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Pushing Buttons: From Wordle to Elden Ring and GTA 6 leaks, 2022 was an exciting rebound from 2022

Pushing Buttons: From Wordle to Elden Ring and GTA 6 leaks, 2022 was an exciting rebound from 2022

In this week’s newsletter: A hit puzzle, a surprise bestseller and a disastrous (and fascinating) Grand Theft Auto 6 leak have characterised a quietly eventful year

Elden Ring, an unlikely game of the year.

If 2022 was a bit of a nothing year for video games – the tentative first year of a new console generation, the second year of pandemic disruption, a year of delays and false starts enlivened briefly by the amateur traders giving Wall Street a shoeing via the medium of GameStop “meme stocks” – then 2022 has seen the games industry gradually get moving again. Our picks for best games of the year was published this week, and there are some proper greats among them. It’s also been an interesting year for games news. The stories below are my highlights – the memorable moments from another year on this niche, unpredictable beat.

The grand theft of Grand Theft Auto 6

A Grand Theft Auto illustration of a criminal in a speedboat

No company is ever pleased when information about an in-progress game gets out ahead of time. When I worked at the games site Kotaku, Ubisoft’s then-annual Assassin’s Creed game leaked pretty much every time, usually via us, and they were never less than apoplectic about it. But this year, Rockstar, one of the most secretive developers, suffered one of the most spectacular leaks in gaming history when almost an hour of footage of GTA 6 was stolen from its internal servers. The response was interesting, from a sympathetic outpouring from other game developers to clueless fans ripping into the way the (unfinished) game looked and played. It was a reminder of just how much work goes into a game on the scale of GTA, and just how close to the finish-line games have to get before they start to look and play like something us players would recognise.

The megacorps’ shopping spree

There’s been a natural slump in gaming profits in 2022 after two years of pandemic-driven growth. (Turns out, people play a lot of video games when they’re not allowed to go outside.) But big companies have been throwing money around as if there’s no tomorrow. Microsoft started the year off with a jaw-dropping $70bn bid to buy Activision Blizzard, a deal that’s very slowly making its way through many country’s anti-monopoly regulators. Sony bought Destiny makers Bungie for an astonishing $3.7bn while $9.2bn changed hands for Take-Two’s purchase of social game publisher Zynga.

The Saudi-funded Embracer Group went on a spending spree, snapping up Tomb Raider, Deus Ex and several other languishing series. Netflix, meanwhile, bought a few game studios of its own, for the hell of it. Chinese giant Tencent has continued to invest in game studios around the world, and is aggressively seeking to fully acquire even more, according to Reuters. And I’d forgotten that Epic bought Bandcamp, too, just because they could.

Forspoken’s faux pas

In August, Square Enix released a cringeworthy advert for its upcoming action-role-playing game Forspoken. A luckier marketing team might have suffered a few sarcastic Twitter replies before the whole thing went away, but this ad was so spectacularly bad that it spawned a raft of parodies, based on everything from Bloodborne to Undertale. I enjoyed these for days.

Battle of the subscription services

In news that surprised nobody, except the poor developers who were still working on games for it, Google shut down its streaming service Stadia earlier this year. This marks an end, at least for now, to Google’s aspirations in the gaming subscription space. But other companies are just getting started: Microsoft’s Game Pass continues to gobble up content; Sony revamped its PlayStation Plus subscription to incorporate streaming and a huge catalogue of its older games; and Netflix is getting more bullish about its role in the forthcoming battle for our money in a post-console world.

The outcome of this battle, which will unfold over the next few years, is going to have a big impact on how we play games – and whether we can afford them. Consoles are expensive, but they’re a one-time cost. Shelling out for four subscription services every month is not my idea of positive consumer choice.

Fifa and EA’s very public breakup

For 30 years, the only certain things in life have been death, taxes, and the annual release of a Fifa-branded video game from EA Sports. But after Fifa asked for a billion dollars from EA to continue the relationship, EA said no thanks. This year’s Fifa game was the last. EA will continue its genre-leading football games under the shouty title EA SPORTS FC.

