We hear all the time that video games are a young medium, that they've still got so much untapped potential to wow us in unique and meaningful ways. And while it may seem like it's been just another 12 months of sequels, remakes and disappointment, there have been signs that video games are maturing. Some of those baby teeth are shaking loose.
Video games probably made more people than ever cry this year, for whatever that's worth. Experiences like Journey made players connect with each other in memorably profound ways. Meanwhile, Thomas Was Alone drew on nostalgia, great platform puzzle mechanics and retro styling to comment on what it means to make something. Thomas wasn't alone in that regard, either. Titles as varied as Dear Esther, Little Inferno and The Unfinished Swan offered their own little windows into human nature.
So, yes, there may still be a few pimples on video games' collective face. But the games and events below are evidence that its voice is changing and getting deeper, too.
Ubisoft's threequel wasn't without its flaws. But one of its biggest successes was in its meticulously researched and well-delivered portrayal of Native Americans, arguably amongst the best in any medium. Not only that, ACIII's creators made a game about the American Revolution that didn't make George Washington and his fellow patriots look like saints. The ambiguous treatment given to the politics of the time resisted the easy trap of flag-waving, making Assassin's Creed III feel like a step forward in how games can look at history.
A year ago, it would've sounded like the most naïve kind of pipe dream: a virtual gathering place on a game console where people were helpful and, shocker, even polite to each other. But, barely a month into its lifespan, the Wii U's Miiverse has players offering each other tips, sharing fun doodles and, in general, exhibiting behavior in line with the golden rule. Maybe it's because it's a neophyte community of owners who want a new console to succeed. Or maybe it's simply because it's from Nintendo, a company that sees spreading fun as a holy mission. Things may yet change but for now Miiverse seems like an oasis from the slur-happy, cynically dismissive interactions that gamers endure when they come together online.
Games have drawn from the lives of their creators before, but none as explicitly and poignantly as Minority Media's Papo & Yo. Based on studio head Vander Caballero's life, the PS3 exclusive functioned as a playable diary of what it was like to grow up inside an abusive relationship. Caballero and his team drew on his painful experiences with his alcoholic father and layered them with a thick slather of magical realism and whimsy. The result? A game that shows how joy and crisis can be irrevocably intertwined, while reminding us that we have the strength to embrace or jettison what we need to make it through.
This year saw the continued diminishment of major corporations' domination of the creation of popular video games. The tools to make and distribute games are cheaper than ever, which, as Anna Anthropy celebrates in her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, broadens the pool of people making games and thus the themes that games are about. All of this portends a more thematically diverse array of video games in the future.
For all the body counts that a player racks up in an average shooter, those games' characters don't show much in the way of psychological repercussions from all that killing. Spec Ops: The Line distinguished itself from 2012's other shooters by exploring the grey areas between duty and survival. At the end of it all, you didn't feel all-powerful or even like you always did the right thing. You just felt wrung out. A lot more like real war—and real life—than other action games.
Take out the screaming, k/d comparisons and dog-eat-dog mindset from an online game. What are you left with? In the case of thatgameompany's Journey, something pretty damn special. Journey players didn't have to help each other reach that mysterious peak in the distance but, when they did, they learned a little bit about the nameless, faceless strangers who traveled with them and a lot about themselves.
Not only did the folks at Disney get the appeal of video games right, they nailed it in two distinct ways. First was the creation of made-up game characters and franchises that felt lived in enough to have possibly existed. And, trickier than that, Wreck-It Ralph integrated actual game icons in ways that made them feel like more than just cheap punchlines. Kids got to bathe in a recreation of the thrill they feel when playing games and grown-up gamers got a well-crafted reminder of why they kept on pressing buttons even when it wasn't cool.
The zombie apocalypse presented in Telltale's games wasn't the wacky kind of romp you get in a Dead Rising game. No, in the spin-off of the popular comics series, players were confronted by gut-wrenching choices that made them think long and hard about what to sacrifice. Then you had to live with the consequences of those choices. The Walking Dead was fun only in a self-flagellating way but it did what great artistic creations do: make up a reality that illuminates the ugliness and beauty of how we live in this one.
Fallout 3. Left 4 Dead 2. Mortal Kombat. For all too long, the list of titles turned away from gamers Down Under included some of the most anticipated releases of the year. Could Australians still get those games? Sure, they could. But the process was made all the more annoying by the lack of a mature rating for video games in the sprawling country. So, when the R18+ classification became law this year, you could hear the sigh of relief all around the world. Video games haven't been kids' stuff for a long time and the Australian government finally decided to acknowledge that fact.
Have some evidence of your own that video games did some maturing in 2012? Share your images, thoughts and videos in the comments below.