Best video games of the year according to someone who didn't play a lot of video games this year.
Congratulations again to the Walking Dead team at Telltale for sweeping the VGAs this year. To be honest, the VGAs have never been that relevant to me, but that’s really what makes the announcement of “Studio of the Year” so remarkable. The VGAs are all about the mainstream, and while The Walking Dead comic is astoundingly popular, the type of game that The Walking Dead committed to certainly isn’t. (Speaking of which, it’s kind of remarkable that the Walking Dead comic is so popular, seeing as how it’s so relentlessly bleak). It’s been great to see that commitment to smaller, episodic, story-centric games finally paying off.
Of course, it would’ve been even better to see it pay off while I was still at the company, but I’ll be gracious for once and just be happy to see my friends becoming successful. Suck it, Morrissey.
The other thing that was remarkable about the VGAs was that not one of the nominees for Game of the Year was a bad, lazy, or uninspired game. Mass Effect 3 and Assassin’s Creed 3 were the obvious front-runners, as big franchises with huge marketing budgets behind them, but by all accounts — I haven’t played either yet — they were thoughtful, well-produced, and had stories more sophisticated than “Space Marines” or “the invasion of Normandy.” Dishonored (I haven’t played it yet, either) had beautiful art direction, and Journey was a masterpiece.
Even more surprising, my own favorite game of the year was more “mainstream” and traditional than any of the games nominated for the VGAs. With so many good-to-outstanding video games being made, it’s getting harder to be a smug hipster, complaining about the 7-10 review scale and lamenting that the popular trash overshadows the misunderstood gems of indie genius.
I’ve played almost none of the “major” games released this year, the kind that’ll dominate conversations and other Game Of The Year lists. But here are the best games I played in 2012, in no particular order except for the last.
I already wrote about why I liked Journey, but I’d mostly forgotten about it, until I saw it being played again a few weeks ago. With the music, the art direction, the natural-feeling controls, and the simple but profound theme, it would’ve been a standout game even if it were just a sequel to Flower.
But the inclusion of anonymous multiplayer is what makes it amazing. I’ve seen that final ascent up the mountain about five times now, three times on my own and twice watching someone else play it. Each time played out slightly differently, but it changed the meaning of the game significantly. As somebody who always considered multiplayer to be a completely separable and smaller component of video games, it took Journey (and video of Johann Sebastian Joust) to remind me that the social aspect of games has enormous potential that’s still just barely been explored.
The Unfinished Swan
I’d been interested in The Unfinished Swan ever since video of the first tech demo started circulating. I’d expected the entire game to be exactly that demo — using splatters of paint to reveal detail in a stark white environment — and I still think that that would’ve been perfectly novel and interesting. But instead, the game quickly expands on that idea with variation after variation, each focused on exploring environments in indirect and unexpected ways. It’s almost perfectly paced, throwing a new mechanic at you just as you feel you’ve mastered the previous one, so that nothing feels as if it’s gotten tiresome.
Plus, they actually got Terry Gilliam to do a voice!
The Room is a game for iOS in which you have to unlock a sequence of puzzle boxes. I’d seen the listing for it and some of the buzz around it, but just dismissed it as another of those pretty but vapid “hidden object” games that have overwhelmed the mobile market almost as much as tower defense games. It also reminded me of The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour, and I’ve always hated games that just present puzzles as puzzles for their own sake. Add that to my lack of patience for real-world puzzle boxes or other physical puzzles, and it seemed clear that I was absolutely not in the target demographic for this game.
My friend Matt convinced me to try it out, though, and I’m glad, because I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I was completely engrossed for the two or three days it took me to solve everything, long past the point where I’d expected to lose interest. The key differences, I think, are the tactile interactions with all of the devices, and the way the puzzles build on each other both conceptually and physically.
It’s perfectly suited to an OS designed for touch screens, since you’re not simply tapping objects in the world. You’re grabbing them, spinning them, pushing sliders, turning cranks, and even shaking the thing as you would if you were holding the real-world equivalent. The only point that I had a problem with was when it required you to tilt the device for a certain puzzle to work — the tilt sensors seemed like a good idea when mobile games were first becoming a thing, but the reality is that I spent as much time playing the game lying down as I was sitting upright. Toilets and busses are just two of the many places we play mobile games.
