I’m the last person on the list so far to write one of these, so that means I’m going to tread some ground our other authors have already walked. That’s all right with me, though it does mean there may not be too many surprises on my list.
These are in no particular order, really. As with the other lists, I’m not saying “objectively, these are the best games made in 2011.” These are the games I primarily played in 2011, which define the year for me personally, and which I found most obsessworthy or worthy of conversation. I also decided, so as not to go on forever, to narrow this list down to games actually released in 2011, but I’ll mention other titles below.
The Polished: Portal 2
Yeah, it’s kind of not very hip to say I really like Portal, because everyone really likes Portal. It’s an obvious choice and one shared by other editors here, though my experience was slightly different.
I played through the co-op campaign in Portal 2 twice. The second time through the game still sometimes felt like the first, as I totally forgot what I was supposed to do, but fortunately I was blessed with great co-op partners. The decision to make the co-op game based on the antics of two easily-destructible, “odd couple” robots is a great one. It turns what might be frustrating at times in to game sessions filled with laughter and camaraderie.
But a lot of people have banged on about the co-op. To me, the single player is also really well-done. It’s punctuated well by lots of great moments in voice acting, along with fantastic character animation. The animation is done in many cases with very minimal face structure to work with, which makes it all the more impressive that a little orb robot like Wheatley was one of the most “human” characters I saw in a video game this year. The original’s familiar comedy is there, but there are also some genuine emotional moments.
Portal 2 is not as “tight” as Portal 1, but I actually wasn’t bothered by the additional length. The level design continued to mix it up with new puzzles and set designs, and by the end I was still wanting more. After I played through it once I went back and started playing through it again, commentary on, because I was sad there was no more Portal 2 left and felt left wanting more. It’s a rare game that I play through twice in a row, and enjoy just as much the second time.
Then I started unpacking all the assets so I could look at Chell’s model and think “she is so awesome,” see how GLaDOS was animated, and rip the entire soundtrack early. The soundtrack is a little choppy if you use this method, but I’m not sorry, because for the past six months this has been my ringtone.
I love the way it sneaks up on you in the game. A shared moment between a stranger long gone, and a prisoner long forgotten.
The Not Really Polished: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Slaves to Armok: God of Blood II.
Honestly, there’s really a lot to dislike about Skyrim. I wrote a whole litany of reasons I hate it on my own blog. But the bottom line is, I really like Skyrim. I like the swords-and-dragons genre a lot, so I’m already coming in with a lack of objectivity. Aside from that, I think the game works as a fantastic story engine. Discussing the (frankly, uneven) plots the game dish out for you might leave you empty. But the fun is in those strange little adventures you discover and create for yourself. It’s kind of broken, very quirky, and because of that you can discover an entire world that you make your own in all the small ways (even if it refuses to change in most of the big ways).
That’s all I really have to say. For more words about Skyrim, visit The Internet.
Best Thing I Can’t Believe Exists: Marvel Vs. Capcom 3
This is a letter to my 16-year-old self.
Hi, Me. I found the hat that you lost.
(That’s our little in-joke. It’s from Earthbound. Great game. Anyway.)
It’s the year 2012 now, and I have this game that came out. It has Deadpool in it! Also Chun Li. In the game, Deadpool can fight Chun Li. Or he can join up with her and they can be friends and fight some other people. Oh! Also Zero, from Megaman X. Deadpool and Chun Li and Zero can all be on the same team. Then they can fight people like Wolverine and Iron Man and Dr. Doom.
I KNOW, RIGHT?? You don’t even believe me, but trust me, it’s so amazing; you really ought to come over here and play it. The graphics are also really pretty good. The writing is very spot-on. Deadpool’s voice maybe isn’t quite what you expected — not enough “gravel and ground glass” — but I think this expectation is really difficult to live up to and still make the character work properly crossmedia.
The downside is in order to play this game you will have to be thirty. Honestly, you probably would be better at this game than I am, because I’ve gotten a little old and slow. On the other hand all your friends can come over and play it with you and you can just have a good time because it’s so insane that nobody really cares who wins anyway.
There’s also an Ultimate version that has some other cool people in it but a lot of them haven’t been invented yet for you. Eventually I’ll pick it up, though, because Phoenix Wright is pretty cool. No, I know you don’t know who that is, but trust me.
P.S.: that game you were asking for where all the Final Fantasy characters fight each other in a fighting game didn’t turn out as good. I’m sorry. We’ll forget it happened.
The Casual Category: Triple Town
I am not a stranger to playing games on Facebook. I try a lot of them out. Like it or not, they are now part of the gaming world. I think the way they are often-maligned is a little unfair. Certainly most of your avarge “Ville” titles are blatantly manipulative in how they get their cash stream, but they allow their target audience to express themselves in calm, casual ways. The average Facebook game has little to no strategy. And that’s fine.
But Triple Town is not the average Facebook game. Instead, it’s a very interesting permutation: a casual strategy game with a match-three mechanic. It allows a player to build little houses and castles, but, rather than being built only with time and click resources, CityVille style, the houses and castles appear each time the player matches three items in a category. Match three bushes, get a tree. Match three trees, get a settlement. The strategy involved means that one must think carefully about where to place the next tile.
