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2012: The Year of the Games

Sparky Clarkson's picture

Two-thousand and twelve has been an amazing year for games. I had meant to put together a post extolling the virtues of the top candidates for game of the year, but the list kept getting longer and longer, with more and more games that would have been obvious choices for a top-five list in any other year. The task was clearly beyond me. So, I enlisted the talents of Michael Abbott, Brandon Bales, Mattie Brice, Kate Cox, Denis Farr, Brad Gallaway, Brendan Keogh, Justin Keverne, Cameron Kunzelman, Kris Ligman, Eric Swain, and Dan Weissenberger. With my superteam thus assembled, let's look at some of the year's super games.

Analogue: A Hate Story Screenshot

Analogue: A Hate Story is the game of the year.

What would a feminist game look like? Some would think of a strong woman main character that burnt down strip clubs and saved abortion clinics. Christine Love chose, instead, to take the theory and apply it to the design. We get a game about the many faces of silence, voice, and perspective, how one event is viewed through many different eyes. It is easy to compare this game to masterpieces in other mediums; a cross between The Handmaid's Tale and Rashomon comes to mind. Analogue: A Hate Story subverts the genre of visual novels, a genre usually thought of as the domain of hentai games for heterosexual men. Where games are linear and didactic, Christine gives an experience and empathy. Many people don't know how to feel about this game, and in turn, simply cast it aside as a game about feminism and women. But ultimately, that is the biggest trick she is playing on the gaming audience—how do we silence each other? How do we silence games? We see games made by minorities and about minorities brushed off as special interest and tagged as "not-games." This year, games like Analogue make the industry pause in self-reflection. — Mattie Brice

Xenoblade Chronicles Screenshot

Xenoblade Chronicles is the game of the year.

Xenoblade Chronicles is the best role-playing game (RPG) of its generation and among the best RPGs ever made, but you probably didn't play it. Of course you didn't. It arrived on the Wii long after most players had abandoned the platform. It was, inexplicably, a "Gamestop Exclusive," so you couldn't buy it anywhere else. And, as if to guarantee strike-three, it was virtually unplayable without a classic controller, which few Wii owners possess.

What a shame. Xenoblade Chronicles is an astonishingly smart and graceful game that makes good on its sensible ambitions. Finally a Japanese RPG that doesn't try to tackle every conceivable universal theme, but still manages to tell a robust story, refreshingly free of drippy sentimentality. Director Tetsuya Takahashi fashioned a JRPG that preserves what serious players love about the genre and jettisons the fussy stuff its detractors hate. By defining relationships as mechanics (character to character, and characters to world) he renders narrative from a level-up system. All this is accented by an active battle system that rewards skill and smarts equally, while avoiding the irksome "I'm wrestling a spreadsheet" feeling other games convey.

It's worth remembering that console JRPGs, seen by many today as angsty stat-crunching soap operas, got their start when Yuji Horii at Chunsoft wanted to create an accessible RPG with broader appeal than the D&D-inspired Wizardry and Ultima games. Somewhere along the way JRPGs became bloated, derivative, and tiresome. For those of us who genuinely care about the genre, Xenoblade Chronicles is a reminder that a great JRPG can still reach majestic heights. — Michael Abbott

Papo & Yo Screenshot

Papo & Yo is the game of the year.

It's well past time for console-based video games to start branching out into different forms of being and expression. While there are countless multiplayer shooters and more generic action titles than a person could ever play, the kind of exposed, internal narration that exists in this game is effectively unknown. Rather than being concerned about offering challenging play, mind-bending puzzles, or some sort of "new game plus" content, the journey of Quico (and by extension, the game's director) was created to tell a very personal story. Players entering this world of favelas seen through the eyes of a boy in pain trying to escape his own life may not agree with some of the themes or be satisfied with the length of the "campaign", but that's hardly the point—instead, it's a rare example of a person taking their own internal experiences and transforming them into something that happens between a video screen and a controller. This work is bravely biographical, and does an outstanding job of showing that there can be more to video games than just "game." In effect, it handily proves that the medium is capable of delivering something other than simple "fun," and can be employed with message and meaning the same way that an author uses a book, or a director uses film. — Brad Gallaway

Mark of the Ninja Screenshot

Mark of the Ninja is the game of the year.

