For reasons that we will all soon come to regret, the guys have asked me to submit a list of my 10 favorite games from 2012. Pretty much as soon as I started trying to rank and compare games, I got myself into the kind of trouble where I was trying to figure out if this top ten list was supposed to be art criticism, product reviews, or what, exactly.
In the interest of transparency, here are my thoughts on the matter. If we want games to count as art (which seems to be something we want) I think we've got to hold games accountable to artistic standards. That means we need to be critical of games that offer nothing greater than escapism or pleasure as ends in themselves. My favorite author, David Foster Wallace, said something that really helped me get my head around how art is supposed to help us with this kind of problem: "If what's always distinguished bad writing--flat characters, a narrative world that's clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.--is also a description of today's world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then a mean shallow stupid novel becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it."
Mass Effect 3 finally transitioned the Mass Effect franchise into a big dumb action movie, and in many ways that was an incredibly sad experience. The people and places we've discovered and grown to care about were finally reduced to things for Shepard to blow up and places for her to blow things up in, and this ruined the game for me so thoroughly that by the end, when we learned that we shouldn't have even bothered hanging on to our Mass Effect save files for five years, it was just salt in the wound.
In Mass Effect 1, we muddled through long elevator rides and boring vehicle combat so we could learn more about the incredible Mass Effect universe--the game rewarded our efforts by teaching us about richly-textured worlds and cultures. Mass Effect 2 had a lazy plot and more boring combat, but was mostly saved by a great "building your team" story where we got to meet fantastic new characters.
ME3 went wrong because it recycled people and places from the first two games and revisited them only as a series of set pieces for us to blow things up in (we even blew things up on the Citadel, twice). That's a fundamental problem for a Mass Effect game, because what was fun about this franchise wasn't the specific worlds and characters it introduced but the thrill of their discovery. Without that I'm just some guy shooting at lizards and aliens with a machine gun, and what the fuck am I supposed to learn about the human condition from that?
Anyway this dumb game is in my top ten because of the part with Mordin in the elevator.
1. Puzzlejuice and Letterpress
Both of these iOS games make such great and obvious use of letter tiles on a touch screen that you can't believe no one figured it out before. Both force you to flip back and forth between your right and left brain as you relate spacial puzzles with language. And both give you a feeling of applying all of yourself to the puzzle.
2011's SpellTower was more commercially successful and widely-played than either of these games, but I've always felt a little bad for Puzzlejuice on this point because Puzzlejuice totally inspired SpellTower. (My source for this is SpellTower creator Zach Gage, who said: "Puzzlejuice totally inspired SpellTower.")
If you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose between PuzzleJuice and Letterpress, I'd give a slight edge to Puzzlejuice for having better visuals and a better emotional arc to a single play session. But who puts a gun to your head and forces you to pick only one iOS word game?
Spelunky is the rare game that kills you over and over and makes you feel like you earned it every time. I'm not very good at Spelunky, but it was still the source of some of my proudest gaming moments and most enraged controller-throwing incidents of the year.
Spelunky is impressive for creating a complicated, interconnected system that's both intuitive (because it behaves according to rules) and surprising (because new things still happen) even after many, many, many games. That's a testament to Spelunky's great game design, but also its controls, iconic visuals, music, sound, and random level design, all of which come together to form a cohesive whole with a ton of polish. Spelunky's production values go a long way towards making me feel like it's my fault (and not the game's) when I die after an incredible run.
Spelunky is cool because at a time when it doesn't really mean much to say you beat a video game, its still impressive to tell your friends you got to Olmec pre-hell.
Proteus is the only game on this list that I should explain in detail, but it's also the game I'm least able to. If you'd like to have a really beautiful experience that will make you think about what a game is, you should download Proteus for $7.50 at visitproteus.com.
Probably the biggest reason Proteus won't wind up on a lot of video game top ten lists is the question of whether it is, in fact, a game. But if Proteus is not a game, I would challenge you to define the word game in terms that exclude Proteus. For example, Sid Meier defines games as "a series of meaningful choices." Proteus has that. Ernest Adams and Andrew Rollings define games as "one or more causally linked series of challenges in a simulated environment." Proteus has that too. Roger Caillois says a game is an "activity which is voluntary, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe." Johan Huizinga says games are "free activity outside ordinary life." Bernard Suits gave my favorite definition: "To play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity … playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." Check, check, check.
Ramiro Corbetta wrote about Proteus: "Video games aren’t about mechanics. They aren’t about visual or audio either. They aren’t about the ideas of the author or about the experience of the player. They aren’t about story or actions or strategy. They aren’t about controllers or processors or screens. They aren’t about technology or culture or ritual. Video games are a combination of all these factors, or a combination of some of these factors. Video games are whatever we want them to be. For Ed Key and David Kanaga, while making Proteus, video games are about the beauty of walking, looking, and listening."
