Now that we’ve all had plenty of opportunity to read over Best of 2011 lists from every publication caring to compile them, the first week of 2012 seems like an appropriate time to do a neck-twisting look back at the year just passed and forward at the one to come. 2011 was either a landmark in quality game releases or 12 months of atrophy depending on who you ask (I’d lean toward the former view) but, regardless of your own perspective, now’s the best time to look ahead and see how the recent past could — and should — affect 2012.
A year of high selling but ultimately derivative sequels and the commercial failure of great, original titles (go play Shadows of the Damned and Bulletstorm already!) paints a pretty grim picture of the future but, so far at least, the upcoming release docket is full of interesting hardware and software.
One of the best results of the 2011 sequel glut is the exhaustion of so many big series. Sure, a fall Assassin’s Creed 3 release is a given and another Call of Duty instalment is as much a November tradition as American Thanksgiving at this point, but the end of a host of other franchises makes space for new games with new premises, characters and mechanics. Entirely original titles like Lollipop Chainsaw, NeverDead, Asura’s Wrath and The Last of Us all look interesting and, whether they go on to establish less exciting franchises or not, will give the currently anaemic creative landscape a much-needed transfusion of new blood.
As retrospectively disappointing as the Wii and PSP turned out to be, the launch of two major new consoles — the hilariously named Wii U and the can-still-kind-of-say-it-with-a-straight-face Playstation Vita — should also help to reinvigorate the industry. Neither of these platforms look particularly revolutionary in any real, lasting way but their introduction to the marketplace — and both systems’ implementation of new technology — may give developers an excuse to experiment and create new intellectual properties (IPs) designed to best explore their capabilities.
Of course all of these hardware and software releases were planned before the end of 2011, which means that the real implications of last year won’t truly be felt until a bit further in the future. It’s impossible to speculate exactly how everything will play out when we reach that far-off time, but these new releases and IPs — along with the looming announcement of major new consoles from Sony and Microsoft — inspire a certain level of optimism for the creative future of videogaming.
I’ve railed on sequels before and, more than anything else, it’s the creative stagnation of big-budget games that made 2011 seem like such a bummer. If 2012’s original IPs sell well enough, this year could serve as a shot in the arm for an industry prone to playing it overly safe with software releases. The Wii U and Vita may very well flop and the original titles releasing this year may be lacklustre but the fact that so much new, unpredictable material is about to hit the market again is still a cause for celebration.
And, if none of this ends up panning out, there will always be plenty of indie games still experimenting with form throughout the year. The growth of independent sales (whether through Android or iOS mobiles, the excellent Humble Indie bundles or Steam’s ongoing support of a wide array of PC titles) in 2011 is almost immune to pessimism. Though 2012 looks like a year where the mainstream games industry could turn itself around in several, crucial ways, we can at least rest assured that, failing this, indie gaming is thriving like never before. Far less predictable than their deep-pocketed siblings, independent devs can be counted on to release any number of unexpectedly fantastic games before the year is out.
I, for one, am looking ahead at 2012 as a return to what videogames do best — delivering experiences unlike those offered by other media — and it seems likely that the coming months should provide just that. As well they should! I’m going to be seriously let down if the doomsayers are right and the world ends this December with Mass Effect 3 or Grand Theft Auto V as everyone’s game of the year contender.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine, maintains literature and music blog, sasquatchradio.com and is Twitter-ready @reidmccarter.