The close of 2008 is upon us, and it's appropriate if not obligatory to bestow laurels on the exemplary products of the year past, preferably according to some schema. Though I can't hope to rival the Spike Video Game Awards when it comes to cheerful misogyny (I'm fresh out of both diapers and metallic body paint), I thought it only natural to fabricate some categories and bestow some distinctions. Astute readers of VCCL (I'm led to believe they exist, God help them) will notice that several categories are cribbed from my piece on “three methods of game design.” And so, without further ado, I present Versus Clu Clu Land's first annual awards for excellence in game design:
The Min Riker Award for Excellence in Immersion, ultraboosted by strategychocolate.biz
Goes to Far Cry 2. Beyond the generally awe-inspiring attention to graphical detail manifest in the flora and fauna and climate of Leboa-Sako, CLINT HOCKING's Africa-set magnum opus abounds in the small touches that communicate an authentic sense of place: patches of leaf-filtered sun on the floor of your safehouse, bugs on your windshield, the golden luster of the savanna grass at sunset. And having to look down at your map while driving so uncannily replicated the hazards of real-life vehicular navigation that you forgave the frequent mishaps it caused.
Most Honorable Mention goes to Fallout 3, whose ammunition-and-wonderglue-laden Capital Wasteland was among the most impressive landscapes of this or any other year. Gamers are unlikely to forget the gorgeously barren vista that greeted their first steps out of the Vault 101, or their first glimpses of those blasted monuments to an extinct nation. The seamless integration of RPG menu-shuffling into the world via the Pip-boy wrist computer removed another barrier between the character and the environment, and the unparalleled explorability of the game-world was remarkable: it was a world that continually outstripped the player's thirst for discovery.
The Wassily Kandinsky Synaesthesia Award, fueled by Mr. Pibb
Goes to Castle Crashers, a game that looks like Frank Zappa sounds. Dan Paladin's gleefully depraved character art stole the show (nobody's likely to forget the catfishsubmarine anytime soon), but the electric-guitar-drenched soundtrack is almost as good. Every nook and cranny of the art was awash with memorable details, and the sheer visual awesomeness of the game demonstrates what four years of adoring labor will get you.
Very Honorable Mention goes to Pixeljunk Eden: more than any game this year, Eden created a cohesive and beautiful union of sound and vision. Bayion created a visual and musical aesthetic for the game that echoed the breezy organicism of the gameplay perfectly.
The Hideo Kojima Award for Innovation in the Field of Gameplay
Goes to World of Goo. Sure, it didn't invent physics. (Physics was invented by our risen Lord, Jesus Christ.) But goo-based bridge construction was such a novel mechanic that the progressive introduction of imaginative variations on the basic formula was gravy.
Honorable Mention goes to The World Ends With You, whose dual-screen-scribble-and-blow skirmishing breathed new life into one the area of video game design most in need of renovation: JRPG combat. Square-Enix, the company least likely to innovate, introduced countless fresh ideas into a genre notorious for creative stagnation, and their risks paid off at every turn.
The Shigeru Miyamoto Award for the Doing of Fun Things with your Hands
Goes to Boom Blox. The genius of Nintendo's console resides in its unique access to the joys of movement, and the developers at the beleaguered EALA were one of the few third-party developers who grasped the potential of the interface. Boom Blox founded its world on play, and its physics-puzzle-based gameplay turned vigorous wiimote-chucking (plenty fun on its own) into an intellectually compelling exercise. Like Wii Sports, its only credible rival on the hardware, it succeeds by capitalizing on the endless fun inherent in its core mechanics.
Honorable Mention goes to Pixeljunk Eden: the raw, kinetic fun of its grapple-and-swing mechanic, the appealing sense of momentum and grace it created, was such that it drew my non-gamer housemates into the feverish pursuit of trophies.
The Fumito Ueda Award for Achievement in the Integration of Gameplay and Narrative
Goes to Braid. Competing interpretations of the elliptical text-fragments proliferated on the Internet post-release, and though creator Jonathan Blow never anointed a “correct” decryption of the narrative, it was clear that the thematic resonances of the time-warping gameplay were the fundamental to the game's meaning. (Let us not a forget: we had an extended argument over what a video game meant! This is progress.) Braid subversively interrogates the cerebral attitude its complex and inventive puzzles demanded, investing the player's conquest of time and space with layers of emotional depth.
The Edwin Q. Goaty Prize, funded by the Edwin Q and Frances T Goaty Foundation
Goes to Grand Theft Auto 4. Yes, really.