GOTY 2012

Game of the year lists are something I only very rarely do anymore outside my satirical ones that I've done the past few years on the site. It's hard for me to quantify liking one game over another, especially when my personal playing history has indicated that I can have favorites in pretty much every genre conceivable. Yet I find myself doing one this year because the basic circumstances under which I play a lot of my games changed somewhat dramatically and I thought it would be an interesting thought exercise to see just how I look back on this year's batch of games in retrospect. Having spent the first half of this year living in Japan, a lot of the games I played were naturally in Japanese and although some equilibrium has been achieved again in terms of access to English games, it's a habit that's only gotten stronger as I try to maintain my connection with the language while I'm away from what I now consider my second home. As such, the number of games I was able to play that came out this year were relatively few and if there are some choices that seriously look like they come from out of left field, that's likely the reason why. There are also some notable omissions in here that sadly resulted from a lack of time and money, especially during the fall season. Had circumstances been better, I expect games like The Walking Dead and XCOM would have been very serious contenders for the list and are definitely on the to-do list in the coming year. But even then, my love for a lot of the more unconventional entries on this list is still so strong that I think a lot of them would remain on that list even if they came up against such juggernauts. A few games also arguably have dubious qualifications for appearing on the list in the first place, but I like to think I provided decent reasons for their inclusions, if only because I didn't think the alternative choices I had could otherwise replace them in good conscience.

In actuality, this list is out to make political statements about the state of the industry more than anything else. That doesn't mean I don't genuinely believe the games deserve the spots that they garnered. However, seeing how the industry has changed socially and economically in the past year and how my own outlook on games has positively changed as a result of the forced Japanese-language diet, the reasons I like a lot of these games have as much to do with what they ultimately represent as products as much as their actual quality. Having finally completed the list over the course of several days, it was actually the ordering that proved to be even more troublesome than the final roster itself, as, again, the games cover such a wide spectrum of genres and experiences that it was pleasantly difficult to decide the ultimate worth of one game's offerings over another in many instances. As such, I'll be genuinely surprised if anybody else picks the same games as I do for number 1 and 2, in particular, both of which I didn't expect to take their respective spots when I started writing this list. But as somebody who gave their personal 2009 GOTY to Devil Survivor, I am, shall we say, no particular stranger to controversy. I hope, if nothing else, this is an entertaining read that gives insight into the mind of someone forced to scavenge for what few games were feasibly playable when other personal circumstances (mostly good ones, it should be noted) held my attention for much of the year.

List items

  • Analogue is a true triumph in the realm of authorship as a video game. With little more than text boxes, old school command terminals, and two main characters, creator Christine Love has single-handedly crafted the sort of unflinching, uncompromising saga that's only possible when a writer is able to work completely on their own terms. Your heart is all but guaranteed to break when you find out how things poignantly came to be on the Mugunghwa between *Hyun-ae, *Mute, and the rest of the ship's inhabitants, its power to shock a testament to both the actual Korean history the game references and the reality that few games today dare to breach the sorts of subjects Analogue inherently needs to address in its narrative. Accomplishing a whole lot with very little in the way of production values, Analogue leapfrogs much of its in significantly more expensive competition in terms of sheer storytelling and writing quality, vividly reminding us all that games still have plenty of places left to explore as a medium, especially those probed by female creators discussing intrinsically feminine experiences.

  • It should be noted before starting things off that the Extra Edition, the version of Valkyria Chronicles 3 that includes expanded story content and all of the original game's DLC missions, was what I actually played. Since it didn't come out until very late in 2011 and I otherwise didn't get around to playing it until this year, I'm counting this director's cut version of Valkyria Chronicles 3 as a 2012 game, with the quick and dirty reason for it making the list simply being it finally gets the series back into a good place. While 2 was a fun game to actually play, its high school anime storyline that very poorly juxtapositioned an awkward cast of happy-go-lucky characters against what was supposed to be a dramatic civil war backdrop made the act of dealing with the game's narrative an atrocious chore, especially since it was considerably longer than the original game on the PS3. VC3 probably takes the easy way out in rectifying that by just returning to the war depicted in the first game and making it a sidestory, but in that process it manages to cover a whole lot provocative new thematic ground that easily make the game the series' most confidently produced entry yet. Containing nuanced allegory a plenty about things like the founding of Israel and the ongoing fighting there over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it's one of the least likely plots I'd personally expect to come out of a Japanese team and yet one that might only be able to exist for precisely that reason due to ongoing political dynamics in other potential regions. It's not without some stumbling, like some major conflicts being too quickly resolved and the game's implied canon ending only really making sense if you go to a massive amount of effort to unlock an epilogue chapter, but what it does well it does great and thankfully those highs significantly outnumber the lows. Although the actual gameplay remains largely unchanged, its mix of turn-based strategy and third-person shooting still makes for a thoroughly engaging and much more accessible alternative to the standard fare to be found in many Japanese SRPGs. One can only hope that the upcoming translation patch lets English-only speakers experience VC3 with a level of writing quality that the game deserves.

