2012 was a lot of things, as most years are. My colleagues have discussed most of these things quite entertainingly, and so I will spare you from further use of the words “Kickstarter,” “Greenlight,” “Entitlement” and so on. Except for right there, just then.
If you’re intensely plugged into the independent gaming scene then you probably consider 2012 a banner year for the continuing rise of the indie. I’m only slightly plugged into that scene, so I consider 2012 an okay year in which The Last Guardian still saw no light of day and increasingly slight hopes for a new Half-Life could be taken off life support with rumors buzzing that Valve intends to focus their energy on entering the console market.
However, those disappointments have been quelled almost wholly by my game of the year…
I like numbered lists: they’re succinct, good looking and most importantly they feature numbers, which are great because they can be counted forwards or backwards or out of order. Except for in lists, then you count them as they’re written. It’s also in our nature to rank and compare things; it provides meaning and a sense of order. But there is something you must know about the following list: this list is a lie. More specifically, this list will lie to you, dear reader. What you see is six games in a list. What you are getting however, is five games I enjoyed thoroughly + a game for all seasons, but in truth it is inaccurate to place them so close to number one.
Take numbers six to two, then, as perhaps numbers ninety-seven to ninety-three, and everything in between is air.
Honorable mentions: For fans of the lightning-fast shooty genre, 2012 presents you with the best shooty game since Unreal Tournament 2004 … it’s Tribes Ascend! Actually, I implore fans of any type of shooty game, especially those fed up with ManCelebration BeefBlops and testosterone-fueled silliness, give yourself a dose of pure adrenaline. Tribes Ascend plays exactly like Starsiege: Tribes and its game changingly-named sequel, Tribes 2, which is to say you’ll surf, ski, jetpack and bounce your way around gloriously massive outdoor landscapes all whilst playing a game of “who can shoot a frisbee gun into the other person’s face better.” Shazbot!
If shooting things is not your thing, there were still…other things to like about 2012. Take two games for example which, each in their own distinctive style, gave us the choice between being malevolent murder-machines or stealthy tacticians who can opt to stay their blades in favour of assassinating character over flesh. The two excellent sneaking games I speak of are obviously Dishonored and Mark of the Ninja! Of the two, I’d award a slight edge to Dishonored if for no other reason than the breadth of its setting. Despite an unremarkable ending, the best of that game’s campaign has stayed with me: prowling and “blinking” across rooftops in the miserable dystopia that is Dunwall, carefully planning each sabotage with such precision that my blade didn’t once taste blood. That I was able to restore Corvo’s good name and endure so many betrayals without intentionally murdering a soul (I accidentally killed two unconscious guards with an explosive during my escape from prison) is a testament to Dishonored’s mighty creative vision. It was a 21st century Thief that no one expected.
Thanks to the annual Steam holiday sale I came to own Borderlands 2 and, like its predecessor, it’s a good option for mayhem provided you have several friends to play with or don’t mind wading into random matchmaking territory. Of the dozen or so hours I’ve spent with it, every minute online was a hoot, while every minute offline was dull and lifeless (except when Claptrap talks – bless him). Borderlands 2 almost cracks my list. But not quite.
I’ve played my share of games which defied gravity one way or another; Gravity Rush, however, is the first where I’ve not only defied gravity but been allowed to manipulate it for pleasure and convenience. If, like me, you’re one of the fourteen people who sent their indentured servant off to get them a certain lunch wrap only for them to return with a PlayStation Vita, Gravity Rush is most assuredly the answer to your buyer’s remorse. I can’t help Sony sell any PlayStation Vitas (who can!) but I can endorse what is arguably its best game: you can fly around giving the middle finger to gravity all you like in this game. Plus: your companion is a magical cat who speaks to you in semi-coherent meows and might have more than one personality disorder. Who knew cats had personalities?? (Zing!) What are you waiting for?!
Now, without further ado…
#6 – Guns of Icarus Online
Before I was a bitter human adult there was a time when my imagination could run free and wild with sprawling and magical video game ideas. Before I understood what phrases like “over budget,” “missed deadline” and “
Bobby Kotick Satan has cancelled Christmas” meant, there was naive innocence. I imagined a great many possibilities, but never something as majestic as Guns of Icarus Online. A strikingly simple premise– that of floating through air space, running around the decks of fantastic flying machines– turns out to be just the right concoction for fun, with some important ingredients being a friend who knows how to fly (Gregg!), a rube you can trick into warming an extra bed in case the crew must one day turn to cannibalism (Dix!), a light-hearted tinkerer who has an affinity for falling down shafts (me!) and that special someone who just stands around and looks good (Steerpike!) – with these elements, and up to twelve other savvy combatants (and their airships), you are ready to engage in one sky battle for all the ages.
Guns of Icarus Online saw a shaky launch period followed by a more satisfying un-shaky post-launch period, and then a period where some free goggles were given away. For goodness sake, it’s already had three distinct periods! Has your game about floating in marvelous sky-things had three distinct periods? I didn’t think so. Join the world of Sky People today (it’s not called that … I’m sorry) – there’s plenty of tomato soup for all.
