Things of the Year: Part One

Michael Abbott over at Brainy Gamer made a list of the best, well, things of the year in 2012. It was pretty great, and I like the idea so much that I’m going to do something similar (identical) myself. So, here’s my list of the best assorted things of 2012:

Character of the Year:

Martin Walker from Spec Ops: The Line

I’ve said before that Spec Ops: The Line is one of the most important games released in years. A lot of people have agreed that it’s an utterly groundbreaking commentary on the medium, but its very position as a commentary has meant that very few people have talked about it as a self-contained piece of fiction. There’s no doubt that the writing in Spec Ops is geared towards making the player think long and hard about the nature of military shooters, but the game couldn’t have succeeded as it does without  the strength of its story, and the strength of its leading cast. Walker, Lugo, and Adams walk through the crucible of post-disaster Dubai, and with Walker in particular we see something that happens so often elsewhere in fiction but so rarely in the stories we find in videogames- what happens changes him. The captain Walker who walks into Dubai at the game’s opening is not the one we leave behind when the game’s credits roll, and rarely in fiction – not just in videogames but in all fiction – have I seen such a powerful, believable representation of a man’s psyche cracking and falling apart. It’s powerful and believable in part because of Nolan North’s Oscar-worthy performance, and in part because the writing behind the game, and behind Walker’s character in particular, is fiercely strong.

Jesus, I realise that every time I talk about Spec Ops it seems like I’m exaggerating. Powerful? groundbreaking? Oscar-worthy? I’m not exaggerating here – while it has its fair share of problems I really think Spec Ops is that good. And the game wouldn’t work for a second without the gravitas and the sheer humanity of Captain Martin Walker.

2012-11-07_00006

Kenny from The Walking Dead

I couldn’t do it – there was no way I could choose between Captain Walker and Kenny.

Both Spec Ops: The Line and The Walking Dead revolved as much around their characters as the content or direction of their plots, and both succeeded admirably because of this very focus. The Walking Dead is filled with memorable, well-drawn characters, many of whom are glimpsed only briefly, and if you’d told me early on in the series that Kenny would be the stand-out character, let alone my joint Character of the Year, I would never have believed you. But now I’d argue that as much as The Walking Dead is about Clementine and Lee, it’s also Kenny’s story. We’re with him from nearly the very beginning of the series to nearly the very end, and I struggled with him throughout – thinking him an idiot one moment, then simply stubborn the next, then a coward, then worryingly quick to dispense logically justifiable but sickening acts of violence. In my game Lee rarely saw eye to eye with Kenny, and Kenny often let his anger be known. But our conflicts were always understandable -the result of a fundamental stand off between the moral compass I defined for Lee and Kenny’s own personal one, as well as Kenny’s strong, unbending drive to protect the people he loves. That love manifests itself in complex, sometimes contradictory ways as the series progresses and Kenny undergoes terrible personal tragedy, and as I spent time with him throughout the series I slowly came to see Kenny as the strong, weak, compassionate, wrathful, ultimately human character that he is. And after all our difficult time together, when it was time to leave him behind I felt a terrible sense of sadness.

Platform of the Year:

Twine

By Platform I mean anything that can be used to make and/or distribute games. That means the Platform of the Year could have been anything from the iPhone app store to Steam, to Xbox Live Arcade, to Unity, to etc. etc. etc. So what the hell is this? And what the hell is Twine?

Well, Twine is a free online development tool for making interactive stories. It’s not a new platform – it’s been around for quite some time – but for a number of reasons it’s taken off in an important way this year. And while there are plenty of other free game-making tools, Twine is by far the most accessible.

It’s insanely easy to make a game in Twine, and then to distribute it so that other people can play it on a simple web page – not on a proprietary website that forces you to do certain things so that it can make money out of you. Why is it the Platform of the Year? Because it opens up game-making to everyone. With Twine you don’t have to learn to code, and you don’t have to screw around with a complex user interface. You open a page and you just start actually, you know,  making a game. And then you put a link up on your blog, send it in an email to a friend, or copy it onto a CD, and people can start playing your game.

The ease of use, and the free nature of the tools (free in both senses of ‘freedom’) allows you to make the games you want, and to tell the stories you want. You could argue that while it might get many people into making simple text adventures it’s not the kind of thing that’ll help get people into making bigger, more complex games. But that’s not the point – the value of getting new voices involved in the medium isn’t measured by how many of them go onto make something bigger and commercially lucrative. Twine is valuable because it’s helping, perhaps more than anything else, to create space for people who have never before felt like they had a place in our medium. It’s valuable because it gives everyone a voice, so long as they want to talk.

And it’s valuable because it’s already spawning dozens of unique, powerful experiences – and unique stories. Stories that we simply don’t see elsewhere in the medium – certainly not in mainstream games, and not even in supposedly wide, open landscape of commercial independent games. Some of them are great, a lot of them are unique and personal. Go and play some now.

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