During one of our weekly phone conversations this year, upon me mentioning how moving I found Telltale's The Walking Dead, my mother scoffed at me for suggesting that games could have any kind of emotionally engaging narrative. They're just games.
My mother has never at all taken well to my hobby, but I like to think that I have enumerated the benefits of the medium, and showed her many examples of how great it can be. So I took a moment when she said what she said to reflect on my own failure as a son.
As her child, I believe one of my duties is to share my life and my passions with her, so she can better understand the things I do and the things I like. I believe I owe her that (and many other things), as she is responsible for making me exist. But after twenty two years of living with me, I had not been able to show her why this medium can be so gripping, especially in a narrative sense. Now that she doesn't see me day-to-day anymore, I feel as though my opportunity to show her this has been missed. I understand that many sons and daughters the world over might throw up their hands in defeat upon reaching this level of resistance, but I refuse to. I will not give up yet.
So, this list will contain mostly games that don't just (or may not) give you something fun to do, but actually make you feel something, or mean something. I enjoyed Borderlands 2, XCOM, Diablo 3, Sleeping Dogs, Far Cry 3... and they were some of the best... but those won't be on this list, because they didn't really mean as much.
|1. The Walking Dead|
Writing this brilliant can't happen in the same way in other media. More than those, a game's protagonist has to be an appropriate vessel for the player. Lee was an amazing character, with just the right amount of malleability in the dialogue, allowing each player to take his relationships in the directions they would if they were him. Add Clementine to that, probably the best-written child character I've ever seen, and a full cast of believable survivors, all with absolutely impeccable voice acting every step of the way. I think for sure one of the more overlooked but biggest reasons for this story's success is the solid vocal performances put out by every single member of the cast. When it was over I wanted to go hug everyone I cared about. If journey made me appreciate my own life, this game made me appreciate the people that I care about, and to not take them for granted. None of the people I care about play games (I don't really have any gaming friends at all)... so most of them were very confused at my sudden, sharp increase in affection toward the end of the year. These games are why. These games are incredible.
This game is a direct personal parallel to my own year. I ended up completely switching careers; I used to work in advertising in Toronto, and I was on the brink of making a move into a bigger position in that industry. Instead, I moved out west to Vancouver BC to work for a university doing LMS dev/support work. It was a clutch decision, but I'd been looking for a career that offered more rewarding work than... just, making money for the sake of making money. At the school, the work I do makes people smarter, pursue knowledge for the good of all people. So the game had a hilarious coincidental parallel with an important time in my life, when I reached one of my own mountains (...literally, and metaphorically), and get to fly back across the sky, looking back on all that's happened to get me here and just being happy. I think that's it more than anything. This game makes me happy, and appreciate all the amazing things I've gotten to do in my own life, not in the game. Plus it's gorgeous and with any luck, the soundtrack could bring in a Grammy. So all that's pretty swell, also. But this game makes me appreciate life in a way I never thought possible. Making a pixar-esque film of this story might have had a similar effect, but actually going through the struggle yourself, with a stranger along with you to lean on, just hits home so much more.
|3. I Am Alive|
I think I'm the only one who liked this game. It controlled pretty horribly at times, and it ended badly. It was a poor victim of a game, cut short of its potential as something great. But, I found a lot worth spending time on here. It had a haunting world, with a great sort of dissonance in everything you did, saw, and heard. Like in the apartment building when I was attacked by, and had to kill, a group of squatters who were defending their territory and got violent; then went up a level to find a whole floor of friendly folks, containing one child who asked, "Have you seen my parents? They went downstairs a while ago." It was very unsettling at times, and I loved the idea of having to so tightly conserve the little provisions, bullets, and arrows you had. It wasn't about shooting people (except when it was, but that wasn't as often as other games). It was about thinking about whether to shoot people. Even if people were just defending their turf, for survival, maybe you need that health kit on the table behind them. Maybe you do put your second-last bullet in their head so you can make sure me in such a dog-eat-dog survival mode like that one did. I really hope Naughty Dog's "The Last of Us" will take ideas like these to a new height. In any case, I and those I played this with were really rocked by I Am Alive, despite everything.
That monster... it invokes something primal. It's just barely foreign enough to be a complete mystery to any person. When you lock eyes with it, what do you do? Hold your ground? Throw rocks to distract its attention (perhaps its eyes aren't very good, it uses its ears)? Just run like mad? In the moments when you're staring it down and it knows where you are... and you know it knows... and for a brief moment you're locked into inaction, staring each other down before one makes its play... those gave me a huge rush of adrenaline. Until the creature glitches out and runs in circles in front of you without attacking. While I'm at it, why can't I pick up more than one flower of the same type? Why can't I carry any more than one dose of medecine? Why do I, in the dead of night, hurl my torch away when I examine this object on the ground (oh, it's just a rock), and am incapable of relighting it despite having a lighter in my pocket that I pull out and use when I drop the torch again? Because it's an indie game made by a pair of dudes, that's why. So I learn to forgive all the crappy things for the stuff I liked. Maybe I'm better at it than most people (see #3 on this list)... but I think these games are more worth paying attention to as the ones that actually meant something to me this year, because they did.