Playing Proteus filled me with a sense of smallness, reverence, and wonder. For a game that has only the tiniest amount of story baked into it, I can't talk about it without describing a narrative. For a game with only the most minimal interaction, I can't talk about it without verbs like "discovered," "chased," "got lost," or even the more fundamental "looked," and "heard."
I think Proteus is a landmark game--both for what it is and for what it is not. As for whether it's game--like Justice Stewart said about hard-core pornography: I know it when I see it.
FTL has a lot of similarities to Spelunky. It's a genre-blending roguelike, it's incredibly difficult, you die a lot, and you don't want to stop playing even when your hands get sore.
FTL has a lot of design that seems obvious in retrospect, but was in fact quite savvy. First off, for a spaceship simulator, you spend very little time controlling your spaceship and a lot of time controlling your spaceship crew. I think this explains my intense care for those dumb little pixel aliens - I'm so proud of them when they triumphed, so disappointed when they fail, and so sad when they get dismembered by a Mantis or asphyxiate in the vacuum of space.
Second, when you try to describe an FTL game to someone, the little scraps of narrative and the interconnected systems on the ship always seem to imply an impossible amount drama for what FTL is. "After the shipwreck survivor turned on us, I just had two guys left on the ship--badly wounded, huddling together in the cockpit while the rest of the ship lost oxygen…"
I think FTL is meant to be a game about sadness and disappointment and frustration and loss, which is an awesome ambition for an indie pixel art spaceship simulator with chiptune music. When I met FTL's designers at Indiecade, they seemed surprised that so many people were able to take out the Rebel Flagship at the end; they intended for players to throw themselves against that wall and fail. I still haven't beat the Flagship on normal difficulty, but I also refuse to min-max my ship from the beginning to beat the boss because it's not fun to play that way. Since you're responsible for making your own story in FTL, it's up to you to make it good. After a really irresponsible number of hours in FTL, I still feel like I'm improving and getting closer to the ending I want. If and when this game comes out for iPad, it will probably ruin my life.
After spending E3 2012 getting fucked in the eyes by colors and lights and violence until I was tired and numb, it was HOKRA, an unassuming indie sports game, that made the biggest impression on me. Even though I was probably in the least-excitable mood of my entire life, after one game, HOKRA had my heart racing and my adrenaline pumping and made me feel alive.
HOKRA is an old-school sports game for four real-life players. You play either a green square or a purple square, and along with your partner (the other green or purple square), you face off against a team of two other squares. The goal of the game is to capture the puck (an even smaller black square) and get it into one of your team's corners (larger, colored squares) to score. You play the current build of HOKRA on a PC with Xbox controllers, using a single control stick and a single button (to boost when you don't have the puck; to pass when you do). Everything else in the game--the strategy, the intensity, the rivalry, the photo-finishes, the trash talking--is what you bring to it.
Because there's so little to HOKRA, the game's impeccable fit and finish counts for a lot. Tiny details like the clay thwang of the puck off the edge of the court and the variable speed trails behind the squares totally make the game. Similarly, the strategy HOKRA somehow manages to milk out of four colored squares is just implausible, and HOKRA skills include things like knowing the exact moment when dancing your square around the goal crosses the line between scoring for your team and hotdogging. If you tried to tell me how rich HOKRA's strategy was before I played it myself, I probably wouldn't have believed you, but I think everyone who's played HOKRA would confirm that it's somehow more than the sum of its parts. Even though HOKRA gives you so little to work with, and even though I don't give a fig about sports, there weren't any other games this year that made me feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat like HOKRA.
I didn't play the original XCOM, so I had a nostalgia-free experience with this year's remake, and I loved it. You already know the deal with XCOM--it's a near perfect strategy game filled with dilemmas and tension, and one of the core mechanics in the game is patience.
Like FTL, I lived and died with my squad, and found myself so emotional when one of my ace guys died doing something stupid that I would go back and load from a save. I had one Heavy, Hulk, who was with me all the way from the tutorial through the end, and late in the game when he would panic, I'd start yelling at him through the screen, "Dude, Hulk, come on man!" I also imagined the dread of a Squaddie sent on a mission with Hulk--they had to know that Hulk was Kirk and they were the Redshirt.
As a huge board-game nerd, I know exactly why I loved XCOM and I savored the critical response to the game. Everything that you loved about XCOM--the payoff after setting up your turns in advance, distributing scarce resources as part of a meta game, the nail-biting tension of an important dice roll--made me want to shake all the critics and say, "It's a board game, don't you see? You've been enjoying a board game all along!"
