Happy New Year, Tappers! (That’s what you call yourselves, right? Like, when you go to Tap-Repeatedly conventions and such?) Needless to say, 2011 was a big year for games. Loads of eagerly-awaited releases, some great surprises, and just general all-around awesomeness. These days, it’s not hard to point out a really well crafted game from the last year; it’s probably a bit harder to narrow that down to five or ten.
But we here at Tap have been assured – assured! – that we can be Real Game Journalists if we write a Real Game Journalism kind of article.
We’ll do you one better, “professional game journalists” – we’ll write, like, five or six. So maybe that’s doing you five or six better. But I digress.
Anyway, stay tuned over the next week or so as various Tap contributors offer up their Games of the Year – not necessarily the best of the best from the past year, but the gaming experiences we’ve each had these last 365 days that we figure will stick in our minds for years to come. So without further ado, my 2011 Games of the Year!
Looking back, 2011 was a year when a lot of interesting things happened in games without anything really reinventing the wheel. There was a lot of playing with the pieces we already had. A big part of that, for me, anyway, has been the ongoing struggle between games as narrative experiences versus ludological ones – two halves that must coexist in this medium and yet still never quite get along. They can bring out the best and worst in each other. And yes, one of them is probably a psychopathic clown (but I’m not telling you which).
Ahead of Its Time: Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Okay, I’ll admit this one’s cheating just a little, since technically Amnesia released in 2010, on Steam, but it went retail in February 2011, so I’ll call it legal anyway. It’s hard to argue that Amnesia is anything less than superb; the eerie, almost Lovecraftian journey through the atmospheric Brennenburg Castle, the truly effective horror, the engrossing tale pieced together from letters and journals while solving macabre puzzles and dodging unstoppable monstrosities…everything is pretty par for the course for one genre or another, and yet crafted so finely as to be completely unique. More to the point, this is the game that, in what must have been a fit of madness-slash-genius, lacks any sort of combat mechanics. You cannot face down these monsters: you are not the triumphant hero that will gradually learn to overcome the lumbering horrors of your past. This is a game that is quintessentially about moving through a story of terror and damnation that ties that narrative experience so excellently to gameplay that it’s hard to determine where one ends and the next begins. This is what gaming will be someday, when the market has gotten over its obsession with gunplay and explosions: deep, memorable, and unshakably affecting.
Super Important: Fate of the World
I very nearly forgot this game when I was trying to weed through the huge fall releases in my brain, but fortuitously I happened to notice it again in my Steam library. But out of the many titles I’ve played this year, Fate of the World has captured a disproportionately large number of hours and more than a few brain cells. Fate of the World is a complex simulator of the climate change and environmental shift we may be experiencing in a few decades, and tasks the player with tackling…well, the fate of the world. It’s a complicated balancing act between funds, popular support, climate change, technology and so on, built on a fine-grain foundation of actual data. Yet, playing it doesn’t require a degree in environmental sciences because the interface is pretty straightforward and patterned to look a bit like a card game. But a huge amount of information is available to players about trends for different countries and what all these extraction methods and high-tech applications and things are and mean and do. This is a serious game that is also fun to play for the simulator enthusiast, and brutally challenging at that, but in its way this is vital: this is a problem we face. This is a real issue. And though it frequently gets drowned under political rhetoric, the discussion needs to happen. The solution isn’t easy. It’s terribly complex.
One Big Step: L.A. Noire
Though enthusiasm for L.A. Noire faded pretty quickly after its release in the wake of assorted disappointments from various circles, it remains a pinnacle experience for me as a long-time crime fiction enthusiast and mystery game fan. L.A. Noire is not without its flaws, of course, but it’s got lots of good merits. I still stand by the generally high marks I gave it in my review. Aside from some of the interesting game design ideas that I hope will be expanded upon in future games with a similar premise, the really major thing here, I think, is the quantum leap in performance capture. L.A. Noire‘s use of its cast and the technology to really make the best of it portends the future of game narrative execution. This is where we can begin seeing life breathed into CG characters like never before. It was a risky innovation – one Team Bondi paid for, really – but it was a necessary one, and I suspect L.A. Noire will have a place in the gaming history books for that reason, at least.
Best All-Arou — Oh, Frak, I Died Again: Dark Souls
If you’re a good Tapper you’ve gotten a glimpse of Steerpike’s misadventures in Lordran. Dark Souls is the best of classic gaming sensibilities and modern mastery of technology and design rolled into one. I’m still captivated. I can’t quite describe all the ways it just does everything very right. It just…is. You can keep your Skyrim…make mine Dark Souls!
Most Pitch-Perfectly Nostalgic: Back to the Future: The Game
I heaped plenty of praise on Back to the Future: The Game when it released in the first half of the year in my review, which contains my thoughts in more detail, but the point here is that there’s a magic to some things that just transcends time and generation and platform and manure trucks and the vague threat of a modern sequel. Back to the Future is one of those things. Remarkably, Telltale managed to tap straight into that magic, which I’d long been pretty convinced died probably around the release of The Matrix, but maybe earlier, and it was like the Under the Sea dance all over again. Recently I was chatting about time travel with ETC professor and exceptional game designer Jesse Schell. Jokingly, I observed that I subscribe to the Back to the Future school of thought on temporal mechanics.
Jesse looked at me, incredulous. “Seriously? That the universe revolves around Michael J. Fox and his friends?”
I shrugged. “Makes everything simpler.”
I Don’t Know What This Is, But I Like It: Sword & Sworcery
Its creators, the deceptively-pluralized Superbrothers, call Sword & Sworcery “interaction cinema”, with no shortage of irony. To call this wildly unique iPad adventure a “game” would be, perhaps, slightly misleading, in much the same way that to call something like Heavy Rain a game is misleading: these are forays into what other creatures can grow out of video games. Still, on the surface, veterans of point-and-click adventures will recognize plenty of Sword & Sworcery‘s lineage as they guide the Scythian on her quest for the Golden Trigon. Witty, original, and with a soundtrack made of awesome, this is one of those indies that deserves every ounce of recognition it receives.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and Batman: Arkham City
The closing months of 2011 brought the usual barrage of high-profile holiday releases, and there really haven’t been any big disappointments this year: just a lot of really, really good stuff. But as I got my hands on a pair of sequels that may just be my most anticipated games of, well, nearly ever, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of low, aching disappointment niggling at the back of my very soul.
It took me a while to admit the fact that not only were Uncharted 3 and Arkham City just not cutting it, not the way I wanted them to, it wasn’t just that my expectations were too high (though they probably were), but that they were weaker titles than their predecessors. I realized I had, over the last few years of superb release after superb release, become complacent, inattentive. Vulnerable to the missteps of hapless developers who made…well, peculiar decisions.
I could (and may still) go on in great detail about how these two games fell short, but in a nutshell they both tried to be something they aren’t. They traded the exceptional formulas of Uncharted 2 and Arkham Asylum for something that more resembled…well, not those games. Other games. Other things. And especially in the case of Naughty Dog’s pulp adventure, I stare and stare and cannot figure out what made them think that certain design decisions were good ones.
Don’t get me wrong: these games are still very, very good. Better than the greater majority of games that came out this year. But they aren’t what, perhaps, they should have been – what I wish they were. In a year of surprises, it’s unfortunate that these two sort of unpleasant ones are probably the ones that will stick with me.
‘Course, maybe that just raises the bar for 2013.