This was perhaps the latest addition to my list, but the goofy multiplayer experience this free iPhone oddity provides was so unique and imaginative, I had to give it some attention. I’ve only played two-player games thus far, but even then it’s stressful and intense while being completely silly (a button on a spaceship for wrapping presents? What will they think of next?!?) in a way I haven’t really experienced since I first set eyes on WarioWare. That kind of manic, comic energy this game generates is absolutely delightful and I expect to play much more of this in the future.
Melancholy. Its the word I keep coming back to when thinking about this game. Sitting in front of a fireplace in a world that is slowly freezing to death shouldn’t be any kind of “fun”, but the simple activity of throwing a plethora of objects into a fireplace somehow becomes enrapturing over the course of this game. The curious way the game conveys its story, the somewhat problematic but no less grand and stirring conclusion and the funny, yet sad, item descriptions made this a game I refused to put down until it was complete. I sat there for nearly four hours with my Wii U gamepad completely taken by this curious concoction. That it brought back memories of sitting around a fire pit tossing sticks and bits of newspaper into it while laying down its chilling story about coming to terms with the possible end of life on earth seems worthy of some praise, even if its something I’m not sure I’d get again from replaying it. As a singular, one-time playthrough, I found this compelling enough to recommend pretty much everyone give a look.
While my fondness for this game faded somewhat following that glorious launch week when there were numerous online co-op partners jumping in and out of each others games, chirping at each other as both scarf-sporting nomads raced across sand dunes towards a mysterious glowing peak on the horizon, I still consider that two-hour experience one of the most stirring gaming memories of the past year. As those who’ve played it know, that sand-surfing sequence is a wonder to behold, the golden rays of sun cascading over beautifully rendered waves of sand. I will say, this was one of those fabled gaming moments where my emotions were stirred and mayhaps a tear was released from my eye. Perhaps replaying it will never elicit the same joys, but I found this atmospheric platformer to be the best time I’ve had with a thatgamecompany title and I continue to be glad theirs is a voice gradually receiving more and more attention.
The most talked about game of the year, bar none. And while many of those conversations were dripping with venom, they demonstrated just how invested many fans have become in the five years since the first Mass Effect came to be in 2007. I personally found the original ending (I have yet to see the altered, “fixed” ending firsthand) to be quite satisfying, as it seemed to match my personality very well. Who better to decide the fate of all life in the universe than I, the greatest and most perfect creature? Ahhhh, narcissism. Ah yes, also this happens to be the best playing of all three Mass Effect games from purely a mechanical standpoint. And the music, oh the music. 2012 produced not one but two games in which tears were coaxed from my cynical eyeballs, and the hauntingly beautiful score no doubt played a key role in making that happen. There is much more to be said about this game, but I’ve spoken at length about it since its release in numerous venues so I’ll just state that, whether you consider it a success or a miserable failure, the Mass Effect trilogy, of which this game is a part, shall go down as an important touchstone for the ongoing struggle to marry compelling narrative with game-play.
While I have yet to finish this game, I still feel it deserves some special consideration for making a case for the hyper-difficult, “you will die repeatedly and enjoy it” game-play style the much beloved Souls games have been investigating that I could readily appreciate and get into. I’ve attempted playing Demon Souls twice, and while I respect many aspects of it, I just found the generic fantasy setting not compelling enough to fight through. Switch the locale to contemporary London, make it first-person and put a perfectly cumbersome touchscreen controller in my hand that forces me to divide my intention in a way that is stressful in JUST the right way, and you’ve got something I can get behind. Yes, the melee combat is lacking, especially in comparison to the Condemned games, which I’ve enjoyed in the past. Yes, zombies could not be more played out right now. But neither of those things bothered me while playing this game. I was so utterly immersed in the game, a feeling I believe was enhanced immeasurably by the clever incorporation of the Wii U gamepad, that I’ve only brought myself to delve into that level of tension and high-blood pressure for two rather lengthy play sessions. Perhaps it all falls apart towards the end, or the narrative doesn’t pay off, but I still feel some really interesting avenues of game design are being explored by games like this, and I’d like to see this succeed so others may even further iterate on some of the ideas found here.
