Before I get to my top 5 games I want to give out some honorable mentions to games I played some of, but not enough for me to feel comfortable honoring in my official list. These are games that I either only played the demo to or just didn’t get far enough to pass full judgment on, but in either case impressed me enough to warrant a mention.
First is Avadon: The Black Fortress. This is a massive cRPG based in old school isometric design with deep characters and lore that feels relevant to the story to are taking part in. I only played the demo, but I still put almost a dozen hours into the game and never reached the end of the demo. I can’t imagine how much more there is to this game, but I bought it and will be finding out. Everything about it looks dated and indie, but that’s because the game put the effort into what counted, the story, the interface, the characters and the feel. This is the successor to the Baldur’s Gate style of RPG that the big guys have left behind.
Next, Outland, a metroidvania style game with Ikaruga inspired color-switching mechanics combined with a tribal African aesthetic. It’s a beautiful and original looking game with simple tried and true mechanics, but unlike Castlevania games, it’s sprawl doesn’t get out of hand and back tracking is kept to a minimum when it comes to the story. The bosses are interesting and kept as unique challenges throughout the game. Again, a game I’ve put at least 10 hours into and have barely gotten anywhere.
Thirdly, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. I got this game for Christmas that I hadn’t heard anything about it until very recently when it started showing up in awards and end of year lists. I’ve only had the time for the opening, but so far it looks like an innovative and well-constructed adventure game. It already has me hooked with an intriguing mystery and bizarre style all its own.
With that said, let’s get into my top 5.
The Stanley Parable, a Half-Life 2 mod that I’ve played probably a dozen times by now. It’s simple choose your own adventure style of game taking place in a 3d environment with a narrator very aware of what is going on. Depending on how well you follow instructions is how meta the narrator gets. It is an allegory on the nature of video game storytelling that plays out with you rather than in spite of you.
Driver: San Francisco was a game that was overlooked at every turn and had no right to be. Part of the problem has to be with how it was shown to us at E3. In short bursts it seems like an insane idea and cool for a few seconds, but incredibly stupid afterwards. And it is, but the shift mechanic is a slow burn. Showing off what can be done isn’t the same as experiencing it. After a while you begin to process what can be done with the concept and what happens as a consequence. It becomes part strategy, part world building and part psychological drama. This magical realism the world is imbued with doesn’t only explain gaming conventions, but makes them apart of the story.
Fate of the World is what I wished more games could be. Explaining a difficult world through deceptively simple mechanics. It makes me think of The Wire in that the game is about systems and what those systems mean to the world. How the different elements interact and the complicated concepts affect everything else. I tried to explain it and made it sounds awful. That’s because I’m not sure it is a came that can be explained, it is a game that must be experienced to be understood. Did it teach me specific things about the world? Some. Did it teach me why things don’t always work? Yes. Did it teach me that when push comes to shove I will make some choices I find despicable by themselves? Absolutely. That alone is what great art does.
Bastion is the indie darling of the year, but unlike previous year’s indie darlings this one doesn’t go for obscuring it’s story or what it is about. That is right front and center. The world has ended in the Calamity and the Narrator is explaining the story as you play it out. You find your way to the Bastion and do the only thing you can, rebuild. The music highlights the thematic journey and gives a spiritual resonance as well as old west tang. It is a fantasy western from top to bottom. It’s part of an increasingly large cadre of games that is melding the verbs you perform in game to what the story is trying to convey. Now go build the wall up on the hill.
Portal 2 is on paper a game that has no right to exist. Portal the first was as perfect as a video game can be and really left no loose ends that needed tying up. But trust in Valve we did and what we got a spectacular game that push the boundaries of the first in ways we didn’t expect. It increased the size of the world and the length of the game, but more importantly it increased the thematic scope of the game. Where other sequels feel empty with their extra space filled by the same amount of ideas as the first, Portal 2 fills that space with expanded themes derived from the first by go far more in depth and cover a wider range of details.
I didn’t know what game was going to be my favorite until I sat down to think about it. In fact it came to me while recording the end of year Critical Distance Confab. I realized while examining the game and thinking what that experience was that it couldn’t be anything else by my Game of the Year. Realizing what Valve had given us made me tear up. This hasn’t been a great year for me or really for most people. And in all that I had the good fortune to play what will be remembered one of the greatest games of all time. It is excellent in every regard and personally hits the mark when it comes to my personal biases with regards to themes and storytelling. I said it before, but I’ll say it again here because I don’t get to say it often. Thank you Valve.