It also changes seasonally (gingerbread houses for Christmas!) like many casual games, but without the annoyance of the game mechanic changing or adding a bunch of timed holiday-only missions. Many so-called casual games get awful stressful this time of year by comparison.
Most Facebook games are “addicting” because they force a player to come back at a certain time to harvest crops or collect taxes, thus reinforcing a play pattern. Triple Town is “addicting” because it just made me want to come back and play it some more.
Indie Game Worth Discussing: don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story
Yeah, Steerpike liked it too. It was my other favorite free-to-play indie game made this year.
I’ve decided the primary reason I liked this game so much is because I’m a teacher. So I identified with it. No, not with the creepy undertones of wanting to sleep with a student, or meddling in their personal relationships. But with many of the other, related issues it brings up about being a teacher in the modern era. Many schools have rules that you aren’t allowed to, just as an example, “friend” students on Facebook. Really, you often don’t even want to know what they’re saying about you. But isn’t it a little strange to try to enforce that a teacher and a student can never relate to one another as, well… human beings, with all the complexity that occurs? Is this something we will really try to do in the future as technology progresses? Isn’t it cool that a video game is asking these complex questions?
I try to be a good teacher, but I have had those off days, where I just knew I wasn’t connecting with students. The world of technology is changing faster than a lecture hall can accommodate. And it’s so difficult to be a speechmaker who is often given an unreceptive audience.
This game also does something very clever that made me feel a little spied-on, myself. It mines your surname, from any copy of Digital: A Love Story, that happens to be still saved on your drive, and assigns it to a late-game character. I got double-whammied with this one, since my maiden name is actually shared with a character who is already in the game (Kendall Flowers). I liked her, though, so it all worked out.
Honorable Mention AAA Game Still Worth Discussing: Duke Nukem Forever
So, because I had some retreads, I’m discussing a sixth game, in an honorable-mention sort of way. Bear with me.
In 1998, there was a quirky JRPG called Xenogears. Playing this game was a pivotal moment for me. For one, it’s the game that made me start to hate JRPGs. But it’s also one of the games that made me most curious about the process of game development. Some day I’ll devote an entire article to it, to elaborate on this point, but basically what Xenogears does is lay the entire process of its own making totally bare. You can actually watch the development of the game happen as you play it, almost in real time.
It’s easy to hate on Duke Nukem Forever for the exact same reason. It’s the very reason I find it fascinating, and worthwhile of examination. This is a game that put all its cards on the table. It’s impossible to separate the game from its development cycle. Scattered throughout it are the littered remains of ideas that have since died out in other designs. The tone fluctuates wildly, indicating the influence of different design teams, some of whom may have not been aware of what others had done to the game.
There are a few good, quirky bits, like the Duke Burger segment, or the Wild West shoot-up, that are actually fun set pieces. Then there is the whole creepy, weird, mean-spirited Hive level. There are set-pieces that seem unfinished, like the Strip Club. There’s a pretty-okay pinball minigame, and a terrible, unwinnable air hockey one.
I had a theory that Duke Nukem Forever (and Bullestorm as its contemporary) was going to change the way we viewed game censorship. As an anti-censorship advocate, I’m in favor of games getting crass, violent, and juvenile in some cases. It’s the only way that certain concepts can stop being taboo for more serious discussion down the line. This is a year we saw video games defended by the U. S. Supreme Court as a valid form of free expression. The fact that we can have a game like Saints Row: The Third (where I am currently watching my husband run around a fully-rendered city beating people to death with a plastic penis) exist, without daily complaints from the likes of FOX News about its content, means we can also have games like don’t take it personally that discuss real issues of privacy and technology in an adult way. Video games are still awkward and often-unaccepted; this year someone thought “teabagging” a developer during an awards show was funny. In that, DNF represents us, like it or not. But I believe that we’re going to get more diverse, more versatile, in the upcoming years. Things people seem to hate have a part in that. Facebook has a part in that, and so do games like Duke.
Duke Nukem Forever has a message about video games as an authorial creation. Some of the design choices in the game seem baffling, but make sense if you understand the process by which the game was created. If we view games as art (let’s discuss if we should, let’s discuss if that question is even worthwhile to ask, circle, circle back, etc.), then we can acknowledge that some pieces of artwork are more about the process of their creation than about the final work. Such with DNF. The context of the development is absolutely necessary to understanding the work, and coming in to the game it’s well-expected that, in fact, you do understand what needed to happen for it to be made.
And that’s 2011. It wasn’t all great, but it was a year where we examined our processes. The new year is about examining the past, while we ever stumble toward the future.
And now, more of the best of the rest…
Games I Played a lot of in 2011 but didn’t include officially because they came out in previous years:
Deadly Premonition, Fallout: New Vegas (amazing DLC this year added lots of life to an already-great game), Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Indie games I also really liked and almost added here but felt it wouldn’t be “fair” to add them based on just discovering them last week:
Dungeons of Dredmore, Jamestown
Big, Important 2011 releases I haven’t gotten around to playing yet but definitely will in 2012:
Like many other editors, playing and writing about games as a hobby/part-time thing means I can’t play everything. I’m going to try to play at least a few of the above in the upcoming months, but, it’s hard to make promises! Skyrim has demanded a lot of my time and attention, and, I think that is okay.
In fact, I’m probably going to play more of it today.
Here’s to a new year!
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