In the dawn of 2012, I tore a leaf from my Starcraft 2 Jim Raynor Wanted Poster keepsake notebook (best thing about that game, really), determined to write down great titles as I played them. I always draw a blank when people ask for stuff I should remember, and Games of the Year articles are too important to leave to memory… especially mine. For twelve months that increasingly defiled sheet survived the chaotic sluice of cords, bills, beer cans, notes to self, and discarded gaming mice that is my desk. I exhumed it the other day.
Now, I admit this hasn’t been the best year for games, but there were more titles scrawled on there than I have medals for. After all, we don’t hand out awards like candy around here. So a whole lot of thinkin’, and even a fair amount of replayin’, was to come before the tally was in. This year I humbly offer five titles worthy of Tap-Repeatedly Special Achievement Awards, plus a handful of mentions of the honorable variety.
Achievement in Being an Achievement: Mass Effect 3
In my experience, setting out to make an epic is both arrogant and doomed. Audience or creator only really know for sure that something is epic once it’s done. And yet of course game developers often announce their upcoming “epic” whatever, particularly when they have reason to believe that the franchise will sell enough to produce a suitable crop of sequels. I have no doubt that Bioware, when it set out to produce Mass Effect, had at least an inkling of what it might become. Epics can come in single games too, of course, but a multi-game franchise, with releases spread across years, somehow adds to the (potential) sweep of the experience. That gamers got a chunk of Mass Effect in 2007, then had to wait until 2010 to get Mass Effect 2, then wait again for the trilogy’s conclusion, somehow feeds into the grandiose sense of the experience.
With Mass Effect 3 over and done with now, it seems like countless eons have passed, if only because of the throbbing arc of narrative it offered. Here is an epic, not just in drama or length but in the myriad threads and knots of the whole tapestry’s weave. Mass Effect manages to be overstuffed with themes. A paean against racism; a lyrical reflection on the nature of friendship; a cold accounting of genocide-by-convenience; a love letter to individual choice. It meditates on advanced technologies and wryly notes how sentient beings tend to inexplicably deify whatever forebears they believe left that technology behind. It calls into question the concept of the “biological imperative” by asking why we’d be so haughty as to assume there’s not corollary “synthetic imperative,” and that it may be very different. On its surface it is the story of humankind’s attempts to join an already-thriving galactic culture. All the weaknesses and nobility of the human psyche are played out alongside the same of dozens of other races. You find hatred and intolerance but also friendship and love.
Mass Effect 3 did an outstanding job of bringing the whole thing together. The entire game is The Conclusion – of Mass Effect as a whole, while the game’s actual ending is just the final wrap. Ultimately it stands as a reminder that Mass Effect was always about the journey, not the destination, and in this conclusion the journey is very evidently coming to an end for better or worse.
The true import of Mass Effect is as applies to this medium. From its promising beginnings to its controversial epilogue, Mass Effect was unique in the world of video games, and though it did not do everything perfectly, I think we’ve done it and Bioware a grave disservice by not stopping to genuflect a bit, to muse in silence on the staggering importance of the franchise. Mass Effect 3 was a fantastic achievement unto itself; when you consider the impact of the entire franchise, well… that effect is pretty massive.
Achievement in Take That, Doubters: XCOM – Enemy Unknown
The more we saw of 2K Marin’s bizarre 1950s shooter that bore X-Com’s illustrious name, the further back we recoiled in perplexed dismay. What… I… what even… with… what the hell is that thing? What are they thinking? How is this X-Com? Does no one learn? Does no one think? Conveniently, that game has vanished into development hell. As far as I know they’re still working on it, but whether it ever actually sees the light of day is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile another 2K company rather coyly announced that it was working on a project of its own. Firaxis, the king of strategy, the brilliant Sid Meier-sherpa-ed bearer of Civilization’s mantle, was doing a remake of X-Com. A proper remake – or a “reboot,” if you prefer – a turn-based strategy management game like the original. And thus began the internet hatred.
