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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis