Brian Reed makes a living telling stories and playing games and all the other stuff that used to cause him to flunk algebra class. His career in games began as a tester on Warcraft II at Blizzard in 1996. He spent 10 years knocking around the games industry before he started writing comics (mostly for Marvel), and video games (mostly Marvel games for Activision). He returned to the game industry full-time to help write Halo 4 & Spartan Ops. He also isn’t sure why this paragraph is written in the third person, but there you have it.
A WORD BEFORE WE START
This list isn’t in any sort of order other than when I thought of them. I’ve finished a few of these games, but by no means have I finished all of them (I was busy this year). But I’ve played enough of all of them to recommend them to you the same as I would any of my friends.
Also worth noting, these are not all the games I loved this year. At the end, I’ve tacked on a quickie list of games that could have just as easily been on this list, but I was trying to keep this thing short.
2012’S 2011 GAME OF THE YEAR: SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD
Yes, it came out in 2011. Yes, I’m starting my 2012 list with it. I didn’t get to really focus and play it until this January.
There’s an argument to be made that video games are, at their core, power fantasies. Most of the time when I sit down to play a game, I’m either saving the nation/world/galaxy/universe, playing as a star sports athlete, slinging spells, or otherwise performing feats of which my mortal body is utterly inadequate of accomplishing. Even when I’m just slotting puzzle pieces in the right order, it’s still me staving off the grim specter of Game Over.
Saint’s Row: The Third takes that idea of power trip fantasy, embraces that idea, dry humps its leg, and professes undying love.
The set pieces involve riding a tank out of a plane so you can fire its cannon at attacking jets as you plummet, destroying an aircraft carrier because its owner pissed you off, stopping a cloning operation creating massive Russian mobsters, and helping Mayor Burt Reynolds rid the city of zombies.
Every moment of gameplay is designed to make you feel in control of the situation and absolutely sure of the outcome of every button press. The open world mechanics, from driving to combat to searching for hidden items and starting sidequests are all so well laid made that I have a real hard time caring about Grand Theft Auto V.
2012’s THIS IS ALL I EVER WANTED OF THE YEAR: XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN
In the 1990’s I sent dozens of good men and women to their death. But they died knowing they had done all they could to keep Earth (more or less) free from alien tyranny. In the years since then, I’ve tried to explain to my kids and co-workers what those days were like, but you had to be there, man. You had to see the look in Sgt. Fucknuts’ eyes for yourself as you put him on the Skyranger with too little armor and a weapon we both knew would serve only to draw the attention of the enemy, but never be useful. If you don’t know first hand what it’s like to lose an entire squad to a Sectoid ambush, well, I couldn’t really explain it to you.
Until now. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game that should not exist in our universe. We don’t get to play big budget turn-based strategy games any more. Not since Mr. First Person came on the scene.
And we almost got hit with Mr. FPS here! They were making a FPS XCOM and I was One of Those People who said things like “Oh, to hell with that.” and “XCOM is a turn-based squad game and you suits who say it should be an FPS are the same guys that would strangle puppies if they thought there was a profit to be made.” and “I’m old and I like old things. Leave me alone.”
But it happened! II got a new XCOM! And if you set it to Ironman, you get a pretty good impression of an updated version of the game I loved years ago. Yeah, the tech trees aren’t quite as deep, and the lack of multiple bases around the globe makes me sad, and I have no idea what the shadowy asshole who says he’ll be watching me is trying to prove by being a shadowy asshole, but I’m so damn happy to have XCOM back, and to have it in a recognizable form, that words fail me.
2012’S WHAT THE FUCK?! OF THE YEAR: TOKYO JUNGLE
I love games that have no basis in reality. I prefer the fantastic Mario of old, where he rode dinosaurs and traveled star roads vs. the weirdly mundane world of Toad Houses and airplanes of recent games. I’d rather shoot my way through Bayonetta’s bizarre story, or do battle with Secret World’s pseudo-Cthulhu’s than play a hyper-realistic shooter set in the modern day. I also love games that a lot of people call Roguelike, meaning there’s an RPG element, but you die a lot and have to start over and try again.
So Tokyo Jungle is kind of exactly what happens when the universe gives me exactly what I ask for.
It starts as a post-apocalyptic acid trip, in which you begin life as a Pomeranian who just wants to eat. You learn to hunt, you learn to survive. You develop a penchant for wearing t-shirts and gas masks. Mr. Pomeranian finds love in the wasteland and raises a family. The player takes control of each successive generation, carving out a life in a Tokyo where mankind has ceased to exist.
