To recap, no games released outside of 2011 (including HD remakes) and no games I haven't played, which should be obvious enough. Numbers 20-11 are here.
The appeal of a game like Uncharted or Skyrim is pretty easy to grasp, even by someone who's never played it. It's a lot harder to explain what makes a game like SpaceChem so incredible; heck, it's going to be an uphill battle to convince some people it's more than a simulator to help with chemistry homework. In reality, SpaceChem is a puzzle game so devilishly complex and clever that it will baffle most gamers; in its own way it might be a harder release than even Dark Souls. I can't count multiple occasions I found myself staring for hours at a screen of alien elements and seemingly impossible reactions, but the payoff from the harder levels - those lightning-bolts of inspiration in which you finally understand the solution - are the most empowering and rewarding moments in gaming this year.
I don't think I felt more empathetic towards any character this year more than I did Isaac. It's not that his predicament is particularly relatable. However, he experiences the familiar aspects of his childhood - his religion, his family - turn against him and try to murder him, and that's something McMillen makes the player feel expertly. He pilfers from Zelda, Smash TV, Bomberman, Castlevania, and just about every other familiar old-school game you can name, and turns it into something sinister and twisted - the result is unsettling, and often rather horrific. But the retro obsession is far from being only aesthetic: The Binding of Isaac takes the best aspects of these games and turns them into a cohesive whole that's addictive and compulsively playable despite the grim subject matter.
Real-time strategy games are, almost without exception, deeply impersonal affairs. You view the action from a perch up in the clouds, directing your troops without ever actually taking control of any of them. Their death does not really feel like your failure and it's hard to feel anything no matter how many of your little dudes are reduced to a fine red mist.
Frozen Synapse changes that. The level of control available over each troop is unparalleled, allowing strategists to be as complex and detailed in their planning as desired. This intricacy lends a greater emotional attachment to the units than I could believe - they were faceless, voiceless, monochrome models, but I cared about their fate, because I had planned it out so carefully. The name of the game is figuring out your opponent's strategy and figuring out a way to counter it, something that quickly becomes a rather epic battle of wits. Playing against the computer, it's excellent, but the subtle mechanics make it best suited for online multiplayer, which the excellent (and asynchronus!) lobbies are more than welcome to provide.
Rayman Origins is a throwback to Super Nintendo platformers in spirit as much as structure. It positively drips with whimsy and charm, in an age where most games (that aren't made by Nintendo, anyway) are lacking in both catergories. The bold, hyper-stylized art direction makes it an easy contender for the best-looking 2D game ever, and the co-op play turns the campaign into a hilarious, messy slapstick. That the levels are so superbly designed and so densely packed with secrets helps too, of course.
The story of one daring plumber's journey to rescue the damsel-in-(perpetual)-distress is as simple and barebones as it gets, but when Mario is concerned, it's about the journey, not the destination. Helmed by the same team as my 2010 Game of the Year-winning Super Mario Galaxy 2, it should come as no surprise that that 3D Land is relentlessly, almost restlessly, playful. Each level brings something new to the table; excellent ideas are introduced and tried once or twice before being discarded for something equally imaginative. You get the feeling that most games pack into their entire runtime what 3D Land can fit into a single world.
There is a story in Skyrim, but it's not necessarily the story of Dovahkiin the Dragonborn's quest to free his homeland from civil war. For me, for example, it was the story of Maxie the Ironfooted, and his innumerable journeys into inconspicuous caves that almost always led to waking some sleeping bears, resulting in fairly comical chases that generally ended when the bear had gotten bored with me. For my best friend Darry the Hardheaded, it was the quest to become the Strongest Dude In The Whole World, a title he believed would be bestowed upon him after he murdered every single NPC in the game. He attempted to do this with only his starting equipment, and his journey ended abruptly when he tried to kill a quest character who fought back with greater intensity than anticipated.
So while Skyrim is perfectly functional as a game, it works best as a sandbox - a venue for every wannabe Frodo or Sam to write and live through their own epic tales. While the world is far than perfect, the possibilities it present are innumerable and intoxicating.
It's possible Paul Dini is the best Batman writer of the last twenty years, and it's obvious Rocksteady is more accomplished than any other developer to handle The Dark Knight. Together, they form a veritable nerd dream-team. Dini's vision of Arkham City is impeccable, and the script makes it apparent he understands each of the characters he works with, even the ones who just drop in to say "hi." Meanwhile, Rocksteady takes everything that makes Batman awesome to watch and makes it fun to play. Combat is brutal, stealth feels deadly, and the toys, well, they're wonderful. It's possibly the best licensed game ever made and also, not coincidentally, the one that best understands the source material.
It seems pretty incredible that Deus Ex wasn't given the HD-remake treatment in a year where seemingly every other major franchise was. The original, after all, was years ahead of its time, and many of the things it introduced are just becoming fashionable today. The excellent Human Revolution stands as a reminder that, with all the advances gaming has made in the last ten years, very few games are really capable of coming close to that original - and this game is one of them. It's sleeker though more streamlined than its predecessor, and the way you play it is reflects your personal approach to gaming - a boring FPS if that's all you're capable of, a frighteningly deadly cyborg-ninja stealth sim if you're creative and patient enough, a delectable mound of datacubes and computers to hack and read if you have an OCD that needs satisfying. It's a veritable gaming playground allowing for every playstyIe imaginable, and it contains more choice and consequence in both story and gameplay than any other game released this year.
The Legend of Zelda turned 25 in 2011, and gets the distinction of being both older and wiser, aware of both its past failures and the current state of gaming around it. It does away with the tedious stretches of overworld, presenting a far more focused experience that accentuates what makes the games great without diminishing its sense of discovery. The combat, taking inspiration from games like Dark Souls and Infinity Blade, elevates the combat far beyond anything the series has done previously, and makes the best case yet for motion controls in a hardcore gaming context. All this is enough to make the game exceptional before we even get to the matter of the dungeons and puzzles, the meat of the experience. It's all some of the best in series history, with new items like the Beetle opening up the level and providing puzzles with greater scope. It might just be the definitive retelling of my favourite legend.
What's the most substantial new component a developer can give a sequel? New play mechanics don't hurt, of course. Take the existing setup and tweak or change or add things in ways that force gamers to look at situations from whole new points of view. Portal 2 did this; the new gels and light bridges and repulsion beams created some truly masterful challenges. Or a developer can add new modes of play - Portal 2 featured a stellar, separate co-operative campaign, and completing it (and the extra-challenging free DLC pack) with tennis12master was the highlight of my gaming experiences in 2011.
But no, the most significant addition Valve made to their sequel was the heart. The minimalist Portal was cooly impersonal, whereas the sequel features a full cast of characters that chat, emote and react to each other, and the game manages to find great humour in every situation. Co-operative play turned even player death into a joke, a hilarious slapstick display that was too funny to ever become frustrating. So while Portal had some great jokes, Portal 2 is a full-fledged comedy, with the most fleshed-out cast of any game this year. It's as epic as Half-Life 2 though in a very different vein;
And all this is with only one teensy allusion to cake-baking!
The last two days have been pretty stellar; I got the lead in the musical and I was hired for regular hours at my local library, so I don't have to scramble for on-call shifts all the time. Everything's pretty amazing.
I've been doing my university applications and two recurring questions seem to be "what is one experience that altered your life" and "what is a difficult problem you've faced and how did you deal with it?" I can't think of examples for either! Does anyone have any ideas, or remember if they had to answer a similar question?
BEDTIME. Let's hope 2012 is just as good to us all.