Golden Joysticks 2015 (Part 1) – Space, Ships and Wondering Why Minecraft Is Still Here

It’s that oddly specific time of the year – picking the best contributions to the art of video games from the last 365 days, and in some curious instances, beyond that as well. Now, me having some interesting and more tangential opinions on the video game medium, my picks may not be your picks. The voting for Golden Joysticks is still open for you to make your voice heard, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the categories and what you think should have their moment in the spotlight.

I will go through these in groups of seven, because maths. Here we go.

Best Audio – Alien: Isolation

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A good audio experience in a video game will take quality sound effects and make them stand out, and this category had some good contenders like the booming voices of Ori And The Blind Forest and Batman: Arkham Knight, to the minute creakings and water drops of Titan Souls and Bloodborne. But an audio experience in a video game is one that brings you into the experience: a suite of sounds and music that puts you in the shoes of the player character and let you experience what they experience. For that reason alone, this award must go to Alien: Isolation.

Sound is part of your arsenal in Alien: Isolation. Not only do you wait with bated breath for the footsteps of the alien shifting through corridors or through air ducts, but you can use sound makers as tools to distract your enemies and get away safely. What drives Alien: Isolation’s sound design is in the emphasis on silence. In stealth game-play, sound becomes a resource – your enemy and your savior, depending on how your day is going. In a horror stealth game, in particular, every sound could mean death. In Alien: Isolation, this tenet is no different: every sound is either you running the fuck away, or you shitting your pants at the steady click-clack of alien feet on steel floors, waiting for you to make a mistake.

Honorable Mention – Life Is Strange

Best Original Game – Her Story

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The page header claims that “in a world where sequels are so often king, these are the innovative, often genre-defining games that shattered a stereotype”. So forgive my confusion when I see another Dark Souls-esque game, an emotive Telltale Games heartstring thumping, a grim-dark war game that makes you feel bad, a whimsical pretty platformer, a procedurally generated stealth rogue-like, a kooky open-world sandbox, and a spiritual successor to Portal 2 – all of which may be original in their own interpretations, but borrow from aspects of previous game of the years Dark Souls 2, The Walking Dead, Spec Ops The Line, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, X-COM: Enemy Unknown, Just Cause 2 and, well, Portal 2, respectively – all of them previous GOTY contenders and most of them reiterations themselves. In a bracket that totes originality but provides nothing but the phrase “it’s X but…”, it’s hard for me to pick a winner for the category. However, for originality’s sake, the award has to go to Her Story.

With impeccable acting and a ballsy premise, Her Story is the first real contribution to the visual novel that any Western video game company has produced. It is a tense detective story where you have to filter truth from fiction, and sometimes, you have to rely on an unreliable narrator for the clues you need to proceed. The tale lacks in interactivity, which is where most of its criticism comes from, and can railroad you at times and make you feel slightly smarter than you think you should. Despite this, in a video game landscape that seeks to take what is popular and pop on their own coat of paint, Her Story strove to do something that no one would think to do, and succeeded.

Honorable Mention (Jebediah Kerman Memorial Award Recipient) – Kerbal Space Program

Best Storytelling – Sunless Sea

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I am happily surprised that this award exists at all. I love me a good narrative in a video game, but that is not the purpose of the award. Storytelling is more than just a solid narrative. Telling a story is about showing, not telling, and in a video game, this becomes more of a question of acting and doing rather than telling, or maybe obliquely hinting and showing. Unfortunately, this bracket is stunted by this exact problem, with many of the options on show having stellar writing but never letting you take the wheel to experience them on your own terms. This is the greatest strength of the rogue-likes and the RPGs, and in this category I am torn between the stories of Pillars Of Eternity, Sunless Sea and Dragon Age: Inquisition, all purely because of the hand you play in creating the story of the world you reside within. In my heart of hearts, when all is said and done, I can’t not pick Sunless Sea.

The tale is one out of Choose Your Own Adventure books – you are a sailor seeking fame and fortune on the high seas, with terrors waiting at every corner. The rogue-like element of this game gives each story both a brevity and a fragility that a player respects, leaving the story of your character in your hands, while allowing narrative to shape the world around your experiences. Of course, all other things aside, the writing is superb. The writers over at Fallen London need congratulating for writing some exquisite narrative into both their web browser experience and this rogue-like masterpiece. If you’re not big into reading, this one isn’t for you, and if you are wanting more of a show-not-tell experience – like myself – this may not be for you. In terms of objectively good storytelling, however, Sunless Sea has very few peers.

Honourable Mentions – Pillars Of Eternity, Dragon Age: Inquisition

Best Visual Design – Ori And The Blind Forest

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Picking a game for a visual design award starts easy and finishes rather subjectively – just like every Friday night for me. In terms of pure, Shallow Hal style, eye candy visuals, the obvious contenders stand out from the dull grays and browns of the other participants. From there, the situation becomes rather awkward. Does one appreciate the color palettes and art direction of Sunset Overdrive and Splatoon, or does one marvel at the technical spectacle achievements of Metal Gear Solid V or The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter? My initial option was The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter, because it is simply, quietly, tranquilly gorgeous. Upon further reflection, however, part of that tranquility was built around the emotions within the game. And if I had to take a game home based purely on how hot they were – metaphor slippage notwithstanding – I would go home with Ori And The Blind Forest every night.

