Another year of incredible videogames, not quite enough time to play them all, and publishing this a week later than I intended. All is well, then. Apart from the Game of the Year, this list isn't really ranked.
It didn't take me long to figure out Fez was going to take the top spot. Even way back in April I was pretty much positive.
Fez is a game that defies categorization. On the surface it's a beautiful, ambient exploration game. The world is huge, mysterious, and opens up slowly. Exploring it is a relaxing, wonderful experience.
Go a little deeper and you'll find spatial puzzles that gently twist your mind. Nothing particularly challenging, but a pleasure to figure out.
It is the layer deeper still, the puzzle solving, that got everyone talking and indeed, sealed the deal for me. I still remember the decoding, pages of hand-written notes, and dozens of photos taken on my iPhone. The first sentence I translated. The infinitely looping room. The clock tower. I got lost in it all for weeks.
Fez is why I play videogames: to have novel experiences, to discover new worlds, and explore their mysteries.
XCOM demands your A-game every time you sit down to play. Every decision (and there are a lot of them) is about making the choice which leads to the least terrible consequences. Even the simple ones like choosing a mission has you balancing Panic level vs. Difficulty vs. Reward (and which reward?)
The missions themselves go between cautious exploration and quick, tense action. Ending a turn and watching it all go so wrong is the best kind of "doomed". It's a little disconcerting how attached you get to the squad. But hatching a plan, and having it just work out is the best kind of high. I've had countless "come on, come on, YES! HIT! WOOOO!" moments.
I'm not one to replay games, but I'm definitely going through XCOM all over again.
Last year I talked about Deus Ex doing well, but failing to reach beyond remaking the original. Dishonoured goes above and beyond.
Dishonoured is confident enough to give you all the tools to have fun, without explicitly telling you how to have fun. The abilities are overpowered by design, allowing flexibility in how to approach each objective. The missions themselves are especially creative, with Lady Boyle's Last Party being the highlight. It's a mission which works almost entirely on social interactions, allowing you to skip over the combat, if you choose.
With Deus Ex and Dishonoured behind us, and Bioshock Infinite coming soon, this feels like the start of something beautiful.
I could just title this section "Interesting, Surprising Or Hilarious Ways I've Died In Spelunky" and call it a day.
Spelunky asks a lot: be careful, but also quick. Watch your surroundings. React to emergent (and often deadly) events. Resist the lure of booby-trapped loot. Needless to say, you die a lot, but even months later there are still things to learn and techniques to hone.
There are triumphs too, like when you pull off a seemingly impossible series of moves and somehow come out of it unscratched. Better still, when doom (read: the giant spider) is right around the corner, and the world unwittingly saves you.
It's also worth noting how great the multiplayer is, both in co-op and deathmatch. Co-op makes the game easier in theory, but coordinating with other irrational humans makes it all worse (and more hilarious) in practice. Deathmatch is a ridiculous, unfair, unbalanced game, but that's exactly the point. Get four people on the couch and the competition will follow in no time, with all the yelling and laughter you'd expect.
It feels like the stars finally aligned for Telltale Games. The Walking Dead is the right blend of storytelling and action, a control scheme that works, and one hell of a well-written script. Clementine in particular works so well as a moral compass. As a young girl in your care, her sense of right and wrong are shaped by your actions.
The Walking Dead asks you to make difficult decisions, do so quickly, then makes them permanent, and makes them matter. The feeling of responsibility and weight is immense.
Hotline Miami is brutal puzzle solving.
Brutal: When you grab a thug, there's a button dedicated to bashing his head in. It takes three (sometimes four) bloody, messy, bashes to kill a guy. Each tap feels unreasonably violent. You made each of them happen. You monster.
Puzzle solving: Here is a room full of thugs, figure out how to murder them in the most efficient manner. Here's a fixed behaviour guide, except a few aspects of the level are randomly modified to trip you up. Make a tiny mistake? Dead. Good luck!
2012 is the year the DS died for me. Despite a series of heavy hitters from Nintendo, nothing grabbed my attention like I hoped. Instead, the iPhone (and iPad) did a great job of filling my mobile gaming needs. I'm not ready to abandon dedicated handhelds altogether, but it's getting easier to do with every passing year.
Waking Mars is a beautiful game of ecology. In a way that only Sim/Management games do, there's a certain joy in watching your creation do its own thing, even when "own thing" sometimes means "disastrous overpopulation of a species".
I've already said everything I need to about Super Hexagon, except how it can bring out the worst in our competitive spirit. I spent a couple of weeks in fierce competition with a friend, each of us trash-talking and gloating as our times incremented by seconds (and sometimes, fractions of a second) at a time.
Little Inferno is charming and hilarious. It's a game about buying stuff which you burn, which earns you money to buy more stuff, which you burn, which...
Somewhere in this compulsive loop is a heart-warming story about the videogames industry, consumerism, and following your dreams. It's so optimistic and sincere that I couldn't help but fall in love.
It's the perfect winter game. I have fond memories of being hunched up over my "Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace" covered in a blanket as my busted apartment heater tried to keep up.
It's definitely more "toy" than "game", but seriously: it's about burning stuff. What's not to love?
Journey is a magical experience. The companion interactions clicked in a way I'd never expected. There's an area where you're climbing up a snowy mountain, the wind harshly blowing, the two of you going from cover to cover. Your avatar is visibly cold, but stay close to your companion and both of you warm up. There is no mechanical difference, and yet the bond it created between us ensured that we stuck together for the duration of the game.
Combining platforming and reactive, generative music couldn't disappoint. But somehow, Sound Shapes felt underwhelming. All the right pieces were in place but the levels themselves just didn't captivate me. Until the Beck album. That's what made the game memorable for me, but I found myself wishing for an entire game filled with albums of the same calibre.
Death Ray Manta is unapologetically colourful, loud and just plain daft. It's Rob Fearon in top form. Detached from the unforgiving difficulty that plagues most shoot-em-ups, together with simple controls and even simpler scoring, DRM is the perfect zone game. I went through a couple of... difficult weeks last year, but I could always turn to DRM to take my mind off whatever, and just relax. Turn off the light, turn DRM on, and get in the zone.