#5 – Journey
In one way Journey can be considered an absolute failure. In interviews leading up to the game’s release, developer ThatGameCompany stated over and over again that their one goal in creating this game – their one and only desire – was to provide a soul to one Greggorovich Flampington (I assume that’s his middle name?) Burnell — they failed. They failed so spectacularly, in fact, that some have actually speculated that Burnell not only didn’t gain a soul, he actually lost more of his current non-soul. What does that even mean? I presume only the scientists could tell us, and they’re all gone as you know. Damn you, Mystery Scientist Planetary Exodus Event!!!!!
* Ahem *
In failing to create a game that provided this desperately needed soul, however, what ThatGameCompany did create– accidental and baffling as it is– was an emergent experience totally out of left field where players (who were not the target audience of this project, as I stated earlier) would, quote, “go on some kind of trip.” One person on the internet called their excursion an “adventurous jaunt,” while another remarked “I played it.” Indeed you did, anonymous sir. Indeed you did.
In the end, will Journey be remembered as one man’s failed salvation, or every other person everywhere in the entire world’s accidental emergent joy machine? Nobody can say. But what we all can say, is “I played it.” Except for G. Flampington Burnell. He’ll just be saying “blimey, where was that soul I was promised? Fish and chips. Bollocks. Foot ball. Quite right.”
#4 – Papo & Yo
This is a game I’d have a hard time making light of, so I won’t try. On the surface there is an ordinary puzzle platformer game which takes place in an embellished Brazilian favela which is inspired by the childhood of creative lead Victor Caballero. Developed by his small studio Minority Media, Caballero assumes the role of auteur and distills precisely the story he wishes to tell. This is the kind of game which best exemplifies the need for and benefit from the existence of indie development houses: one whose creative vision survives the unforgiving process of being designed and developed by a team of people; why? Because that team is A) small and manageable and B) understands what is at stake.
Papo & Yo hasn’t made my list because it’s the most fun I’ve had with a puzzle platformer (it isn’t) or because it reinvents the genre (it doesn’t). It’s on my list because of how joyful I feel that this game is able to exist. Papo & Yo, more affecting than so many other games I have played throughout the years, is ultimately a feel good story so powerful I couldn’t help but be moved, and is, I can say without hyperbole, a life-affirming tale of the magic of play.
Caballero grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father. He, his brothers, sister and mother lived in perpetual fear, not knowing when the monster inside their father/husband would awaken. One of his only escapes from the anxiety that came with daily life was video games. A choice game he likes to cite: Super Mario Bros. For brief periods Victor could escape into a world where he had control, where he didn’t feel constant fear. Although fleeting, these moments of comfort stayed with him and furthermore inspired him in this passion. It seems almost too poetic that he is able to tell this story through the very medium which helped him survive it. In the opening frames he dedicates Papo & Yo to his family members: “To my mother, brothers and sister, with whom I survived the monster in my father”.
In the game itself you play as a young boy named Quico who, during the middle of a particularly volatile eruption, escapes his home through a magical doorway which leads into the primary setting of the game: the sunny and colourful and somewhat fantastic Brazilian shanty-town. A similarly aged young girl leads Quico on a game of cat and mouse where the player learns how to magically manipulate the landscape, a primary gameplay mechanic and metaphor. Soon you meet the giant pink beast known only as Monster. After that the bulk of the game focuses on solving puzzles with the help of Monster in a sort of Ico and Yorda-like manner, while also dealing with Monster’s dangerous addition to eating frogs. They pop up at inopportune times and not only cripple Monster’s helpfulness but turn him into a raging threat. Wisely, there are not many of these moments, but when they came I felt an unnerving suspense.
After a journey that is equal parts upbeat and melancholic, Papo & Yo saves its best for last with a climax that had me so choked up I could barely move. If I’ve made it sound like an overly sentimental melodrama rife with heavy-handedness I’ve done it an unintentional disservice by simply expressing my own take, which is obviously quite emotional. This is a fine game in its own right that does not need the (unavoidable) baggage: it speaks for itself, but in sharing the origins of his story I believe Caballero has added a certain weight which cannot be ignored either.
If you didn’t play it in 2012 and have a PS3 and 3-4 hours to spare, I encourage anyone to give it a chance as one of their games of 2013.
#3 – Mass Effect 3
I think the Mass Effect trilogy is kind of like the Lost of video games in that it is self-important, tries to tackle a very wide array of issues, some well and others not so well, is peppered with lightheartedness throughout but at the same time carries a certain weight to it, and is maligned as much as it is beloved. Oh, and the writers dropped a hell of a lot of acid when they wrote the ending! All that, and I unabashedly love them both.