Personally, I was pretty confident that XCOM: Enemy Unknown would be okay. It is Firaxis we’re dealing with here; they know a little something about turn-based strategy, about economic models, about politics in games. I wasn’t 100% sure all would be well, but my general reaction was prosaic: if someone has to do it, I can’t think of anyone better qualified than the team at Firaxis, led by Jake Solomon and Sid Meier.
Much of the internet disagreed, and for eighteen months, every decision, announcement, screenshot, and mechanic was ridiculed by many and defended by many others. In and of itself this isn’t surprising, and Firaxis knew to brace itself. It was, after all, remaking one of the best, most beloved games in the history of the medium.
And they did it. They knocked it out of the park. XCOM is brilliant. Yeah, I’m not in love with every decision they made – especially those made in the interest of simplification. In a couple of areas I think they went too far. But really, the flavor of this game is that of one made by people who’d adored the original and were absolutely obsessed with doing it justice. The feel of the stunning original X-Com is there: the disoriented scramble to set up something that can respond to an alien threat; the lurking judgmental eye of the Council of Funding Nations; the frantic rush to appease individual countries even as you pour trillions of dollars you can ill afford into facilities and research that might lead nowhere. A unified global initiative to combat a sudden extraterrestrial threat is an expensive proposition, and your job – to juggle all the personalities, the balance sheets, the will of the engineers and that of the scientists, not to mention command of your people on the ground – it’s really more than any one person could hope to accomplish.
Yet you can accomplish it, thanks to XCOM, which brings an old classic into the modern age with flair. Let’s be honest, the original X-Com is not a lot of fun to play any more. Its learning curve is more of a wall and it lacks needed structure to contain the experience. This new installment is sizzly and slick, brimming with personality and, I suspect, the beginning of a very successful new franchise property at Firaxis Games.
Achievement in Where the Blue Fuck did That Come From: Dishonored
Dishonored is one of those games that I’d watched, casually, throughout its development. It looked really interesting – art direction by Viktor Antonov, the former Valve employee who gave us the creaky dystopia of City-17 in Half Life 2; designed by Harvey Smith, a former disciple of Warren Spector and boasting a strong track record of clever executions and designs in games that didn’t always do his ideas justice. What concerned me, of course, was that these two were now working at Arkane, the French studio behind Dark Messiah of Might & Magic and Arx Fatalis, two games that were perfectly acceptable, but nothing special in my book. Dishonored seemed to promise so much, I wondered if the infrastructure at Arkane would be able to deliver.
Well, I worried in vain. Dishonored is, pure and simple, Thief for the 21st Century. Not just in gameplay, though the stealth-violence mechanics are keenly honed, and little things like the brilliantly realized verticality of protag Corvo Attano’s aerial faculty call to mind The Dark Project’s beloved Rope Arrows in a way nothing else has. It feels organic, too, with Corvo’s seamless integration with his surroundings: mantling over railings, hopping small ledges, cued by signs readily visible, but never in your face.
The setting! Gloomy Dunwall, ensnared like Thief’s City in a lonely, wary partnership between magic and technology, between religious zeal and all-too-secular realities. Dunwall could be the City, and Antonov’s designs capture it perfectly.
The story! When he’s accused of murdering the Empress, Corvo’s blood-drenched quest to establish his innocence brings him into odd company; an assortment of rebels and rogue politicians holed up in a derelict, plague-stricken section of town. Everyone has to trust each other, because no one can trust anyone else… and then there’s the matter of Emily, the Empress’ orphaned daughter. Everyone, all sides, are ultimately trying to manipulate her. Even Corvo, in a way – though his manipulations are the most gentle.
The harsh reality of Dishonored is a world with many clear rights and wrongs, and just as many ill-defined constructs. More than once I was called on to do something that later caused unexpected ripples of help, or harm; in some cases throwing the entire storyline off course, sending it plowing down dark and untraveled roads promising indistinct outcomes. Quests for vengeance never go as well as planned; involve politics, plague, and children and it’s a calamitous recipe indeed. What’s more, Dishonored is like a scummy pond, whose surface ecology offers plenty of horrors to examine, but the thick, warm brown water below is filled with even more thematic toast and narrative jam. A game both a mile wide and a mile deep – and one that could be fully appreciated on nothing but its mechanical merits, if you happen to be the kind of player who doesn’t care about character and authorial intent. You don’t see a lot of games like that, and almost never do you see them so expertly crafted.
