He's also Australian, but we try not to hold that against him.
Man, writing about video games is hard.
Before I get to the Top 10, I have to call out my honorable mentions: TrackMania 2: Canyon and Driver: San Francisco. Trackmania is brilliant and fun, but not on the list because it’s still essentially the same game I thought was brilliant and fun years and years ago. Driver was unexpectedly the best adaption of the TV series Life on Mars I’ve played, but there were too many other games that were better this year. So, they didn’t make it in. Here’s what did:
10. L.A. Noire
Goddammit, Brendan McNamara.
I didn’t want this to be Top 10 worthy. It’s responsible for huge quality of life violations during development, involved in the collapse of the Australian game industry, and the “groundbreaking” facial mocap is basically a brute force trick that can’t really be applied to pushing forward character performances in games.
The problem behind hating how L.A. Noire was made is that there are parts of it that are great to play. Piecing together a case and having failure be something that you have to live with feels really satisfying. You get really sucked into the idea that you’re actually a detective with consequences - at least, right up until the point where you have to go to an abandoned lot to kill 50 bodyguards, or until you get to the end of the game and things go off the rails. Those small bits where everything works though are enough to edge it into my Top 10.
I was a little slow getting through Deus Ex: Human Revolution. A bunch of people I follow on Twitter started talking about how the most visceral moment in the game was when Malik is killed. I was really annoyed that I had such a huge plot point spoiled for me--right up until the point where I finished the game and this never happened for me. That is why this game is in the Top Ten.
It’s a miracle that Eidos Montreal managed to evoke that turn-of-the-century PC gaming freedom while bringing in modern day accessibility. I had more fun breaking into offices and unravelling office politics in the first hour of Human Revolution than I did in any scripted sequence from Battlefield 3’s story campaign.
(A side note: I had an awesome bug in Battlefield 3’s final scripted sequence where the final boss was invisible. It looked like I was fighting myself Fight Club style, implying that I was stopping myself from destroying New York. If this had been intentional, it would have improved Battlefield 3’s story so much that it would have entered the Top 10.)
Kerbal is basically an in-development Bridge Builder, but with a pile of rocket parts that you need to assemble into a rocket that can manage to leave the planet’s atmosphere, and an unwitting crew that’s almost assuredly going to die because of your terrible rocket-making skills. Since you’re always just one more tweak away from possibly making it into orbit, it’s almost impossible to start playing without losing track of a few hours of time.
The real reason Kerbal shines? Jebediah Kerman. Throughout all of my terrifying spaceship disintegrations and one way trips into space, he was always grinning the grin of a flight commander with nothing to fear. Facing certain death yet again, he’d ride that rocket Major Kong-style into the ground with a smile from ear to ear. If I was picking Character of the Year, he’d be in the running.
My World of Warcraft kick in 2005 was pretty brutal. I spent a year doing some “design consulting”, which basically meant that I worked for a couple of hours in the morning, then spent the afternoon doing Molten Core for gear. My will broke around the time Burning Crusade came out, making my months of work irrelevant with a simple fetch quest.
It turned me into a casual MMO player. I play for a few hours a week with my girlfriend for story and cool things that won’t be irrelevant like mounts and pets. With that in mind, playing The Old Republic beta was basically crack for me. I honestly couldn’t care less about min/maxing my dark and light side points, getting gear, or poopsocking raids, because this game is essentially persistent Mass Effect where I get to pretend to be Han Solo. If BioWare can keep pumping out story, I’ll keep shovelling them money.
There was a time that “social” meant that it was a game you played in a living room with friends. I still like to live in this world, even though the term has been perverted by Zynga to talk about the concept of selling your design and gameplay morals in order to make the most money possible from your userbase.
In my much nicer world, Rayman: Origins wins Game of the Year. Everyone goes to their friend’s house to play some games, fall in love with Rayman’s ridiculously lush graphics and great couch multiplayer, then buy their own copies. People rightly cheer Ubisoft’s bold move to bury Assassin’s Creed: Revelations in order to promote such a masterwork as Rayman: Origins. President Nolan North declares November 15th to be Rayman Day. Outback Steakhouse is closed down. All is well in the world.
I’ve been a closet fan of SFCave for a long time, so the core mechanic of one button jetpack dodging was enough to sell me from the start. Adding in things like comparative distance leaderboards, upgrades, goals, and the ability to kill scientists with my jetpack turned this into the only game I bother playing on my phone with any kind of regularity.
Another side bonus is that while it does have in-app purchases, the game doesn’t have a crippled progression curve that forces you to use them. Because of that, I ended up buying an in-app purchase because I was enjoying the game, not because I was bored or impatient. Thanks for still caring about designing good games first, Halfbrick!
There have been many attempts to jumpstart adventure games as a genre, but Stacking was the first game I played that took everything great about adventure games and put them in a new format that made sense for a 2011 game.
It’s actually pretty surprising that things like direct player control and secondary collection through puzzle solving haven’t been tackled earlier. The “Here are the ways you can solve this puzzle, collect them all” UI alone gets my award for inspired design this year. Inject some Double Fine characters and class, and you have what I consider Double Fine’s best title ever.
3. Portal 2
Out of all the games that came out this year, Portal 2 is probably the closest to perfect execution.
Valve’s focus test-based iteration process is a given, so seeing something mechanically polished isn’t really a surprise anymore. Seeing pitch-perfect voice acting, separately designed co-op, and extending a concept that was considered to be “good for a few hours” to a full game without any padding is brilliant. Nice work, Valve! Now release Half-Life 4 already.
There’s no real way to talk about how great Saints Row: The Third is without spoiling parts, so just skip this if you haven’t played the game yet.
Saints Row: The Third is a game where you can play as a badass female zombie who calls up Burt Reynolds to fight alongside you while you explode people with taunts by wearing a wrestler’s mask. Volition finally gets why people play sandboxes--to be dicks to everyone around them. It doesn’t matter that the story content is rushed, or that an entire act seems to be phoned in with side mission introductions, or that those side missions don’t feel as fresh as Saints Row 2’s missions like the sewage truck. Saints Row: The Third is still something that needs to be experienced, enjoyed, and celebrated.
While writing this, all I’ve wanted to do is play Skyrim. After a few hours of withdrawal, Jeremy Soule’s Skyrim theme starts playing in my head, looping the “Dovahkiin” chant over and over.
Part of this is probably because I’m a big system design nerd, and seeing dozens of interlocking design systems work like clockwork gives me professional boners. But it’s something more than that. It’s the concept that separates games from other media--freedom of choice. You can tell that Skyrim is made by people who love building worlds, not movies. In a world where “follow this guy for five hours” nets hundreds of millions of dollars and “social” means you need to pay every day to play, Skyrim reminds us that there is still a world where gaming and design can be pushed forwards for the better.
In the future, Skyrim will no longer be known as a fantasy game, but as the day when game developers declared in one voice “We will not follow Soap quietly into the night!”. We will not vanish when going outside the bounds of an encounter! We’re going to live on, we’re going to survive!
Today, we celebrate our independence day.