I wanted to get this done earlier. In fact I like having my game of the year post before the end of the actual year. For the last two years that meant taking time out of New Years Eve celebrations for typing it up. That didn’t happen this year because of my next point.
I have played more games last year from that year than I have ever done so before. In fact, I find it somewhat amazing when I actually sat down to write a list of all the 2012 games I had played and a second list of all the games I owned, but had not yet gotten to and a further list of games worthy of attention for one reason or another that I did and do not yet own and still a further list of games not available for any format I own. 2012 was a great year for games and as it disappears into the mists of time and memory I do think it will be held in equal esteem with 1998, 2005 and 1991 as one of the greatest years in gaming ever.
I have no set format that I follow year to year. In 2008, the year I started this blog, I just named what I thought the best game was along with some thoughts on the year a whole. Then I held an award like post contending 5 potential picks against one another. Then it was a winner with two runners up and last year I did a top 5 that was out of date within a week having then played Driver: San Francisco, throwing my whole evaluations into whack.
This year, thanks to the indie – I hesitate to revolution, but what have you – revolution of distribution, cultural awareness (as in the culture being aware of the span of them) and artistic integrity. Other years had their token indie game to hold the torch, sometimes good and sometimes ill thought out (*cough* Limbo *cough*), but this year needed no such tokenism. Only two games that could conceivably called a AAA game make my Top 25 (yes I have a top 25 this year, I’m quite excited) and only one of those in my top 10. Granted there are quite a few missing that I have to play, some of which I actually have access to. In that spirit I need to say my standard disclaimer that no I have not played everything and that this list is subject to change at my evaluatory whims.
A list is meant to be a reflection on the year and the works that represent that year. Some people despise numberings because it somehow objectively states that one game is better than another. I can’t disagree more. It subjectively states that one game is better than other at this moment. In reflecting I sat down with a list of 25 games that I knew were going to make up my list and then I closed my eyes and went over my memories and feelings towards them. Some were easily and immediately placed at the top and bottom of the list. Others I had to mark off as what I felt would be in the top 10 and then the next 5 and then the next 5. There was just so much that only by sectioning them off could I compare and contrast them against one another.
This may sound like a lot of effort to put into for what is essentially another meaningless (read: my opinion) list that may or may not check off the games you’ve heard so many times elsewhere, but to me I like the expression of it and what it means to the author. I’ve written a number of blurbs for other best of 2012 lists and I could never say what I wanted to because I was making a statement more general as to why the game deserves to be there. I’m not going to do that here. My blurbs, long or short are going to be a stream of consciousness expression of why I put the game on the list and why I put it where it is. Some of it may be technical and some of it may be outside the realm of the games themselves, but it all relates to what I think of them as best.
Without further delay.
25. Frog Fractions
No other game could be described as an absurdist comedy. Nothing hits the Monty Python style itch in game from like Frog Fractions. Not even the Monty Python games of which I’ve played both. The quick switching of genres, meaninglessness of the interactions and goals towards the whole and the failure free nature of the game all contribute to something that doesn’t really say anything, but to convey an experience of inanity in a medium that is practically defined by it. It was the text adventure part that did it though. When I think of Frog Fractions that is always the part that sticks with me. Maybe because it is just the right length of a text adventure for me to cope with. Can’t wait to see what happens with Frog Fractions II: Frog Harder. It practically demands it.
I did a preliminary list after I got the podcast TYIVGB up. I placed Unmanned much higher than it is here. In fact, it was in the top 10. In the 10-11 days since then I don’t think that much of it. It’s a game that needs to be played as an exploratory of war subject matter left off the table so much of the time. It’s a bunch of vignettes that string together a meaning in our minds even if there isn’t one in the life it represents. It’s still meaningful, but it doesn’t hit me quite as hard. I thought it did, but in the subsequent days I played other games in the same genre that made me realize how much it didn’t hit me as hard as I thought it had or could have. I kept playing games in the last two weeks and a number of them completely scrambled this list.
I have to mention this game simply because it’s doing something in exploration I’ve never seen in a game before. It’s actually making you create the map as a major component of the game. In the golden age of PC gaming, you had to draw your own map, but that was a bunch of corridors and rooms. In modern gaming a map is created for you as you travel or as you get to some view point than details the surrounding area. That isn’t really exploration so much as a lock on the visuals of the landscape. I can’t say much more because I haven’t put a lot of time into Miasmata, but it certainly deserves more of my attention.