I would not have expected it from Arkane, and man, I was wrong to not. Of course, now, with Dishonored an enormous hit and a definite new franchise, I’ll expect the world from Arkane every time. The thing is, after Dishonored, I kind of have a feeling they’ll be able to give it to me.
Achievement in Honestly Woman, How Do You Do It? I Mean Come On: Analogue – A Hate Story
The “Tap-Repeatedly Special Achievement in Honestly Woman, How Do You Do It? I Mean Come On” isn’t given every year. Like the Irving Thalberg, it’s only awarded when its recipient and her humble submission meet certain… criteria.
Basically, this award goes to writers so annoyingly good they make the rest of us look bad. And let’s not beat around the bush, people: there aren’t that many writers in the games business worthy of this award.
Christine Love is one of them. This is the second time in a row the Lady of the Quirky Indie has graced my Games of the Year list; 2011 saw her carry off an award for don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story – a game I still revere for its unflinching confidence and prophetic views on the future of privacy. This year, it’s Analogue: A Hate Story, set about as far apart from the swanky private high school of don’t take it personally as any setting could get.
Deep space is big and cold and things can get lost out there in the darkness. Not just things like spaceships, though Analogue’s overt plot deals with your character being hired to discover the fate of the Mughunghwa, a colossal “generation ship” that fell silent over six centuries ago, while ostensibly ferrying an entire nation of Korean immigrants to their new planet. Other things get lost in the blackness of space than ships. Souls get lost out there too, and that’s what Analogue is really about: the reversion of a culture to its most barbaric form, as if society itself had stared too long into the abyss of space, only to find that the abyss had stared back into it.
Really telling the story is a spoiler, so I’ll tell you this: imagine a video game where your job is to figure out what happened on a derelict spaceship. The ship’s mainframe has missed its last 7,200 scheduled maintenance overhauls, Windows Update has not run in a long time, the two artificial intelligences still stored on it not only despise each other, but are so heavily corrupted (in software terms) that they’re barely able to communicate with you at all. Meanwhile there’s something like five or six hundred thousand human corpses on the ship – we never find out the Mughunghwa’s complement, but it is a “generation ship,” after all – lying there, undecomposed, in the sterile air that still pumps through the bulkheads. There is exactly no evidence of what happened.
And so, interstellar salvage/sleuth that you are, you turn to the only thing that can possibly shed light on the mystery: the colonists’ private emails, their journals, their electronic correspondence. Somewhere in those reams of documents there’s a clue. But digging it out requires getting to know these people, these corpses. Their families and friends, their lovers, their opinions on everything from gardening to parenthood. And the more you learn, the more a kernel of dread grows inside you: whispering a fear you shove away again and again until it’s just too big and too hideous to ignore.
Yet it’s all done against a white Future Interface, hosted by a chipper AI that loves to play dress-up. Incongruous? Yes, but it’s part of the dark heart of Analogue.
Maybe six or seven months ago, I got an email out of the blue. Some dude was working on the Wikipedia entry for Analogue: A Hate Story, and I guess he’d seen my review and wanted to know if I could help him tidy it up.
To be blunt, the entry was a disaster. The style was awful, the structure was worse; the author had misconstrued immense tracts of story and either ignored or forgotten much more. He (or she) completely failed to understand the game’s themes, or Christine Love’s influence over her own game, and even failed to understand why understanding these things would be important. I prodded the mass a few times and then threw my hands up, realizing that only a complete teardown and rewrite could begin to save it.
