There's a reason we run a mini season of writer retrospectives on this site before we start the main awards each year. The fact of the matter is that although when it comes to the genre awards decisions tend to be relatively easy, the voting casting a clear winner, when it comes to the actual Game of the Year prize, the top three I ask for from each contributor is invariably different.
Not that I'm complaining. The diversity in the nominations simply signifies the depth of quality we continue to enjoy and build upon in this industry. It must have been a year in which we've seen a lot of sequels, but that didn't mean it was a bad year by any stretch of the imagination.
Let's start with the indies. Two were nominated for the coveted gong this year: Supergiant's Bastion and Mode 7's Frozen Synapse were games that captured our minds, hearts and spare time more than a number of thebig hitters this year through strength of concept, peerless execution and some of the finest gameplay to be found in their respective categories.
Of course, there were big budget games that innovated too this year. L.A. Noire, Portal 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution all brought something new to the proceedings, and all were nominated for game of the year. The first attempted to reinvent the adventure mystery with new technology and a striking noir storyline; the second by taking a groundbreaking idea and running with it and the third doing what Invisible War could not - providing a worthy continuation of the Deus Ex name.
But ofcourse some made the nominations list by simply being considered the best in their field. Uncharted 3 and Batman: Arkham City, Rayman Origins and Xenoblade Chronicles, Killzone 3 and Skyward Sword; all were nominated, all deserving. But none quite made it.
In amongst the array of choices, though, one game stood out time and time again. Not for being perfect, not in a quantifiable technical sense anyway. It wasn't the prettiest game, nor the most groundbreaking. It didn't offer multiplayer and wasn't exactly a wholly new IP. Its new engine turned out to be not quite so new and its blooper reel would last for weeks.
But we've been banging on about it for nearly two months now, and that shows no signs of stopping
Game of the Year 2011 | The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The title of this award, and the reasons for which it has been bestowed this year upon Skyrim, may be a little outdated now. You see, Skyrim the game had plenty of problems. As a technical achievement it was at best quirky, and at worst broken. The retail product made one wonder if indeed Bethesda even had a QA department. Not that this wasn't anticipated - Bethesda's Gamebryo RPGs weren't exactly polished products - but we'd lived in hope. Simply as a game, things just didn't really add up. The enemies weren't exactly varied, the dungeons all consisted of a bunch of henchmen and an overpowered boss, if more than one person was talking in an area then you'd get distracting conversational overlap. Old hags would hover in the air, companions might clip straight through the floor or the walls, the scenery might get hungry and slowly absorb you into itself.
Not that any of this really mattered.
We've criticised games roundly before now, punitively in some case, for committing far fewer technical sins that Skyrim did. But, as with all things, it's a matter of balance. Skyrim the game was a bit of a mess. Skyrim the world was not.
Cranked up to the higher difficulty settings, Skyrim became a game where finding the most pimped out kit of armour, crafting the perfect range of weapons and maximising your magical potential in order to stockpile dragon souls was a process that required skill, thought, some tactical determination and crafty use of the myriad of potions at your disposal. But we also knew a number of people who simply took that setting down a notch or two and were simply happy to become new tourists in this strange and snowy land. Yes it was a harsh, vertically challenging landscape, but it's also beautiful, haunting, dangerous and constantly nudges one's curiosity. It's a land that rewards the inquisitive, and provides hundreds of distractions. It's a place of which there are few in gaming, a place where you can completely lose yourself to the extent that you completely forget where the save button is, a place where minutes can turn so often into hours as you notice a shadow on the horizon and promise yourself just one more little dungeon.
Of course, the joy of Skyrim was that at any moment if you wanted a change of pace, you could have it. If the bloodletting proved too much, you could always go off on a ramble and plunder the depths of one of the 150+ individually crafted dungeons, or scale the peaks. If you were bored of wandering around, there were over 200 quests to get on with, you could get married, buy a house, join a rebellion, rob a tomb, serve a demon lord, rescue prisoners of war, become a mammoth poacher, save a nature reserve, become a thief/assassin/wizard/werewolf and so much more. But you always knew what was going on, where the main story lay, thanks to the dragons. Procedurally generated dragons. In a year where being told what to do was de rigeur, it was nice to be plonked down in a world of near limitless possibility, where the chief disappointment came from eventually finding one of the inevitable limits having been lulled for hours upon hours into believing there might not be any.
The cavalcade of glitches and the myriad of bugs served only to add to Skyrim's biggest strength - its personality. You only have to glance at YouTube to see how far the game's appeal went. And it's that personality which kept us coming back time and time again, and still does. There were plenty of beautiful games we flirted with this year, some even entertained for more than a handful of days. But too many wanted to change us, or to tell us what to do. Like the best of friends or the finest of partners, Skyrim let us be whatever we wanted to be and we took it to heart with open arms, warts and all.