This is the only game I hesitated putting any number next to it. I don’t mean this number, I mean any number. It’s such a personal story that somehow numbering it reflects on the personal value of the story. That thought process is bullshit, but I have it nonetheless. Instead I think of what Dys4ia actually is. It is a personal story. It is an interactive fiction using game mechanics to highlight the real world tensions experienced by the author. But that’s not what makes me smile about it. There’s a theory that a work can blaze a trail in little or no purpose beyond seeing if the technical basics will work and other artists come later to co-opt those techniques for their own purposes. It makes me smile that anna anthropy co-opted Wario Ware’s style for something else in a new context.
21. Angry Birds Space
I go in circles with the Angry Birds series. I liked it, but then I gorge myself too much on the levels and I stop playing the or able to stand them and play another smartphone game like Temple Run, Cut the Rope etc etc. It’s especially disheartening if you come to a level you simple can’t get passed and you look ahead and see all those free levels that have been added to the base game or any of the subsequent sequels. It’s always the same simple mechanics with new configurations. Space added something new that changes the whole experience. It added the element of gravity that makes everything seem fresh and new again. Haven’t tried Angry Birds Star Wars, but Space is enough until I cycle around again and get tired of it again.
20. Super Hexagon
Super Hexagon is a game that I might like more if I could play it on a mobile platform, either my phone or my tablet. Given the OS of the devices most likely my tablet. The context in which a game is played can vastly change the perception of the game and Super Hexagon I don’t thinkis a game that works as well played on the PC as it would on a mobile device. I like the near trance like experience the visuals and sounds inspire. I don’t know if there is more to it or not. I can’t get passed 20 seconds.
19. Tokyo Jungle
I went to war with the cats and the cats lost. Then when I went back to my ancestor’s home in Shibuya Station I found tigers and lions where once roamed rabbits. It was a horse that killed my pack. I died inches from mating for a new generation. The horror. The horror.
18. Thirty Flights of Loving
I don’t really know what to think of this game. It was visually inspired, especially the party scene and what they did in the airport, but the game says little though it feels like there is more going on. Honestly, I preferred Blendo Games previous entry Gravity Bone because it did cinematic game by incorporating and then subverting both elements together. Thirty flights of Loving is part of that genre the First Person Walker that became very inexplicably popular this year. I can understand one game trying it out as an experiment, but I count three examples of the genre – 4 if you include Journey – from this year alone. I think the experience works better as an atmospheric experience that it does as a cinematic one. Although I really like the touches of cinema the game put in.
I know I sound like I’m really down on the game, but it really is part of a new genre that sprung up this year with the examples doing so pretty independently of one another. And each one had a different purpose in mind and I think this one’s purpose worked the least well.
17. Papo & Yo
I’ve already said my thoughts on this game. I respect Papo & Yo, I really do. If I didn’t it wouldn’t make it on the list at all. But what I remember the most about the game at the end of the year were the discussions around it rather than anything in the game. Specific things do eventually come to mind, but all the other games before this inspired memories from the game itself. This is the first and only game on the list that doesn’t do that. It doesn’t give me any image from the game or emotional resonance from it. Again, another autobiographical work that I respect more in the abstract than I do in the execution. Sure Papo & Yo could use some work in the polish area with regards to clipping and the one time I fell through the bottom of the world, but I don’t hold that against it. I can’t fault these games for my inability to connect with their personal stories, either Papo & Yo or Dy4ia. But at the same time I can’t put them any higher even though they are the result of the type of games I’ve thought should come about. The kind that use interactive mechanics and contextual metaphor to delivery meaning rather than straight up one to one representation. I don’t know.
At one point this was in the top 10, but I can’t help but feel the game isn’t finished. It isn’t finished; it’s still in beta, but it doesn’t feel finished either. Minecraft felt like a complete whole through its whole iteration process in Beta. I put it in my end of the year list while it was still in beta because it felt like a game. I hesitated putting Proteus on this list at all because it doesn’t feel whole to me. Had I been told this was the whole game and that it was complete I would have accepted it and dealt with what I had. But I know the finished version has yet to release and if the creators can do anything more with Proteus I want to see it before fully making a judgment.