Analogue: A Hate Story, like all of Christine Love’s games, is a towering work of literature, the work of an artist. Games are her medium. In some ways it reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman – comics were his medium – not because they share even a single thing in common, but because both are so unimaginably complex, pulsing with myth, history, theme, and allegory… yet you don’t need to be some kind of literary super-genius to enjoy them. The more you “get” from either, the more you can appreciate it, but even if you don’t really understand what’s happening at all, you’ll still be rewarded.
I don’t know what she’s up to right now, but I’ll be near the front of the line when Christine Love’s fourth game hits the streets.
Achievement in Meeting God: Journey
While I guess this list isn’t in any specific order, and I don’t precisely want to call Journey my game of the year, I wouldn’t take it amiss if everyone walked away from this article with that impression.
I find Journey… soulmunching. It’s the kind of game that I wouldn’t want every game to be, but also the kind that I’d so love to see more of in this medium. I felt things during Journey that I’ve never felt before. And the genius of ThatGameCompany’s design is in the fact that what I felt was different – and the same – as what others felt.
Back in some past discussion of Journey it was Xtal, I think, who remarked that he’d made it more or less to the end with another player in tow. And he also said something along the lines of being unable to believe, to even comprehend, being alone during those last forty minutes or so.
I was alone.
The wind pushed me fiercely; I bowed my hood into it and trudged on. Toothsome icy gales swept me back. Unaided I learned to listen for their shrieks and shelter behind standing stones. In the darkness of that frigid night the dragon returned, roaring its fury, and with not even a single companion to distract it, it saw only me, and I bore the brunt of its hunger.
The snow drifted so high up my legs that every step seemed like an eternity. It caked my beautiful red poncho and made a frill on the tattered remnants of my once-fluttering scarf.
I walked, and walked, and could not take another step but did, and did again, and in my own way I reached the light.
And for the life of me I couldn’t conceive of another person being there. Much of the rest had been done in cooperation with strangers, but this part was too personal, that awful climb up the mountain, the sufferings I endured to reach my goal. Until last week, I firmly believed that part of Journey should be played alone.
But then I fired up Journey again, thinking I might write about it in my Games of the Year article. And I lived the experience the other way – with a faithful companion, like the one Xtal had. We found some kind of… warp zone… in the earliest parts of the desert, and it took us all the way to that snowy mountain. At the beginning her scarf was much longer (I later learned her name is T4nKK_Grrrl, so I’m assuming it’s a she), and she was clearly a lot less rusty at Journey than I was. But she stayed with, patiently waiting while I worked the kinks out, trying jumps again and again.
On the summit, the chimes and tweets that make up the language of Journey were shared, each of us chirruping timorously as the wind picked up, calling out in louder hoots as the other was nearly swept away. When the dragon returned, she zigged and I zagged, and the awful ruddy light from its eye fell on her. I tumbled out from behind my rock and shouted, stomping around in the deep snow to get its attention, but again and again it seized my companion and ripped her scarf. By the time we got back together hers was nothing but a nub, while mine flowed luxuriantly behind me. We made it, together, to the final steps of the journey, when strength finally left us, and as one we went to nerveless knees in the snow and keeled over, her body slumped over mine as if still trying to protect me.
Journey is a remarkable piece of work, an unforgettable masterpiece. And as much as I think there could have been more to it, I’m hesitant to wish for that, in case the slightest alteration disrupts whatever miracle ThatGameCompany managed to distill.
I Mention You, Honorably
So my list was longer, but I like to contain myself to five. Despite the above (and below), I don’t think 2012 was that great a year for games. It wasn’t very inspiring to me, at least. As AJ noted, 2012 may have been more a year for trends than games – Kickstarter, Steam Greenlight, the general rise of indie work and the increasing availability of cheap tools for developers. And 2013 may well be the year in which we see whether those things bear the promised fruit, or wither on the vine.
With that in mind, though, there are a few honorable mentions I have to hand out. Tap-Repeatedly Special Achievement Awards are rare treasures, and since not every deserving game can get one (and some listed below came very, very close to making the cut), additional recognition seems only fair.