And after spending a few years getting tired of puzzles in general, it was refreshing to see a set that was so well-designed. Most remarkable was that none of the puzzles required any outside knowledge; from start to finish, it was just a case of observation and deduction. Even the vaguely Lovecraftian story was somewhat interesting, so I’m very much looking forward to more games in the series.
Technically I haven’t gotten far enough into the game to be putting it on any lists. But the music is fantastic, the narrator is a great idea, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played so far. Assuming that the game doesn’t suddenly become racist or misogynist, or feature quick time events, it’s safe to assume that I’m going to like the rest.
It’s not just everything I wanted from a sequel to Torchlight, it’s also everything I wanted from a sequel to Diablo 2. The art direction, the scope and amount of content, and just the way the combat feels are all pretty much dead-on for what this type of game should be. The first Torchlight felt like a well-made Diablo clone that would tide us over until the next “real” release in the series; with Torchlight 2 I think they’ve taken over the title of Best Action RPG.
Mark of the Ninja
And this is the game I wanted Shank to be, and everything I wanted the Metal Gear games to be like. Klei’s outstanding character design and animation, combined with a stealth mechanic that removes all ambiguity (and does it with style) and makes stealth games actually fun again.
My biggest complaint is that the game rewards nonlethal, non-confrontational ninjas, while at the same time making the ninja kill animations impossibly bad ass. It’s like giving a kid a huge birthday cake and telling him he’ll get all of his presents only if he doesn’t eat it.
The Walking Dead
I’ve already written a ton about The Walking Dead, both here and in various message board arguments, so I don’t have too much to add. It really is the best work that Telltale’s done (although Sam & Max will always be my favorite). And knowing a little bit about how these episodic games are made, I’m most impressed by the fact that Walking Dead feels like a single, cohesive work. In a way, it reminds me more of the old LucasArts games than any other of the Telltale series — not by emulating the games directly, but by feeling as if it was made not by a licensor rounding out a brand, but by a group of people who had a story they wanted to tell and a type of game they wanted to make.
After five episodes, I’m less confident than I was earlier that it’s an entirely new type of game, or more accurately, that the type of game I wanted it to be is the type of game that would be as successful. Towards the end of the series, it felt as if experiential choices were being de-emphasized in favor of visible ones. I was reading people in a forum recounting one of the episodes, and it was only there that I found out it was possible for a major character to die in a battle, as a result of a choice you’d made earlier. (And possibly as a result of how “well” you did a particular Quick Time Event).
I definitely have no problem with your actions resulting in the death of a character; the potential for that is baked into the entire premise of the game. Where I have a problem with it is when it takes a story event that significant and makes it optional. What the most vocal complainers have called “railroading,” I say is essential to making the story a dialogue between creator and player, and not just a game that echoes your choices back to you. (Like the game literally does in the final episode). If whether a character lives or dies is as insignificant as whether Clementine’s wearing a sundress or a hoodie, then why do I care about that character at all?
I don’t know whether a game reliant entirely on experiential choices would be possible, much less whether it would be successful. Shadow of the Colossus and BioShock both had an element of “how does what you’re doing make you feel?” but neither relied entirely on that. I’d like to see more experimentation with it, though, before concluding that the visible choices are the only ones that players care about.
Whatever the case, I don’t want to underestimate the puzzle design, system design, art direction, cinematics, or vocal performances of the game, because they all came together in The Walking Dead in a way that was unprecedented — I always knew that we were making better cut-scenes than anybody else in video games, but never had a game popular enough for people to recognize that. But overall, it’s the emphasis on writing and storytelling that made the series. As somebody who’s spent an entire career hoping for storytelling to be at the forefront of a popular game again, the success of The Walking Dead has been fantastic to see.
The Sims 3 Supernatural
I’m begrudgingly including this, just for accuracy’s sake. Because I don’t like that I like The Sims 3 so much; I still think that Sims 2 was a lot more clever and got at the heart of what I think the game should be.