At the same time I like the atmosphere of the game and presentation of the natural world. It somehow feels closer to be naturesque by being this watercolor land than it would in high def polygons. Though when it comes to being a calming connection to nature thought virtual space experience, Flower still blows it out of the water.
15. Need for Speed: Most Wanted
Last year it looked like I might end up as some specialist in driving games. I don’t know how I would have handled that. Yes, I’ll advocate till I’m blue in the face for Driver: San Francisco and Burnout: Paradise is joy in disc form. But I really didn’t like any other racer I tried. The closes would have been Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, which by coincidence was made by Criterion, like Burnout: Paradise was. They took the best elements of both games and smashed them together in Most Wanted, while dropping some of the most annoying aspects along the way. I can’t tell you how grateful I was for dropping the horrendous menus of Hot Pursuit. The exhilaration of speed and of the thrill of the chase are paramount to the racing genre and Most Wanted I think does it best.
The game makes myth of the car and the drivers behind them. We never see them in game and are listed as a number, but it emphasizes the challenge not just by the driver’s designated wanted number, but though all aspects of the presentation. All of the games I mentioned in this little section are fantasies, but this is the first one that makes the world of this strange fantasy seem real or even fictionally plausible.
14. Hotline Miami
This game and the next two, for all intents and purposes, might as well be interchangeable. These are all games I need to pour more time into before I can stand by any evaluation. But at the moment the estimation of these three are nearly equal.
Hotline Miami is a gross game of mechanical perfection. The design is great, but as time passes I feel it might be let down by other aspects that try to make it meaningful. Honestly, I think it might have been more powerful if it had remained rawer in the story department and tried to go Fight Club on its audience. Granted I haven’t seen where it goes in the end for myself and my reservations on its final execution may be unfounded. Any game that when I finish a session with it leaves a tired soul sucked feeling in my arms has to be doing something right.
13. Mark of the Ninja
Of the three in this trilogy of need more time with, this is the one I’ve actually beaten. Publishers and developers talk of replayablitiy as a way to keep the customer from selling the game back. Now this doesn’t really apply to Mark of the Ninja given that you can’t sell it back. However, it’s a game that almost demands that you keep playing after you’ve beaten it. Whether it’s on the New Game+ or again on normal difficulty. The story twist at the end was nice drama within the game’s fiction and I applaud that it doesn’t make more of it as the inherent meaning of the game like others have. Instead it’s on the nature of mechanical stealth that matters most to Mark of the Ninja. You have to master the encounters and become a ninja for the game to truly have its full effect. This means you have to keep playing it and means I would need more time to fully appreciate the experience the game offers.
12. Legend of Grimrock
Why did I put this above the other two? I keep asking myself that and last night I came to the answer that sometimes aesthetics matters. Hotline Miami is a dirty, gritty game whatever the purpose of the aesthetic or the quality of the execution of it, it is still a repellant visual tone. Mark of the Ninja is mostly silhouettes which is perfect for the game dependant on shadows, but doesn’t leave a whole lot to grab onto. The more detailed gorgeous graphics of Legend of Grimrock in my mind just give it that sliver of a leg up. The rest of the game is great to or I wouldn’t have put it here. Again this is a game so striking that the limited number of hours I’ve played the game are enough for me to place it here. It could go up or down and this is the epitome of the fluid nature of these lists.
11. Dear Esther
Dear Esther is a game I liked to see talked about and discussed more than I like playing it. Yet every time I do play I am completely engrossed in the traveling. Another of the FPWs it is the one that has gotten the most attention. It certainly is the most atmospheric, but it also the one that is the most of a downer. The landscape is some sort of blasted beauty. It doesn’t seem alive like in a perpetual state of just after the first frost. It crumbles the spirit until I make it into the caves. I hold nothing against a work that can make me feel that sense of siphoning depression. It’s short, but it’s exhausting.
A few months ago it was in my top 10. I still regard it with fondness and value as a statement, but I’m not sure if I value it so much as a work. It just seems like there is something lacking overall. But then maybe that’s part of the point. That lacking feeling is compounded by the feeling that maybe if I play it one more time and pay real close attention to the environment something further will click into place. It’s a pity I see so little willing to engage with the work on that level because it honestly is the best part of the experience: trying to parse out something that may or may not be there.