Then the game gets weird.
Oh, and eventually you can unlock playable dinosaurs, because after the end of the world dinosaurs show back up.
2012’s ARTHOUSE FILM OF THE YEAR: JOURNEY
There’s a group of people (we call them “game writers with no story ideas this week”) who like to still pretend there’s an argument to be had about if games are art or not. See, apparently there’s some human endeavors that can produce art, while the exact same human endeavors, once the exact same art is rendered digital and interactive, creates bullshit.
I’m not sure I follow the logic, myself. Nor do I understand the need for some folks to dredge it up now and again, but I also don’t understand quantum physics, the French language, or the popularity of most of CBS’s primetime lineup.
I understood Journey, though. I understood just fine the tale of life it was laying out before me. The urge we have to make a connection with someone -- anyone at all -- as we march through the path from cradle to grave. And I understood the idea that these connections are fleeting, and special, and that the loss we feel when they are gone is very real, even in something apparently as trivial as a video game.
Journey begins with you alone in a gorgeous world, left to run about and explore. You quickly end up on a path that carries you through to the end of the game, maybe two and a half hours later. That sounds terrible, I know. But it’s perfect. Perfectly perfect, in fact.
As you travel, you will randomly (and seamlessly, never knowing quite when it happens) be paired with other players who are also traveling through the same part of the game as you. Get too far apart and you’ll disconnect from them, and be left alone once more. You can communicate only through limited series of singsong squeaks, but it turns out that’s enough. As the game music soars and you adventure together, you find yourself caring about staying close to this completely random person you’ve met in the otherwise desolate world.
As the game comes to a close, you’re treated to a combination of amazing soundtrack and visuals, then credits that tell you the names of everyone who touched your life during your time with Journey. Some of those people you never even realized were in your world.
Journey is to Call of Duty as The Master is to Skyfall. They’re both wonderfully crafted experiences in their own right, but there are those who will experience Journey and not “get it.” They will declare their time a waste and that’s fine. There are others who will play Journey and look back fondly on their time in that world, and remember the emotions it created for them.
That’s the damn definition of art, folks.
2012’S WELL, THAT WAS NOT WHAT I EXPECTED OF THE YEAR: SPEC OPS: THE LINE
I have to keep this one shorter than the others because I don’t want to spoil anything in the story, because the story is 90% of what Spec Ops has to offer.
The game itself, while pretty and playable, is very much a forgettable thing. A pseudo cover-based wannabe Gears of War thing. You’ve played it before. Whatever. Right?
The story though... that’s something else. Even though it doesn’t seem like it is at first. It’s hit the point where I wonder if the predictable gameplay is part of the story. If maybe I’ve misjudged the product as two parts rather than a genius of a whole.
Even given my job, I don’t tend to think about the story in games for months after I’ve played them. I rarely suggest people play a game just for the story, but have repeatedly suggested to friends that they buy a copy on the cheap (Amazon is forever putting the PC download on sale for a pittance, and new console copies are 50% off more often than not), put it on easy, and blast through the couple of hours of campaign just to watch the story unfold.
It’s a story worth experiencing, and I’m damned excited to see what its lead writer Walt Williams does next.
2012’S MESSAGE ON THE ANSWERING MACHINE OF THE YEAR: HOTLINE MIAMI
It’s surprising that a squirrely hyper-violent 2D top-down shooter created by two guys in a matter of months could have as much in common as it does with a massive budget title years in the making, but Hotline Miami and Spec Ops are surprisingly similar.
Again here, if I say too much, it gets into the realm of story spoilers, and the mystery on your first playthrough of Hotline Miami is part of its fun.
All you need to know is it’s essentially Drive the videogame, set in the 1980s, with you as an unnamed dude who wears a great jacket, and rubber animal masks. You get a phone call every so often with thinly veiled directions to go kill a lot of motherfuckers with much urgency, and then you go and do just that.
At least you try to. When you make one wrong move, you die. There is no recovery here. It’s the Super Meat Boy of bashing dude’s skulls in with a baseball bat. You will die often, and you will come back from those deaths with the knowledge to get a bit further into your mission. It’s fast, and never terribly upsetting due to the quick reloads, and it never feels cheap so much as it feels like “I should have seen that coming” or “I got a bit too cocky there.”
There’s great passive storytelling, where just small tweaks to the world around you convey huge bits of story. And there’s a really nice beat near the end which I hesitate to call a twist, but damned if I saw it coming.
