Best Games of 2011

Second year I make a list here, and last year worked well enough that I'm repeating my Best of/non-GOTYs lists.

List items

  • Portal 2 is about the most compelling comedy script made this year, executed in one of the most compelling ways I've seen interactive media do comedy ever. It's got interactive timing, great design and planning, compelling characters and a fantastic array of subtext and themes. I don't care what Erik Wolpaw says with excessive humility during interviews, Portal 2 is a piece of art and, because of it, also amazingly entertaining.

  • Skyrim is the same game Oblivion was. And Morrowind. And Daggerfall. There isn't too much innovation in here, beyond a much better interface and some tweaks here and there. It's just the most realized execution on a concept that seemed too ambitious for its own good every time it was released for the past fifteen years. As it turns out, that makes for an amazing experience.

  • Full disclosure, I was ready to hate Bastion. I like the GB crew personally, but I know our gaming tastes don't line up. So when they gushed over Bastion and cheered Supergiant Games on from the sidelines, I was prepared for Bastion to be a core gamer dudebro extravaganza ripping off Diablo. As it turns out, it is a delightful study on loss and responsibility and heroism with a unique, ridiculously creative visual style and playful metatextual stuff that is never allowed to detract from the emotional core of the events being depicted. I loved changing my mind about this one.

  • If Skyrim is Peter Jackson, Dark Souls is Andrei Tarkovski. Again, I did not want to see a remake of Demon's Souls in my best of list, but Dark Souls won me over. Not with huge bosses or stupid difficulty, but with longing walks across empty ruins and silent stretches. Dark Souls is a game in which often nothing happens, which only makes the actual events in the game more relevant.

  • So I derided Bastion and Dark Souls for being hardcore, purely mechanical experiences, right? But that doesn't mean I don't like hardcore, purely mechanical experiences. Jamestown is just that. Five levels of straight-up bullet hell, and yet it's become my go-to five minute time-sink. It captures the magic of Tyrian and Xenon 2 as the new king of PC-exclusive western shoot-em-ups, with great, classy visuals, story and music proving that scantly clad schoolgirls are, if anything, holding back shooters.

  • Arkham City is exactly as disappointing as it has to be. It gives up its one-off concept of "Die Hard with Batman" from Asylum and does a looser, less focused open world version of the game. To compensate, we got a surprisingly poignant story and more of everything that made the previous game great. Not quite an improvement over its predecessor, but still easily one of the best games of the year.

  • If Jamestown is great visual design over a classic gameplay formula, SpaceChem is the most fascinating programming language text editor released this year. Puzzles within puzzles with a touch of engineering are at the core of a game that doesn't talk down to you. SpaceChem is not about matching primary colours or trying every item until you find the correct one. This is real world problem solving made fun, but not easy. Top that off with elegant design and a good interface and it all makes for a brilliant experience.

  • Uncharted 3 gets a cursory nod here because everything about Arkham City applies to it as well. Not as radically brilliant as Uncharted 2 and suffering from the telltale signs of an overstretched dev team and a tight schedule, but still attempting and largely pulling off tricks that other games don't even want to consider.

  • Skyward Sword is at its worst when it's a Zelda game, with the same brilliantly designed but predictable puzzle-based dungeons. It's at its best when it sits back and allows itself to speak of teenage romance and play around with mythology and heroic archetypes. It's a shame it doesn't break from formula to focus on that for longer.

  • Dead Space 2 is just cool. It proves that whatever Uncharted is doing right is not exclusive to Naughty Dog or to whimsical action-adventure. With form well under control and such a solid, confident execution, the sky is the limit for Visceral looking forward.