Welcome to 'The Esoteric Beat', the news report that provides new and unusual ways to think about games and culture. This week's column looks at the esoteric games of the year and the end of a world.
It's been a good year for the esoteric approach in gaming, and I don't just mean the stuff you only hear about on columns like this. There has of course been a superfluity of the usual smattering of art-projects, oral multiplayer japes, modding misadventures, and patchy morality, but there have also been a few interesting experiments in the unusual making it into our mainstream entertainments. Some (although clearly not all) of these titles have even been published by big, mainstream publishers, which really does mean it was a good year for the unusual. So in the spirit of the season The Esoteric Beat is going to give out a few esoteric awards...
The first of these special awards goes to Best Use Of Extra-Terrestrial Interlopers, which for 2005 goes to Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath. The judges decided that its mix of Spaghetti Western tropes and cute-as-bull-pie alien culture was worthy of an esoteric commendation. The runner up award in this category goes to another EA-published oddity, the alien family in The Sims 2 - what was that all about?
Our second award goes to Best Misuse of the Legal System, which goes to the Nintendo DS title Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Oblivious to how courts actually function, Phoenix Wright delivers a peculiarly instinctive, if legally abhorrent, means of determining guilt or innocence. Judges decide murder charges based on their whim, mood, and the evidence gathered by the lawyer's own illegal inspection of crime scenes, while the lawyers are influenced by the ghosts of their former collegues. This is the closest the legal system gets to being a manga fight-comic. (The DS itself wins the lifetime achievement award for largest number of weird games in a single year.)
Next up to the podium is the winner of the Least Clichéd Real-Time Strategy Title of 2005, which goes to the recently Steamed title from British coders Introversion, the critically exulted Darwinia. Introversion also deserve a special mention for having the most aptly named lead designer on any contemporary development team, the charming Mr Chris Delay.
Finally, The Esoteric Beat Game Of 2005 was initially nominated as 'Best Psychopathological Game Device' (narrowly beating the bizarre and spooky Capcom psycho-puzzle-shooter Killer 7 to that title). It's the funniest game of 2005, and arguably one of the most imaginative applications of game design ever to engorge our gaming glands. It is the remarkablePsychonauts. Congratulations to Tim Schafer and his Double Fine team; here's hoping that they steer clear of annoying jumping sequences in 2006...
And we close the year on a plaintive note, with a reflective nod towards the end of Asheron's Call 2. The game world is just a week from its demise, and Wired's Clive Thompson has taken this opportunity to sample the lonely atmosphere its final days, and has talked to few remaining players who walk the ghost town: "Now as the final days click down, the last denizens of Asheron's Call 2 are wrestling with a question that historically faces all displaced peoples: Where next? Thorn says many in his guild have emigrated to World of Warcraft, a game that is now so hugely popular -- and so overcrowded, with migrants fleeing to other games -- that it has become a virtual version of 19th-century America: A hallowed land of opportunity, where everyone can have fresh start."
And that, I suspect, might be the highest accolade in a year of praise for Blizzard's virtual empire. And just how long will Azeroth last? Place your bets, and the Esoteric Beat will return in 2006...
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