You always know where you stand in Mark of the Ninja; usually in darkness seconds away from violently introducing your blade to the bowels of some unsuspecting guard. Mark of the Ninja recognises that creativity comes from both a variety of tools and the knowledge and ability to use them. Everything you need to know to make a decision is laid out beautifully before you, all presented with an aesthetic that is at once individual and informative. Where some games might require you to learn and master the use of a complex toolset over the course of hours, Mark of the Ninja allows you to pull off complex actions easily. The skill comes from stringing them together into a perfect sequence. This is a game that understands the pleasure that comes from developing your powers and skills over time; it simply sees no reason for that growth curve to start at zero. When the game opens you are already a skilled ninja, and by the time you reach its poetic conclusion you are a divine wind.

Are you the ghost, moving swiftly from shadow to shadow unnoticed and unchallenged? Or the veiled spectre of vengeance, appearing out of the dark to eviscerate a guard in front of his terrified colleagues, their fear causing them to turn on one another? Not only can you embody any type of Ninja within these two extremes, you can challenge yourself by equipping different outfits that restrict certain of your abilities while enhancing others. Can you bypass the night vision toting guards in the desert with simply your noise makers and your wits? Can you do it and still score a better rating than your friends?

Mark of the Ninja understands the many forms of the ninja in popular culture and precisely how to make you feel like whichever one of those you choose. — Justin Keverne

Dishonored Screenshot

Dishonored is the game of the year.

Games that heap superpowers upon their players are a dime a dozen. Players can jump over buildings, conjure fire with their minds, and the "force push" is so ubiquitous that its origins in the Star Wars franchise have basically been forgotten. Dishonored's great addition to the genre is to give players no real obstacles to employing those powers to terrifying results. The main character's quest for vengeance isn't slowed by out-of-place boss fights or levels that arbitrarily rob him of the very powers that make the game so engaging and playable. From the beginning the player is given a skillset that makes them nearly impervious to defeat, and offered the chance to luxuriate in brutal, over-the-top violence, and the only true challenge the game ever poses is asking players how selective they want to be in their revenge. Do run-of-the mill guards deserve punishment? Do their dogs? The only hard choices to be made in Dishonored are ethical ones, and the game—operating without a points-based morality system—never wags its finger at the player for choosing a darker path, so long as they're careful to permanently dispose of the evidence of their crimes. There are more difficult games than Dishonored, and there are deeper games than Dishonored, but when it comes providing players with the unadulterated thrill of striding through a steampunk world as an unstoppable malevolent demigod, nothing else comes close. — Dan Weissenberger

Primordia Screenshot

Primordia is the game of the year.

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. — Eric Swain

Journey (PSN) Screenshot

Journey is the game of the year.

Journey is the rare game that is a truly different experience to nearly every one of its players.

It's a game about the meaning of life, about desperation and lonliness, or about the joy of exploration, depending on who you ask. For me, it was something akin to a zen koan. One travels through an open land, through a shadowy underworld, through the markers of civilization, through hardship, and through despair. The journey complete, one finds oneself standing back exactly where one began, ready to begin the cycle anew. Was there a point? Meaning? A lesson learned? Oh, yes.

To make Journey, Thatgamecompany consciously and intentionally stripped away every element of the traditional multiplayer game that they could, leaving the barest skeleton possible that still made a game at the end. The iconic red-kirtled character has no arms, no hands, no face, no gender. Speech is reduced to a single ping, chime, or chirp; names and identity reduced to a semi-random glyph.

What remains is the art of the video game, in the best sense. Stunning use of color, sweeping vistas, and gaming's first-ever Grammy-nominated soundtrack add up into a poignant, beautiful, unforgettable spiritual journey that only a game could create. — Kate Cox

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screenshot

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the game of the year.

