Being a slightly poor, slightly busy, slightly lazy university student for the past year has changed my gaming habits drastically. A couple years ago, the release of Skyrim, Skyward Sword, Dark Souls, Deus Ex and a bunch of other seemingly endless experiences in a single year would have been an exciting prospect. This year though, I had neither the time, money or hardware to play much of them at all. What I did have was a relatively hefty laptop, a friend's 360 and about £10 a month to sustain my habit. So this year, more than any other, has been about the smaller experiences that exist outside of the traditional 'Triple A' cycle.
Turns out that's not such a bad position to be in. Although I missed out on games like Saints Row, Battlefield, Arkham City and many others, this has been my most diverse and interesting year since, well probably since I started playing games. I've always been a part of that smaller (can you tell I'm trying not to use 'Indie'?) market, out of interest, but this year was the first time I'd been totally dependent on it. It has been an incredibly year for the PC, so without much more blabbering on, here's my list of games that I enjoyed above everything else.
The Dream Machine
Very few games focus on 'the near and low', or the minutia of everyday life. Not that you're going to find much of that in an adventure game preoccupied with exploring dreams. Yet The Dream Machine's opening chapter is a pretty low-key affair, focussing on establishing a grounded reality. Superb writing, a disarmingly charming aesthetic and an unsettling mystery help build a unique atmosphere around your new apartment. It's a special game, one that isn't afraid to build slowly, to let you settle in and make yourself at home. Its unique visual charm and the stellar writing don't cover mediocre mechanics either. Although grounded in traditional adventure fare, Dream Machine brings a passion and ingenuity to the genre that has been lacking for a while.
Ace of Spades
A voxel based, Minecraft-esque, WW1 build 'n' shoot. I'm not exactly going to pretend this isn't entirely derivative from a number of things, or that it is an especially unique game. You build stuff (or more often break stuff) and you shoot stuff. It's what those mechanics open in a multiplayer setting that is enthralling. I went through a period of about 3 weeks where I played this game obsessively, solely because for the first time combat felt real, it felt dynamic and it was uncaring. Collaborative efforts to build a trench, outpost or tunnel were framed by sudden and uncompromising deaths. Slow and careful was the only way to progress. Eventually my obsession petered out, but I still remember the incredible, dynamic experiences that were born out of those two very basic concepts.
So my favourite game this year might just be a puzzle game I never finished. It's often-times hard to explain why a puzzle game is a work of beauty, there seemingly isn't any outward sign of anything special. SpaceChem is genius. No other way to describe it. It's wildly insane, brilliant and engenders immense respect. It doesn't try to mess you around, it presents its internal logic and states 'Solve Me'. It becomes successively harder to resist, and successively harder to dive back in. Which, I'll admit, is intimidating. I still have to go back, but there's no doubt that I will. Mechanically perfect, lovingly crafted; SpaceChem is phenomenal.
2012 IGF Pirate Kart
As I've mentioned elsewhere, in one of the many GOTY threads hanging around, I'm considering the IGF Pirate Kart as a single, cohesive experience. Which is odd, considering it contains almost 300 games. Irreverent, endlessly inventive and fun as all hell, the Kart is the merry end of the indie spectrum. Instead of the slow, somber games that reflect on life (don't get me wrong, I'm more than up for those too) that seem to crowd the space, the Kart gives us ludicrous self referential humour.
To The Moon
Ah, so straight after its complete antithesis, we reach To The Moon. I'm not prone to crying, not at funerals and not at games. So this game didn't make me cry. Fortunately, whether or not you cried at something is a stupid metric for artistic merit anyway, and I can still safely say that To The Moon is a staggering achievement. All the complaints levelled at it, simplistic gameplay that feels like it was tacked on included, are entirely valid. And sure, it does feel like the developers failed to marry the mechanics and the narrative - which is a difficult thing to do, as evidenced by the very few that have done it. What To The Moon actually contains though, is a beautiful, effective, stunning narrative. One that we rarely see in the medium, and one that taps into emotions more nuanced than just excitement.
Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story
To be honest, I'm still fairly torn over Christine Love's latest game, just as I am over her previous work. That's really what her stuff does, it's meant to stick with you and prod at that bit of your brain that you haven't used in a while. Don't Take It Personally is visually bland, but philosophically inciting. It's little more than a visual novel, but what little interaction I had with it always left me drained, unsure of whether I had done the 'right' thing. Love is unsparing as you watch your, and those around you, life collapse in light of your choices. It's sometimes silly, pointless and boring, but in the end, I'm still thinking about it aren't I?
There are plenty others I could mention; Bastion, Dungeons of Dredmor, Stealth Bastard, Gemini Rue, Orcs Must Die, Portal 2 and Deus Ex all could have easily earned their place here.
So that's been my year in games. The whole process has been an interesting look at what I most readily respond to in games. Emergent, mechanically driven rhetoric and experience is certainly something I seem to crave in games that has been less available this year (with Ace of Spades and SpaceChem being the standouts for that category). Whereas tight, authored narratives (Dream Machine, To The Moon) have been plentiful and, I would argue, better than ever.
That's it for my thoughts on the year. If you've made it this far, thanks. Let me know how you felt about my list, and whether you had a different experience with any of my picks.