Since December I've been questioning the merits of Game of the Year awards. Both critical and user-based. I understand this puts me in the minority since most people love their GotY awards, but it feels so forced and artificial. These days it's less of a celebration of all the good that came and more of a 'this game is the best that I played so it's the best!"
I spent months trying to figure out what I would say is my Game of the Year. I even found myself looking back at my older blogs to try and figure it out with older GotY posts, and then I realized I hated those too. I hated that I had the games ranked, and so I dropped the ranking of games. Because even as I ranked them I started to hate that one game was higher than another when they offered excellent but wildly different experiences. The numbers should never play a role in the enjoyment of a game, that goes from score (I rated Evoland a 5.5 but I enjoyed it a lot for those that haven't read the review) to ranking. So I finally figured that if it came to it, I'd just go unranked and only with the games that I believe mattered. If there were 20, the list would be 20 long, if there were 2, the list would be just those two titles. I've grappled with the idea for so long, ultimately not believing in a game of the year.
However, with a year as monumental as 2012, with the gaming landscape changing so much, it would be foolish to not discuss the games that made a genuine impact in meaningful ways. The medium is evolving to where critical discussion is becoming more important than mere product reviews. And with that in mind I decided that if I was going to have a discussion about what makes each game so special I'm going to do it in a way that doesn't involve numbers and doesn't belittle the accomplishments of individual greats based on people's perceptions of numbers. So here are the essential titles of 2012, and hopefully it helps you find something fun to play in these slower months of 2013.
Borderlands 2 by 2K Games and Gearbox Software
Notable for Excellence in World Building, Character Building, and Visual Design
Borderlands 2 is the sequel that could. It's big, insane and so funny that it speaks to your inner-adolescent/college student in the best way possible. And much of the game's excellence comes from it being so funny. The characters aren't anything special, but the scenarios you see and hear make them feel like your friends who you're often embarrassed to introduce to your family. That humor carries over into the game's design. One early sidequest has you helping one of your friends, Sir Hammerlock, try to rename the Bullymong into something more appropriate for the creature. But as you play he runs into so many problems that he decides to just call them Bonerfarts. And the game humorously has the enemies listed as that, and so you play, killing them off until he gives up on the entire endeavor. And of course, Handsome Jack, the villain, the biggest jackass in gaming in quite some time makes your goal of stomping his face in a hell of a good time. Borderlands 2 is designed for the 14-year old market with its potty humor and comic book style. And I don't care. I was too busy giggling at all the shrieking suicide midgets to care about how lowbrow the humor was.
Dishonored by Bethesda Softworks and Arkane Studios
Notable for Excellence in Game Design, World Building and Visual Design
Dishonored is the first-person adventure that likely took everyone by surprise. But the intelligent design of the game left an adventure that you could play however you wanted. This isn't a matter of simply saying you could play it lethal or non-lethal like the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but in that you had true creativity in how you chose to play with the powers available to you. Dishonored is a game about choice all the way through, whether you chose to mingle with party guests or straight for your objective, or maybe you chose to rob the house blind of any treasures you could find. Dishonored brought about an emergent narrative that you let shape the destiny of Corvo Attano and the empire at large, and the creative mission designs, from infiltrating a brothel to a masked party to the flooded districts where disease ran rampant helped show a world where the poor suffered and the rich still had their way. There is no one element to Dishonored's gameplay that stands out on its own, but the freedom, true freedom no less, to do what you like, created one of the most important action adventure games of quite some time.
Hotline Miami by Devolver Digital and Dennaton
Notable for Excellence in Game Design, Narrative Writing and Audio Design
Hotline Miami is an indie darling. Not the most obscure title, but with just enough media attention to send users flocking to it. Hotline Miami's message on violence is clear. It's a stealth murder simulator at its best (the politicians will love that). You use the levels to your advantage, to get to your enemies at just the right time and go for the kill. Melee weapons will leave you undetected but firearms, which will draw unwanted attention, could help put some distance between you and the people you're killing, assuming you have the quicker trigger finger. The story is minimalist but absolutely thought-provoking. And in terms of game design making a statement, being forced to walk back to the exit, past all your carnage, with the music completely turned off, gives you a sense of weight that only grows stronger the more you play. The audio design is a crucial element of Hotline Miami because the music will get you into a rhythm to begin killing, but only after you're finished and the music disappears do you take in the sight of your murders. It's an important game, and one that should be played not just because of the message it leaves behind, but because despite that message the game is just so well designed that you will continue to play it.