Colonel Else "Checkmate" Olsen is not going to die today. After thirty-three missions and one hundred and nine kills the Swedish sniper is not going to die. Complicating this is that she has just been mind-controlled by an Overseer now hidden from the four remaining members of my squad; Colonel Ping "Teutonic" Yang is bleeding on the floor, stable but out of the fight. The deadly accuracy and Plasma Sniper Rifle that had only moments before obliterated a Cyberdisc are now pointed in the wrong direction; unless I can locate and deal with the Overseer "Checkmate" is going to have to be killed by my own hand.

She didn't die that day, though I may have taken several years off my own life ensuring that.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is about soldiers like Colonel Olsen, the decisions I made to keep her alive, and the combination of factors responsible for making me want to. Even more than those it's about the decisions made hours before whose consequences cascaded down through myriad others. The bonus I received from placing my base in North America allowed me to afford the aircraft that shot down the Overseer UFO; the money saved on that aircraft was enough to purchase the stealth suit that was instrumental in locating and capturing the Overseer, ending the mind-control.

Move or take action, this is the deceptive simply heart of the turn based combat of XCOM. A superficially straightforward choice that is merely the tip of a chain of decisions made over the course of hours; from the placement of base facilities, to the allocation of funds to research projects and officer training schemes. Hours of consequences condensed into a single decision. Move or take action? I took action, "Checkmate" lived, and earth remains safe. — Justin Keverne

Slender Screenshot

Slender is the game of the year.

The Slender Man may be the closest the Internet has come to a legitimate folk legend. Sure, we can trace its origins back to Something Awful, or perhaps to Marble Hornets, the zero-budget horror series which did a lot to popularize it, but by and large the thing is out in the wilds now. Which is why this year's idiosyncratic indie horror game, Slender, feels more like a folk artifact for the digital era than just another neat indie title.

It definitely doesn't hurt that Slender remembers horror often works best in small doses, or that its simple but effective randomization mechanics remind us that a bit of thoughtful design can outperform anything a multi-million-dollar AAA project can turn out. That it comes to us via a first-time developer, Mark Hadley, who was simply tooling around in Unity when he started and now finds himself with a publishing deal and commercial prospects, is icing on the cake for a gaming community that loves a good amateur-to-pro story. Beyond anything else, however, the success of Slender is a victory for the public domain. Hadley's game has already garnered its own plethora of mods, spin-off games and other fanwork, expounding on his work as he expounded on the Slender Man tales that came before him. It's a positive trend, and a direction we could stand to see more small-scale games pursuing in the years to come. — Kris Ligman

Binary Domain Screenshot

Binary Domain is the game of the year.

Binary Domain is one of the best shooters of the year and routinely ignored by the majority of gamers. The game is a masterwork in balancing ideas with form. For the most part it looks like standard third person shooter cover fare and engages is all of the normal rah-rah waste of the genre. Except the developers have set up a scenario where making it more gamey and in parts arcade-like creates a more cohesive narrative and world. The very basis of what you are doing in the game becomes the foundation of the questions the game is asking throughout, even if you only realize the question has been there the whole time at the very end. And any game that can have a Mexican standoff where the barbs being flung back and forth are philosophical diatribes on the nature of man and the righteousness/legality of their work is worth mentioning. — Eric Swain

Dear Esther Screenshot

Dear Esther is the game of the year.

When is a video game not a video game?

This is the question I asked myself in the first few minutes of booting up Dan Pinchbeck's Dear Esther. The answer came one half hour later after slowly trudging through its wonderfully barren yet loaded physical and emotional landscapes: "Who cares?" Dear Esther quickly makes the adventurous gamer forget about any sort of levels, upgrades, double jumps, or hidden objects.

For emotionless Internet troll-wanks, Dear Esther might be reviled for being a pointless poke right in the Call of Duty loving part of the brain. To everyone else, it's an electronic meditation in game form.

Free of any sort of objective trappings besides getting from A to B, Dear Esther accomplishes as much in its appropriately truncated few hours as countless "serious" AAA games do in 20 times the amount of overwrought cutscenes.

