erry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV might be my Game of the Year, whatever it is that “Game of the Year” actually means. Like any award, Game of the Year is ripe with caveats and unstated qualifying phrases. For most writers, what they really mean is Best Retail (Probably Console) Release of 2010 (of Games I Played) (Subject to and Often Deliberately Prejudiced by My Personal Biases) (And Also Affected By a Variety of Psychological Phenomena).
And all of that’s fine, because my rationale for choosing VVVVVV is fairly straightforward and unscientific: the game made me feel good. Really, really good. No other game in 2010 had quite that start-to-finish sensation of joy
I won’t call VVVVVV the “best” game of the year, and I’m not even comfortable calling it my favorite. Plenty of good games game out this year, along with several great games, and trying to rank them does a disservice to all of them. Even within the same genre – platformers, let’s say – it becomes nearly impossible to compare a short retro indie platformer like VVVVVV to a triple-A retail retail release like Donkey Kong Country Returns.
But if it’s not the best, and if it’s only one of my favorites, it still made me feel really, really good. There’s a certain transcendent quality that great games engender. You probably know what this feels like, even if you can’t articulate it: from the moment the game starts, everything doesn’t just feel right, it doesn’t feel like anything. You don’t feel the keyboard under your fingers, your peripheral vision turns dark, and external sounds grow inaudible. This is not a heightening of the senses, but a deadening.
Many games achieve this quality at some point or another, though VVVVVV stands among the rare few that achieve this from the second you start playing until the second you stop. VVVVVV benefits from, basically, three qualities, starting with its unique gravity flipping mechanic.
As Play This Thing’s Dustin Smith said: “Jumping is so 1985.” While VVVVVV is not the first game to play around with gravity, it is – as far as I know – the only game to dedicate itself so fully to the concept. You can’t jump. You don’t find power-ups. You don’t do anything except move left, move right, and reverse gravity. In the world of platformers, this is a radical shift. Up and down are relative; obstacles that Mario could bypass with barely a hop are instead insurmountable. Like Portal three years prior, VVVVVV reshapes how you look at games. The game is familiar and utterly different all at once. And, in so many words, that’s just fun. It’s exciting to see where a smart designer takes a unique mechanic.
The game’s second strongest quality is its short-form design. Terry Cavanagh follows in the footsteps of great developers and cuts VVVVVV down to its barest essentials. Like Braid or Portal, VVVVVV doesn’t waste your time. Each room is a unique challenge. “Tightly designed” is something of a cliche, and in the world of game design it is not an unusual idea, but it is an unusual practice. When talking about how polished a game is, it’s easy to overspeak, to pontificate, so I will follow the advice of Jamie Madigan of The Psychology of Games:
I keep seeing this come up in GotY discussions because professional game enthusiasts tend to hate using vague, worn out descriptors like “fun” or “awesome” or “polished” even though those words may be perfectly appropriate if a bit mundane. But these Internet auteurs are determined to have something more descriptive to say.
Because, really, what more is there to say? There’s nothing in the game that doesn’t belong in the game. Cavanagh adheres faithfully to that old chestnut: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” VVVVVV takes a simple mechanic – press a button to reverse gravity – and thoroughly develops it, exploring every cranny of the idea but never dwelling in one place.
Finally, I want to mention the game’s soundtrack, which is my favorite soundtrack of the year. Composed by Magnus Pålsson (AKA Souleye), the VVVVVV soundtrack is one of the most enthustiastic soundtracks I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t just fit the game; it makes you want to play. “I wanted to make uptempo happy songs that would ingrain themselves into your minds,” Pålsson said of the soundtrack, “whether you want to or not, hopefully so much so that you’d go humming on them when not playing, and making you want to come back to the game even more.” And Pålsson succeeded. I risk cliche again by calling the music “infectious,” but it is. In a game as difficult as VVVVVV, where you will likely die hundreds of times, the soundtrack keeps your spirits buoyant and grants the game an incredible energy.
I could talk more about the game, from its pre-NES visuals to its suggestive story, but all of that is sort of besides the point. The game can be recommended at the most basic level as, well, a game: as an interesting mechanic explored by a skilled designer, as something that just feels good to play, no matter how many times you die.
Is VVVVVV my Game of the Year? Sure, I guess, as much as Game of the Year means anything. GOTY is an award on par with the Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. It’s an award for an award’s sake, to recognize a game released within an arbitrary span of time. But VVVVVV deserves recognition, and Game of the Year is as good an excuse as any to recognize a great game.