Mark of the Ninja by Microsoft Game Studios and Klei Entertainment
Notable for Excellence in Game Design, Visual Design and Audio Design
If there's one thing Microsoft knows how to do, it's publish some fantastic indie games, and Klei Entertainment have delivered the single closest product to gaming perfection since Super Mario Galaxy 2 in 2010. Mark of the Ninja is the 2D answer to Dishonored's 3D question. The game might just be the greatest stealth title I have played, and so much of that comes from Mark of the Ninja never trying to be anything more than a videogame. It doesn't send the messages of other titles like Journey or Hotline Miami, it instead opts for sheer gameplay brilliance and achieves that not just through sublime level design but by utilizing that level design in absolute harmony with the visual and audio design. You are always aware of your abilities, when you are hidden, when an enemy can see you, when an alarm can detect you and so on. Every piece works so smoothly to create an experience that works better than any other game on this list. Time will tell if I move Mark of the Ninja up to the coveted 10 out of 10, but it is the first game in two years to come close and it showcases the talent and ability of Klei Entertainment better than any game they have ever released.
Mass Effect 3 by Electronic Arts and BioWare
Notable for Excellence in Game Design, World Building, Narrative Writing, Character Building, Visual Design and Audio Design
Mass Effect 3 is without a doubt my favorite game of the past few years. As you can see above, it's notable for every single category I have available. But it's notable for an entirely different reason as well, it showed me how wrong I was about Mass Effect 2, and the trilogy as a whole. I loved my first run through Mass Effect 3 so much, that I chose to repurchase Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 on the PC this time. And even moreso, I chose to purchase all of the downloadable content as well. And after completing Mass Effect 3, I played through the entire trilogy and all the pieces again. Mass Effect is the single most important intellectual property of this generation. It is created by a cohesive vision that is never broken and makes for the greatest gaming universe that we have ever been exposed to through strong characterization, distinctive visual and audio design, engrossing narrative writing and game design that invites the possibility for completely different playthroughs as you build bonds with characters and shape how the galaxy perceives you all while utilizing different play methods in battle based on your class. There's a sense of sadness I feel because the trilogy is over, leaving the door open for useless sequels that could dilute the brand. But there's also a sense of calming pleasure knowing that I will be able to go back to the game and begin a third playthrough from the beginning. All to experience what can only be described in three words: Simply the best.
Spec Ops: The Line by 2K Games and Yager
Notable for Excellence in Game Design, World Building, Narrative Writing, Character Building, Visual Design and Audio Design
Like Mass Effect 3, Spec Ops: The Line makes a full sweep. This may come across as contentious to some, but I believe Spec Ops: The Line is the most important game of 2012, one that deserves discussion and constructive criticism as it helps move not just the genre but the medium itself forward. Through the game design I tired of killing people. But that was the point. Through the artificial world built by Walker I was led to believe everything was real. Through the narrative I was broken. Through the character I noticed my personal disconnect with his feelings. Through the visual design I saw the battered and broken faces of my squad. Through the audio design I could only hear the words of the fallen who I was so deaf to. Spec Ops: The Line is a monumental experience that faced the misfortune of being judged as a product rather than an experience that will help move the genre ahead. A game that is only possible as a game and nothing else, it brings a scathing criticism of the military shooter and rubs in your face the acts of murder you have committed. It asks you to step away and stop playing, but every time the cursor hovered over someone, I pulled the trigger. Like clockwork, I felt trained to do it, and was left breathless by the most unforgettable shooter I have played. For those who stick around, Spec Ops: The Line is a vision of Hell like no other ever created.
