I’m not sure if there isn’t some greater publicity campaign or practical joke at play here, but Valve have begun accepting nominations for the 2016 Steam Awards. Now this has about the same probability of success as any other internet popularity contest, but it’s a convenient excuse for me to spruik a few of my favourites and reminisce about the good times (as recent as three months ago).
The “Test of Time” Award
It is in the interest of every game designer to offer an appealing experience unique to their franchise. The creators of Titanfall knew this, the creators of Journey knew this, and when done right it becomes the pure distillation of your game’s legacy. Now, I’m not actually saying that Skyrim achieves that perfectly – by its very nature, it’s a different experience for everyone – I’m just saying that when I’m looking for a very specific way to pass the time, I turn to Skyrim. There’s a whole world out there, populated mostly by colossal jerks who I can guiltlessly murder, rob or murder and THEN rob. I’ll spend hours canvassing the open terrain for alchemy ingredients to make the deadliest poisons, buy out every ounce of ore to create the deadliest weapons and drain soul after soul to imbue them with the deadliest enchantments. And then I’ll leave a trail of bodies from Stendarr’s beacon to Northwatch Keep, most of whom won’t know what hit them (a Daedric arrow tipped with instant and lingering damage poisons fired from a legendary Daedric bow with fire and lightning damage enchantments while wearing a full set of marksman’s gear using the maximum archer and stealth perks under the influence of a fortify archery potion).
The “I’m Not Crying, There’s Something In My Eye” Award
There are times when I’ve been moved to tears by a game; gaming is unique in the perspective that it grants us, and the immersion it grants us into other worlds. Most of the time, these tears come at the closing of things, either because of the final emotional payoff or at the very least knowing that once the credits finish rolling, there won’t be any more of the story to tell. Undertale is unique in that I have never felt more invested in the happiness of a game’s entire cast. These aren’t just set pieces or boxes to be ticked to get the best ending; they’re given personalities and flaws that – while not necessarily relatable – at the very least make them likeable. I really wish it was possible to lose permanently to Undyne the Undying during the genocide route, allowing her to save monsterkind from your rampage and become the hero she wanted to be. I wish that there was some way of saving Flowey before he turns back into Flowey. It’s a world that I care about with characters that I care about and since I’ve exhausted all of the game’s canonical content (ALL of it – for better and worse), I’ve been tiding myself over with fancanon ever since.
The “Just Five More Minutes” Award
Honestly, there are a lot of games that could fit into this category. Minecraft, Civilization, XCOM, Watch_Dogs, Skyrim, most JRPGs, FTL: Faster Than Light, Rogue Legacy and basically anything that is either a sandbox game, roguelike or turn-based. But most of the games that come to mind aren’t on Steam, and the ones that are qualify for more specific awards. Starbound takes this one because it specifically scratches my Survive-Explore-Fortify-Conquer itch – an itch that I’ve played The Forest, The Long Dark, DayZ, Banished, Castle Story, Craft the World, Project Zomboid and Don’t Starve trying to satisfy – and Starbound only stands above the rest because it’s complete with a wide range of functions allowing me to construct, populate and defend massively elaborate settlements on strange worlds. So basically, the day that someone creates a visually approachable Dwarf Fortress clone on Steam is going to be the best/worst day of my life as a gamer.
The “Whoooaaaaaaa, Dude!” Award
I’m going to be honest, the description for this one was super vague and frankly there are other games more deserving of this one than my nomination, but again they’ve already been nominated for being awesome in more specific ways. There are all kinds of ways a game can blow your mind; the scenery and sound in Sovngarde is legendary, the violence in DOOM has been distilled to an art form and that bit in Undertale where the game directly mocks you for save-scumming out of a bad decision freaked me out completely. But Portal 2 isn’t without its moments and also manages to impress on a regular basis, both in terms of its ingenious puzzles, nefarious gags, delicious lore and the climactic pinch that sends you literally off the face of the planet. Portal 2 was exactly what I wanted to see happen when Valve took the seedling that was the original Portal and injected a digital empire’s worth of creative energy into fleshing it out. It’s just a shame Valve still haven’t gotten over their fear of the number three.
The “Villain Most In Need of a Hug” Award
Not going to lie, I originally had Undertale slated to win this one, but it’s far more deserving of the Maximum Feels award and this is a fairly weak category by comparison. Actually, by and large it’s difficult for me to think of many games that qualify for this one at all, so it’s a shame to have to nominate Ori and the Blind Forest because the game itself is actually very well crafted. I couldn’t say at what point in development the writers decided that Kuro’s motivation should be having chicks that were fatally allergic to Spirit Tree light, but it sure would have been nice if they could have thought of something that didn’t make Ori’s guardian ancestor a child murderer.
