Today and yesterday
Pop quiz, folks: who can tell me the five nominees and the winner of the 56th Academy Award for Best Picture? No using Google. These were the five best things to come out in the year of my birth, right?
I’m going to guess that you either failed that test or immediately said “this is stupid” and skipped on to the next line, both of which are completely legitimate things to do. Because if you can’t think of the answer… well, obviously the five would-be best movies of 1983 didn’t really stick in your memory, did they? They might have been important at the time, but they might not have lived up to the test of time.
I’m hard-pressed to tell you the best games of 2014, but I have no problem telling you a bunch of games that are still worth playing today with no regard for release date. And games have come and gone on that list over the years, because the truest test of quality is one you only see in hindsight. They’re what keeps being worthwhile years later, and sometimes it seems almost arbitrary what gets immortalized and what gets forgotten.
The problem is that “Game of the Year” doesn’t fucking mean anything. As long as it’s something that needs to be awarded every year, unless you belong to a bunch of malcontents willing to throw out that assumption, if there was a year with at least two games you vote for one of them as Game of the Year. Some years are absolutely jam-packed with great stuff coming out, other years have a few standout titles and a lot of crap, other years have one game that stands tall over others just by virtue of being less awful. If that doesn’t seem like a shining endorsement to you, that’s because it isn’t.
None of that determines what games are still going to be remembered in a decade. Heck, none of that even determines games that are worth remembering. One year you might have tons of games that deserve a long memory, the next year you might have none. And sometimes you’ll have a series with one or two standout games mixed in amidst several games that you could take or leave.
Unfortunately, the test of time requires something that’s nigh-on anathema for games: time.
This was less of an issue when three major titles got released each year and, if you were lucky, they would each take two hours to complete after you’d finished dying cheaply for three weeks. (Games tended to enforce longevity back in the day by ensuring that it took Iwo Jima levels of dedication to see level 2, for those of you who were lucky enough to be born in an era when a game doesn’t suck a quarter out of your pocket each time you make a mistake.) At this point, though, I can barely remember what released last month. While the old law that most sales happen within the first month is slowly moving into history, momentum is still a driving force in the game industry. You can’t sell people a game they don’t remember exists, after all.
A game has to keep you playing in order to really pass the test, in other words. In olden days, some games tried to do this with sheer volume of content, but the fact is that it doesn’t work. I have about 120 hours clocked in on Dragon Age: Inquisition and I’m looking forward to playing it again, but you’ll notice the game has been out for like two months. You could also note that I have, in fact, beaten it. DLC extends a game’s total lifespan, but only so much.
The other option is to make a game that’s sticky for other reasons, one that you want to keep replaying. Yes, Dragon Age: Inquisition also does this to a certain extent, but I’m thinking of games more like Risk of Rain or The Binding of Isaac or points related. I’m not going to stop playing Beyond Earth after a single victory, I can just fire up another scenario and start fresh. In this case, you can keep a game in the collective consciousness for years by creating a content-generating engine… but you have to get that critical mass of people playing and talking about it first, or it winds up imploding on the launch pad.
Sometimes these games pretty well deserve to be forgotten, although it’s hard to remember what those games were to cite them as specific examples more or less by definition. Other times it’s sort of sad. Sure, the odds of another Kingdoms of Amalur game were low to nonexistent, but the fact that almost no one even remembers the creatively bankrupt but artistically and mechanically fun game just drives nails into the coffin. Darksiders has been dead and gone just long enough that odds of a revival are roughly zero percent. You get the idea.
While the whole process of the Academy Awards is kind of a mess, the one thing that it can do to its credit is drive people to see a film they otherwise would not have. Yes, the actual awards are mired in politics and stupidity, but they can provide exposure for films with little to no chance of mainstream success in the hopes that that film may, in fact, stand the test of time.
Yet game awards and “Game of the Year” don’t do that. They usually promote the biggest titles on display, stuff released over the last year that everyone is playing anyway. Sometimes they’re even awarded to games that won’t last a year in the collective memory, sequels that will be supplanted next year by another incremental sequel. That’s often indicative more of a publication and a weak year than anything, but the point stands.
Solutions for how to handle this do not spring readily to mind, but it’s something to be collectively considered. The hope with games is that the game you love today will be relevant and important in two years, not something that you vote for eagerly and then forget about when the next shiny comes along. Games do stand the test of time, but our system for picking them out is a little problematic, and sometimes they never even get the test to pass or fail
For the record: The Big Chill, The Right Stuff, Tender Mercies, The Dresser, and the winner was Terms of Endearment. Man, I was born in a year with shitty best pictures nominees.