But the fact is that I downloaded the new expansion pack, and the game once again took hold over me to a bizarre and not entirely healthy degree. I don’t play The Sims that often, but when I do, it’s less “play session” and more “bender.” I go into an hours-long fugue state in which I’m more concerned about the food and bladder needs of tiny computer people than I am for my own. On the rare occasions I do venture out of the apartment, I spend the whole time looking for buildings I can try to recreate inside the game.
It doesn’t take any real perception to realize that the appeal is having tiny people whose lives I can control, when I’m feeling like I can’t quite control my own. What isn’t as easily explainable is why that’s more fun when I can make my surrogate Sim a werewolf who starts dating a vampire.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is pretty buggy, kind of corny, predictable in some places, infuriating in others. I had the game hit an unrecoverable lock-up on my first play through. A problem with Steam saves wiped out my second play through. My third reached the final battle and cut-scene, followed by an ending screen telling me that I’d lost the game. (I went into the final battle right as the last nation was going to pull funding, so the simulation ticked over in the game-time clock while I was still in the process of defeating the aliens and saving the planet once and for all).
Still, it’s by far my favorite game of the year. I’ve loved X-COM ever since I first played through the original, but was never able to come even close to finishing a game. Firaxis made a version that captured everything I loved about the original — the suspense of going into a building or rounding a corner knowing that an unstoppable enemy was waiting inside, the feeling of building a soldier through the ranks only to see them die unceremoniously in battle, the balance of tactical combat with higher-level strategy — but delivered it in a form that actually wanted me to be able to finish. I’ve known about Chryssalids and Cyberdiscs for years, but Enemy Unknown is the first time I actually got to see them.
And although the “story” is overwhelmingly generic, the character design fairly uninspired, and the final battle tedious and anti-climactic in its attempt at storytelling, there’s enough holding it all together to feel like a sci-fi B-movie with some genuinely clever moments. Seeing your control room cheer after you shoot down your first alien ship is fantastic. So is watching your crew chatting in the bar in base, or working out in the exercise room, or watching the alien you’ve kept in storage. The autopsy scenes, complete with bits of gore splatting against the camera lens, are somehow the perfect reward for defeating a new type of alien. And little touches — like seeing the Skyranger touch down in front of a gas station with realistic near-future gas prices — abound. It even makes up for when you’re sent on a mission to China and land at a country and western bar with English signage.
There’ve been plenty of attempts over the years to recreate X-COM, but they all failed either by being too slavish a recreation, or by under-emphasizing some element of what made the original so engrossing. Firaxis made pretty much all of the right choices, going through each component of the original game and trying to recreate the feel instead of duplicating it exactly. There’s little surprise or sense of discovery through experimentation, but there’s also little time wasted figuring out exactly the right balance of scientists to engineers, or which branches of the tech tree are worth exploring. The strategy layer is much simpler and more limited, but with more sense that your decisions are having significant effects and aren’t just arbitrary shots in the dark. You’re not as free to equip your characters or time out their actions, but you’re also not counting up Time Units or accidentally leaving weapons behind in the battlefield. And you can’t get shot and killed while stepping off of the Skyranger, but there’s still the overwhelming sense that your squaddies are extremely vulnerable and completely outnumbered and outgunned.
While battles in the original game felt like a tactical combat simulation (and an extremely unfair one at that), the battles in Enemy Unknown feel like the highlights reel of an 80s sci-fi action movie. The maps are smaller, but that means that there’s just enough tension at the beginning of a level before the action starts. There are fewer enemies per map, but that means that encounters have a cinematic rhythm to them — a few skirmishes against lower-level bad guys, punctuated with tension as you fan out to find the next wave of enemies, culminating against a showdown against the most powerful aliens. That aesthetic, going for the feel of Commando or Aliens, carries through just about every aspect of the game. And it never, ever stops being entertaining when a soldier is standing right next to an open door, but instead smashes through the window and jumps through.
I can’t get all that excited about the first batch of downloadable content, but I’m hoping more general-purpose DLC is scheduled for later. Really, though, the game doesn’t need a ton of expansion. I’m due at least one more play through (hopefully after the most egregious bugs are patched up), and a dozen or so hours of More Of The Same would be fine by me.