Those Games Left Off of the “Game of the Year” Lists

“Game of the Year” lists. Everybody’s got one, and they all tend to look the same. This year’s blockbuster hits, sequels to long-standing series, new projects created by popular development teams. After some reflection, I realized there were many gaming experiences that I excluded from my own list because I had some presuppositions of what “should” be on such a list. We expect high profile games that cost us $60, typically rewarding games that improve a formula instead of taking risks. If the recent presence of the indie development scene tells us anything, it’s that high end production and price tags aren’t necessary for making a successful game. What about the free games or the extremely niche titles? I decided to put together a small list in the spirit of rewarding some 2011 games that are unlikely to be featured elsewhere but deserve recognition for the risk taking that they took to advance the medium.

Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story by Christine Love

Visual novels are about as niche as digital media comes; very few genres suffer the stigma that they do. Many don’t see them as games or find the strong influence of anime fandom to be off putting. Needless to say, the market for visual novels outside of Japan is sparse, making the decision to create one a unique decision in itself. Don’t take it personally, babe… tackles many social issues and presents them within internet culture. It comments on how the internet influences our lives, while also managing the melodrama of teenagers exploring their identities. This is probably the first time that I’ve seen a gay couple treated with maturity in a game, and there’s two here!

To the Moon by Freebird Games

For a game cited as having made so many people cry, it’s a surprise that To the Moon is rarely discussed outside of indie-focused publications. The writing in the game is some of the best this year, balancing humor alongside serious moments. Music is also a very powerful aspect of the game’s aesthetic, as you move through a dying man’s memories to make his wish come true. Be prepared, most of the game is meant to make you think, reflect, and reevaluate your humanity, not to present you with detached puzzles to solve and strategies to formulate. Most people overlook games that appear to have been created by something like RPG Maker, but To the Moon proves you don’t have to have the resources of a AAA studio to make an emotionally compelling game.

TRAUMA by Krystian Majewski

Many hesitate to call TRAUMA a game but that might be a part of what makes it special. It is reminiscent of adventure games that focus on exploration of an environment. The scenes in the game depict a woman’s struggles after an accident, prompting the player to treat their exploration of the game as a process of working through psychological distress. Interactivity and discovery are key to TRAUMA, reaching beyond the game level and into the thematic vein of the narrative. On a first run through, the player might feel like they are clicking through pictures, but once the act of exploring is tied to sorting through emotions and uncomfortable feelings, the game takes on a powerful meaning.

Sweatshop by Littleloud

How often do you see a flash game on a “top games of the year” list? Sweatshop is part tower defense, part adorable, and part socially aware. One of the main critiques of the idea of “games as art” is their lack of relevance to current events and real-life problems. These kinds of games are a tough sell to players that want their games to be mostly about fun, but Sweatshop gets it right. Its version of a tower defense games actually helps the player gain empathy for the workers being exploited through free trade agreements, speaking through both the mechanics and the intermission screens that are filled with fun facts. It’s a game that handles a serious, current problem well without lecturing the player, which is much more than most AAA games can claim.

Choice of Intrigues by Choice of Games

A sequel to a romantic, political, dramatic Choose Your Own Adventure-inspired stat-building game? Yes, please! Choice of Intrigues continues the great writing and character drama found in its predecessor, Choice of Romance but raises the stakes as you defend your reputation and the power that you have established. With a boom of interest surrounding the romance systems of later additions to the Persona series and BioWare games, it’s nice to have a game that focuses mostly on relationships and explores these topics and problems from a design level. This series is a continuation of Choice of Games’s attempt to create games that are inclusive by allowing relationships between any gender and managing details of the story world expertly, so that it makes sense in their fantasy setting.

Most of the games on this list are free and the priciest is under $12. They aren’t multiplayer and probably won’t be featured on major gaming sites but that doesn’t discount their successes. Here’s to including more than big budget games in 2012!

Arianna Bell-Essai, the Teacher’s Vixen

Ah, dating a minor. Your student even! The beauty and tragedy of visual novels is the chance to engage in relationships you wouldn’t have considered, or don’t have access to. Dangerous territory doesn’t begin to describe the experience available to us that maybe we shouldn’t, like Arianna. When you first meet her, she seems so… unremarkable. Not the prettiest, or smartest, but nice enough. Drop her in a setting where you’re her teacher who can watch all of her private interactions, and she becomes anxiety incarnate. You see, Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story takes place in the near future, where students interact on Amie, a Facebook-like social service, where the main character, Mr. John Rook, can view the private messages between his students. Mr. Rook watches Arianna gush over him in private, spinning dreams about a romance everyone knows is a bad idea.

The rational thing to do would be to turn her down, and it’s pretty easy. It’s almost as if the game expects you to reject her advances. I felt kinda bad, but she fades into the scenery and is that secret you wish you never knew. However, it’s when you choose to date Arianna that you learn something about her, and yourself. Let’s not lie to ourselves, we’re gamers; if a choice exists, we’re going to play it. And that’s what a good game would encourage. I wanted to know, well, what would happen if I did date her. Will I be reprimanded? Is this just for naughty pictures at the end? Am I a horrible human being?

For now, yes, and I should feel terrible. I squirmed giving into the morbid curiosity of what it’s like to date a teenaged student of mine. If I didn’t feel like a complete creep, the game’s message would be lost on me. Mr. Rook is similar to Vincent from Catherine, but handled a lot more deftly. Both are immature and emphasize traits appropriated by their gender role in society. However, you learn Rook is a flawed character by actively looking through his students’ personal lives and not concentrating on his job. I couldn’t relate to Rook when he felt aroused by Arianna, and I was glad the game wasn’t forcing me to do so.

You know whom I do relate to? Arianna.

I was Arianna once. So “my” relationship with her had a particular insight. It was strange to be on the other end of the situation, to read the thoughts of the teacher instead of the student. The trope paints characters like Arianna as the predator, the seductress that grips at a man’s weakness so that he can’t control himself. Mr. Rook shows us that convention teaches us that the young, nubile vixen is the one in control, and men are hapless victims to the forbidden fruit of their sex drives. No – that’s not the whole story. I was young and unprofessional, and like Arianna, naïve enough to think I could accomplish anything I tried hard at, clandestine relationships with my superiors included. Relationships like these are romanticized, right? I thought I had to search out the older, more mature types, that I was beyond the boys my age. I thought of my teachers the same way I thought about Trowa Barton and Seifer; I was lonely and wanted to chase a fantasy. So did Arianna. She felt inexperienced, alone, and left out with most of her classmates dating each other.

This doesn’t amount to Arianna being a manipulative sex kitten, but a young, immature girl. And it takes an immature adult to date someone where there’s a conflict of interest. These teacher-student relationships show there is still a fascination with “deflowering” a girl, both in reality and in games. The game’s title says it all; it isn’t the player’s story, or Rook’s story, but students’. Both Rook and I treated them like objects to interact with, to game. He did whatever made his life the most interesting, and I assumed invading their privacy would clue me in on their intentions. Arianna fooled us both at the end when she used Amie as a part of her fantasy.

Don’t take it personally, babe… doesn’t exotify Rook’s romance with Arianna, but it does make it incredibly uncomfortable and dissonant so the player feels like something wrong is happening. While you feel better ignoring her, the story receives an added layer of depth if you explore Arianna’s character. You’ll feel like crap doing it, but few games give you morally ambiguous situations to navigate and duly punish your character for their questionable actions.

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