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GOTY 2012

I thought I'd make a post with some of my favorite games this year. I just finally got a console a few weeks ago, so I'm including games which only came out on PC in 2012 but had console versions before that.

List items

  • I feel like the internet has basically been obsessed with Dark Souls since it came out, so waxing poetic about it feels a little trite. Rather, if it were any other game it would feel a little trite, like giving a "GOAT" award to Ocarina of Time or something. We aren't at that point yet. Unlike Ocarina of Time or Mario 3 or whatever, there are still people who haven't played Dark Souls, and that is painful to me. I have thought this game to be brilliant since I first picked it up, and hundreds of hours of play as well as an additional 30 or so into Demon's Souls have only improved my opinion of it.

    The dialogue about Dark Souls in the mainstream gaming press has largely centered around its difficulty. Dark Souls will not give you a victory screen just for picking up the controller, and it does demand you think about what you're doing when you lose, that's true, but to act as if difficulty is the singular thing to set it apart only sells the game short. Dark Souls is smart for a lot of reasons. In fact, after I beat it for the first time, I literally could not bring myself to play other games for extended period times. I kept finding myself asking "Why isn't this more like Dark Souls?" almost regardless of genre.

    One reason Dark Souls' difficulty stands out is because it has a lot of confidence in its mechanics, which many games do not. Very little is left to chance in Dark Souls; if you died, the odds are very good that it's your fault. In a few hundred hours you're bound to encounter a couple of bugs that could result in your death, but by and large, if you always do things the same way, the game will react to it the same way. If you keep doing the same strategy over and over without any improvement in your execution, the stars will not align and allow you to win. You will just die over and over until you improve at whatever your strategy requires you to do better. This means that it is possible to get frustrated playing the game, but it also means that every victory is satisfying, and that it's rare for the game to bullshit you.

    Here's the thing though: the difficulty of the game is also smart because it contributes to a cohesive atmosphere. In games, you might say that atmosphere is everything that makes the game "about" whatever it is "about". In Dark Souls, you're a member of a cursed race at the end of a dying age, woken in an abandoned prison and without any guidance except for the words of a knight who passes away even as he tells you his mission. The first person you meet outside of the tutorial is a crestfallen warrior who tells you that there have been others like you, presumably unsuccessful. By the end of the main story, you will almost definitely have failed everyone whom you tried to help. The whole world is either in clouds or total darkness; the only alternative is even more depressing. Demons, undead, and experimental monstrosities populate this land's last vestiges, and you are the only one who has any chance of stopping them. As in most action games, the player character is a great warrior, but in Dark Souls, the odds are against them, and it doesn't just communicate that with dour piano and depopulated cities; it also communicates that idea by crushing the player with a hammer. Repeatedly. This is no small thing. A game being really "about" something, even if that something is just a feeling, goes a long way toward making it memorable and timeless, probably moreso than just having good mechanics. Would The Legend of Zelda or Metroid have been as memorable without their respective atmospheres?

    Speaking of those games, I can't think of another game that channels their spirit of exploration and a truly open, truly logical world as well as Dark Souls. Dark Souls constantly shows off its impressive geometric logic. Everything fits together, everything loops back around, and everything makes sense. You may not have ever noticed before, but most games do not make sense. Things are bigger on the inside than on the out. Drawing to-scale maps reveals zones which should collide but inexplicably do not, or perhaps it is impossible to envision the whole world at all. In Dark Souls, you are constantly looking out at another area of the game, somewhere you've been or somewhere you're going, whether you know it or not. Without spoiling anything, one of the most mindblowing revelations the player can have in Dark Souls is stumbling upon a secret area hidden at the bottom of another secret area, seeing a certain feature of it, and then realizing that that same feature(an immense tree) is visible hardly fifteen seconds' walk from the beginning of the game proper. Moments like this, though usually not on the same scale, happen over and over throughout the game.

    That kind of attention to detail just does not happen in games today. I remember playing Oblivion for the first time on launch day in 2006 and being extremely impressed that I could see the White Gold Tower from anywhere on the map(Morrowind's default draw distance didn't allow that game's equivalent middle-map landmark to be visible), always a reminder that everywhere I went was a part of everywhere else, but it doesn't compare at all to Dark Souls' best moments. This sense of cohesiveness is, ultimately, why I think Dark Souls is the game of the year, and probably one of the best games ever. I know of some people who are already tired of hearing about Dark Souls, and they're going to have a bad time going forward, because this will inevitably be talked about for a good long time, in this generation and beyond.

  • Paradox games have a bit of a reputation. That's putting it lightly. To most people, they are turgid, out-dated even as they launch, and nearly impossible to play. Europa Universalis 3 was a huge step forward for Paradox in terms of shedding that reputation, and I'm happy to say that with Crusader Kings 2, they deserve to be rid of it entirely.

