If, in January, you’d told me that by August Portal 2 would be ranked third on my list of best games of the year, and that it was in serious danger of slipping farther, I’d have called you crazy. Portal is one of those lifetime greats for me. Better, Valve was feeding me all the juiciest bits about Portal 2. It looked like it was going to be fantastic. Better still, it was.
Portal 2 is a fantastic game. The story is well paced and surprising. The dialogue is equal parts hilarious and genuine. It looks gorgeous, and it plays exactly like you’d want the sequel to Portal to play.
Trouble is, Portal 2 lacks the spark that Portal had. I’ve written about this at length, but suffice it to say, I feel like Portal 2 was a step backwards. It was too polished, too perfect, too much in the vein of “just what I was expecting.” Everything about Portal 2 can be described as “fun, but straightforward.” There’s very little depth.
This is why L.A. Noire and Catherine have topped Portal 2 on my “Best Of” list. They’ve got issues, to be sure. L.A. Noire feels a bit like someone haphazardly smooshed together Grand Theft Auto and Phoenix Wright. Catherine is an RPG, puzzle game hybrid which seems to confuse and put off a lot of people. Both feature frustrating aspects of gameplay, occasionally less-than-convincing graphics, and noticeable story and character holes.
Both, though, get a lot of credit for taking a risk. They tackle heady, mature topics rarely seen in modern games. They try to warp our perception of what an open-world or roleplaying game should and can be. They’re pushing the envelope, while Portal 2 reverted back to the comforts of the known boundaries.
Even better, there are more risk-taking games coming (or already here) this year. I’ve not made it very far into the game, but I understand that Shadows of the Damned features a story that shifts from over-the-top penis jokes to something dark and sincere. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron looks unlike anything else, and stands poised to be a true piece of gaming art. Silent Hill: Downpour and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both look set to continue their series trends of getting the player to think.
More than all that, a good chunk of these games could be (or already are) very successful. Looking back at 2010, Heavy Rain, Alan Wake, Limbo, and Red Dead Redemption could fit in with the games I’ve already discussed, but only half of them were financially successful. 2011 already matches 2010 in that regard, and looks set to top it significantly.
Of course, that’s just speculation. Perhaps it’s too early to call, but I’m inclined to believe we’ll look back on 2011 as a watershed year in gaming, the point where developers see that they can ask gamers to think a little bit, and gamers reward them for it. To be sure, there have been developers in years past who were willing to push the boundaries, but there as many (or more) critical darlings that flopped as there are success stories. We’re off to a good start rewarding those risk takers this year, and I hope that leads to greater numbers of mentally and emotionally mature (rather than just M-for-Mature) games in the future.