Tiny mildish spoiler (skip the paragraph if you want): I prefer the “regular” ending to the “secret” one, because the regular felt like it had a message and the secret felt like a promise of a sequel, but it’s all damned fun and even given that small complaint, I gotta tell ya if Hotline [Other City Name] was announced tomorrow, I’d buy it right away.
As an aside, the game music is all licensed stuff from a lot of artists I’d never heard of before this game came along. It’s also all right there in your Steam folder in .ogg format, which is easily converted to MP3 and tossed on your music device of choice for listening as you walk through the world, then go to those artist’s websites and buy their stuff. It’s a lot of exciting new listening.
2012’S BETTER THAN THE SOURCE MATERIAL OF THE YEAR: THE WALKING DEAD
I like The Walking Dead comic quite a bit. There’s amazing character work, great tension, and a focus of vision from issue #1 to present that most comics lack.
I really hate the TV show. It’s a tepid mess of pseudo-characters who are basically “the lady”, “that one guy” and “no, I mean the other one. The redneck dude. No, the other redneck dude.” Between an utter lack of intelligence from the people who are marching around calling themselves characters (“Sure, kids! Go play in the forest FULL OF ZOMBIES.”), coupled with a world that doesn’t follow its own rules (“They hunt by smell.” one week and “Quick, hide right here where they can’t see us.” the next), I checked out a long time ago.
Also, I’m so tired of zombies I feel like there’s a meta story to be done about how we’ve been overrun by zombie executives who keep greenlighting zombie stories/games.
And yet, Telltale comes in the door with a game that has embraced the direction of the comic, putting character first. At the time of this writing, I’ve just gotten to episode two. I was busy this summer when everyone else was playing this game, but I’m fixing that now.
The sense of dread and worry I feel when playing this game is unlike anything I’ve ever known while holding a controller and staring at my television. I’ve avoided spoilers for the most part, but the writer in me knows none of this adventure I’m on with Lee and Clementine will end well. It can’t if the story is going to work. By the time I started episode two, the knot in my stomach was such that I needed a couple days off. I love that. Seriously, that I can care that much about something on my TV screen--you’re into The Wire and Breaking Bad territory there. I want more of that in my gaming life.
2012’S IT’S NOT MINECRAFT, STOP COMPARING IT TO MINECRAFT OF THE YEAR: DON’T STARVE
I didn’t know anything about Don’t Starve before picking my friend Jared up at the airport on PAX weekend. “I was up playing Don’t Starve,” he said. “I didn’t start packing until about 3am.”
Then, at PAX, Don’t Starve’s creators, Klei, were selling pre-release keys that allowed access to their beta and a full copy when it shipped. As a fan of their previous work, I gave them money then promptly forgot I’d shoved the key in my bag.
I didn’t get around to finding the key until a few days post-PAX, but within a few minutes of using the key, I understood why Jared had not managed to pack his bags or sleep the night before his flight. This is a game that seems silly and simple at first. Like Tokyo Jungle, there’s a dash of Rogue in there with the constant death/world reset, followed by you using what you’ve learned to try and survive just a little longer this time.
Don’t Starve begins with you alone in a wilderness that a slightly-more-talented Tim Burton might have doodled. You’re greeted by a tall spooky man who taunts you, then disappears in a puff of smoke. The instinct here is to suggest that, like Minecraft, you must find your way in this strange new world and build a life for yourself. And I get that instinct. It’s how I described Don’t Starve in those first hours. But as the weeks passed and the beta updated and I began stealing eggs from walking cyclops birds to eat while mining gold too close to spider’s nests, I started to realize Don’t Starve is its own wonderful thing.
There’s a weird undocumented side effect to playing it: you start to create your own narrative as you go.
One day I became concerned about how dark it was getting and I realized how far from my basecamp I had wandered. See, in this world, when it gets dark, if you don’t have a source of light, you are eaten by unseen monsters almost instantly. It’s the childhood fear of the dark made legit, and it’s great. So I wandered over to the nearest tree, took out my trusty axe I’d built, and took a swing. The tree did not appreciate this and told me so by standing upright and attempting to kill me.
I ran through the darkening forest, the tree in pursuit, terrified that my record setting number of days alive was about to come to a crushing halt by either the pursuing tree, the closing shadows, or the damned cyclops bird monster whose nest was definitely this direction and I really don’t want to run into it again oh god what do I do what do I do?! Make a torch. Fend off the shadows. Keep running. But I’m so hungry. I just saw a bush with berries on it, but that tree is so close, I can’t stop to pick them. Remember where it was. Keep running. Oh God, the torch is getting low...