|5. Slender: The Eight Pages|
I know, I know. It's not even really a game. I hesitate to include it on this list, but it was very important. Indie horror got a complete shock to the system this year when Slender had its brief popularity spike. This was a game that got several things right that most scary games don't: pacing, atmosphere, a gradual escalation of tension. The ideas weren't new but they'd never been quite so successfully combined. Another part of what made it worth mentioning here was it sharability. It runs on mac and pc, and costs nothing. It was easy to download and show to friends, have them play on a dare, alone in the dark on a cold autumn night. It wasn't universal; not everyone finds it scary. But most people find it stressful to play, in a way that makes you queasy and constantly uncomfortable. Scared or not, most people I showed it to didn't want to finish the game. They just quit because it was just like that. It makes people uncomfortable, even when they aren't people that really get into games. Its atmosphere is just something else. As usual, sequels are in the works and many offshoots and imitations have appeared twice the world over, but none of these things will be able to do what this game did the first time. This game should instead be used as a lesson. Horror, and scary games in general, can learn so much from the way it ramps up.
|6. Mark of the Ninja|
Mark of the Ninja could have been higher up on the list, probably. I enjoyed it a lot from a gameplay standpoint, I love stealth and this hit all the right buttons. The game does a good job of making you feel horrible even when you do a decent job. If you kill even a single person, one end game bonus has a big, unsightly red line through it. OBJECTIVE FAILED. It's also easy to get spotted and if any more than one dude is in the room with you, you generally end up riddled with bullets. OBJECTIVE FAILED. What makes this awesome is that it wasn't annoying, it was a challenge. Do it better. Be quieter. And when you nail those stealth moments and completely nail a level, man does it feel good. When we talk about a game having flow, this game's got it; it brings you in like no other. In terms of narrative it didn't do a whole lot for me (it felt a bit boilerplate), but even the world's best ninja movie would never make me feel like a ninja. This game actually managed to do that. Oftentimes, a clumsy, reckless ninja, but a ninja nonetheless.
"iPhone games don't count!" nah, I'm afraid they do on this list, my commutes are filled with phone games - who has time to lug a goddamn DS around? That thing is an airplane system - so several games on this list are gonna be phone games. This one was deployed at parties, not commutes. But it brought more life to it than most party games in our arsenal. This made even the quiet/strangers in the group shout at everyone else as if they'd known them for years. Everyone's equal when you're trying to get someone to engage the quadtunnelling converter or any other switch of whateverthefuck on your dashboards. Games that can bring that kind of fun out of people are something pretty special. Johann Sebastian Joust just funded its Kickstarter, so it's coming out next year, and you can bet it'll probably be on my list then, for the same reason. Like Slender, it was also easy to share; it's free and works seamlessly on all IOS stuff we tried it on. So any iPhone/iPod friends just downloaded a copy and we went to town on wifi.
|8. Asura's Wrath|
God, why is this game even here? On this planet? Usually I don't buy into Japanese ridiculousness in animated stories. Dragonball Z? Didn't do it for me. But this... I don't even know where to begin. For some reason, this game does it better than any I've seen. His anger is so well deployed, and the incredible, cosmic things going on on the screen accentuate how angry he is. When there are twenty onscreen prompts at the same time screaming at you to push the analog stick right, you push that motherfucker right. And twenty arms sprout from his back and punch a dude on the right. It is... better deployed craziness than most craziness I'm used to seeing. It's also a nice blend of narrative and action, and the whole thing is broken down episodically so it's easy to jump in and out of the game at frequent intervals (complete with "previously on..." recaps before you settle back in). It's a game that got me really, really pumped. It was fist-pumpingly good.
|9. Trials Evolution|
This, like super meat boy, is the game I really regret having to put on a year-end list, but I just have to despite myself. I play games for different reasons. Generally, I have one reason, and be damned with the others. If I'm playing a game to see the spectacle or the story, and to feel cool about it, I usually ratchet the difficulty down to normal or even easy. I don't want me failing over and over to mess up my experience. Then, when I'm in the mood for something soul-crushingly hard, I play Trials. It's a good difficulty curve upward with absolutely no end in sight. I'm never going to finish it or beat every challenge. There's just no way on earth. And there's a swarm of user-made levels to consider on top of all that. No, Trials will always be around when I need to kill some time and I want to improve my hand-eye coordination, pattern recognition, my ability to repeat small delicate commands frequently and my anger management issues, all at once. It doesn't hurt that the game is incredibly well made, either.
iPhone games count, I already said it! This one especially. There's a lot of tetris knockoffs but this so, so isn't that. It's great because it combines multiple mindsets. It uses two different parts of your brain, and is enough of a dick to make you switch between them, gradually more and more quickly until you can't handle it anymore. It's great brain exercise; I liked using it in the mornings on the way in to the office. I don't drink coffee and never want to, but this has a pretty similar effect on me insofar as waking me up and getting me alert. It also has one of the best gradual learning/difficulty curves I've seen, and it's easy to stay at a level where you're comfy experimenting with the flow of the game until you're ready to take things to a more complicated level. I challenge you to be good at this game.