  • Hotline Miami is a game that, despite its low-fi presentation, managed to make me feel disgusted with myself at times for enjoying its brutality so much. It's a great game if you're like me and enjoying hard experiences for the sake of proving your own worth as a player, but it was refreshing to be forced to ponder how much that satisfaction was worth as I regularly watched myself slice guys in half and break their skulls with crowbars as the protagonist. The true ending ultimately isn't really worth the trouble of unlocking since it fills in too many blanks in an unsatisfactory way, but the journey that first time through is otherwise an incredible one from a twitch gameplay design perspective. It also probably doesn't hurt that the visual style and soundtrack also do a very effective job in evoking the rough and tumble culture of 1980s Miami in ways that haven't really been seen since GTA Vice City a decade before it.

  • It's probably a little disputable whether I personally should be putting Persona 4 Arena on a GOTY list. My first exposure to it was back at TGS 2011 and while I didn't get to regularly play it until its Japanese arcade release in February this year, I have a personal history with the game that dates back a lot farther than most of my Western counterparts. But when considering that it didn't exist in a complete state until this year, when it comes to giving it its due accolades, it's one of those instances of if not now, then when? In any case, doing both a great job of paying respect to the world and characters of Persona 4 without losing Arc System Works' mechanical trademarks, Persona 4 Arena is a game that scratched a lot of good itches for me. Starting with the 4000+ yen I casually plunked down in the arcade version and summarily ending with a $60 retail copy, it's one of the few fighting games I felt was worth committing to mastering as someone who otherwise typically admires the genre casually from afar. Such a thing was probably only possible due to both a low mechanical barrier to entry and a multiplayer scene both online and in arcades that regularly attracted players from a wide spectrum of skill levels, ensuring you could grow at your own pace without ever hitting a point where opponents were regularly too hard or too easy for your level. Couple that with a story that does an impressively thorough job of not only justifying the return of Persona 3's and 4's characters and setting up the series' future, but also how the very game itself looks and plays and you've got a fighter with real craftmanship bar excellence.

  • When I think of Tokyo Jungle, I see brilliant flashes of a lot of other Sony games buried deep within its developmental genealogy. I see games like Trash Panic. Like Amplitude. Like Vib-Ribbon. It's not that they have much at all in common with Tokyo Jungle from a gameplay or aesthetic design perspective, but they've always made me happy to see that no matter how much more expensive and complex the act of game development gets that Sony willingly continues to devote at least a modest chunk of its corporate resources to fostering experimental games, enabling them to thrive in ways that often even the best indie games with great word of mouth still can't necessarily pull off today. Tokyo Jungle is a beautiful marriage of disparate game mechanics that, like Hotline Miami, brings new meaning to how raw violence in video games can be portrayed. Given the random nature of how certain variables unfold, it's also a superb game for improvised, player-driven storytelling. I'll probably never forget running into a pack of tigers above ground after barely surviving the sewers as the game's iconic Pomeranian, for instance, or how I finally lost a 100-plus-year run as a golden retriever after almost escaping what was supposed to be a near-inhospitable secret area, only to fall to a pack of the one creature type even more dangerous than the game's dinosaurs because poor timing prevented me from breaking through to the exit. Meanwhile, although much of the plot is amusing, yet throwaway fare, it does a surprisingly impressive job of just barely justifying the basic setup of the game to the extent where the ending actually manages to pull a few heart strings. As someone who all but expected that the game would have to be imported due to its original retail release in Japan, I'm just glad the West has a chance to be reminded of what sort of wonder can still be felt from inventive Japanese game design when the stars properly align.