At the time that I'm writing this (i.e. late), Journey has already won Giant Bomb's "Best Looking Game" award, which it deserves. Journey is probably the most beautiful game I've ever played, and I have a huge boner for Matt Nava's art direction. Journey's art direction, music, and gameplay form a cohesive whole just dripping with atmosphere in service of the game's themes: loneliness, death, language, and friendship. The combination of theme and production succeeds in sucking you into its world so throughly that you lose sight of the television in your peripheral vision and feel tiny before the world inside of it.
Journey has a lot to teach us about beauty, and also about human nature. The incredible multiplayer integration in Journey led to the best social experiences I've ever had in a video game. John Siracusa wrote about this aspect of Journey in The Magazine: "Journey players are not better people than Call of Duty players or Halo players. In fact, they’re often the same people. The difference is in the design of the game itself. By so thoroughly eliminating all forms of negative interaction, all that remains is the positive. […] Throughout history, we humans have invented many different sets of rules for ourselves. Some have worked better than others, but all of them have been exploited. As anyone with children knows, if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s finding loopholes. When a system of rules is applied to many people, thoroughly codified, and consistently enforced, you have something approaching a government. But for governments, even the most successful change slowly and often painfully. This can lead even the most optimistic person to despair. […] The lesson of Journey is that success is possible, even in an area like online multiplayer interaction which has seemed so hopeless for so long over so many thousands of iterations. Success is possible."
Siracusa also linked to a "Journey Apologies" thread on the thatgamecompany forums, which he calls "missed connections for gamers." Some excerpts:
"My deepest regrets and apologies to the Companion I got disconnected from just moments before we died on the Mountain. Just as we were about to keel over I got an error message saying I'd been disconnected from the network. By the time I got signed back in the cutscene was in progress. I hoped and prayed you'd be there with me in Paradise but it was not to be."
"To the person who was very excited to see me in the first area for a good ten minutes--I'm sorry, I was trying to meet up with my friend, so I couldn't travel with you. You were so nice and I felt so bad sitting there ignoring you."
"To all the people I journeyed with: I'm sorry I was a rusher. I got the meaning of the game wrong."
Fez was burdened with impossible expectations and still managed to surprise us all with its hidden depth. I played an early build of Fez a few years ago, and the care for detail blew me away--the thing that got me wasn't the 3D rotation, but the animal sprites populating the world.
I was hooked quickly on exploring the world of Fez, and it was thrilling when you were able to revisit those little details and they turned out to be part of a greater puzzle. I loved my time with a pad of grid paper and an Xbox controller, and I loved that Fez gave me the safety to explore without condescending to me at all.
It's been kind of a bummer to see Fez shoehorned into award categories like "best downloadable game" or "best indie game." Fez was one of the best games of the year in any category--a focused, beautiful labor of love that any AAA title could learn a lot from.
Johann Sebastian is a video game where the core mechanic is pushing your friends and making them fall off balance.
In case you haven't played it or heard it described, here's the summary: Eight players stand in a circle holding PlayStation Move controllers. Each player activates their controller, the light orb turns on, Bach starts to play, and you have to protect your controller from sudden movements while knocking other players'. The last standing player wins.
Like HOKRA, there's so little to Joust that every tiny detail in the game has to be perfect, and it is. I literally cannot find a nit to pick. Joust is a new category of video game--a physical playground game with $40 controllers and social repercussions. Joust is funny, it's serious, it's old-fashioned, it's brand-new. You make most of the rules as you play (i.e. how hard you hit people, what tactics are permitted) and then you learn to break them. You can get hurt, and sometimes people get pissed off. The stakes are high, and it feels amazing to win.
The moment I became a hardcore Joust evangelist was watching a video from this year's GDC where Doug Wilson (the creator of Joust) and Rami Ismail (the best Joust player in the world, probably) were the two remaining survivors of an experimental 18-player game. There's a Fight Club ring around them, and guys are delicately circling around each other, locked in intense eye contact. Suddenly--out of nowhere--something comes sailing across the screen and connects with Doug's controller. He's out before you can even process what happened: While circling, Rami had loosened his shoe and flipped it up with the tip of his toe, sending it spiraling across the circle directly into Doug's controller.
People say video games are still a new art form, and we haven't figured out what we can do with them yet. That's a nice sentiment, one I hope is true. Joust is my top pick for 2012 because instead of hinting at a new thing that games can be, it showed us what's still possible.
Since I haven't finished it yet, I am straight up shafting The Walking Dead on this list. I also couldn't work in Incredipede, Hotline Miami, Papo & Yo, Gasketball, or Frog Fractions, but I really, really loved those games. Fart Cat! was pretty good too.