Fifa’s Gianni Infantino, meanwhile, who is famously in touch with reality, declared that “the only authentic, real game that has the Fifa name will be the best one available for gamers and football fans … the constant is the Fifa name and it will remain for ever and remain THE BEST.” Fifa then proceeded to shop its trademark around to seemingly whoever would pay for it. The results, so far, have been a frighteningly soulless branded space in Roblox and several “web3” (read: NFT-driven bullshit) games based around the morally bankrupt Qatar World Cup. So, it’s going about as well as expected.

A surprise bestseller

The yearly bestsellers chart is always quite depressing. It is shockingly homogenous and sequel-dominated, year on year: Call of Duty, Madden and/or Fifa, probably a Pokémon game, whichever Lego game was released. All of those feature in the year’s 10 bestselling games in the US, but look at the top: it’s Elden Ring! My favourite Japanese developer’s sprawling, opaque dark-fantasy game didn’t just make it on to the chart, it topped it. People do buy good things, even if they don’t already know what it is.

Viral games brought the joy

Trombone Champ

Wordle is still my favourite story of 2022. Created as a gift for engineer Josh Wardle’s puzzle-loving partner, it existed quietly for a while before the world cottoned on to it and social media became festooned with little green, yellow and grey squares. Its surge in popularity early this year culminated in a seven-figure acquisition by the New York Times. My favourite thing about Wordle was watching friends and family who would never normally be into games become obsessed with it, getting deep into opening-word strategies and win streaks.

Later in the year, the gloriously silly Trombone Champ also became a viral hit, and ended up reviving my long-dormant love of music games. I love these stories because they’re so unpredictable: nobody could have forseen that an online word puzzle and an intentionally terrible instrument simulator would be two of the most memorable games of this year.

What to play

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is this week’s suggested game.

What makes an ideal Christmas game? It can be anything absorbing, really, something to soak up the days at the end of the year where nothing much happens, and for me it also helps if it’s wintry. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s world is vast and snow-covered, allowing for lots of nice long walks in the English countryside, interspersed with a spot of light pillaging. And you won’t care that it wastes your time with its endless side-quests and busywork because there’s nothing much else to do.

Available on: PC, PlayStation, Xbox
Approximate playtime: Basically for ever

What to read

  • In the year-in-review spirit, here are my favourite Guardian video game features of 2022. First up: Dominik Diamond’s columns about rediscovering video games as a grumpy 50-something, with the help of his adult kids, have been a laugh-out-loud joy to edit all year. The latest is also exceptionally moving.

  • The story of 40-year-old landmark text adventure The Hobbit (as told by Graeme Mason) gripped me. It’s a tale of imagination and creativity winning out over tight technical constraints.

  • For decades, a group of dedicated Discworld fans have been keeping Terry Pratchett’s fiction alive in a multi-user dungeon, kind of a giant collaborative piece of interactive fanfiction. Rick Lane delved into its history and talked to the people who made and maintain it.

  • Edwin Evans-Thirlwell’s feature about the Ukrainians making games in response to Russia’s invasion is a thoughtful read about responding to adversity through art.

  • A film about a group of players exploring the forbidden reaches of Red Dead Redemption 2 inspired this feature by Lewis Packwood about what lurks at the edges of our virtual worlds, and the ethereal nature of the hacks and glitches that can take us there.

  • And a story of mine, if that’s not too gauche: attending the first ever in-person Gayming awards showed just how far queer representation has come in video games, and what it means to the people who’ve never seen themselves in games before.

What to click

The 20 best video games of 2022

A parent’s guide to setting up a new games console at Christmas

The video games you may have missed in 2022

Question Block

There’s no Question Block this week as I’m busy stuffing my face with Christmas leftovers and trying to stop my small children from breaking each others’ new toys. But as always, just hit reply on this newsletter to send me a question for the new year.

Topics

  • GameStop
  • Pushing Buttons
  • Games
  • features
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