10. FTL: Faster Than Light
FTL has clarified something for me. I just might like strategy games more than my playing habits would suggest. It’s just they have to be the right kind of strategy games. Ones that aren’t built up on decades of intricate rules and conventions of a genre that is obtuse to someone without the necessary credentials to engage with them. And I don’t mean it’s too hard or difficulty understanding all the numbers of a complex intertwined system. I mean a genre that has become so bloated that the core purpose has been obfuscated by a near post-modern like affinity to comment upon the genre though improving and interlacing of past works to make a new one.
FTL is very clear in its purpose. It wants you to be in charge of the Enterprise. Ok more like Voyager, but it works. Yes it is hard, but I can handle that. The games are also very short and its clear if you take the time where things went wrong and what can be done about it in future trips. It is a game set to one purpose, of giving you the experience of being in command of a star ship and everything is geared to that one purpose. And what do you know. It isn’t intimidating or frustrating, just hard. Just thinking about it makes me want to try one more time. It takes about as long as an episode of television and feels like a season is happening under your fingertips.
9. The Sea Will Claim Everything
If any game challenged my notion of what games would or could be it wasn’t Dys4ia or Dear Esther. I looked at those two and went “yep, those are games alright.” The Sea Will Claim Everything challenged what I thought of games more than any other this year and I’m not entirely sure why. I’d be walking back from some errand in town (because I can’t afford to spend money on gas anymore) and on this trip I began thinking along the lines of TSWCE wasn’t a game, but interactive fiction like it were a play with me in a starring role. It made me shift my view of several other games to the way of thinking of some ludologists that I’ve argued with over the years. Eventually this thinking went away, but the effect of it lingered. In cultivating a narrow view of the definition of game, I was able to broaden my view of the underlying aspects. My brain just does this sometimes without warning, but TSWCE was the catalyst.
Something this year has put into sharp reflection is that I prefer games that make me think. I prefer games whose purpose is their ideas and conflicts between ideas. In my review I likened TSWCE to Candide. I like that comparison more and more as time goes on. But it’s not that the game merely expresses its view and complex interactions of people in a troubled economy, but allows the player to weave through the society and understand that no individual sees it for looking at their own story. We see it because we see all the stories and repeated problems and causes. If there was every a game to be called an allegory it was this one and it’s not shy about coating it. On the one hand I wished Jonas Kyratzes had been more prone to subtlety, but at the same time I can see the necessity behind its absence.
8. Binary Domain
This was the first game from 2012 I played. I picked it up because I needed something to write about, although I didn’t end up writing anything for a few months for “reasons.” I picked it up and played it. I expected some sci-fi shooter. What I did not expect was one of the smartest shooters I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. Apparently Brendan Keogh thinks I said it best in my “review” of the games. “Binary Domain is a third-person shooter with a brain.” It doesn’t dictate anything to you. It expects you to pick up on things and do some of the work yourself. There is the conflict of the Rust Crew going in to arrest a criminal that violated an international treaty and then there is the conflict over what counts as human nature. Over the game the definition of what is and isn’t human gets sliced finer and finer until someone who is a born and bred human being is turned on. Prejudice gives way to violent impulses and worsening situation from everyone.
There are things in the game that get lost, because they aren’t apart of the main conflict. Binary Domain is also about classism shown in the very journey through the levels as you rise, literally, from the abodes of the under classes to the more swanky living spaces of the moderately wealthy built right on top of them. Then you leave behind the plebs with money to the real moneyed power. It has nothing to do with the story, but it is still there as a visual commentary. There are so many issues dealt with this way in Binary Domain. It deals with othering, post-humanism, classism, nationalism, law, order, violence and more. It doesn’t just have so little to say that it could be summed up in a line or two either. Like racism is bad or machines are the future etc. Instead it portrays it in the world as they player characters sees them. The classism thing is background, so it remains in the background. The player hates robots with a passion and doesn’t care about one being “scraped” so neither does the camera. There is something to be said for a game that comes with a predefined characters that you play as and learn to think beyond that character’s viewpoint, but rather use it as a sound board. The game wont, but the game expects you to be a thinking human being and do that work yourself.
I am gratified anytime I see this on someone else’s top X list so I don’t feel like I’m out of it and missing something. I feel sometimes like this game was such a surprise that it can’t be as good as I think it is. There must be something wrong with it or me. I had never heard of this game before I saw it on the public library shelf. This game came from nowhere and retreated back to it and didn’t deserve that. This game is too good to slip away into obscurity.
