If you'd told me on New Year's Eve 2014 that my two favourite games of the next year would be a Witcher and Metal Gear title, I'd have laughed, then frowned, then walked off to talk to someone who wasn't clearly crazy.
I mean, the Witcher games were a mess! Clunky controls, confusing UI, an impenetrable lore, a linear world...I'd tried playing the first two games and gave up both times. Plus, Geralt looked stupid with his stupid clothes and stupid hair.
And don't get me started on Metal Gear. There are those who believe Hideo Kojima is one of the great video game auteurs. I am not one of them. Every Metal Gear game I'd tried to play crushed me under so much bullshit and ridiculous backstory that I could barely breathe. And that's before we get to the part where I just don't enjoy stealth games very much...
Those, at least, were my views coming into 2015. Spelled out like this they might appear petty, maybe even pointlessly hostile, but in this line of work you play a lot of games, and over time I've developed a pretty good sense of what I like and don't like in my video games.
So I couldn't have been less excited for either The Witcher 3 or Metal Gear Solid V. Turns out I was an idiot. Or, those game's target market. Maybe both.
Where The Witcher 2 had been a linear slog, The Witcher 3 rolled back the walls and took place in the most beautiful open world video games have ever seen. Months later, and with almost all the game's quests complete, I'm still playing TW3, just...exploring. I've never done that with an open world game before, not even Skyrim.
The Witcher 2 had done a terrible job explaining its combat and magic, to the point where the developers had to go back and patch in a new tutorial. The Witcher 3's combat, while not perfect, is far more elegant, partly because of the open world, partly because it's just a big improvement.
I'd gotten completely lost during the opening sections of The Witcher 2, with no idea who anyone was or what the hell was going on. The Witcher 3, being the third game in a long, story-driven series should have compounded my misery, but instead it serves as a masterclass in how to complete a series' narrative while also introducing characters and themes to newcomers. I never once felt left out or confused; through careful use of tone, dialogue and even body language, I could quickly pick up who was who, and what their relationship was.
Oh, and "Old Beard Geralt" is 100000x cooler than the first two games' "Romance Novel Cover Model" Geralt.
As for Metal Gear Solid V, it's still stupid. I've skipped as many cutscenes as the game allows, because I'm so out of the loop with the series' convoluted story — and this game does such a terrible job getting you up to speed on it — that Snake and Ocelot may as well be chatting in Portugese. And while fans love Kojima's quirks, particularly his propensity for jarring outbursts of weirdness, that stuff has never clicked with me (excellent use of 80's music in this game excepted).
Yet the actual game...again, like The Witcher 3, MGSV ditches confined spaces and goes for larger, open arenas, and just like TW3, it transforms the entire experience. Gone is my frustration of corridors and guard patterns, replaced with something closer to the thrill of Hitman, or Far Cry, where you're given a job to do, a space to do it and are then left to your own cunning/hilarious devices.
Also: it has balloons.
In short, both games achieved something remarkable: they kept many of their core appeals in tact, while at the same time broadening and refining their systems (and world) to make them more approachable and enjoyable to outsiders. Even ones as hostile as myself. I've loved playing both of these games, especially The Witcher 3, which is already comfortably on my list of all-time greats.
Fans are often quick to react when they sense a game is "selling out", or "dumbing down", fearing that the complex gameplay or heavy lore they have grown to love in a series will be tossed out in favour of appealing to what they assume is a simpler, more mainstream crowd. But that hasn't happened here, with either of these games. Both long-time fans and newcomers seem thrilled. The Witcher 3 still has sexy times, sword oils and curse words, Metal Gear Solid V still has boxes and ! marks and loads of weird shit.
So in addition to their own merits as standalone titles — and neither TW3 or MGSV is short on acclaim — I think both games deserve enormous credit for the way they have walked that tightrope and successfully pulled it off.
The motto of this story isn't to embarrass myself by revealing some stupid prejudices I've been lugging around for years. We all have our own tastes, and these two series had a history of not appealing to mine. I'm sure you've got your own likes and dislikes, whether they be games, series or even entire genres.
No, the motto is that video games are strange and wonderful things. They're advancing so quickly, both in terms of technology and design, that you should never write them off. Games that you might hate one day can always come back around and, without warning, turn into your thing.