What a strange year for video games. A hastily-assembled, bandwagon-jumping mode for a failing game, Fortnite, became a cultural sensation that dominated the conversation in playgrounds and newsrooms. Rockstar returned from five years away with another vast and meticulous undertaking, no doubt expecting the plaudits and massive sales Red Dead Redemption 2 received, but perhaps unprepared for the pillorying it took for the working conditions under which the game was made. Bethesda Game Studios certainly seemed unprepared when it attempted to wrestle its already creaking and disobedient gaming framework into the online future with Fallout 76, and the resulting empty and malfunctioning game was met with flat-out rejection. EA rolled out another slick, warlike megaproduction, but had to hastily scale back Battlefield 5’s marketing when it became apparent that nobody cared much.
Big games don’t come about the way they used to, and we are starting to question the value system that has been constructed around them by their makers, their players and the press. The middle class of dependable genre pieces is on life support and the overcrowded digital storefronts shoulder as many brilliant indie games into instant obscurity as they manage to usher into the limelight. It feels like there are far too many games, and yet also not enough.
We could have leant into this with our choice of game of the year and picked a game that captured the zeitgeist and pointed the way to the future. (We very nearly did: see ‘The other game of the year’, below.) We could have picked one of those surviving bastions of Big Gaming, a God of War or a Red Dead, because the scale of craftsmanship they display is often extraordinary to behold, but our hearts wouldn’t have been in it. These games stirred admiration in us, but not passion.