Honorable Mention for Adorability: Defender’s Quest. I really like the abstraction of tower defense games, but I don’t actually play that many. Enter Defender’s Quest, which may actually be a 2011 game but still counts for my list because I only played it this year. This modest indie from Level Up Labs came close to being in my top five, for its excellent and creative design, cute-for-all-ages story and characters, and often hilarious writing. A recent mongo art upgrade adds even more for the money. It’s silly and strategically layered – the two key ingredients in successful tower defense. Honestly, any game that includes a foe called Axxima Muttonaxxor (the ur-sheep, lord of all sheep and terror of the Strategic Mutton Reserve) is okay in my book. I never did beat that god damned sheep.
Honorable Mention for Touching, Minimalist Beauty: The Unfinished Swan. That’s two from Sony’s Santa Monica label to make my 2012 list. The Unfinished Swan is a PS3 exclusive about splattering ink and pelting balloons. It’s one of the most imaginative and strangely evocative games to hit consoles this year, and worth the download despite the $15/3 hour ratio. Imagine your favorite children’s book come to life and you’ll begin to get the idea. It takes only a minute to understand how the game works, but that belies both the level of care you’ll have to take to really succeed, and the need for quite a bit of thumb skill to create the kind of gorgeous vistas that The Unfinished Swan is capable of producing.
Honorable Mention for Actually Being a Good Satire, Unlike Others I Could Mention but Won’t, Oh Hell with It, Why Not: Hotline Miami. I guess I have pretty eclectic taste; two honorable mentions for sweet-natured games suitable for the very young, and one for the most luridly grotesque send-up of game violence in the history of the universe. So hard you’ll literally keep one finger poised over the restart button at all times, Hotline Miami is wonderfully designed and compelling enough to make you wonder what’s wrong with you, that you’d play such a monstrous game. If Jack Thompson saw this thing, he’d have the aneurysm we’ve all been waiting for him to have. I find it really ironic that Far Cry 3’s developers insist that title is a satire of videogame violence. In order for something to be satirical, the satire has to actually exist outside the mind of the creator. Hotline Miami’s garish, blocky splatterdrome makes clear in less than a minute what 50 hours of Far Cry 3 never did.
Honorable Mention for Being The Most God Damned Depressing Experience of My Life And If You Know Me At All You Know That’s Really Saying Something: Max Payne 3. I really, really loved the first two Max Payne games. I loved the gunplay, I loved the writing, I loved the tragic storylines, I loved the main character. The second one ages okay, so I could probably break it out even today and still enjoy it. When Rockstar took over Remedy’s broken-cop story, I worried that the company’s heavy-handedness would wreck the experience, but I was wrong. Max Payne 3 is in many ways a fantastic game, with its stunning attention to detail and pitch-perfect writing. Despite that, it’s not at all fun to play – it’s way too hard, for one thing, stupid hard. But for me that wasn’t it. No, it was that I, at least, could only put in twenty minutes or so at a time before I got so depressed I simply had to switch the thing off. It’s the end of the series, I’m sure, and a fitting end; but man, I just can’t take much of it.
Honorable Mention for The Best WTF Line of Dialogue Ever: Borderlands 2. I made the mistake of thinking that the first Borderlands could be enjoyed as a single-player game; that kind of ruined it for me. The sequel would be just as bad solo, but when you’re on the sofa with a couple of friends, cold beers on the coffee table and splitscreen rocking, Borderlands 2 is a hilarious, chaotic fiesta of awesome. Unfortunately Pete’s dog is very neurotic and gets nervous whenever we play games at his house, so the challenge is intensified significantly by the fact that there’s a whimpering canine the size of a pony trying to crawl into your lap as you line up your shots. Don’t expect depth here, but if you have the game, a deck, and a friend, you can’t miss. Oh, the line? “I need a new ventilator, Roland. My lab smells like bacon. I hate bacon. Bacon is for… sycophants, and products of incest.”
Happy gaming in 2013, Tappers! My Jim Raynor Wanted Poster keepsake notebook stands ready.
Tell Steerpike he skipped something at firstname.lastname@example.org.