7. Thomas Was Alone
This is another game that wasn’t on my radar. It so wasn’t on my radar that I had never heard of it until I was given it as a Birthday present. My friend wanted to be an oddball and searched all of Steam for the most obscure arty looking indie games that I didn’t already have or was on my wishlist. This was one of them. I haven’t played the other yet. I didn’t get around to playing it until this week. But I figured I could give it an hour or so. Instead I went on and finished it in an evening. If there was ever a game that minimalism could be attached to, it’s probably this. You play as various rectangles and solve platforming puzzles. There is a narrator that characterizes and details the thoughts of these rectangles. The key is the animation though. The movement and jumping of each rectangle is different as are the dimensions of them. If there was no narrator I could give the broad character strokes from those alone.
The character interactions or rather the inner thoughts of the different rectangles regarding one another are brilliant. The narrator is pitch perfect for this kind of story telling. The story as a whole is these rectangles are AI that have become self-aware and go on a journey to gain self determination. There are metaphors in the game and each rectangle has their own character arc as they gain friends and acceptance for one another. And that is the real gem of the game. The characterization of different colored rectangles is real brilliant part. The puzzle plaforming is just a bonus.
It’s so pitch perfect it went from never heard of it to number 7 on the list. There was no shuffling around. I knew it would be in the top 10 and then after I placed the others I knew no other game set aside for the top 10 would be above it. Maybe it’s the newness of it, but I can see every character and know who they were. They were that fleshed out and they were just rectangles.
6. The Unfinished Swan
Now here was a game that was a long time coming. I wrote about this game before I ever started The Game Critique. I wrote about this when a friend of mine started CreativeFluff, a design blog. A striking tech demo video was released and then nothing for years. I don’t know if the wait was worth it, because it disappeared for so long that there wasn’t any anticipation or massive mutli-year hype to be disappointed for really. I expected a maze that would be revealed by shooting paintballs on the walls and making one’s way through the world revealed. I got that, but also a fairy tale of a king trying to create and never finishing.
There are so many ways to read the game. I saw it as a metaphor for the creator/critic relationship. My compatriot Kris Ligman saw it as the boy coping with an absent father and the death of his mother. Still another saw it as a coming of age tale of learning to confront the world and grow in the face of adversity. All are valid and those works that offer so many competing, yet all valid interpretations are the best. But that isn’t why its on the list or even so high. The game is just delightful. There’s no other way to say it. The game looks adorable and the world itself is adorable. Aesthetics matter. And while the beginning for most will always be the most striking. For me it is the ending that was the most powerful.
Meeting the king and hearing the story of his dream as you are in your dream is a wonderful motif to at once remind you that this is a dream and address how everything is viewed. What is one thing to one person means something very different to another. The illumination of the all white environment was to help the kid see, but for the king it was a desecration of his work. Growing the vines was a method of traversal for the kid and for the king was the crumbling of his legacy. The house was a point of safety for kid and for the king a reminder of a future that would never be.
5. Crusader Kings II
This is the other reason I feel I might be more into strategy games than my playing habits reveal. Crusader Kings II is one of those super dense strategy games filled with obscuring details and so much information that it’s all but incomprehensible. The tutorial is a joke that doesn’t teach you how to play or do much of anything. The best tutorial are Lets Plays on youtube. I myself watched a 7 hour playthrough of the Kingdom of Denmark done by someone learning themselves how to play the game. That may sound obscene to learn how to play one game and it is, but in the end the results were worth it.
The emergent stories that come out of the system are some of the most interesting I’ve ever seen in a game. The dynastic politics of people playing the game of thrones is fascinating in all of its intrigue. In another sense it is about chance and how it can change the course of history. I’ve played as the King of Scotland multiple times and never has it gone the same way twice. Not even close. At one point, if I wanted to put the effort into it I could have given Scotland a black king. I was trying to keep the revolts down to a minimum however, so. What’s even more impressive is the amount of stories that there can be. All over Europe there are small feudal fights going on. Add in the Muslim and Orthodox expansions and there is so much. It is overwhelming in a sense, but in another you don’t have to concern yourself with the world, just your small corner of it.
