Like my colleagues, I had to come to grips with a lot of games this year. Some of them made me feel like video games as a medium did a significant amount of evolving in the last twelve months. But this list—in no particular order—assembles the games that captivated me while playing them and that I haven't been able to shake out of my head. They linger and that's the quality that's made them most memorable to be.
It all comes down to the Stargazer for me. The intimate dialogue between an elder and young boy at the end of Mass Effect 3 drives home the idea that your actions as Commander Shepard over the course of three Mass Effect games constitute a legacy. Most video games that purport to be a saga never give you an idea of what you leave behind, of the repercussions of your actions. Mass Effect 3 does, with moments that recall the friendships, rescues or genocides that you may have been part of. It made me feel like the digital life I lived in the trilogy meant something.
White Whale's awesome hybrid of infinite runner and sidescrolling brawler won me over with aesthetics, even though I wasn't ever that much into prog rock bands like Rush. (But I did hide issues of pulp fantasy mag Heavy Metal from my mom when I was a teen.) I loved how God of Blades made me feel like I was battling through an alternate universe of sci-fi softcover novel art and album imagery.
Every match of this clever word game feels like a heavyweight prizefight. Which are both words I haven't been able to make in any my games yet.
I'm generally not a fan of this-is-a-playable-movie sort of games. And that's certainly what Max Payne 3 is. But it's also a pretty grim character portrait of a guy who's not really heroic at all anymore. The great dialogue and awful self-esteem made one of the tightest shooters I've played in years a whole lot better.
The world-building in Arkane's open-world game made Dunwall feel like it had been around forever. Listening to the otherworldly Heart whisper the secrets of the city and the people in it just pulled me in even further. And being able to move through Dunwall pretty much however I wanted made the game even more compelling.
I've already talked about why I loved Papo & Yo so much a few times, so all I'll say here is that it's the kind of game that opens incredible opportunities for creative expression for those brave enough to follow.
Proof that you can take the ugliness out of online video game interactions. Yeah, Journey was an experiment but it was a successful one that left you with beautiful memories.
The mainline versions of Assassin's Creed III got all the attention but I'd argue that Aveline de Grandpre's story was more interesting than Connor Kenway's. No game last year—and, hell, in the years preceding it—managed to take historical understandings of race and gender and turn them into game mechanics. A bi-racial heroine who was able to slip into multiple levels of 18th Century New Orleans society was a revelation. I really hope Aveline gets to return in another game.
The game probably surprised me more than anything else I played this year. I went in expecting minimalist physics puzzles and platforming. What I wound up with—along with very good puzzles and platforming—was a surprising set of interlocking character relationships and a fable about what it takes to make something. Go and get this game.
What I liked most about American Nightmare was how it used meta-awareness in the game design. Fans of Remedy's psychological horror series expect a winking nod in the the games' narrative and dialogue. But what Nightmare did was treat the levels the same way, casting them as an outline that you're forced to re-visit over and over again. A great downloadable offering that feels under-appreciated.