‘Game of the Year’ sounds like a pretty definite statement. ‘Game!’ (as in singular), it proclaims. ‘Of the Year!’, it quickly follows up (as in, the single defining title of a chronological mini-era of human history)
But it doesn’t work that way. Not in games retail. If you believe the boxes on the shelves, each 365-day, January-to-December period we collectively survive actually consists of around four or five parallel gaming universes in which four or five different games all win the ultimate accolade of ultimate gaming quality. Every year sees stacks of games claiming to be the official, uber-top title of their particular annum. It says so on their boxes, so it must be true.
The increasingly frequent, specially repackaged ‘Game of the Year’ special edition is a whorish concept, happy to peddle the wares of any product that wants it, however many others may be claiming the same thing. But at the same time, this madness is actually a legitimate practice. It’s a confusing situation, so what the hell is going on?
The Origin of the madness
As far as our research indicates, the first game to get a Game of the Year edition was the original Half-Life. And at the time, that title made a lot of sense. After all, Half-Life was a quantum leap in design, the game disc containing not actual game code, but rather a program which turned your PC monitor into a fully-functioning time portal through which to gaze hungrily into the very future of FPS.
It changed everything, and so when it came time to release the special edition, ‘Game of the Year’ was a more than fitting label. It had, after all, won over 50 of said awards from the collected games press. It was a special case of unanimous, industry-wide mind-blowery, deserving of a specially-titled special box.
The whoring begins
But things have changed now. Half-Life’s GotY Edition (containing H-L and Team Fortress) came out in early 1999. By the mid-2000s, self-aggrandising industry hyperbole had kicked in (as it frequently does) and stomped all over the Half-Life phenomenon’s specialness like a jack-booted stormtrooper with a kitten allergy dealing with a room full of newborn felines.
Video game Special Editions and Collectors’ Editions had been around for ages, but suddenly that title just wasn’t good enough any more. Just as publishers now have breakdowns over any release that gets less than 127, 000% on Metacritic, seemingly every game now needs a Game of the Year edition, however split critical opinion might be, and however many other games have one at the same time.
How do they get away with it?
Easy. The internet. While Half-Life had the revolutionary design and universal appeal to garner a truckload of awards back in 1998, lesser or more niche games couldn’t hope to win the same sort of plaudits. But since the mainstream explosion of the ‘net, we have countless game journalism outfits specialising in every genre facet of the medium on every platform around, from hardcore PC gaming to casual iPhone trifles.
And as games have become more mainstream themselves, and the ‘net-driven boost in games-talk has made gamers more genre-savvy, annual GotY awards have become much more eclectic in their categories. All of that combined, along with the fact that you only need one GotY award from anywhere in order to legitimise putting the magic phrase on your box, means that saying your game is the game of the year is now about as difficult as boiling hot water in Hell.
Next: A few of the oddest games to claim to be game of the year, and what to do about all this nonsense.