This question has landed on my desk a few times over the past couple of days. A Facebook group I’m a part of put up a poll asking whether or not Spider-Man is already this year’s GOTY frontrunner. Some people said God of War has yet to be topped. Others said Smash Bros. hasn’t come out yet. Others said Red Dead Redemption II is going to show the world how it’s done. But then someone suggested Dead Cells. Then someone suggested Celeste. That sparked a conversation about how those games are cute and all, but they can’t hold a candle to AAA releases. So I asked myself “why?”
De facto Game of the Year?
Then, a few minutes before I started writing this, my SAG Podcast co-host Dan contacted me about a new game that was just announced for PS4 called Timespinner. It’s an indie title with a 16-bit aesthetic that looks remarkable. He said to me “We might have to have two game of the year categories.” and again I asked myself “why?” What is it about a smaller indie game that people think can’t stand up to the big AAA releases?
For me, I think it’s perfectly fair to stack up an indie game against a AAA game because at the end of the day, it’s all going to come down to the experience you take away from the game you play. This year for me has been absolutely filled to the brim with amazing indie titles. I’ve been absolutely blown away by games like Dandara, Bomb Chicken, and currently The Messenger. I’ve also spent some time with AAA releases like Kirby: Star Allies, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Mario Tennis Aces. And in all seriousness, I will put my current frontrunner against those games any day of the week, and that game is Celeste.
Much more than it seems
Yes, Celeste is a 2D pixel art game. Yes, it’s a super-hard platformer and the main character’s sprite doesn’t even have a face. But even for all the budget and fancy graphics and mechanics of a game like Spider-Man (which I have absolutely no doubt is an incredible game) its AAA status shouldn’t be a disqualifier for “lesser” games like Celeste. Celeste had a profound effect on me. When I was done playing the game’s story, I was completely blown away by what it accomplished. I would even argue that the beauty in the game’s visuals can stand right next to something like God of War. It’s nowhere near as detailed or realistic, but I would absolutely argue that it’s just as expressive, which in some respects is even more impressive.
Let me see if I can explain this better with a different comparison. Last year’s GOTY conversation on SAG, and really throughout the industry, came down to Horizon: Zero Dawn vs. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Zelda was my GOTY hands down, even beating out games like Super Mario Odyssey and DOOM in the process, while everyone else landed firmly on Horizon as the winner. At the time, I hadn’t played Horizon, and the other folks on the show were pretty convinced that if I had played Horizon that I would maybe have picked it over Zelda. Now that I’ve spent some time with the game, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that would not have been the case. No, I’m not very deep into Horizon, but I’ve played enough of it to understand the fundamentals, and that’s where Zelda beats it in my opinion. The fundamentals in Zelda to me are simply fun. They work in that open world situation in a way that I’ve never seen a game do before because they just make sense when I play it. Learning the basics of movement and combat wasn’t complicated, it just worked, leaving all my headspace to concentrate on the story, world, exploration, and fun. Every time I pick up Horizon, every single time, I have to re-learn the controls. I have to try to figure out which button opens up that silly computer ear piece thing, then which shoulder button I have to hold to open up the right inventory wheel that gets me to the fire arrow I need to give to some guy whose name I can’t remember. Once I take the time to reacclimate myself with the game and get myself to a point where I feel like I at least mostly understand what I’m supposed to do when a robo horse cones trotting by to kill me, I have fun, because the game is fun. Really fun. And stunningly gorgeous. But at the end of the day, I always feel a little lost, and not in a good way. In Zelda, I felt a little lost in the best possible way. And I think that there really defines the difference, and why I think an indie game can stand up to a AAA release. Complexity doesn’t automatically make a game better.
Incredible, yes. But it still wouldn't have been my Game of the Year
In all likelihood, Dan's current GOTY frontrunner God of War would probably grip me in a very meaningful way. That game looked pretty incredible to me, and I completely understand why Dan has it at the top of his list. But for all its visuals and 3d this and that, I can’t say for sure that it would automatically be a better game to me than Celeste. The core gameplay of Celeste is nearly flawless. The game is a platformer, and it feels perfect. Every shred of the actual gameplay is spot on. But it’s more than that. It’s the music, the visuals, and the storytelling that made it stick with me even here, 8+ months later. There’s a character you meet in the game who is clearly depressed. He takes a liking to you because you are kind to him, but another character you are with is consistently mean to him at the same time. Eventually this character lashes out and attacks you, leading to one of the most awesome bits of platforming I think I’ve ever played. I will forever remember how it felt being unable to fight this guy, only able to run away through this incredibly challenging platforming segment, while the music that had been slowly building up throughout the level before and the story segments leading up to his snapping and trying to kill you blares in the background, also doing all this with the knowledge that you were so close to actually helping this guy out but his depression and anger got the best of him and now he’s trying to kill you. There’s no turning back here. This person can not be saved, and it’s at least partially your fault because you weren’t strong enough to help him because you’re dealing with your own stuff. This segment is about 2 minutes long when you’re actually playing it (if you dont’ die a million times like I did) and just look at all that stuff I wrote about it. It’s a scene with a 2D sprite that’s so charged with complex emotions and incredible gameplay that it’s really hard to even put it all into words. And I’m sure I didn’t do it justice.
There’s another part in the game where you and another character are stuck on a ski lift-type platform. There’s nothing you can do but sit there and wait carefully to get to where you’re going, and your character starts having a panic attack, and the game makes you play it. The screen starts shrinking and getting redder, and it's shockingly effective. The character you’re with teaches you a breathing exercise, that you also play through in-game, and by the time the sequence was over I couldn’t believe what I just played. Celeste is about a girl named Madeline climbing a mountain to prove to herself that she can, and by the time I made it to the top of that thing I honestly couldn’t believe how invested I was in helping Madeline reach the summit. Beating the game and seeing that character’s adventure through to conclusion was important to me, and that’s an incredible achievement in game design right there. Can God of War potentially meet or even exceed that level of emotional connection? Sure. That’s absolutely possible, but not because of how many people worked on it, or how realistically Kratos’s beard hairs are rendered. It’s all going to depend on how well it’s made, and how much fun it is to play.
There's no question that this is impressive, but from my perspective it's one heck of a mountain to climb to get my GOTY nod.
Last year I played games like Breath of the Wild, DOOM, Splatoon 2, and Super Mario Odyssey. Big, modern games that blew me away from beginning to end. This year I’ve spent almost all my time with smaller indie games and I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything. The games I’ve spent time with in 2018 haven’t left me wanting for even a minute, and I’ve had experiences this year that are just as meaningful as the ones I had last year. So no, I don’t think indie games need their own GOTY category. Maybe we can do an indie category, a AAA category, and an overall category, but I honestly believe that in this day and age, games are games. The good ones are good ones no matter how much they cost or how many people worked on them. I guess we’ll see how I feel come January when we dive into our annual SAGJGLD awards, as I'm borrowing Dan's copy of God of War so I can have it be a prt of my GOTY conversation, but as it stands right now, Madeline and her trip up a mountain is as good as any game I’ve ever played, pixel art and all.