‘Tis the season of GOTYs, or rather it ’twas before I spent Christmas having fun and not writing and then dove into an intensive January of teaching (more of that soon) and I come to share my own. As has been the case in recent years, my enjoyment of video games is nowhere near as closely tied to the annual release calendar as it once was. I have no regrets from not being up to date, but it does make my deliberations on what my favourite game of the year was more complicated. I suppose I could just give up on such deliberations, but why would I do that? It’s fun.

So yes, I often pick two or three games that came out the year before, or earlier. Rather than get too far into the weeds of what should and should not qualify as a Game of the Year, I will instead just go ahead and share my game(s) of the year, using my complete failure to match the latest and greatest releases as an excuse for categories, a cheap move that lets me write more and have more fun. Starting this evening, let me talk about my game of the year for a little while.

Game of the Year: Dark Souls

Yes, Dark Souls. Yes, the same Dark Souls that came out in 2011. This is probably my most egregiously anachronistic game of the year pick yet. My love affair with Dark Souls, though I had no idea that is what it would become, started earlier still when I tried my hand at Demon’s Souls in 2009. It didn’t go well. I subsequently tried Dark Souls, which also did not go well, and then bought Dark Souls for PC so that I could reinstall it every six months, play for an hour and get annoyed, and give up on it again.

This went on for a few years, and during that time I read, listened to and watched countless tributes to the game and its sequels. I assumed that the game just was not for me after all, that I looked for something different in games, that perhaps, as this problem gradually became worse, I just did not have the time to spend committing myself to the game. I did not have in me to be miserable for hours just to get to the next boss. Then it clicked.

Dark Souls is not about bosses at all. At least, not for me. I play the game somewhat atypically perhaps; I shamelessly dig into wikis, and the single moment that led to my finally understanding what makes these games so special came from a decidedly skeevy suicide rush to grab an armor set that my character in theory would not need for hours but that basically gave me just enough room to finally figure out how this whole thing works.

So… that’s the secret about Dark Souls. It’s not about the difficulty at all. I mean, the difficulty adds something special for people who are into that sort of thing, but it’s not the difficulty of the game that makes the game itself special. It’s the discovery, and the disarming intricacy with which the world you explore has been built. The Dark Souls environment makes sense in a way that compounds over one’s experience of the game. Lengthy, frustrating sections of the game come in retrospect to provide nostalgic recollections of one’s pathway through the story, a story that is nebulous by design and reflexive and adaptive as a result. You can take the Dark Souls story or leave it, you can read a lot into it or move on. It sits there and doesn’t really care if you are interested or not. In a video game world where your hand is held, gripped solidly by the AI as part of an extended tutorial that might last for hours, Dark Souls is refreshing. Invigorating. It’s the best kept secret in the medium, despite everyone shouting about it. If you read this and haven’t played Dark Souls yet, give it a shot, and keep trying until it sticks. You’ll thank me.

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