Anybody's Game

End of the year lists are pervasive as ever. We know they’re coming, but the wave seems so relentless that they’re both easy to ignore and easily read with indifference. The voices and outlets sprawl from big media to niche publications, from massive awards shows to independent podcasts. The beauty (and horror) of the landscape is that everyone can find a personality or outlet to align with — something that won’t challenge their opinions or taste. Validation!

And I’m a sucker for these lists! I used to pour over best of music lists, but the sheer amount of artists, releases, and my dwindling time to incorporate new music into my comfort zone removed my familiarity with most music lists. Books are much the same. There’s just so many.

Video games are approaching the same level of proliferation, but following the output still feel manageable to follow. I’m able to have some familiarity with the titles released throughout the year regardless if I’ve played them or not. To be fair, the majority of my media consumption is spent reading games industry news and listening to gaming podcasts. But even without a devout following of the world of video games, reading a review, watching a video preview, or listening to podcasters discuss a game in detail offers enough description of mechanics and/or fidelity that a general understanding of the experience can be perceived. Most games are judged on the merit of “fun” which is an extremely easy thing to feel, but an extremely difficult thing to create. I’d argue music and books require a deeper level of personal interpretation of the sonics, prose, and style that many video games do not. But even that is becoming less and less true.

Beyond fun, video games are so complex that breaking best of lists into categories similar to movies (and more) feels more appropriate — music, mechanics, narrative, art direction, systems, acting, etc. But even film falls victim to the singular “BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR” generalization, and video games follow suit. And after reading a few of these lists, one typically finds that the same game is selected by a majority of outlets as “THE BEST”; hence, the inclination to ignore the list entirely or feel indifferent.

All of this is to say that this year felt… unique. “Game of the Year” lists came from individuals, were compiled by an outlet’s staff, voted on by jury, or debated through via a brackets. And the games that topped these lists varied wildly. Here are examples from major media outlets:

This observation may not be novel. This very well may have been a trend in years past. But briefly skimming the Wikipedia article for ”List of Game of the Year awards”, you’ll find a much more refined alignment of “Game of the Year” winners:

  • 2020: Hades, The Last of Us II, Ghost of Tsushima
  • 2019: Control, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Outer Wilds, Resident Evil 2
  • 2018: God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2
  • 2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Perhaps 2021 is an anomaly. Many AAA games were delayed due to the ongoing challenges of the continuing pandemic. Maybe this gave a little room for smaller or unique titles to spread their wings. Or perhaps this is a a natural evolution of where “games” are headed.

At the end of 2020, I wrote about the idea that video game masterpieces are becoming so wildly varied in experience that to compare two incredible video games is to compare “apples to fabric textures”. Video games are comprised of the same elements but now yield profoundly different experiences. Much like music. Much like books.

This year’s “Game of the Year” lists exemplify the changing landscape in not only vast array of great games, but how each one hits players/reviewers/outlets in different ways. Instead of a definitive Game of the Year, players now have a vast spread of opinions to consider that will not only validate or challenge their own justifiable contender, but a litany of incredible choices to fit their preferred experience.