  • Obviously the only reason this game is able to qualify for this list is by virtue of the PC version, which is how I finally got around to playing it for the first time this year. To be certain, I wouldn't blink an eye over excluding most other PC games that have the sorts of problems that Dark Souls' port has going for it out of the box. You really shouldn't have to download an external DLL and INI file to get the game's graphics up to snuff, for instance, and while making the game's controls work with a mouse and keyboard was probably going to be an uphill battle no matter what, a better effort should have been made on that front, if only to make it at least less apparent that the game was designed top-to-bottom to be played with a controller. The fact that Dark Souls therefore is on this list anyway indicates just how much I think the sheer quality of its design surpasses those major issues. It's a game where the lows will vastly outnumber the highs as you regularly die due to both personal hubris and the inherently unfair nature of the world, but when you experience those rare triumphs, whether it's taking down a particularly harrowing boss or just barely escaping a dangerous encounter and living to see another day, Dark Souls gives you a deep sense of satisfaction that's impossible to capture in most other types of games. No other game in recent memory has had me pumping my fists in the air so hard over what are in retrospect relatively minor accomplishments in the grand scheme of things, but that's how gratifyingly intense the trials often are in Dark Souls. Combine that with an online infrastructure that, while unfortunately tied down to Games for Windows Live, still has yet to really be adequately emulated anywhere else outside the Souls series and you have a game that vividly reminds the industry of the importance of how an uncompromising identity as a game can make for an overall better product, even if it doesn't make for a game that's potentially as widely appealing.

  • I think those that are quick to dismiss this game because history has told us that Japanese-developed FPS and TPS games tend not to turn out well or are at least not completely up to par with their Western counterparts miss the other things happening within the periphery of Binary Domain's gameplay that make it one of the more interesting shooter experiences to come out this generation. The shooting on its own is still commendable in its own right, if mostly because it's competently executed and introduces a few quirks to make it more nuanced than just “all head shots all the time,” but it's the ever-changing relationships you have with your AI partners on the battlefield and the intriguingly resonant B-movie plot that make playing the entirety of its short campaign worthwhile. It's a dumb game a lot of the time, but in a really humorous, self-aware way that makes it easy to support its mission and dismiss what would be egregious stuff in other games as just charming quirks to be found in the world of Binary Domain. Its gameplay may not achieve the same sorts of highs that something like Vanquish, another Sega-published, Japanese-developed shooter, offers in spades, but when considering that the game was originally made by a team that has spent almost the entirety of its existence developing the RPG beat-em-up Yakuza series, the fact that the package is as solid as it is even before you factor in the charm make it a game that's worth noting after the dust has settled on 2012.

  • Like a few other games on this list, technically speaking, this game could have shown up in a few other years, given that the game originally appeared on PCs in Japan in 2005 and the PSP version came a few years later. But it arrived on American PCs just this year and that's how I finally beat it, so that's why it's here now. As a game with simple, but solid combat mechanics and just enough interesting wrinkles in its RPG progression and stats systems to feel relatively unique, Ys: The Oath in Felghana is a testament to the quality games that Japanese studios like Falcom used to put out more often on PC before the scene became notoriously flooded with visual novels and doujin games. Oath in Felghana is a no-nonsense action RPG in the sense that there's very little downtime for things like plot development, instead having you spending the bulk of your time enmeshed in the action and its a better game for it. The difficulty level of many of the bosses will probably ensure that not everybody who picks it up will actually ever finish it, but it's nevertheless a solid reminder that good Japanese game design has not always eluded the PC as a platform.

  • In full disclosure, this is the one game on the list that I haven't played to the end since timing issues with my HDTV just became too much after a while and I felt the need to shelve it until I could somehow figure out how to make the play environment more ideal. That being said, like the other games in its series, Rhythm Heaven Fever is great in proving that music games don't just have to be about note highways and plastic instruments. They can be about kicking stray balls while you're out on a date, building robots in a factory, and playing golf with monkeys, too! Eschewing motion controls entirely in favor of just using the A and B buttons on the Wii Remote, Rhythm Heaven Fever sports an impressive array of minigames that manage to feel different from each other and have catchy music to boot. There have been other Nintendo-published games that came out on the Wii this year in Japan and overseas, but Rhythm Heaven Fever was so fantastic for the time that I was able to play it that it's my personal swan song for the console.

  • CLOP is thoroughly derivative of Bennet Foddy's previous game, QWOP, premised more or less on the same principles of using complex controls to accomplish simple, yet ultimately gargantuan tasks like trotting up hills, going over small rocks, and generally not being in a state of on your back. But since nothing else like QWOP has otherwise come out after its original release years ago, CLOP is still notable because it proves just how integral controls can be in creating very specific, evocative gameplay experiences. In this instance, the absurd controls that assign a different key to a different leg on the horse serve no other end than to torment you as a player, but regardless of that, in an age where so much game design revolves around accessibility and straightforwardness in an attempt to appeal to a wider mainstream audience, CLOP demonstrates that the best controlling games are ultimately those that enable the player to naturally experience the game as their designer intended. On that front, the game most certainly accomplishes that objective in spades. Bonus points for including the concept of a lame horse mode if you try to cheat your way with just two legs for too long, though.