    I don't want to give the wrong impression. I love Paradox games. As of this writing, I own Crusader Kings 2, Darkest Hour(a fan-made Hearts of Iron 2 spinoff officially published by Paradox), Victoria 2, and Europa Universalis 3, and I have no plans to stop buying them, old and new. It's hard, however, not to glumly nod your head when you get finished telling someone how great these games are only to have them answer that they can't get into them. You will likely spend the first few hours of most of these games just learning to play them.

    Crusader Kings 2 is brilliant because, while it is still every bit as deep and intricate as Paradox's past games, it requires only a fraction of the commitment of those games before the player can start really having fun. The tutorial is still not where it should be, but it gives enough guidance on the game to actually start playing, which is not necessarily true of other Paradox games.

    Newcomers and veterans to Paradox games alike will find CK2's unique gameplay and narrative(yes, you read that right) hooks engaging right out of the box. Part of the fun of Europa Universalis 3 was seeing what kooky what-if history the game would produce this time, often resulting in some excellent stories. In Crusader Kings 2, that still exists; if you, like me, find endless amusement at the idea of a Waldensian Pope or a culturally Irish, Tengriism-obsessed Sweden, this game will more than satisfy you. But it's more than that. The unique gameplay hook of Crusader Kings 2 is that, unlike most Paradox games where you play as a nation-state, you play as a character, and your job isn't to keep your country from being swallowed up, it's to promote your dynasty. You can go from being a poor Count with scant holdings in only some obscure corner of Poland to Emperor of the Byzantine Empire and back again all in the same game, all the while managing the marriages of your children, poisoning your superiors(not to mention those ungrateful inferiors), holding banquets, and practically anything else you can imagine a medieval aristocrat doing. Never before have I played a game that produced such engaging and immediately communicatable stories, spanning the breadth of the possible drama in its subject matter. And there is a lot of possible drama, as anyone who has seen or read Game of Thrones knows.

    Speaking of which, as is typical with Paradox games, the fans have gone all out in creating mods for CK2, including multiple mechanical and balance overhauls to make the game even better. If the game didn't evoke Game of Thrones enough already, there's a delightful total conversion which sets the whole game in George R.R. Martin's dark fantasy universe, putting the player in control of a family vying for the Iron Throne. The official Game of Thrones games don't come close.

    Overall, Crusader Kings 2 is now my favorite Paradox game. It's just as addictive as its predecessors, but it's also accessible in a way they never were. Anyone who likes strategy games should give it a shot.

  • This is a strange addition to this list. Dota 2's ongoing beta did not start in 2012, nor will the game be released in 2012. I include it because this is the year where the game essentially went "public". Dota 2 can now be played by anyone who wants to play it; keys can be purchased from Steam, and they are also widely available around the internet, so common now that it's not hard to find them for free.

    For a game I played so much(over six hundred hours over the course of a few months with almost no prior experience in the genre, which should tell you all you need to know about my opinion on it), I have so little to say. Quintin Smith over at Rock Paper Shotgun wrote a lot of what I think in his article back in August.

    I'm going to pick my favorite passage from that article, but you should really read it, because I could not agree with it more.

    "Mostly, game development studios adhere to genre conventions, and we consider ourselves lucky when they work with no care for genre at all. But what they categorically do not do is go against people’s insticts. Nobody’s going to make a multiplayer game with one map, that takes an hour to play, that looks like an RTS but will fuck you if you try and play it like one.

    Which is to say, it looks like Dota 2′s about to become the most popular game on PC. And it couldn’t have come from a professional games studio. That speaks of a strange inadequacy within commercial game design. But that’s not actually the depressing part.

    As you read these words, a dozen professional studios around the world are racing to emulate Dota’s success. What’s going to be truly depressing is if of all the contenders in the brand-new moba genre, Valve’s curator-like porting of Dota 2 into the Source engine remains the most popular one. Not only could our games industry not have had this idea, they can’t even improve on it."

    Dota 2's journey to this point has been long and strange, and it shows. It started as a mod for Warcraft 3 called Defense of the Ancients, but oddly enough, that mod was actually a port of another mod for Starcraft: Brood War called Aeons of Strife. That game was not even competitive in nature. Something like a dozen authors have made Dota maps since its inception, not counting people who simultaneously contributed to the same map; there was actually a time where there was no definitive way to play Dota, and different versions floated around with totally different heroes(characters you play as). Even after they came together, constant additions, removals, and total overhauls of heroes has made Dota a very different game than it was when it was first released.