The traditional gaming constructs that frame Pinchbeck's piece allow us to rethink what we expect from our entertainment and to simultaneously see a narrative style that, while employing these basic and familiar structures, is truly evolutionary.

It's not often that a video game comes along that not only challenges our expectations of its content, but also calls into question the practicality of the term itself. For that reason alone, Dear Esther is the game of the year. — Brandon Bales

Hotline Miami Screenshot

Hotline Miami is the game of the year.

In the world of video games, somebody always cleans up after you. Mow down a hundred, a thousand people in any AAA shooter, or even a 2D brawler, and their bodies will always disappear, often within moments. No bloodstain or scrap of cloth will remain to remind you that someone died in that spot. The invisible janitors within the code whisk it all away, sometimes obligingly leaving behind a clip of ammo or a wad of cash to mark your accomplishment.

In Hotline Miami the bodies stay where they fall. As the protagonists slice, bludgeon, and shoot their way through the brutally difficult levels, flesh and blood and bits of brain hit the floor and stay there. When a level ends, the player has to retrace his steps through this sea of dead bodies and viscera, this constant, silent reminder of all the terrible things he did since he opened the door. The janitors, as it turns out, are busy elsewhere.

Hotline Miami is a game that asks many questions and provides few answers. Its tilting levels and strobing background make it seem like a bad trip rendered into video game form, while its bizarre, contradictory story comes across as more of a nightmare. Yet, it is the very opposite of a sensuous hallucination. Hotline Miami forces its players to think, very carefully, about they violence they are about to commit, and asks them the obvious question that entails: "Do you like hurting other people?" — Sparky Clarkson

Dragon's Dogma Screenshot

Dragon's Dogma is the game of the year.

Dragon's Dogma takes what players traditionally think of as a Western-style RPG and turns that concept on its ear. At first glance it may look like a dozen other games, but after just a few moments of play, the differences are fiercely apparent. For too long players have been satisfied with static, menu-driven combat. Dragon's Dogma proves that thrilling, real-time action that actually requires some skill can harmoniously coexist with role-playing. This title also delivers a new angle on the traditional RPG party by including a form of asynchronous multiplayer. Although the campaign is designed to be played solo, the ability to recruit characters created by other players and exchange items and information through these virtual intermediaries makes every session feel interesting and unpredictable. It should also be said that while the story has some difficulty finding its legs for most of the campaign, the end sequences come from out of nowhere and take the game (and the player along with it) to some extremely interesting territory, intellectually. For a genre that has become fairly bound in its own conventions, this title does more than its fair share of redefining the status quo. — Brad Gallaway

Spelunky Screenshot

Spelunky is the game of the year.

When I sat down with Derek Yu and Andy Hull for my State of Play series, I was pretty caught-up on what XBLA's forthcoming Spelunky was and how its functional functions fit into my gaming expectations. I had played the PC version for about two hours, enjoying its simple, yet difficult set-up, imagining it would continue to remain just that—challenging, yet simple. Boy, was I off.

Now, I understood that it was similar to a certain game out there that shares more than a few of the same letters in its name. And while Spelunky resembles this game in form and tone, there is no comparison in how the two experiences unfold in your brain over the hours you spend with it.

Spelunky, like no other game I can recently recall is a testament to rich and rewarding action game design. Where most games will have a player barreling down systemic tunnels of increasingly advanced challenges, Spelunky's beautifully-crafted rouguelike structure quickly kills any reliance on rote memorization for progress, instead putting players in control of mastering the ever-expanding mechanics through simple systems and perfect action controls.

Yes, it's a difficult and often unforgiving game, especially for the uninitiated. That's what sets it apart, however; for the patient, understanding of its beguiling simplicity will continue to bloom even tens of hours into total playtime. I can't recall any game I've played in which I was literally getting better at it after weeks of playing. Spelunky's learning curve is at once simple and epic.

Spelunky is risk-vs.-reward at its very finest. For action-loving gamers who like to bring their brains along for the ride, it is an absolute must-play that will excite, confound, frustrate, yet ultimately reward in spades any gamer who's up for a maddeningly engaging descent. — Brandon Bales

Spec Ops: The Line Screenshot

Spec Ops: The Line is the game of the year.