2012’S 1980s-STYLE GAME OF THE YEAR: LEGEND OF GRIMROCK
Back in the 80s we had pen and paper, and our dungeons had dragons who were scared of 20-sided dice, and our parents thought we were all worshiping Satan in the basement as we talked about swords with +3 against the undead and how long a goblin would burn if set on fire by magic. We were happy.
Then we got computers. And on those computers we got new dungeons that we had to walk around one frame at a time. Our combat was turn-based, our pixels were few, and our parents were worried our eyes were going to quit working because we were staring at that damn screen all the time. But we were still happy.
Then one day we got better computers and our games became 3D and our dungeons became MMOs and our dragons respawned every five minutes and we thought we were happy... for a time.
Then we found Grimrock. And we made Dinobot jokes for a few weeks. And then we got to actually play the game. And I don’t have a single friend within a couple of years either way of my 39 years old that didn’t lose days and days to Grimrock. We were all 10 again, cracking open a gold box AD&D adventure, happily trudging through the dungeons of Grimrock. We were very happy.
And seeing the Steam Workshop come online, and the promise of more dungeons made by other people who remember Ye Olden Times, I’m pretty darn excited.
2012’S WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE OF THE YEAR: FTL: FASTER THAN LIGHT
Listen, there’s no time to talk about this one, much as I’d love to. We’re losing oxygen because some pirates boarded us and they blew up the life support then set the med bay on fire and when I went to try and fix it, I accidentally spaced 99% of the rest of our oxygen supply because I hit the “open all doors” button on accident. I’d love to tell you all about Faster Than Light but... I’m suffocating... and...
Okay, let’s try this again. No, it’s cool. We’ve got plenty of oxygen here. Yes, we are totally under attack by the entire Rebel fleet. YES they wildly out number and overpower our ship. No, we aren’t going to survive but I want you to know how awesome Faster Than Light is and tell you that you need to play it. That sound? Oh. That was our hull cracking. But we shouldn’t violently decompress for at least--
One more time, and then I’m going to give up and go to bed. Here’s the deal, Faster Than Light is awesome. You’re in charge of a tiny ship fleeing an evil armada, and you’re probably not going to survive. In fact, just accept that right up front and you’ll have more fun. You can unlock new ships as you go, but honestly, you’re just going to get those blown up too. Especially when you screw up like I just have and reroute energy from shields to weapons while parked next to a rather angry star that is spewing plasma our way. Say, how many more hits can we take before--
Faster Than Light has that Roguelike styling I dig so much where dead is dead, and your leveling up is represented by a lesson learned before the next go round (let the people on the space station die -- you’re only going to get yourself killed trying to save them). I name all my Faster Than Light ships things like Dead Men Spacing, and SS Doomed just so I don’t get attached to them. (Come on, man. Seriously. the last seven times we’ve gone on a space station, we’ve died.) And then I name my crew Ineverknewlove and Whygodwhy just to add to the sadness of their imminent demise. (Fine. Go. It’s your funeral. I mean that. Yours. Not mine.) It’s pretty great. It has a neat synth score, and it’s only $10. (Great. I listened to you, I came onto the space station and now we’re all dead. GREAT.)
2012’S HONORABLE MENTIONS
These are games I really enjoyed my time with, and would recommend as thoroughly as any of the above, but I’ve already written way too many words and I kinda want to go play the rest of The Walking Dead.
Super Monday Night Combat - Take League of Legends, rework it into an FPS with a talking gorilla and set it in a fantastic and funny dystopian sci-fi future and you’ve got a really damn fun game that I don’t play nearly enough of.
Letterpress - Word game as war game. Secure your letters so your opponent can’t score with them. Fantastic asynchronous play where, as a friend described it, your .
Your Favorite Game of the Year That I Totally Didn’t Mention and Am Therefore Wrong - It’s awesome, and I’m glad you skimmed this whole list real quick just to see if I mentioned it. Because it was pretty great and I’m happy I could tell people about it.
Punch Quest - Another in the long line of endless runner mobile games, but made awesome by timing your uppercuts and jabs to deal with the never ending waves of bad guys.
The Secret World - An MMO that tried to do something different and almost made it. Now that it’s Guild Wars-style “buy the box, play forever” I suggest picking it up. If you’re tired of throwing fireballs at dragons, I suggest you try shooting a machine gun at Cthulhu.
Spelunky - Take my Faster Than Light notes and replace sci-fi related ways to die with “fell on spikes” “hit by a boulder out of fucking nowhere” and “run away from the ghost not towards it, you fool!” and you’ve got my love for Spelunky. Also, dude looks like Indiana Jones, and Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite movie ever.