It took me a while to formulate my thoughts on this game. After all, how much can be said about a game that has inspired a 150-page book that hasn't been said before? After a while, however, I got down to the root of what the following game means to me. So, without further ado, here's my 2012 Game of the Year:
1. Spec Ops: The Line
It seems rather blasphemous that the least fun game on this list should sit at the top spot. Popular consensus, after all, deems that video games should have an unshakeable focus on entertaining their players. There's obviously nothing wrong with this notion, as the vast majority of truly great gaming experiences are a lot of fun, but in recent years, this dedication to entertainment-at-all-costs has rather visibly come to the detriment of video games as an art form. Fun is often a game's greatest asset, but it can also pose a huge problem in that it restricts the kinds of interactive experiences developers can create. In the past few years, for example, most big-name games blatantly pander to their players, going out of their way to make the audience feel special and cool regardless of whether or not it's warranted. Skyrim, for example, allows the audience to take the role of the Chosen One fifty times over, as the player character is able to fulfill about twenty different prophecies and hold half the seats of power in the titular land. It probably would've been much more interesting to take the role of a more limited sort of hero, but Bethesda's decision to go for broke in constantly making the player feel fulfilled sacrifices what might've been a vastly more interesting (or at least atypical) narrative in the process. Modern Warfare 3, likewise, casts players as a whole host of Machiavellian super-soldiers who wreak nonstop havoc in an effort to complete their mission. Conveniently, the audience is rarely left to look upon the horrors of the war they're embroiled in - as long as they feel "badass," nothing else matters.
Yager Development's Spec Ops: The Line is such a remarkable game because it never allows us to get caught up in an infantile power-fantasy the way many other games do. By painting a stark, terrifying picture of the inhumanity that lies at the heart of the archetypical video game hero, the game constantly demonstrates the brutal consequences of our actions. You don't get to snipe enemy lookouts, launch white phosphorous shells, or go crazy manning a helicopter's gatling gun without being subsequently forced to gaze upon the unsettling destruction you've caused. Killing a foe in most games is just a step towards the next mission and perhaps a few Achievement points; gunning down enemies in Spec Ops: The Line gradually builds a sense of regret that culminates in one of the most haunting and meaningful endings in gaming history.
It's for these reasons that Spec Ops is thoroughly devoid of entertainment. Though it suffers no major glitches or broken mechanics, the experience is expressly built to instill anger, confusion, and ultimately, guilt in the player. Nevertheless, as a gamer, there is much to be gained from the game's subversive deconstruction of nearly every trope that typifies modern action titles. Namely, it allows the audience to consider what it is they desire from these kinds of experiences, and question whether or not those kinds of games truly align with what they would consider tasteful entertainment. Should gunning down waves of soldiers in realistic war zones and committing one atrocity after another really feel as weightless and mindnumbing as it does in most other shooters? Probably not. In fact, Spec Ops' elucidation of the cost of pandering within modern military shooters has lead me to lose interest in many of the genre's flagship releases.
Spec Ops: The Line has many tremendous qualities, but its willingness to impact players and ask them to think critically, even in spite of the fact that its confrontational nature inherently eschews entertainment, is what makes it the best game of 2012. Indeed the only way to feel fulfilled - to feel as though you've "won" - while playing Spec Ops is to turn your console off and walk away. Though it may not seem entirely desirable, the fact that a game is able to consistently inspire such powerful negative emotions in its audience ultimately makes it a massive success in bringing video games ever closer to realizing their full potential as a dynamic and vital form of art.
"This is all your fault."