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I would chose Yager's subversive military shooter as one of my top games of the year. After all, I did kind of write the book about it. While so many AAA games of recent years have tripped over their own feet and left me disinterested around two-thirds of the way through, The Line is one of the few that had my complete attention from start to end. As I played I grew increasingly tense, just waiting for that moment where the developer would inevitably screw everything up in the name of cheap fun, but the moment never came. Instead, I was gifted with a game of absolute focus. A game that knew exactly what it wanted to say and that did everything in its power to say it. It is a game I always find myself grouping together with Supergiant's Bastion. Made by seven people, you play Bastion and it just feels like there is some authorial direction guiding every element of that game. That is what I got from Spec Ops: The Line. From Walker's reflection on the targeting computer, to the loading screen messages, to the freight-train-paced narrative, The Line felt like it was in control, like it had a voice and it wanted to tell me something. You can argue convincingly as to whether or not it succeeded, and many indeed have. But before all of that, The Line tries to be about something. In the current risk-averse AAA scene, I think that alone makes it deserving of praise. — Brendan Keogh

Thirty Flights of Loving Screenshot

Thirty Flights of Loving is the game of the year.

I don't have a good memory. The things I know about myself are clips and sometimes, when I'm watching a film or playing a game or reading a novel, new clips come back to me. They wash over me. I try to write them down. I don't know if they will come back or not. I can't say if other people experience memory this way.

I think this odd biographical detail explains a lot about me. I'm drawn to comic books because they're a visual representation of this disconnect I'm always feeling—time and space compress, expand, chop, screw, and remix. On the other hand, games don't usually do this. Games are generally concerned with connecting—players are guided from gameplay element to gameplay element by narratives, walking animations, and cutscenes.

All of this gets cut out of Thirty Flights of Loving. I experience it like I experience my own life, and on that level it is infinitely more real to me than the most AAA of AAA games. What could be dismissed by most as a style quirk—the decision to cut out inaction, to apply rapid-fire cuts in scenes that are radically decontextualized from one another—becomes a profoundly affecting experience for me.

I'm not sure what a game of the year is, aside from a flashy name that sells more copies of last year's best sellers in March. Maybe it is the game I liked the most. Or, and this is where I end up, it is about which game I will remember in the future. The game that summed up 2012. When I think back, assailed by fragments, my memories and the reality of Thirty Flights of Loving will line up perfectly. — Cameron Kunzelman

Dys4ia Screenshot

Dys4ia is the game of the year.

Overall, Anna Anthropy, creator of Dys4ia, is a huge asset to the gaming community. She put to words and practice the philosophies of free design, that everyone can and should be able to make games. This isn't just a hippie ideal to gain games some sense of legitimacy, rather, a needed jump to the lifeblood of our industry. By having tools available and accessible to everyone, the more kinds of games there can be. Dys4ia epitomizes this hypothesis, showing a game that would most likely never come out of traditional means of game production. It isn't meant to be "that trans* game," rather an exploration of a new form. Games have been struggling to communicate more serious topics, and this push for more personal games is a needed movement to solve that. Anna uses this game as a touchstone to encourage others to design their own games, along with being persistent in accessible game jams for a wide audience. I see Dys4ia, and many games that will be appearing on GOTY lists, saying not only is the traditional method of game development flawed, but it shouldn't be such a dominant force in gaming culture. — Mattie Brice

Sleeping Dogs Screenshot

Sleeping Dogs is the game of the year.

Sleeping Dogs landed right at the sweet spot between the anarchic mayhem of Saints Row: The Third and the dour moralizing of Grand Theft Auto IV. The protagonist Wei Shen is on a mission to infiltrate and destroy the Hong Kong triads, and the game penalizes behavior that results in too much harm to the city and its people. At the same time, the game offers fast cars, huge explosions, and a world where almost all the sympathetic characters are criminals. Like the best action movies, Sleeping Dogs has solid characters (notably Winston Chu) to provide some meat underneath all the shootouts and martial-arts kickfests. The kung-fu brawling added a unique angle and, in its best moments, a degree of mad improvisation that made Sleeping Dogs feel like playing a Jackie Chan film.