Every frame of Ori And The Blind Forest is a gorgeous painting, every screen-shot worthy of becoming a piece of art in its own right. Between the character design of Ori as a creature of whimsy and curiosity and the background images that leave nothing static, the game is a feast for the eyes. Honestly, just go watch the trailer at 1080p and drink it all in. More to the point, the game’s visuals actually overshadow some of the faults: for example, being another indie title that tries a little too hard to tug on the heartstrings and force emotion out of you, and being a bit derivative in its gameplay. Let this be a lesson, Microsoft. You don’t have to try so hard when you look so damn good.

Honorable Mention – The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter

Best Multiplayer Game – GTA Online

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I’m not a massive fan of playing multiplayer games, purely because I am an antisocial and grumpy man-child. If I am to step foot outside of my box, it is not to revel in the game as much as it is to have the time of my life with my friends. I come from the sit-down console multiplayer age where winning certainly wasn’t everything, like it is in say, Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfighter, Heroes Of The Storm or Mortal Kombat X, but being a dick and having a good time was. With that being said, I’m going to give in to popular opinion on this one and give the award to GTA Online.

In a mulitplayer environment where you can race cars, shoot up enemies, play sports, deliver packages, hunt monsters, paint things and turn people into red mist, is it too much to ask for the option to do all of it in one game? Rockstar clearly had one too many Adderall that day and decided “fuck it yes we can” and created GTA Online. Now, Grand Theft Auto V is a fantastic game in its own right, but GTA Online takes this framework and truly creates a playground where the only real hard limit is what you can put together. There is a saying that says “Jack of all trades, master of none, certainly better than a master of one”. GTA Online is the living, breathing pinnacle of this proverb, and is the only game in this category that will stand the test of time. Or until the sequel comes out.

Honorable Mentions – Mortal Kombat X, FIFA 2015

Best Indie Game – Kerbal Space Program

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Indie developers are the stories of underdog acheivers: the games that say “screw it” to the risks of money, time and sanity and make a video game that far and away exceeds the expectations of its inception. The latest cult classics of video games have come from the courage to go out on a limb and make something unique with a finesse that some AAA developers can’t really afford to reach due to strict deadlines and the rigmarole of publisher demands. The options on this list range from cult phenomenon to obscure underdog and everything in between, from the rampant success of Kerbal Space Program to the relative obscurity of Affordable Space Adventures and Axiom Verge. But let’s be real – did anyone guess that a simple game about going to space would be as good as it is? No? Cue the flying pigs.

Kerbal Space Program takes something so child-like – the desire to make something explodey and go to space with it – and has created a space physics sim with charm, panache and actual real physics. From the charm of the bean-shaped idiots you are strapping to a rocket and shooting into the abyss, to the raw joy and satisfaction of seeing a successful mission completed, there is nothing not to love about Kerbal Space Program. What is most impressive is how refined the physics is, with people at NASA – you know, the ones that work with real rocket science – claiming that they are addicted to it. Simply put, Kerbal Space Program is a labor of creativity and love that exemplifies what the term “indie” is all about.

Honorable Mentions – Chaos Reborn, Invisible Inc., Axiom Verge

Best Family Game – Minecraft Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

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I’m going to take aside from the implicitly arranged format for just a second. I couldn’t give less of a half-baked shit about Minecraft anymore. Yes, it is an amazing sandbox and learning tool. Yes, people have done amazing things with it. Yes, it will endure as the biggest single success story in video games. I am not happy for it to be in the Golden Joysticks again. It makes me livid that we are continuing to wank this horse cock until the last dribbling squirts of accomplishments fall out of it. Seriously, we have been giving this game gold and nods in the Golden Joysticks since 2011. I refuse to give it any more praise, because it has been given enough and I have enough common sense to look for other alternatives for this award, which will probably be overlooked because of the lumbering behemoth of this pixellated glory hog. Let’s move on.

The other contenders are colorful, wonderful experiences that transcend age and maturity. The defining factor of a family game is a game that is not only accessible to all ages, but a family can sit down together, play the game and enjoy experiences together. The LEGO games fall squarely into this category, with LEGO Jurassic World and LEGO Dimensions appearing among the nominees. However, the real winner of this category is Nintendo, living up to their all-ages expectations by producing four of the ten nominees, the best of which – and my pick for the award – being Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.

Readers may see this as something of an odd choice from the options, but I beg to differ. It is one thing to have an experience as a family experience, but it is another to have that experience move away from the video game and into the larger formative consciousness of the less enthusiastic reaches of the video game community. Simply put, a family game needs to lead people into our medium, and make a game that not only provides a good experience, but sets younger and less experienced players up as people that can grow to play more video games and apporeciate what they have to offer, like solid level design, using one’s brain to solve problems, thinking about the medium as a whole and learning to make mistakes. Since Minecraft has suspiciously fallen down a mine shaft, the game that steps up to the plate is Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, with just the right levels of charm, difficulty and substance to be the best thing that Nintendo has done with Mario for a long time. Oh Captain, my Captain.

Honorable Mentions – Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, Yoshi’s Woolly World

***

Part 2 will return with Best Handheld/Mobile Game tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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