Saturday Soapbox: Was 2011 a Vintage Year?

It may have lacked innovation, but the breadth of experiences made 2011 a year to savour.

A couple of weeks back, Oli told of how he spoke to a friend who believed that 2011 was the finest year for gaming since 2001 - and then promptly disagreed, saying how this year, for all that it's offered in terms of excellence, hasn't really offered anything particularly new. Games are now bigger and better, yes, but that heady thrill that defined gaming's last golden age is now gone.

He's right, of course. The two titles that, in my mind, are 2011's best - and that's Portal 2 and Skyrim - are retreads, iterations that expand upon templates that, in Portal's case, had perhaps already been perfected before. Elsewhere, it's hard not to be disheartened by the thickening glut of lookalike shooters, or other games with pretensions of innovation merely offering up old ideas that have been twisted, bent or just plain misappropriated.

I'll come clean though. I was that friend, and it's a belief that I still stand by. 2011 has been a vintage year, not necessarily for the same rush of novelty that we saw a decade ago, but for different reasons altogether. And they're reasons that I think are just as important as the sharp thrill of the new, even if it's admittedly a less raw excitement that they offer.

It's important, first of all, to realise that the giddy euphoria of a year that brought us the bold innovations of GTA 3, Super Monkey Ball, Halo and Pikmin to name but a few is most likely lost to us, perhaps forever. 10 years ago, gaming was still in the throes of its own puberty: moody, unpredictable and occasionally incomprehensible but with its every action infused with an electric thrill of the unknown.

For better and for worse, the last 10 years have seen the medium settle down into a smoother, more sedate rhythm. There's the famous assertion that there are only seven stories in literature, those base models twisted and repurposed ad infinitum. I think that, after a handful of decades of experimentation, we've begun to settle upon our own templates, ones that will likely be at the backbone of games for many years to come.

We've lost the shocks, but we've gained a maturity that allows games - within a framework that's now been well defined - to experiment and to iterate. It's this kind of experimentation that can concoct an experience like Portal 2 - a game that doesn't quite achieve the delicately chiselled perfection that its predecessor did, but one that still manages to expand upon the original and create, arguably, gaming's first real comedy. A comedy that was defined as much by the player's actions as it was by the game's script, a facet that's further explored in the wondrous slapstick of Portal 2's co-op mode.

Skyrim, on the other hand, is the 14th release in the Elder Scrolls series - and its horrendously compelling fantasy world is a product of each game before it, its allure a result of the 17 years of tinkering and iteration that preceded it. It's not a new experience, but in Bethesda's well-established template of hundreds of stories threaded across rugged landscapes, bigger and better's certainly something to be grateful for.

Other highlights of 2011 have been the fruits of a Nintendo in panic mode, as it sought to satisfy 3DS owners who had been bereft of decent software for much of the year as well as seeing off the Wii and celebrating Link's 25th birthday in the space of three heady weeks. Nintendo's games have long been well-defined; the core appeal of Mario has been set since his first leap in 1985's Super Mario. Bros, and it's an appeal that has remained unaltered ever since, with Nintendo simply managing to frame it in ever more inventive ways.

For all of its structural innovation, Skyward Sword's the same story at heart as the one told 25 years ago. But in this year's Zelda game we have the most confident retelling and restructuring of those base elements since Majora's Mask, and in Super Mario 3D Land we have Nintendo, once more, introducing a new dimension to its mascot with a game that overflows with imagination. It's not as groundbreaking as Mario 64, of course, but it is in its own way every bit as enjoyable.

But it's not really Nintendo, Bethesda or Valve - or, for that matter, any of the names behind what's been, however you look at it, a strong year for big-budget games - that have made 2011 a year to remember. It's the names, too countless to list, of indie developers that have helped broaden the scope of gaming to a degree never seen before.

Games like Bastion, From Dust, The Binding of Isaac, Where Is My Heart?, To The Moon or Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story are just a handful of examples of the esoteric offerings to be found on the App Store, Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, PSN or indeed just lurking on the internet. The digital distribution that's enabled such experiences isn't a phenomenon that's unique to 2011, but it's this year when independent gaming first felt like a viable alternative to more mainstream fare, when its momentum opened it up to a wider audience.

It's allowed for games in which Werner Herzog sits proudly on top of the high-score board, for abstract portraits of a family day out told through a Mondrian filter, and for extended and ultimately touching ruminations on love and loss. It's made for inverted fairy tales, or god games that are touched with a muted mysticism that's normally the preserve of cinema's masterpieces.

It's made for a gaming landscape that's brilliantly, and thrillingly, diverse. The thrill is gone, but in its place we've a breadth and maturity that's arguably never been seen before - and it's contributed to what's been perhaps one of gaming's true vintage years.

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