Sometimes its systems sat uneasily alongside each other. Hijacking a truck never felt quite right for a policeman, even if Wei Shen orchestrated a drug bust right after, and the explosion of gun violence in the last chapters of the game didn't seem to mesh with the fistfighting that preceded them. That feeling of conflict, however, suited both the character and the setting. Like Hong Kong itself, Wei Shen is caught between two worlds with opposing goals and philosophies. Sleeping Dogs gave voice to both, and ended up being an immensely entertaining experience for it. — Sparky Clarkson

I Am Alive Screenshot

I Am Alive is the game of the year.

I Am Alive's take on post-apocalyptic survival is darker and more brutal than any that have come before it. Playing as the unnamed character in search of his family, players will come across multiple scenarios which would likely be commonplace if the rule of law and society as a whole fell apart in the aftermath of some great cataclysm. Cannibalism, rape, murder, and a dozen other horrifying concepts are approached directly in this title, and as such, the proceedings are given a weight that few titles can match. The implementation of its mechanics are equally stark, frequently pitting the player against overwhelming odds and leaving them ill-equipped to survive—in what other game is the player "well armed" when carrying one arrow, three bullets, and a knife? I can think of few video game experiences where I feared combat more than I did here. Along the same lines, I had to get through a vast section of play with just a sliver of health because there simply were no supplies available. To say that the game is harsh and unforgiving is an understatement, and yet, I respected it because it asked me to change the way I thought and played. Not many games in 2012 can say that. — Brad Gallaway

The Unfinished Swan Screenshot

The Unfinished Swan is the game of the year.

Like others before it, The Unfinished Swan takes the first person shooter genre and use the mechanics to ends other than gunplay. It is a delightful fairy tale with you shooting paint or water instead of bullets. In that vein it creates a world in which a parable plays out in a boy's dream. He sees the life of a King representing his father and learns to do better than he does. Were that all it did, it would be so ahead of the pack, but what really makes it stand out it the artistry in how the environments show growth and at the same time compromise. We, as the boy, are walking though the remnants of a man's life and drawing what we can from it, just as the boy does from his own family's past. — Eric Swain

Guild Wars 2 Screenshot

Guild Wars 2 is the game of the year.

Since 1996 I have constantly picked up new MMOs, abandoned them, and eventually come back. At this point, it's been possible to narrow and define what it is that excites me about these games: exploration. In that category, and for that purpose, Guild Wars 2 managed to deliver in quite the capacity this past fall. Mixing its gorgeous art style with a world I already knew in some capacity, I managed to create various characters and explore this new version of Tyria to find myself constantly stunned and taking screenshots, or attempting to reach some out of the way place, because it just seemed like something I could do.

The beauty of its buy-and-then-no-sub model paired with the relatively simple structure of its skills, means that I have already found myself taking breaks, only to come back and feel like I don't have to reacquaint myself with a mess of button configurations just so that I can play. It also feels like a community where there is some small measure of reward for kindness: I can help a player seemingly struggling with a lot of monsters, or help them get back on their feet. I have never quite seen thank you said so many times to me before in an MMO, or similarly typed it out.

I would also be lying were I to omit that having one of the primary characters be in a same-sex relationship were not close to my heart, so that I actively try to get any of the story bits that include Caithe and Faolain. — Denis Farr

Unmanned Screenshot

Unmanned is the game of the year.

If there is a theme for 2012, it is "games try to be self-aware without knowing what the self is." With discussions of sexism, violence, and other hot button issues on the rise, games tried to flex their satirical muscle. Unfortunately, many of these games ended up extremely problematic, such as trying to make sexism and violence fun while trying to critique them, effectively exploiting the victims of such cultural forces. Unmanned makes use of video games as a medium to communicate a nuanced look at how we're detached from very real violence. It doesn't proselytize, rather creates a point that we can all relate to and creates analogies between the mundane and obviously political. It doesn't pull a "gotcha," the popular tactic of tricking a player into problematic actions to prove a point, and topically sweep it away. It gives you the dirt right away, it makes you understand your place and learn to empathize over the course of the game. You don't walk away from it as a game that disparages drones and mindless violence in games, but feeling uncomfortable about the lack of reflection associated with both. — Mattie Brice

The Walking Dead: Episode Five—No Time Left Screenshot

The Walking Dead is the game of the year.