Roguelikes. Before this past year I’d never really given the term or the games that bear that descriptor much thought. Then Spelunky (the HD version) came along and changed all that. I’ve yet to beat it. Just yesterday I thought I was on my way as I acquired a jetpack, perhaps the most empowering piece of equipment in the game. But no, I bumped into a bat and fell onto some spikes in the very next level. And even that did not deter me from playing it some more today. The game lands in that sweet-spot of being tough but fair. The mechanics are well-honed, the “feel” of the game is near-perfect, and other than my wish that the HUD elements were semi-transparent, every aspect of the design seems so tight that it is clear you are at fault in some way when things go awry. It also is perhaps the best exploration of the theme of greed bringing about one’s downfall I’ve seen expressed in gameplay mechanics. Even when I have upwards of $40,000 dollars and all the equipment I need, I still catch myself going for diamonds or superfluous gear, often bringing about my demise. No game has beaten me down so utterly since Super Meat Boy, and even then, I at least beat THAT game’s core campaign. I will keep playing Spelunky until I can say that is true of it as well. That’s how good it is.
Variety is the spice of life. That is a phrase, right? Anyway, Frog Fractions not only packed one of the best surprises in gaming this year, but it also had so much game-play variety in its campaign, it made me question the narrowly-focused route many bigger budget projects favor. If a flash game that is roughly sixty minutes long (give or take) can pack more memorable moments of sheer delight and humor in its run-time than games 1000x its cost, something needs changing on that end of the industry. This game was not only funny and well-written, it also trusted its players to figure out a lot of things in ways that really struck a chord with me. I’ve been playing games for over twenty years, I don’t need to have everything spelled out for me anymore. This game gets that, avoiding that condescending tone and resulting in one of the absolute best revelations in recent gaming memory. Kudos Twinbeard, here is hoping this paves the way for many more projects in the future.
Pure game-play. I appreciate a game with narrative, personality, and variety, but sometimes I just want some adrenaline. I just want something crazy, with pounding music and a stiff challenge that never seems unfair, just uncompromising. Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon was that game for me this year. Idle Thumbs mentioned the opening credit sequence of Enter the Void when discussing this game, and that is as good a comparison as any for the mood this game generates. It seems like you really ought to be having a seizure whilst playing it, but it somehow never grates on you, just lulls you into this trance, the repetition and the many, MANY failures becoming part of what keeps you coming back. I’ve only ever made it to third level on both the iOS and PC versions, but like the great arcade classics of years past, I expect I can come back to this many times over the next decade and get the exact same rush I did this past year. Its pretty much perfect, really, it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and it does so with a nice minimalist style and a perfect soundtrack. Well done Mr. Cavanagh, keep on doing your thing.
This was my stand-out favorite for several months this year, and it still stands as a prime example of how much can be accomplished with very little and the importance of honesty in game design. This game is violent in a way few other games ever have been, yet it never apologizes for that simple reality. Like the psychopath who delights in depravity, this game puts you in that strange position of being a true American Psycho, and I was disturbed by that while being willingly intoxicated by it. The style, the music, the well-crafted game-play loop, all resulted in a high I wanted to experience again and again. I played through the game half a dozen times, and started chasing achievements and high scores before life tore me away from it, but that time I spent enraptured in its smoky, neon embrace won’t soon be forgotten. As with any game, there are problems, most notably the oddly stilted boss battles that seem to clash with the refined combat mechanics of the core game and perhaps a lack of satisfaction in the game’s conclusion, though that may well be by design as a despicable killer may not deserve a sense of accomplishment, but regardless, this stands as one of my favorites and I eagerly anticipate Soderstrom’s next project, be it the sequel to this game or something entirely new.
Game Of The Year
Richard Hofmeier’s black and white economics sim/character drama is my game of the year largely because it seems to embody what I want video-games to do going forward. It marries its game systems to its storyline in such a naturalistic way, it seems obvious in retrospect. I found the tale of Andrus especially compelling as my failures as a player of the game put him in the most dire dilemmas. I was so caught up in the misery I’d inflicted on this pixelated character and his cat in a way I recall few games ever achieving, and it was done by, essentially, one man. This game seems to sum up many thoughts I’ve had about the possibility of auteur theory being applied to game design, while also showcasing the importance of allowing the player to do just that, play the game, at all times to invest them in the story, world and characters of the game. It may not be “fun” in the conventional sense but it was compelling in such a way that I doubt I’ll look at games the same way ever again after playing it. The possibilities that lie within this avenue of thought seem endless, and I couldn’t be happier about that revelation.