going back.

Why is this game better than everything else in 2012? To me, Journey is the purest distillation of the narrative cycle in the interactive medium. The player is wordlessly guided through an impeccably paced adventure along a very well-defined plot line. From my journey's inception in the desert, along the joyous swells and harrowing pitfalls, and all the way through to its stark conclusion, I was enthralled by the wordless story I was experiencing.

I was discovering the beauty of a seemingly endless world while also celebrating a newfound sense of purpose in writing my own narrative. When I stumbled and fell, it seemed less like my mistake and more like something that just had to happen. The other people who came and went from my world seemed like supporting characters in my own personal story, not other players plugged in to their own PlayStations.

In a way, Journey might be the pinnacle of the interactive narrative. It takes the concepts of gameplay and storytelling, boils them down to their core components, and discovers something almost revelatory: They're one and the same.  -- Nick Cummings

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After roughly two hours of gaming, I watched the credits roll and had a small tear or two in my eye. I’d been through a gauntlet of emotions, from curiosity to fear to joy and back again. I had a full Journey, so to speak.

I love large, sprawling games as much as anyone else. I love sports games with complex controls, and 30-hour single-player games with multiple side-stories and branching paths. But I’ll be damned if Journey’s stark simplicity -- two sticks and two buttons are all you need -- isn’t it’s strongest point. It’s a throwback to the old days when two buttons was all you had, but it’s also proof you don’t need an orchestra to create beautiful music.

Most importantly, it’s something that can only exist as a video game. That was the point that tipped me toward Journey over The Walking Dead in our Game of the Year discussions: This is experiential storytelling and the ultimate example of “Show, don’t tell” in games.

That simplicity is everywhere. This must have been the easiest game to translate ever, since so much of the internal game relies on storytelling by experience or iconography. Once you know the language it speaks, you can read the fine details clearly, the difference between scarves and cloaks telling more than any stats screen ever could.

It’s hard to write about the game in fine detail because to do so would be to rob others of the joy of discovery. In a way, it’s a very child-like experience: limited capabilities, few restrictions, simple goals, but also sheer joy and elation when you discover the answer. In the way I feel other games can be punitive or patronizing in the way they treat puzzles, Journey instead feels more comforting.

What impressed me the most though was the brevity of the game and its pacing. I didn’t time myself, but my play-through was probably just past two hours long. No matter what other games offer in terms of “cinematic experience,” Journey follows through simply by adapting movie pacing in a much better manner. But it does so while remaining a game -- not on rails, and not a solo experience.

Journey should be cherished. It may not be the Citizen Kane of gaming that people hold up as an ideal, but it is a gem. A small but beautiful and finely crafted game.  -- Doug Bonham

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A year ago I was convinced the likely winner for Game of the Year 2012 would be Mass Effect 3. Barring, of course, BioWare botching the finale to their sci-fi magnum opus, or some unforeseen wildcard blowing us all away. Yet, somehow, both of these possibilities came to fruition. What I failed to consider was the finale of another remarkable trilogy introduced this generation: thatgamecompany’s PlayStation Network trilogy.

Although not linked narratively, the games flOw, Flower and Journey are a conceptual trilogy of sorts. Each pushes the idea of letting the player experience a story through non-traditional means. The first entry, flOw, showed what an independent developer could do on a new platform with strong first-party publisher support. It was an interesting and enjoyable title, albeit flawed and slightly shallow. Flower showed what thatgamecompany could do with a larger budget and more experience. Flower corrected its predecessors mistakes but still fell short of its potential. It had an unneeded reliance on the early PlayStation 3 gimmick of motion controls that left players frustrated and marred an otherwise pristine experience. Journey, however, is thatgamecompany firing on all cylinders: it is the perfect execution of an idea that the developer pursued for more than half a decade, and all that was needed was a little bit of cooperation.

The team at thatgamecompany relentlessly pursued the mechanic of “show, don’t tell.” In flOw, numerous trial-and-error deaths were necessary to grasp the nuances of the game design. Similarly, Flower had moments in which it became difficult to understand how to progress without negative feedback. Journey required a different approach were thatgamecompany not to repeat past mistakes. A more obvious solution might be an AI-controlled partner leading the way; however, there’s nothing daring about a virtual assistant. What Journey introduced was a radical idea that some had tried but none successfully: what if players helped each other?

Cooperative play has existed in video games since their inception; typically local, recently online. The chief problem to solve in this respect was how to keep player-to-player feedback constructive and not offensively destructive. Likewise, as thatgamecompany had long avoided standard means of communication, taking away voice chat seemed obvious -- but then how to communicate? The question ends in neither a bang nor a whimper, but a chirp.

In Journey, the player will seemingly have a partner throughout the game. They can’t type, can’t speak; their only available option for dialog is chirps activated by pushing a button. A nontraditional means of communication forces players to adapt and adds a layer of mystery when a companion is found. It can be difficult to know whether they desire to remain isolated in pursuit of their own goal or wish to help you complete yours. Either way, they are never an impediment.

The experience is made even more meaningful in the barren landscape. Randomly finding oneself face to face with another wanderer can create an atmosphere of isolation stronger than most found in more deliberate experiences. Journey may lack the depth of other more expansive titles, but it more than makes up for it with the incredible sense of immersion that comes from the unique social interactivity.

I didn’t have the luxury of completing my first playthrough of Journey with a single partner. No experience in games this year matched the feeling of wandering the desert wastes with a partner for hours, only to one moment simply find them gone. I missed someone whom I had never truly met; it was a poignant moment in a medium largely devoid of them.

2012 was a strange year. Under normal circumstances, newer video game consoles would’ve been released this holiday season with more advanced technical capabilities and a bombastic set of sequels and new franchises. However, that didn’t happen, and may not even happen in 2013. What did happen was tropes of the medium have largely become tired. Developers need to perform at an even higher level to achieve similar results, and titles that might have impressed us a year or two ago are now played out. The games that resonated this year are those that took even greater risks and tried things that consumers didn’t even know they wanted.

Journey deserves the highest of commendations because what it achieved could only be achieved in a video game. The story told in Journey could not be written in a book, the emotions felt not delivered by any film. Interactivity and cooperation are essential to what Journey is and the message it conveys. Games as art is a tired debate that has largely been settled...but for anyone who remains unconvinced, a playthrough of Journey should more than put the argument to bed. Journey is a masterful piece unlike any other and will be remembered as a milestone in the medium for years to come. -- Tyler Martin