The “Game Within a Game” Award
Don’t get the wrong idea when I nominate Watch_Dogs for this one, I’m not talking about digital trips. I’m talking about the multiplayer. Not even the multiplayer – I’m talking about the META-multiplayer. See, the game itself is functionally a GTA clone with a truly universal remote and from a gameplay standpoint that’s great. The story is so-so and the writing is incredibly poor (everyone’s an unlikeable dick except Jordi Chin, who’s still a dick but not unlikeable), but I’ve gotten an incredible amount of enjoyment playing a little game I like to call Tormenting Trespassers. Here’s the deal: I’ll engage in activity likely to draw opponents into my world, either by attacking other players or getting bounties on my head. Because the game disables your profiler when you’re being invaded, there’s an audible cue when another player enters your world. Immediately after that, use any single-player option to force the game into alerting you to an invasion – this will give you a general idea of where the incoming hacker is.
After that, you have two options. The first is to drive out to an exposed location with good visibility in all directions where an incoming hacker COULD try to blend in with the NPCs and stand facing away from the direction of their approach, but with the CAMERA facing behind you. Ninety-nine times in a hundred, enemy players will think they’re safe if they’re not being watched and will give their identity away by driving erratically, running, jumping over objects and so-on. Once you’ve nailed their identity, it’s a matter of running towards their general location, forcing them to pretend to be an NPC for as long as you like, turning your back and then quickly turning towards them when they try to run or just shooting them in the face. It’s all good.
The second option – and this is actually very mean of me – is to draw them into a location where they are forced to enter a chokepoint or navigate non-NPC pathways to get to you. Some people choose a specific rooftop several storeys up with a single approach and no camera visibility, but they’re just cheating to win – there’s no fun in that. My favourite locations include the back of the Merlaut, the rooftop west of the city marina and the carpark underneath Blume HQ. A good safepoint has a location you can hide with no visibility except from exposed positions and at most a single camera you can control yourself to get a better view. Make sure your profiler is still off so that you don’t accidentally target your opponent and alert them that you know who they are and in the case of Blume’s carpark, once they’re inside you can close the carpark door behind them and trigger a blackout, trapping them with you in the dark. Yeah, I’m a monster. But I have fun.
The “I Thought This Game Was Cool Before It Won An Award” Award
I’m actually not certain how much press coverage most of the games I play get because I tend to avoid any kind of hype out of habit. I couldn’t tell you how much publicity the indie titles I’ve played have gotten – I just play them. Having said that, I’m fairly sure you won’t find any public posters advertising The Long Dark because it is, in many ways, the antithesis of mainstream gaming. It’s not loud or busy or expensive; it’s an almost meditative survival game set in the Canadian wilderness with elegantly simple visuals and a fairly faithful rendition of what it would be like scavenging for supplies as the sole survivor on the outskirts of civilisation.
The “Best Use of a Farm Animal” Award
Unless there’s a slew of other titles I’m missing, this seems to me like someone at Valve saying “We wanted an excuse to remind people how awesome Goat Simulator is, so here.”
Custom Category: “It’s Art. Deal with it.”
Gaming as an art form is a contentious issue, not only because pious proponents of old media are actively hostile towards the suggestion, but also because gamers themselves will fight bitterly and viciously over what makes a game “art” or whether anyone should care in the first place. The rift between what we’ll call the “artsy-fartsy” crowd and the “uncultured meatheads” is what makes it all the more delicious to nominate DOOM 2016 as a gaming work of art. Don’t get me wrong here; gaming can excel as an art form in hundreds of ways – ways that traditional media with passive audiences could never achieve – but DOOM takes the traditions of AAA shooters and conscientiously scrapes off all the gunk that has built up over the years until nothing is left but pure, visceral bloodshed. It goes as far as to take the traditional tropes associated with sci-fi horror and literally punches them. The DOOMSLAYER doesn’t give a shit about your power crisis or haughty monologues. The DOOMSLAYER is there to kick ass and chew bubblegum and during my whole time on Mars I didn’t find a single stick of gum. Not even stuck to the underside of a chair.
It’s not all blood and guts. For those who want flesh on their story as well as their bare hands, there’s plenty of lore tidbits scattered around the game and the often humorous insight it grants into the status quo before Satan farted on everything is delightful. But DOOM’s fundamental core mechanic is fast-paced, brutal violence against an irredeemable, hideous, and innumerable enemy with no thought spared for anything beyond your own survival and the crushing of your foes. Every aspect of this – from the character design, the sound, the score, the environments, the animations and even the ending credits – is crafted with such obvious love and care and I really hope the dev team are proud of themselves for what they’ve accomplished.
When I want to charge into the fray, double-jump onto a high platform while spraying micro-rockets everywhere, I play DOOM. When I want to shoot a leaping, ten-foot demon out of the air with a railgun, I play DOOM. And when I want to cut Satan in half with a chainsaw, I play the DOOM theme track. And then I play DOOM.