Crusader Kings II is more of a platform for storytelling than it is a strategy game, because there is no goal. You can conquer the world is you want and are really lucky, but nothing happens if you do other than you have a lot more land to manage. You can have a dynasty that lasts throughout the ages. If it doesn’t than you simply play another game. Failure is just the book closing. You can always write another. History was never so much fun.
Talk about games coming out of nowhere to surprise me. That seems to be a running theme in this year’s best of list. I had never heard of Primordia before the PR representative offered me a review copy. I said yes and I started playing it. I don’t think there was another game released this year that so was far up my alley. A point-and-click adventure game based on philosophical conflicts between titan figures, the gods left over from a by-gone age. Throw in an art style that manages to make brown look beautiful and I’m sold.
I wrote a blurb for Sparky Clarkson that was part of a huge roundup looking at a whole ton of best games of the year. I am super proud of that blurb for its conciseness of getting to heart of it.
“Primordia is a point-and-click adventure game that looks like it could have been made in the 16-bit days. It’s clever and makes several UI advancements that mitigate many of the problems with traditional point-and-click adventure games, but it still is just a point-and-click adventure game. The greatness come from the material Primordia is working with. Ultimately, the puzzling adventure of Horatio Nullbuilt is one of a battle of wills between various visions of how a society should function. If King’s Quest was the fragmented memories of a child’s bedtime stories and Secret of Monkey Island the ceaseless imagination of a mischievous child, then Primordia is the contemplations of an adult having to deal with the facts of life, death, taxes and the his debt to society.”
In fact, Primordia was one spot higher.
3. Analogue: A Hate Story
Before Analogue knocked it down.
While Primordia was so far in my wheelhouse, you’d think is was practically tailor made for me, Analogue comes from a background I’m mostly unfamiliar with: visual novels. I’m making that sound a bit more out there than it is. Really visual novels are a subset of the adventure game. Analogue is just as much about exploration of the world as any classic adventure game. The difference is that it is done through logs and historical accounts rather than environments. And for some reason this relaxed pace of reading allowed my eyes to unfocus and for my mind to wander. Sometimes it was about the material in the game, a lot of time it wasn’t. It didn’t matter, because the game would be there right where I left off with no pressure to keep reading.
This is the game that knocked Unmanned about 10 spaces back in the list. The emotive power of Analogue left Unmanned in the dust. It feels more complete and that makes each revelation about the society more impactful. If Unmanned was a short story, Analgoue felt like a novel. (The comparison doesn’t constitute anything beyond the metaphor in which it was used. The games wouldn’t work as books because they marshal interactivity and the format that allows to their cause.)
But honestly it was the material being presented. Somehow the interactive nature allowed the material to be far more effective than a book with the entries and reaction dialogue would have been. No account of oppressive treatment and the utter breaking of another human being hit me quite as hard as Christine Love’s work. The fact that this was based on a real culture and that this systematic society existed makes it all the more horrible. It puts the story in the realm of the plausible. Yes it takes place on a space ship, but that is incidental to the core of the game. The story of these two noble houses, the surrounding society and the Pale Bride is one of the most affecting to mo of the year. The game’s revelation was the hardest gut punch I received in a game all year and its still with me as I write this. It comes to me at odd moments in my day and will not leave. That is what good art does.
In light of that how can I put anything higher than Analogue. I remember something I read in a design article almost a decade ago. If you can’t top your previous work, move sideways. Journey is a completely different animal to Analogue. It isn’t about working the rational portion of your brain, but rather it gets to work on emotive side of it, if I may defy clinical psychology for a moment. Journey doesn’t work from the same premise as pretty much every other game on this list. It’s best parts don’t deal with descriptions that are easy to pin down. It works on a more amorphous sense of emotional manipulations. It provides sights, sounds and experiences that trigger the right set of nurons to go off in just the right sequence to trigger a particular sequences of emotive feelings. These aren’t simple emotions either like happiness or fear, but an interwoven tapestry that layers the fabric of a spiritual journey.
Journey in essence is a portal to vicariously experience the emotional resonance of a religious revelation. It doesn’t express or present one of itself. Through interaction it makes you feel one. I believe the term is “mood piece.”
Much has been said about the anonymous companionship, but for me it is only one aspect that contributes to the larger whole. The player can take it or leave it. Some ignore their travel partner, some I’ve seen run away. Others stick close together to face their trials. None of these choices strays away from the core experience and is instead a player’s expression within the framework.
