Who remembers the true meaning of the Game of the Year awards? Ostensibly a celebration of quality games, the tradition has garnered some negative connotations. It can look like an arbitrary list-making exercise, driven by an irresistible urge to compare things, and in which hardcore gamers seriously invest themselves because it's fun to argue about rankings and the biases of the enthusiast press. Most of these lists only ever seem effective at provoking high-strung forum posters. Also, the GOTY season is unfortunately handcuffed to the ostentatious frat shimmer of the Spike VGAs.
I think the role of Game of the Year within video game discussion communities is as the curtain call for all the nominees. December's festivities were the send-off for Mirror's Edge, Fallout 3, Spore and all their friends. Why do we need such a thing? Those games aren't going anywhere. Well, they are.
In May, Grand Theft Auto IV emerged from its cocoon as the most important video game of all time, a scion destined to change the gaming landscape. It was so exceptionally influential that a month later it was forgotten en masse for Metal Gear Solid 4: another once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece promptly devalued. Every superstar gets a honeymoon and a backlash, and then most of them disappear forever. A few stick around as game design examplars, but older games are valuable primarily as nostalgia trips. The games of 2008 were quickly assessed and the thoughts of hardcore gamers and reviewers turned to what was next.
Gamers move on and their initial enthusiasm diminishes, until that magic time of year: GOTY, the reprise.
After a hiatus, all the year's major games return to the forefront of public conscious and briefly, they all matter again. No More Heroes and Sins of a Solar Empire, 11 and 10 months old respectively, might be dinosaurs by December but even they are welcomed back. They're part of the Class of 2008, an erratic assortment of triple-A, indie and casual titles linked only by their age and their fashion sense and cultural sensibilities with which they grew up. Dead Space catches up with Valkyria Chronicles and Far Cry 2, and like a high school reunion, everyone is reevaluated. What was unjustly popular once and has received their comeuppance, and what used to be niche and unpopular and is still unpopular. Special achievement awards and dubious honours are handed out: who makes the most money, who got fat. It's not really like a reunion, though, because this cast of characters won't ever get another one.
I've never been to a high school reunion but I have been to a university graduation and Game of the Year is like a month of graduation days. The ceremony serves as the gaming industry's cathartic purge of these games from their system. It was their year, and now they're done. Their names are called -- Braid, Saints Row 2, Left 4 Dead, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Prince of Persia, Persona 4, The Club, Audiosurf, Boom Blox, PixelJunk Eden, Gears of War 2, Burnout Paradise, World of Goo -- heralding their ascendancy into history, and if they're lucky, out of irrelevancy. That was 2008. Let's never talk about it again.