While probably the most poorly received of the three (which is still a pretty good reception overall) I would argue that, in a way, Mass Effect 3 is the most successful in executing its vision. With the first Mass Effect you had a partially tight, partially sloppy, sprawling RPG, more in the classic BioWare style akin to Knights of the Old Republic, but with a heck of a paint job, and some blush, and then some bronzer caked on top for good measure (Does that make sense in terms of makeup application? I don’t do much of that…sorry for the spotty analogy.). Remember, they were working exclusively for Microsoft at this point and EA weren’t even in the picture yet, so while I don’t doubt that they had some drunken scribblings on bar napkins about dark energy, there was really no concrete direction other than “devil machines bad!”
Obviously EA’s more mainstream influence takes over with Mass Effect 2 because they A) Somehow got BioWare to make a game that was more like Gears of War than Knights of the Old Republic and B) Somehow got BioWare to make a game that, in retrospect, doesn’t have much of anything to do with Mass Effect 1 or 3. Seriously, it’s the longest of the three games by far, and what the fuck is it about? There’s bugs who abduct humans. So you gather a team of 12 misfits to go kill the bugs and maybe blow up their house. The end. Whaaaaaaaaaat? And people said Mass Effect 3’s ending was shit? The middle parts of stories get off so easy! And really, it’s the year 2185 but billionaires who live on space stations still smoke cigarettes? Riiiiight. The Illusive Man should have been eating space caviar off an asari’s blue ass.
Where was I? Right, the coherent vision of Mass Effect 3. As much as I love the first Mass Effect for all its quirks and beautifully unexpected moments and role-playing greatness, and as much as I admire Mass Effect 2 for fixing so much of the stupid crap that was wrong with the first game, I think Mass Effect 3 might actually be the best game in the series. It’s the one that delivers an actual ending, and (post-Extended Cut) an actually satisfying one at that. Not to mention the entire campaign before it. With its slavish devotion to kicking Commander Shepard in the groin repeatedly, laying on the gloom and doom, and generally being exhausting and grim as fuck. And these are good things: over the course of the trilogy humans whined about how shit their lives were in their new found galactic civilization, but only in the third game is the human spirit trampled on, over and over, to points where I felt as terrible as I had when I Pressed X To Jason but couldn’t save either of my sons in Heavy Rain.
Shepard finally shows signs of falling apart (kind of like that other guy, Jack Shephard), and for the first time, in humanity’s most desperate hour, we’re allowed to see the Commander act…human, and not as the Ubermensch he/she has been upheld to be. It was in these waning hours of Mass Effect 3 that I connected with my Shepard more than ever. Sure, the space child is still a stupid brat who spouts a bunch of nonsense, and the true purpose of the reapers is still idiotic, but in highlighting these failings so many of us have emphasized things that shouldn’t be.
There were always cracks in the armor, but taken as a whole I believe this trilogy’s final chapter was its best.
#2 – The Walking Dead
What else can possibly be said about Telltale’s episodic vault into the stratosphere of gaming relevance? After a slew of pleasant and largely ordinary adventure games I had cultivated relatively low expectations for their work: I only bothered with The Walking Dead in mid August because I had recently joined the PS+ program which was featuring the first two episodes for free. The first episode was rather pedestrian: meet a redneck, get yelled at by an ignorant asshole, decide whether to save the nerdy guy or the cute girl. I put it aside for a few weeks but the writing and drama were good enough that I came back to polish off Episode Two. Well, that was where it took off, and I mean it really took off. The ante was upped, the stakes were raised, and I accepted that I was in for the long haul.
I plowed through the three middle episodes in as many days and awaited the finale with gigantic expectations. In the end I’m happy to say I didn’t feel a shred of disappointment. Lee and Clementine are, hands down, my two favourite characters of 2012. The Walking Dead left me with so much to think about, from big things like trying to raise a human being the right way and how to act as a good leader, right down to the mundane like “who gets to eat?”
My personal highlight from the series was a moment near the close of Episode Three when Lee asks Clementine if it’s okay to cut her hair short, and then explains why it’s necessary as he’s doing so. Afterward Lee wastes no time, training Clementine to shoot with a pistol. This double-whammy was the farewell to whatever morsel of innocence she possessed, and it left the wind knocked out of me. I had been thoroughly entertained up to this point, but it was that moment I realized The Walking Dead ceased being just another game and became Something Important.
#1 – Dark Souls
How do you talk about a game which you’ve poured in excess of five-hundred hours into? Where does that conversation even begin?
I could yap about Dark Souls over every cup of coffee I drink for the rest of my life; I could regale you with embellished tales of my exploits in Lordran, the demons I slayed and the ones who felled me. I’ve told these stories countless times already, and will tell them many more, I’m sure. I fell deep under its spell roughly seven months ago and its iron grip hasn’t loosened. I don’t believe it ever will. There will come periods of disinterest, but what the Souls games have done for me; what they have given me, will never be diminished.
I will forever remember Dark Souls as a shared experience: this is a game I could never have mastered alone. Dozens of YouTube videos, two brilliant wikis, hundreds of strangers’ forum posts read, but most importantly the shared experiences with wonderful friends here at Tap-Repeatedly.
To tell the whole truth, the story begins somewhere around here. A handful of derailments and sidetracks later it picks up there, takes a turn for better or worse, and somehow always circles back home.
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