    Dota 2 hopes not to replace that history with something more forgiving, which seems to be the goal of League of Legends. It hopes to clean it up, make it sleeker, and then give it to the masses for free on the PC's biggest gaming platform, "warts and all", so to speak. Every brutal 4 second long stun, every instant death situation, every bizarre trick that can't possibly be divined by a total newbie, is in place, and it's those things that make the game as amazing as it is. The key is that it sucks when those things happen to you, but it's pure sadistic joy when you inflict them on some other poor sap. You spend every match on Dota 2 on a knife's edge. One wrong step and you're instantly dead, frustrated, and losing badly. One clever maneuver and you'll crush your foe like worms under your boot, and you'll never find anything so satisfying or addictive in gaming.

    Dota 2 sounds horrible, or at the very least terrifying, until you give it a shot. It takes some time for it all to sink in, and I recommend finding a friend or a forum community to chauffeur you into its most obscure depths, but once you're in, you're in. Hours and days will become a blur of Dota 2. In those 600 hours, I could have beaten probably sixty or more high budget "AAA" games, but I didn't, and I'm happy about my decision.

  • This game sold terribly. The console versions were in the clearance bin within weeks. It's a miracle that it's getting a sequel. I don't know whether the game was dirt cheap for Ubisoft to make and was ultimately profitable, but it wouldn't surprise me if they were just convinced - as I am - that the public simply made an error, and if the game were presented to them again they would recognize Rayman: Origins for the masterpiece that it is.

    Its visuals are gorgeous, its music is delightful, its attitude is infectious, and its gameplay is impeccable. Rayman: Origins is the best platformer since Super Mario World, and that is definitely saying something. You don't need to be a Rayman fan and you barely need to be a platformer fan to understand what's so awesome about this game. Just play it, it's cheap, and you'll thank me after you spend a few hours flying(almost literally) through its diverse environments.

  • I have to admit that I was skeptical of this game, even after the tidal wave of praise it received. I bought my PS3 for Demon's Souls and wanted to get my money's worth, though, so about a week ago I downloaded Journey and played through it one sitting.

    They were right. Journey is amazing. It's another game that succeeds by being really about something. That something is right in the title: it's a journey. This is a game that has been described as being as close to a game as it is to a movie, but after thinking about it for a while, I don't think I agree. Immediately after I finished the game, I definitely thought that watching my character pass through these incredible spaces, seeing the trials and tribulations she(I'm just going to go with that, it's never made explicit) endures, and so on is really what makes it so special. In other words, I thought that Journey is cool because of things you watch rather than things you do. But thinking about it again, there's no way that's true.

    What makes Journey really engaging is its interactivity. The controls are simple, exploration is minimal, and there's almost no mechanical challenge or strategy. In that sense, it's barely even a game, but somehow, the fact that the player is the one navigating these environments makes it so much more than just a pretty light show. The famous dune-sliding sequence would be nowhere near as amazing if it weren't the player him/herself who stumbles into it. None of the game would. This isn't a game worth watching, it's a game worth playing by everyone. I plan to recommend it even to non-gamers.

  • (honorable mention)

    I didn't finish this game. Oops. It's good, though, I promise. People get mad because it turned out to be, structurally, another diamond, as games featuring lots of choice often turn out to be, but there's no way that interferes severely with the emotional highs and lows that you can only get by actually playing it. Since watching an LP is such a severely anemic experience compared to playing it, it must be that the experience of going through The Walking Dead for yourself is what's important, not what comes out the other end.

  • (honorable mention)

    Binary Domain is a pretty standard third person shooter in some ways, but it's fun as hell, looks pretty, and really swings for the bleachers in terms of video game popcorn plots. The voice recognition is a total dud and should be turned off as soon as possible(you can use a menu to respond to and command your party members), but everything else is way better than you would expect from some obscure Japanese Gears of War clone. I don't even like Gears of War.

    Special comment for Giant Bomb: I bought this game because of the Quick Look, and I was REALLY stoked to hear it finally get some attention toward the end of 2012. It IS good.

  • (honorable mention)

    This was edged out for my list at the last second by Journey, but it still deserves to be mentioned. Hotline Miami is an action-puzzle game so intense that it lacks minute to minute gameplay entirely, replacing it with a second by second simulation of a psychotic rampage. Try beating this game in one sitting, it will fry your brain.

  • I have played perhaps 3-4 hours of this game and what I can tell you about it is that no other video game has made the moment when my pig that I am playing as stops to scratch his fleas only to be mauled by a tiger as tragic as this one. This game is bizarre, but it is also addictive in a way that can only be accomplished by early 90s games. It's structured like a typical Japanese Roguelike(permadeath, randomization, some form of persistent progress across characters), but it plays like some kind of combination of Final Fight and Metal Gear Solid. Play this!