Greg Kasavin is a writer/designer at Supergiant Games, the small independent studio that created Bastion. Prior to joining Supergiant, Greg worked at 2K Games, Electronic Arts, and GameSpot. He's @kasavin on Twitter.
My list surely would have been different had I spent more time playing some of this year's big AAA titles (especially Max Payne 3, Dishonored, Halo 4, and Far Cry 3), as well as a couple of Japanese RPGs I've been meaning to get to (namely Xenoblade Chronicles and Persona 4: Golden). But then, the games on this list--especially my #1--pulled me away from most everything else. Here are my favorites from this year:
I debated whether to include this on my list since I worked on it for a year of my life. But it was a much bigger project than just my one year, and it spent long enough in the works after I left that I felt a detachment from it when I finally sat down to play the finished version. What I found in it was the only shooter of 2012 that compelled me to play all the way through from start to finish. I respect the narrative ambitions of this game, and the story turns at the conclusion were memorable and poignant.
Dust quickly won me over with its good-natured humor, beautiful animation, well-crafted controls, and heartfelt storytelling. It felt like an homage to classic side-scrolling action games, without being nostalgic for the sake of it. That the game was built almost entirely by just one person still boggles my mind. This was easily my favorite of this year's Summer of Arcade lineup, and was the only game this year that my daughter (who was six at the time) enjoyed almost as much as I did.
Legendary game designer Sid Meier said that a good game is a series of interesting choices. FTL: Faster Than Light is an excellent example of this. The premise of managing the small crew of a doomed starship voyage is already good. But the way this game is structured, as a series of unpredictable, exciting, dangerous hyperspace jumps, is flat-out brilliant. FTL strikes an excellent balance between having a crafted tone with tantalizing bits of narrative along with a randomized structure that ensures no two sessions ever play out the same way. For good measure, the soundtrack is fantastic. Very inspiring stuff.
The violence in Hotline: Miami is at times shocking and at times numbing, at times exciting and at times sobering. This is a game that uses violence fully, not just for thrills. It knows what the violence is there for, and every gory detail seems deliberate. And the feel of the whole thing is just so fast and brutal, like a cross between Super Meat Boy and Smash TV. Then there's the soundtrack, a pitch-perfect score for all the depravity, probably my favorite game soundtrack of the year. This game was made by just a couple of people. Maybe it shows, considering it's quite simple, but unlike most games released this year, I won't soon forget this one. Hotline: Miami and its dizzying nihilism reminded me of Killer7, one of the most memorable games I've played in the last decade.
I loved exploring the deceptively lighthearted, serene, and mysterious world of this game, and felt its central mechanic of perspective-shifting was ingenious and interesting all throughout. I really admire that Fez manages to be so enthralling and challenging despite being completely devoid of enemies or combat. The entire presentation is beautiful in a way that's very true to games. While many games aspire to standards of beauty from other media, Fez has the confidence to be a game through and through, and every aspect of it is gamelike in the best sort of way.
I had high hopes for the next game from the creators of Flower, and Journey lived up to all my expectations. This is a game whose themes are communicated with complete fluency yet without depending on any traditional methods of storytelling. The brevity of the experience felt wholly appropriate given the subject matter, and even so, Journey gave me numerous moments of stunning beauty. Few games manage to create a sublime feeling, especially without resorting to intense action, but Journey did this for me.
I'm old enough to remember the original classic that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is based on, and couldn't have been more impressed by how well this remake captured the tension-filled emotional roller-coaster experience that made the original so memorable. Not only is the new game's presentation outstanding, but the distinctive X-COM feel is there. You wouldn't expect for a turn-based game to be this scary or suspenseful but XCOM really delivers those feelings as well as a genuine sense of triumph when, once in a while, good tactics combine with a little luck.
3. Hero Academy
This asynchronous turn-based tactics game for iPhone and iPad is the first free-to-play game that earned my time as well as my money. I played this game for months and months, each day looking forward to my opponents' next set of moves so I could try to outsmart them once more. It's both deterministic and random in all the right ways, resulting in matches that always feel different. The design is simple and brilliant--you can experiment as much as you want, trying different tactics before committing your turn. The cartoony look is welcoming and the different armies and units are surprisingly different and interesting. This is an elegant game, very well designed and executed. It's very fun.
At first I was reluctant to start playing this series, because I feel like I know how these types of stories are going to end. I'm not really a fan of the comic or the TV show, or at least, I wasn't before I played through these games. Going in, I figured I wasn't going to let myself get emotionally invested in a bunch of no-doubt-disposable characters. But I did get invested, thanks to lots of great writing and a cast that couldn't be more unconventional for a game. This is powerful stuff. I rarely get emotional when I play games, but at several points in The Walking Dead, I came close. As far as I'm concerned, The Walking Dead picks up the baton from last year's The Witcher 2 for having the best, most meaningful character interactions of any game, in a plot that keeps hurtling forward. I loved the conclusion of this series, which made me look back on the whole experience in the best sort of way.
1. Dota 2
Nothing else comes close. Not this year. For the first time in as long as I can remember, there's really no contest when I think back on what was my favorite game of the past 12 months. I first tried Dota 2 back in January, on the recommendation of one of my colleagues who's been a fan ever since the Defense of the Ancients mod started gaining popularity in the Warcraft III days. Valve's take on that game looked intriguing, but then, I knew it was immensely complicated and I figured my days of sinking countless hours into competitive multiplayer games, from fighting games to real-time strategy games, were behind me. Well... I was wrong. Dota 2 hit me very, very hard. I've logged hundreds of hours with the game this year, and often played it long into the night, losing track of time. Here is a game that combines my love of fighting games with my love of strategy games, along with that special touch that Valve games tend to have. I think the thing I most love about Dota 2 is that it's so complex that it takes up seemingly 100% of my mental capacity just to play it. Though the experience is very intense, at the same time it's just completely engrossing. I love almost everything about this game – the design quirks, the cast of characters, the distinct feel of different abilities, the pace of a given match. It's an intimidating game to learn, but it's the best, most rewarding game I've played in a long time.