Why did I put Journey so high on my list? Because like other games before it on the list it leave me drained upon completion. But instead of the drain feeling of emotional exhaustion from a depressing environment or from heinous acts, the draining feeling came from the resulting relaxation after an emotional climax. Instead of being dragged down, the exhaustion came from climbing so high. Journey aimed for a different emotional spectrum and hit the mark. In it space was created for a new range to be explored. It’s difficult to describe as many of the words that could be used have over time in the gaming sphere been turned into meaningless superlatives through overuse and misuse. It’s a shame in light of a game coming along that deserves them.
1. The Walking Dead
What did you think was going to go here?
The Walking Dead is the best zombie game ever made because it is the first that focuses on the right aspects of a zombie apocalypse. Zombies are always a metaphor for something in our culture and the interesting stuff is looking at the people and seeing how they react to that metaphor. Zombies are not some monster meant to be killed. They are an unrelenting, everpresent force to be dealt with. They are a physical manifestation of societal ills. It brings what was the intangibility of man vs. society conflict and brought it in the spatial realm of physical contact. The Walking Dead is the first game to get that, making the characters have to run rather than head on confront the zombies whenever they approach.
The craftsmanship likewise far exceeds the narrative constructions of any other game released this year. There are tiny little details in nearly ever moment that contribute to the whole that any sweeping overview of the game will seem lacking. If nothing else, the fact the people are combating The Walking Dead’s ubiquity on the end of year lists with the fact that in the end your choices don’t matter, begins to show the irrelevance of such a mode of thinking to so many people. It was never about choice, it was about meaningful interaction. Just because your made a choice doesn’t mean it was meaningful and just because you had your choice removed from you doesn’t make that not meaningful. In fact, this game put choice back into the hands of the NPCs just as much as it put it in the hands of the player. Those that didn’t like it had to learn what it was like to have their choices bump up against the choices of others. It may not have gone your way, but you placed your flag just the same. It isn’t plot construction, it’s narrative construction. And I’m sick to death of people using them as interchangeable words.
My personal preference is for thematic resonance and philosophy guided stories if that wasn’t obvious. The Walking Dead may not have it in spades like other games on my list, but it does have it woven in as another facet to the game’s dense tapestry. There is so much in there that not all of it can be focused on at once. But if I had to choose a single thing to cite that propelled the game to my number 1 slot, it would be the drama. No other game this year does character drama as well as The Walking Dead did. There is more of it and better handled per minute that it becomes a chore to work one’s way through while at the same time keeping the flow. It is a challenge to get through for its content, but is made all the sweeter with each chapter end. I love what this game did to me. TellTale has gotten better over the years. If you look on their previous projects as their experiments than this game is the fruits of their labor.
For those curious: 4, 5, 1, 3, 2.
That was my top 25 of 2012. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to construct such a list again. In previous years I gave top honors to games that were stepping stones and experiments that resonated with me even if their execution was off. This year did have more narrative and ludic experiments, but this is the first time since I’ve been a critic that the games have started to reap the rewards of those experiments.
If you’ve made it this far than I feel I must reiterate that this is not a concrete list, even for myself. There are tons of games that might make their way into my best of the year and might be shake up the entire list by making me reevaluate how I looked at some of the games like Analogue and Thomas Was Alone did.
I own Spec Ops: The Line, Assassin’s Creed III, They Bleed Pixels, Home, Lone Survivor, Katawa Shoujo, Quantum Conundrum, Sounds Shapes, I Am Alive and Resonance, but haven’t gotten around to playing any of them yet.
And that is not to include the various games I don’t own that have garnered some amount or quite a lot of recognition like X-Com: Enemy Unknown, Dishonored, Max Payne 3, Dyad, Sleeping Dogs, Guild War 2, Hitman: Absolution, Dragon’s Dogma, Xenoblade Chronicles, Lollipop Chainsaw, ZombieU, or Deadlight.
Or games I couldn’t play because I don’t have access to the right systems like Persona 4: Golden, Spelunky, Fez, Halo 4, Dust: An Elysian Tail, Mass Effect 3 (I refuse Origins) or Zigguraut.
And all of this were just the games I remember being talking about or listed among the best. 2012 was a great year in video games because it was a wider pool and more varied than any in recent memory and probably ever before. We are entering a new artistic age for video games and that makes us all winners. And The Walking Dead.