The Walking Dead by Telltale Games
Notable for Excellence in World Building, Narrative Writing, Character Building and Visual Design
Telltale's The Walking Dead puts them on the map. Expectations for the team are raised, not just because they have single handedly brought the point and click genre back to the forefront of gaming, but because they have taken the single greatest step forward for the power of interactive fiction. Similar to Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead raised emotions in me that I never thought a game could. It wasn't simply because the game left me in tears, but because I had an attachment to the characters. And my decisions would shape how they viewed me. It was important to me to get them to view me the way I thought would be best. Whether it was developing a potential love interest or seeking acceptance from another character. A grand tragedy began to unfold, and by the end of it there was the single ultimate emotion: Love. I would do anything for Clementine. I would never let that child feel pain, not as long as I lived. It was something I had never felt before and it left me in tears. The Walking Dead is the new bar by which all interactive fiction will be judged by and with its success comes the rise of Telltale Games as one of the potential, prominent studios in the medium.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown by 2K Games and Firaxis Games
Notable for Excellence in Game Design
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game from a genre I never thought I could enjoy: strategy. And yet I found myself hopelessly addicted to it. It shines because of how well designed the game's design and rules are. You play XCOM: Enemy Unknown simply to play it. Not because there's a story to pull you along, or a rich group of diverse characters, or a world worth exploring. It's about risk and going into the dark to fight the unknown when no one else will. And XCOM: Enemy Unknown is Firaxis' grand success story. For all the praise that their massive and often daunting Civilization series has received, it is the more personal and smaller scale XCOM: Enemy Unknown that has made them known as a development team that can create a strategy game to both appeal to old fans and gamers new to the genre. It is the pace at which discoveries are made that new possibilities arise. And the ever looming threat of perma-death makes it all one of the most nail-biting experiences to be released in some time. It has given me hope for my future enjoyment of the strategy genre, and that's something that can't be understated in the least.
Other Fun Games
Not everything has to be essential, and these games provide a good time for fans of their respective genres. Check them out if you haven't done so yet.
Binary Domain by Sega
Developed by the Yakuza team, Binary Domain does Gears of War better than Gears of War. It's a Third Person Shooter that relishes in the dudebro idealogy of the genre and makes it one of the most light-hearted and entertaining romps through a TPS. And it has surprising depth to its characters. Go figure.
FTL: Faster Than Light by Subset Games
The little Kickstarter project that could, FTL is one of the best strategy, space sim, commander, roguelike hybrids ever. Whatever that is. All you need to know is that the game is cheap (in price), fun and addicting and you will find yourself engrossed at the different ways you will meet your end until you finally make it to the end of the game... if you make it to the end of the game.
Half Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy by Marvelous AQL, Playism and Opus
This excellent parody of the JRPG genre manages to provide a fun and hectic adventure that also highlights the needless padding of the genre's design. In a few minutes of playtime you will accomplish what some JRPGs take five hours to do. The Hero Mode is my favorite and took me on dozens of hilarious quests against evil lords out to destroy the world. It's a great time and worth checking out by fans of the genre and even people who hate the genre.
Max Payne 3 by Rockstar Games and Rockstar Studios
Max Payne 3 is a badass shooter of absolute cohesion. The game has a singular vision and never strays from it, and while not as fun and breezy as Binary Domain, this third person shooter brings a hefty dose of grit that genuinely works in its favor. The character of Max Payne is a compelling character study of a broken man, and it takes some awesome twists that make it worth checking out.
Sleeping Dogs by Square-Enix and United Front Games
Sleeping Dogs is one of the best open world games I've played despite being absolutely derivative. There's no innovation to be found here, and yet it's not something that anyone will use as a complaint against the game because it's so highly polished and well made. Sometimes you just need a game that can properly utilize all of its mechanics and Sleeping Dogs is just that game. And the Hong Kong setting is brillaint as well!
Torchlight II by Runic Games
Torchlight II is the real Diablo III. Say what you will, but this hack and slash loot and clickfest is the best example of the genre at work since the sublime Diablo II. It's even more fun in cooperative play and definitely worth checking out for fans of the RPG genre. I put in over 20 hours and I still think of returning to it. All that at a third of the price of Diablo III.
Notable Publishers in 2012
Notable Developers in 2012