Games about zombies have almost exclusively been games about destroying zombies. Since their first film appearance in Night of the Living Dead, movies and other media have used zombies as a way of creating social commentary, while games have been content to use them as nothing more than enemies that can be killed entertainingly without any moral complications. The Walking Dead avoids that easy trap to create a story that's not about zombies, but about people, both the characters on the screen and the players on the other side.

The Walking Dead uses the choices offered to the main character Lee as a way to let the player tell the system what he cares about, then alters the story so it riffs on those signals. That gives the events in The Walking Dead more dramatic heft than might seem possible just from its cel-shaded look, ordinary adventure-game mechanics, and perfunctory combat sequences.

It's true that the player's choices don't ultimately change much about the narrative, but it's not surprising that The Walking Dead got away with this in the same year where Mass Effect 3 came in for criticism along the same lines. The Walking Dead never implies that Lee has the power to change the world. Like the best survival horror, it is a fantasy of disempowerment, but it's one that succeeds by focusing less on what we would do at the end of the world than on who we would be. — Sparky Clarkson

FTL: Faster Than Light Screenshot

FTL: Faster Than Light is the game of the year.

FTL might be the best game it possibly could be. Watching tiny figures zip around my spacecraft, stomping out fires and doing battle with giant insects, I'm left wondering how it could possibly be improved. The pace of the game is already essentially perfect—it's easy to learn, fights last just a minute or two, and the whole game can be completed in about two hours, making it equally ideal for those looking for a bite-sized encounter or gamers wanting to play the whole thing from beginning to end. The wealth of ships, alien types, and random encounters mean that players will have to get all the way to the end at least ten times before they've seen every possible twist. Sure, its graphics could be "better," but would more advanced graphics necessarily improve the game any? In FTL disaster is never particularly far away, but I can't fault the game for that—like all great Roguelikes seeing the "you died" score screen and then being tempted by the restart button is half the fun. Death is nothing but an object lesson here, with each failure teaching players a new tactic for defeating their foes or slipping by a particularly nasty encounter. Fundamentally, the only thing wrong with FTL is that there isn't more of it. More races, more weapons, more random encounters—the only time I've ever had a negative feeling in my experiences with FTL was the moment that I realized there were no more secrets to discover. FTL lets players feel like they're on a boundless space adventure, exploring a new galaxy of untold opportunities each time they boot up a new game. Even once that illusion is stripped away, however, the game retains all of its appeal as a perfect action/strategy/RPG hybrid. — Dan Weissenberger

Mass Effect 3 Screenshot

Mass Effect 3 is the game of the year.

You can't mention the game—can't even so much as breathe the name "BioWare" anymore—without the controversy popping up almost instantly. That's all the world at large ever seems to want to discuss about Mass Effect 3: its surprising, controversial, widely panned conclusion. The last ten minutes of the game received such a violent and virulent response that it drowned out all other discourse. The reaction went far enough that BioWare released an extended, slightly revised ending over the summer, a half hour of free new content to quell fans. Although the mob-at-large had a generally favorable reaction to the additions, the damage was already done.

It's a shame that as time and history march on, the furor over the conclusion will be the most-told and most-remembered story about Mass Effect 3. No matter how much that story lingers, though, my story is different.

My story is of a strong Commander in desperate times who never abandoned her principles, even when staying firm came at an unimaginably high cost. My story is a series of choices and a string of relationships. My story is that months later, I still feel guilty over killing a person who never really lived, and that each time I replay the game with a different choice, I am secretly trying to grant myself absolution.

