Last year was likely the weirdest year I've had, gaming wise. Sure, I played my share of big-budget titles, and some of these were surprisingly good. But I also started playing most of my games on PC—and because of that, I became privy to a world of amazing, sometimes absurd, sometimes very personal indie games. Consoles saw a similar rise of indie games, though these were more on the 'high profile' side.
I'm glad 2012 happened. My game of the year list is unlike any year before it. This is my personal list of notable games in 2012, in no particular order.
Max Payne 3
To be aware of a bullet: that is a powerful thing indeed.
Yes, Max Payne appeals to my more dramatic, maudlin side—the kind that only a teenager or a young 20-something could have. God, the world is so crooked. God, I hate myself a little and I can't stop dwelling on past mistakes. Recklessly indulge in vices out of helplessness. I can't control my life in the way I want to.
Hey, you get it, Mr. Payne. I chuckled at his characterization because, as ridiculous as it was, I could recognize myself.
But the real crux was in the bullets, the shooting. We've done bullet-time before, it's a popular mechanic. But the way the close-ups were framed this time around, the way we dwelled on how a bullet would burst and tear through flesh, the way an enemy went down—these things lingered. After a dozen hours I still found myself cocking my head a bit whenever a kill like that happened, somewhat horrified, somewhat intrigued, but fully captivated. What a vicious, vicious game.
More than this: it tied so well to the themes in the game. Max dwells. He can't stop thinking about how he's hurt people. He can't move on, he's zoomed in to his mistakes. That's exactly what the shooting here embodies. Max would look at his kills in this slow-motion, up close way.
Analogue: A Hate Story
Here is a game that seemingly has nothing to do with me. It takes place in deep space on an empty ship. You're supposed to figure out what happened to the technologically advanced society that once lived there. You find out that, mysteriously, society aboard the ship became super archaic. Nothing to do with us here, right now, in 2013, right?
And yet what Analogue says about how easy it would be for our society to suddenly revert to such archaic ideas is incisive. That's because something like the premise of the game has happened before; the game is based on a real period of time.
When we look at what's happening right now with women's rights—like, right now right now; today, even—the message behind Analogue is a powerful one.
Also, the writing is fantastic and heart-wrenching. I consider it the best-written game this year, and the clever way it subverts visual novel cliches by purposefully throwing its female characters at you but making you feel bad about pursuing them makes stuff like Far Cry 3's supposedly deep writing seem laughable.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Ah, the game I had to force myself to stop playing out of fear that it would take over my life. I don't have anything particularly profound to say about XCOM: it's a fantastically designed game which an endless array of meaningful choices that would regularly keep me up all night. I loved the strategy, the tension, and even small, typically insignificant details like naming your characters were engaging with XCOM.
How you made me eat my words, Spelunky. I don't like all these stupid indie platformers, I said. Stop with all the masochistic, super-difficult games that shut people out from enjoying our favorite pastime, I said. Uh huh. Spelunky put me in my place. Quick quote from my larger write-up on the game:
A good lover knows how important it is to keep things interesting, as well as when to fight and defy you. More: a good lover beckons and refuses at both the best and worst times. Spelunky embodies these things through its procedural generation, its difficulty, its mystery, and all of these things work together to captivate me and frustrate me.
I hate/love you, Spelunky. These are the same things, right?
Here by sheer strength of its multiplayer, Halo 4 is the highlight of my social experiences in gaming this year. I know that if I turned on my Xbox right now, a handful of friends will be playing. Really, it doesn't matter what day or time it is. Someone I know will be playing Halo 4.
Rightly so. It's not a vast improvement to Halo: Reach, but it's still a blast to play. Few things compare to gliding across a map atop a ghost, or the excitement of landing a sticky, or how badass it feels to land headshots in SWAT. To name a few things.
Likely the strangest, most inscrutable game I've ever played. Who can make sense of what is happening? Why would you even want to? The game manages to capture the humor behind stuff like horse_ebooks and Adventure time—the randomness, the weirdness. Which is to say, it's like someone made it specifically for me.
Another game I will never, ever beat—just like Spelunky. Dustforce is an ultra hard platformer that feels amazingly smooth to play. You're a janitor/cleaner of sorts that goes through the world sweeping up everything in your path. Everything is so filthy.
It's much better than that sounds, though by now, we should all know that games are really good at taking something unappealing in real life and making it work as a mechanic.
I think I'm a sucker for games where movement feels seductive; the type of movement that, had you felt it in a dream, you'd wake feeling an ache for things your body could never achieve. In Super Meat Boy you feel unpredictable and volatile, in Gears of War you can feel the movement in your chest, and in Dustforce, you get to be grace itself. That's why its on my GOTY list.
The Walking Dead
At its heart, The Walking Dead is a game about people, and how far they'd be willing to go to live another day. The game tests you with all sorts of brutal, awful situations. Your job isn't just to survive, that's the easy part. Anyone can survive. The issue is how. The question is, what type of person could you become—what type of monster, even?
Nobody wins at the Walking Dead, and I love that.
Super Monday Night Combat
I believe this game holds the honor of being my most-played game this year. What's not to like? It's a free-to-play MOBA with just about the wackiest characters/classes I've encountered in a shooter. It has a backstory that pokes fun at our society, but it does this without getting in the way of the experience. And it's the most teamwork-oriented game I've played in a long while. If I have a gripe it's that I wish more people played it. ... well, maybe. If they did, then like XCOM, I'd never be able to move on with my life.
I'm hella cheating but ¡¡¡ǝɔıןod ǝɥʇ ɟɟǝ
That's 'eff the police' for those of you that can't read upside down.
Something amazing happened this year: a number of people who would otherwise never have voices in this industry picked up this little program called Twine, and they created. Not just anything, mind. They poured their hearts into interactive stories and made me feel as if real human beings made my games—hopes, flaws and all. Most games seem impersonal by comparison.
If there is a feel-good story of the year, it's about Twine games and the people it empowered. People who don't have the privilege of seeing their backgrounds or stories reflected in games, people who the game industry refuses to acknowledge in the marketing plan. Fine. They'll just make their own games, and you can't stop them.
If I include a number of these games in a single entry it's because Twine feels like a movement, and one you should pay attention to. The thing about Twine is how much power it puts in the people—the common person, like you or me. How could I show you just one game? This is all about multitude.
Really though. You should make your own Twine games, you beautiful animal. That's the whole point.
Unmanned, ZiGGURAT, Boyfriend Maker, They Bleed Pixels, The Binding of Isaac: Wrath of the Lamb, Journey and finally, Persona 4: Golden.