Sweet shoot-’em-ups and video nasties

A round-up of the best – and worst – games of the year.

Though 2010 wasn't exactly a vintage year for games, it certainly had its moments. Whether you wanted to try to assassinate Fidel Castro in Call of Duty: Black Ops, agonise over moral decisions in Heavy Rain or jump around your living room like an overexcited spaniel in the hope of getting your Kinect to acknowledge your existence, there was something out there for you.

Here's my thoroughly unscientific award ceremony, meant to recognise the best – and worst – ideas and innovations this year.

The Ronseal Award: Cut the Rope (runner-up – FlingSmash)

In the attention-deficit world of iPhone and iPad games, there is no glory to be gained from having a clever and richly allusive name. No, what you need to persuade people to part with their 59p is something snappy and to the point. So this year brought a slew of games that did exactly what it said on the tin: the Moron Test, Fruit Ninja, and the spew of nouns that was Touch Pets Dogs 2.

Most faithful literary adaptation: Dante's Inferno

Inferno is the first part of the 14th-century poem The Divine Comedy, where Dante Alighieri is guided through the afterlife by Virgil, rejecting sin and achieving grace through a combination of personal humility and soaring, epic poetry.

Dante's Inferno, on the other hand, is a third-person action-adventure game about a Templar general who cheats Death (and steals his scythe), sews a red leather cross directly into his flesh, and embarks on a spree of combat and Quicktime events to save his beloved Beatrice from the Devil. A sort of medieval Die Hard: With a Vengeance, if you will.

To its credit, at least it was only taking liberties with a work of fiction. The final boss of 2009's Assassin's Creed II was none other than Pope Alexander VI, otherwise known as Rodrigo Borgia. He tries to smite you with the Papal Cross.

Trend that (literally) won't die: Zombies

Enough is enough. It's bad enough that the market is crowded with actual zombie games (Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Dead Nation, arguably Dead Space) without the undead intruding on everything else, too. Both Black Ops and Red Dead Redemption tossed in a few shambling, rotting corpses as an aside, with mixed success. What next, Viva Undead Piñata?

Best Soundtrack: Limbo

There was plenty to love in the Xbox arcade game Limbo, as Iain Simons notes here. The bleak, minimalist graphics infused the game with a sense of quiet despair, but it was the soundtrack of ambient noise and creepy effects that really made you feel sorry for its nameless protagonist, condemned to death by endless traps, saw-blades and odd hallucination-inducing glow-worms.

Punctuation Mark of the Year: ":"

Colons were everywhere this year (a horrible mental image, but never mind). The trend was mostly down to sequels; someone in the games industry once decided to free themselves from the tyranny of having to put just "2" or "3" after the original game title, and soon everyone else followed suit. This year alone, we had Battlefield: Bad Company 2; Prince of Persia: the Forgotten Sands; Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit; Fallout: New Vegas; Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty; and Halo: Reach. The overall winner for most grotesque abuse of the colon (again, sorry) has to be Club Penguin: Elite Penguin Force: Herbert's Revenge.

Largest Player Body Count: Super Meat Boy

Who said video-game protagonists weren't diverse? In Super Meat Boy (Steam/Xbox Arcarde), you play a skinless cube of flesh. Whose kidnapped girlfriend is a bandage.

Anyway, don't question the concept, just accept – critics loved this old-school platform game despite its punishing difficulty level, which leaves your character smeared up walls and dripping blood, often hundreds of times per level.

PETA Award: Red Dead Redemption

About 90 per cent of the gameplay in Red Dead Redemption (I'm sure they meant to put a colon in there somewhere) consisted of shooting, then gutting, various blameless animals. What started off as a mildly entertaining way to get important supplies soon became a tedious gore-fest, as you were forced to sit through the same unskippable animation of John Marsden squelching his way through yet another carcass.

Occasionally, there was a distinct sense that the Wild West fauna were out for retribution for all this; the bears in the game had some kind of spidey-sense, so that as soon as you fought off one giant killing machine, another one would turn up and mercilessly savage you.

More needless PETA-baiting came from the developers of Super Meat Boy, who goaded the animal rights organisation into making a spoof version called Super Tofu Boy.

Recession, What Recession? Award: Rock Band

Back in the mists of time, Microsoft hinted heavily that its motion-sensing Kinect add-on would cost around £70. When it eventually appeared in November, it cost a sturdy £129.99 – on top of the £199 price of an XBox 360. Then it asked you to buy a bigger house so that its sensors could detect you.

Still, probably the biggest "ask" was the collection of Rock Band Pro Instruments, with a limited-edition $300 wooden Fender guitar (ability to play "Freebird" on the expert setting not included).

Is That It? Award: Black Ops

There were a few pieces of cheeky eking out this year (making the fun but undeniably slight Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood a £49.99 stand-alone game rather than downloadable content springs to mind). But none was so brazen as Call of Duty: Black Ops. The princely sum of £54.99 got you roughly eight hours of gameplay, most of which involved you being simultaneously shouted and shot at by various groups of burly men. Not the most relaxing experience.

The One That Got Away Award: Heavy Rain

There were plenty of games I regret not playing this year (spending too much time down the Halo mines stopped me from buying Fallout: New Vegas, for example, even though I loved Fallout 3). But the one game I really regret not playing is Heavy Rain. Here was the promise of something seriously emotive and cinematic, with origami swans and film-noir references and interesting weather.

The "What Next, 'Crazy Taxi: London Commute Edition'?" Award

Just as Britain's overheated housing market threatened to collapse, video games decided that building up buy-to-let empires was not only great fun, but the best way to level up. From Fable III's tedious flat repairs to Brotherhood's quest for Pret A Manger-style retail ubiquity, it was pure busywork.

Game of the Year: Halo: Reach

Yes, yes, I'm a terrible conformist, picking one of the most heavily hyped and marketed games of the year. Really I should be picking some obscure PC shooter to make myself look intelligent and urbane. But there's no getting away from the fact that, for sheer playability and longevity, Halo: Reach is streets ahead of anything else I've tried this year.

Bungie has got the combat cracked – the difficulty levels are perfectly pitched, the levels nicely varied (love the space fights) and there's still a spark of satisfaction when you get a sweet grenade stick, even for the hundredth time.

So, those are my thoughts. Are there any categories I forgot? Should I run out and buy a PlayStation 3 immediately? Is there an earth-shatteringly good game I've missed?

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor at the New Statesman

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times