Minor spoilers for several games. Proceed with caution.
I got drawn into conversation the other day with a few other game journalists eagerly explaining why The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim easily takes 2011’s Game-of-the-Year title. When they asked for my favorite game of the last 12 months, I answered without hesitation. Bastion.
The blank stares I got in return felt oddly gratifying.
Kid be droppin' the phat beats.
See, I’ve got certain standards. I sampled, in whole or in part, a major cut of the games that released in the last year, and 2011 spoiled us rotten with stellar games. I don’t begrudge anyone giving top honors to Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Portal 2, Batman: Arkham City, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Skyrim, or a dozen others. Those are worthy choices.
But only one game met my specific criteria for Game of the Year, and it’s my pleasure to explain why a $15 downloadable beat out the top-tier, open-world, super-cinematic competition so easily.
For me, Game of the Year should be something that, with a few years’ soak time for perspective, I’d cheerfully add to a “Best-Games-of-All-Time” list. It does this by giving me a new, immersive, exciting, thought-provoking, challenging, amazingly cool experience. To varying degrees, dozens of games pulled off that entire list save for one thing: “new.” And that’s one of the more important criteria.
Don’t think I’m automatically discounting sequels. A franchise always bumps up against its own built-in expectations, but surpassing those expectations puts a game in best-of contention. Assassin’s Creed 2 and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves spring instantly to mind. We had sequels galore in 2011, and many of them delivered on the promise of their predecessors, but few moved the needle terribly far.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 both delivered solid shooting, but neither surpassed earlier iterations. Uncharted 3, Portal 2, Infamous 2, Resistance 3, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations added more depth to their characters than to their gameplay. Gears of War 3 slammed the door shut on its trilogy with authority. Skyrim is Oblivion with more distractions and pesky dragons. Not a bad thing, but let’s be honest…you can take dragonfire point-blank to the face without a twitch, but any giant can launch you into low orbit with one hit. Does that seem right to you?
We're gonna need a bigger bow.
Now, here’s what Bastion did.
Basically, we’re talking about a smartly designed, isometric shoot-and-slash game with all the modern-day trimmings…unlockables, upgrades, challenge rooms, etc. The art direction continually pleases, helped along by a fantastical, post-apocalyptic setting where the road literally rises to meet you. The soundtrack ranks among the best ever in a game, rivaling feature films for quality and effectiveness.
Good stuff, but the interactive narration really elevates Bastion by working in two ways. First, it reacts to what you’re doing. Then you start reacting to it as you slowly realize that Rucks, your narrator, is unreliable.
Remember the original Portal, when your guide’s sinister intentions started peaking through? Picture that, only Rucks never stops trying to help you. He’s just got an agenda, and it’s more about absolving his own sins than doing the right thing. Unless you decide those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Personally, I found myself pacing in front of the television, muttering “You son of a bitch. You rotten son of a bitch.” Bastion’s story sits right at the crossroads of redemption and responsibility, forgiveness and forced attrition, in a way that makes it memorable beyond what gameplay alone can offer. The gameplay, incidentally, rocks.
You don't have to smash all that stuff. But you will.
Bastion routinely ties the two together. These days, every A-list game uses colossal action set-pieces designed to stick long after you’ve finished playing. Bastion has those as well, but unlike a huge object careening in your direction, all its big moments hit on an emotional level. At one point, you’re offered a chance to save the life of a man who tried — not without reason — to kill you. If you take it, you’ve got to drop your (intentionally) overpowered BFG and carry him to safety…while being absolutely pummeled by the opposition from every direction.
Your guns are gone. You can’t fight back. You can only press onward as Darren Korb’s masterful score fades in and you take the beating of a lifetime. Because you forgave your worst enemy.
And it. Is. Wrenching.
So why do it? Because Rucks — unable to see me but still commenting — figured I’d already killed the guy and moved on. I wanted to prove him wrong. I didn’t agree with his agenda. I wanted to defy it. And him. That's when I knew Bastion had gotten me.
To truly qualify for Game of the Year, a game must impress…and by that, I mean it must leave a lasting impression. I won’t ever forget Drake dying in the desert, fighting a dragon in the dead of night, or allying myself with a malevolent potato, but Bastion got inside my head in ways I didn’t see coming. That’s new. And that’s the kind of experience I play video games for.