I spent years with Commander Shepard and her crew of misfits, outcasts, and devoted Alliance marines. All of Mass Effect 3 was an ending, a series of goodbyes winding down a universe that two other games painstakingly built. The game brought me to the end of all things and even though, unlike some other stories, there can be no going back again, I will always be glad I took the journey.

In a year of many excellent games, both large and small, Mass Effect 3 was the one I waited for, remains the one that made me cry the most, and may always be the one I can't stop talking or writing about. — Kate Cox

Ziggurat Screenshot

Ziggurat is the game of the year.

Ziggurat taught me that I don't know how to write about games. Sure, I can write about a game's themes or story or atmosphere or tone or whatever, but as I learned the tight choreography of thumbs required to master Ziggurat's rhythms, I became painfully aware that I did not have a vocabulary to describe that sublime, subconscious, bodily pleasure that is losing yourself in the machinic feel of a game. That out-of-body sensation of watching your thumbs do things that your mind simply can't comprehend. That feeling of just letting go.

Where most games offer an ocean, Ziggurat is a bottomless well. On the surface, its single screen and handful of variables look simple enough. But the more you play, the deeper you realise it goes. First you realise that syncing up the charge of your laser with the pulsing of the alien robot heads can create larger explosions. Then you realise that dribbling tiny shots is also useful for defending the hill. You learn at what point of the sun's setting certain enemies will appear. You learn to act before you think. Eventually, you learn how to stop thinking altogether and to just let the game flow through your thumbs.

The stats screen in Ziggurat tells me that I have spent over thirty hours of this year sliding my thumb back and forth across my iphone's screen. I can't think of any other game that has been released this year that I have spent thirty hours with. And yet, after all that time, I still don't have the words to tell you exactly why Ziggurat is such a pleasurable, euphoric experience. Maybe there are no words for for the pleasure I get from Ziggurat. It is subconscious and subvocal. It is phenomenological and bodily. It is something really special. — Brendan Keogh


"Really special" could describe this year of games, too. Here we've gone through more than 25 games, without even reaching critical favorites like Borderlands 2, Crusader Kings II, Dyad, Fez, Halo 4, Persona 4: Golden, Proteus, Punch Quest, The Republia Times, Super Hexagon, Thomas was Alone, Tokyo Jungle, or Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward. This year has been flush with excellent games, from independent developers, mid-tier groups, and admirable work from AAA. The video game press tends to look forward to new stuff more than it looks back on the old, but before we plunge into the new releases of 2013, I hope we'll take a moment to appreciate the richness and wonder of 2012.

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Platform(s): Xbox 360   Wii   PS3   3DS   Android   Vita   PC   iPhone   iPad  
Articles: Editorials   Columns  
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Not a "great" year for games

This is a nice alternative to the end of year lists, and really reinforces the idea that games can be something different, with different meanings and importance, to different people.

I personally thought 2012 was an ok year - the majority of the better games fell into the 'good' rather than the 'great' bucket for me. ME3, Dragon's Dogma and Binary Domain all fell into this category, for example.

Meanwhile, the games that tried to do something different, largely failed in their aim, in my opinion. Journey, Dear Esther, 30 Flights of Loving, all felt more like exercises where the developer threw out a bunch of ideas and hoped that some would stick - that they would coalesce into something significant in the player's mind. They were all visually stimulating, but the 'narrative' or the ability for them to transcend the narrative and become something more significant, didn't really work.

Compare that to Papo & Yo, where instead of vague intimations of significance, the theme was presented through a simple and over-obvious metaphor, but was developed to an uncomfortable and real resolution...this was a case of the game's gentle puzzling and interaction supporting something deeper and something that spoke to us on a universal level (I'm trying to avoid the dreaded A-word here).

Your mileage may vary, of course. I don't think I'm over-resistant to challenging or arty games, but give me something substantial - not cod-transcendental mumbo-jumbo (Journey) or a half-baked tragedy awkwardly glued on to a Road to Damascus motif (and by the way, fill in the blanks yourself, dear reader). I do appreciate the attempts, however.

A shout out to Mattie Brice for drawing my attention to Unmanned - that was really good, thanks!

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