Most Aesthetically Pleasing Game of the Year-- Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
I cannot say enough about how pretty this game looks. The cutscenes were fully animated and would not look out of place in any Miyazaki movie. The cel-shaded character and monster design made it look as everything in the world popped out and gave them a strong sense of life and movement. There are a variety of backgrounds, from industrial cities run by pigs, to forests, to the real world which are all more spectacular than the next. I often had to put the controller down while my jaw dropped at the visuals of this game. The graphics created a sense of wonder and childlike glee that drove me to keep on exploring the world despite its lackluster gameplay and story.
The music in the game was composed by Joe Hishashi, who does the music for the majority of Miyazaki's movies. As I walked around the world map, them music made me feel as though I was going on a grand adventure. Just listen:
Even though I would not rate this game highly, I certainly had fun playing it because of the game's aesthetics. My inner child enjoyed the pretty visuals and music too much for me to dismiss the game entirely.
Most Socially Unacceptable Game of the Year-- Persona 3
The Persona series is embarrassing to play in general, since they are basically anime in video game form. But since I do not really care if someone looks over my shoulder and thinks I am some weird otaku or something, I played Persona 3 in public locations on my Vita this summer. That was until I started getting some really strange looks in the waiting room of a doctor's office. This was a result of them seeing this:
The way that characters unlock special powers in battle in Persona 3 is by shooting themselves in the head. It was then I realized that I should not let anybody ever see me playing this game unless I wanted a long conversation with local law enforcement.
Most Terrible Game of the Year-- Heavy Rain
Here is a quote taken from the metacritic page of Heavy Rain, "There are some flaws, but taken as a package Heavy Rain is a remarkable achievement in gaming that creates an interactive experience that goes beyond the pages of a good novel or film noir. This is a game that needs to be experienced."
My response to this reviewer is: Fuck you. Reviewers like you are the reason that I wasted $10 at gamestop and 10 hours playing it. I would rank the narrative of Elmo's Letter Adventure for the N64 as superior to this steaming pile of David Cage's masturbatory revels of his self-perceived writing talent. I would say that this was the worst story I have ever "experienced" if not for the existence of David Cage's earlier work, Indigo Prophecy.
There are so many plot holes in the story, that it makes me wonder if David Cage thought himself above an editor. After completing the game, I read a four part series (begun here: http://www.gamecritics.com/daniel-weissenberger/heavy-rain-is-in-many-ways-not-well-written-part-1) on the problems with the game, while mentally adding a few plot holes and errors that the articles missed.
I know that reviewers have a child's understanding of narrative complexity, but I cannot fathom anyone thinking that this was a good story unless they have never even seen a book before. Do not play this game.
Most Favorite Game of the Year-- Bioshock Infinite
You are likely going to see this game at the top of many a list this time of year. There is a reason for that; this game is pretty sweet. It does have some glaring narrative and gameplay issues, however, so let me explain why they do not stop me from declaring this the best game I played this year.
Bioshock Infinite, unlike Heavy Rain, does have a good story, even though it might not be the best story ever written. It suffers from some strange logical leaps and a pretty weak understanding of quantum mechanics. Despite those flaws, after playing the game, I felt like the story mattered. And more importantly, it mattered to me. It was a story about fate, salvation, and redemption that made me grow as a person from the very act of playing it.
One way that Bioshock Infinite is able to resonate with nearly everyone who plays it is the way that it makes you care about Elizabeth, the object of your quest on Colombia. The scene in which you are introduced to her is incredibly powerful in making you want to know more about her and protect her. I encourage you to watch it if you have not seen it before (it starts around 3:00 of this clip).
The game is also negatively critiqued for being a "movie on rails," as opposed to a game. And while I agree with that to an extent (I did play the game on easy so I could get through the shooting parts quickly), it is not an entirely fair criticism. The gameplay does help enhance the narrative in small ways. For example, the nontraditional escort system of Bioshock Infinite makes the player care about Elizabeth more.
In Resident Evil 4, I really came to hate Ashley because she was always getting attacked by zombies and dying while you were suplexing zombies. In Bioshock Infinite, Elizabeth has no health bar and cannot die on you. They subtracted the negative side of an escort mission. They also enhanced the positive aspect. The game could have had the player pick all the ammo off the ground automatically in combat, but instead the game has Elizabeth throw the ammo to Booker instead. This causes the player to appreciate her being around more because she is helping the player when they are in stressful situations. A nice, subtle touch that enforces the narrative.
Bioshock Infinite may not be perfect, as either a story or a game, but it is damn good.