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The 10 Best Games of 2012
Which games captured the interest, garnered the respect and appealed most to the tastes of Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine's editorial staff? These titles reminded us why we love video games.
Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine staff present their selection of the 10 Best Games of 2012. When Gamasutra and Game Developer staff got together to assemble this list, the mission wasn't necessarily to argue which games were the "best." Getting several very opinionated people to agree on something like this is close to impossible, especially when the task at hand is agreeing on which video games were the "best." So this was our task: to identify the games that, to the highest positive degree, captured the interest, garnered the respect and appealed to the tastes of our veteran editorial team. That is to say, it's a pretty personal selection here. Does this selection also happen to be made up of the 10 "best" games of 2012? Well, yeah okay, that's likely the case. So I'll just be blatantly presumptuous and call these The Best Games of 2012. Note that we didn't bother arbitrarily ranking the games -- if your game is on this alphabetical list, it's a Game of the Year as far as we're concerned, and you're in great company. - Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra
Dear Esther was a surprisingly moving experience for me. I had followed the game, and knew that it was around in some shape or form years prior, but only really played it when this year's complete makeover was finished. Arriving on the lonely island, I didn't know where to go or what to do, what my goal would be, what these abstract symbols and sparse narration even meant. That uncertainty and lack of direction fought against my intuition as a person who's played video games for most of his life. And that uncertainty is what makes Dear Esther so beautiful.
Once I accepted the fact that I'm just "here," and decided to look around (like any normal person would if they were dropped on an island, alone), is when I started to realize that Dear Esther is not so much an experiment in story, but in narrative. And it's a successful experiment. As players, we're so used to the heavy hand of the writer and designer, that we've gotten used to its weight, and when we lose that guiding hand, we're initially rather lost. But Dear Esther shows how a gentle nudge in the right direction can have more impact than a forceful push. It shows that a clear authorial vision and a unique brand of player agency can not only co-exist, but also flourish together. That gives me hope for the future of video game narrative. -- Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra
I've always had an ambivalent relationship with first-person games. I don't like being a pair of disembodied hands made for killing. But something about Dishonored got to me -- the simple but intuitive stealth mechanics, the incredibly atmospheric machinist-mariner universe. The heart, a haunting narrator. The innovative range of abilities helped me feel more like I had more power over who my character was. I've been pretty disinterested in the genre conventions that sell in triple-A all year, but I'm happy to have been able to enjoy a game that focused so much on making its own road.
Even the game's violence is a considered, calculated symphony; every part of Dishonored is mindful. That's worth a lot to me. -- Leigh Alexander, Editor-at-Large, Gamasutra
I don't play for Hero Academy for hours, but I have played it basically every day since I bought an iPad, quite often with Kris Graft of this very web site. I like tactics games, and so does he, but we like different kind of tactics games. I tend toward the Japanese tactics games with their emphasis on style and smooth UI, where his interests are more in the hardcore XCOMs of the world. But Hero Academy quenches both our respective thirsts.
The game takes the traditional square grid, turn-based bent of tactics games like Final Fantasy Tactics, and makes it asynchronously multiplayer. But taking one turn at a time would be horrifically boring, so Robot gives you five turns that you must take. The "must" part is critical, because forcing each player to make five moves at once, with no skipping, means it's less likely that a griefing player will force his or her opponent to be the aggressor every time.
The game is also free to play, offering one balanced team to start with, and additional teams at a cost. This works well, because all the teams are quite well balanced against each other, each with strengths and weaknesses, and unique styles of play. These teams simply make the game more fun, they don't give an advantage to the player who spends. (The marked exception is the Team Fortress 2 team, which is unlocked when you buy the game for Steam, and is in definite need of nerfing.)
Robot has also smartly made inroads to China, going so far as to create a Shaolin team for the game's launch in the region, which features Shaolin monks, Taoist spellcasters, and traditional Chinese zombies.
Most importantly, the game actually allows for different tactics. Try playing the game against your game developer friends, and you may notice different trends emerge. Why are designers so aggressive? Why do programmers tend to be more methodical and defense-oriented? Who knows what the heck artists are trying to accomplish? A multiplayer game that shows you the personality of the player is a good game indeed. -- Brandon Sheffield, Editor Emeritus, Game Developer magazine
With its previous visually-unique, dreamlike titles flOw and Flower, Thatgamecompany was clearly aiming for something in particular, but it wasn't until Journey that it seemed to really attain that. Journey bore many of the same signatures -- the lightness of air or water, a focus on introspection, for example. But it had the very specific goal of creating a cooperative online experience that was specifically about players acting with and not upon one another, while remaining at a level of abstraction that permitted meditation.
I played Journey for the first time in front of a room full of non-gamers, expecting them to carry on talking while I distracted myself. But they talked about the game without prompting, played with its symbolism. And there was a moment when everyone present stopped talking and watched. And applauded. I felt finally some of my friends understood why I do what I do. I'll never forget it. -- Leigh Alexander, Editor-at-Large, Gamasutra
Integrating music-making into a game is a very tricky thing to do. In that light, perhaps the best thing I can say about Queasy Games' Sound Shapes is that within 30 seconds of understanding the way in which it wraps music around a simple platforming design, I slapped my forehead and thought, "Man, why didn't I think of that?" Of course, it only looks easy; co-creators Jonathan Mak and Shaw-Han Liem prototyped and iterated a lot before arriving at Sound Shapes' final design (see the Game Developer postmortem for more details), but their end result feels so simple, elegant, and obvious, which is a beautiful thing.
I could go on about its inspired artist/musician combinations (the Beck and Jim Guthrie/Superbrothers levels are my personal favorites), or how I adore the fact that the level editor tutorial is part of the actual game. But really, I think Sound Shapes is on our Top 10 list because it is, above all else, a triumph of design. -- Patrick Miller, Editor, Game Developer magazine
Remember when games were about discovery and serendipity? Spelunky's ingenious design doesn't just make those relevant again; they're its foundation. I've spent even more time watching my boyfriend play this dramatically updated version of Spelunky than I've played it myself, and I've spent a lot of time doing both.
I find myself saying that not just because it's indicative of how engrossing the game is -- when you watch someone else play, it's a tense drama of highs and lows. I'm also saying it because ever since I encountered the game this summer, I've lived in a permanent state of "wanting to play more Spelunky." It's not really possible to have played enough Spelunky, because there's always something to be gained from playing more.
It's always exciting, because it's always active. Moment-to-moment decision-making can have significant consequences. Since you can't memorize the game's layout, the only way to get further in Spelunky is to get better at Spelunky -- and that's what makes it so appealing. Knowing that if you are careful, lucky, and clever you'll not only get further, but maybe find something you've never seen before, means that there's always a reason to go back and try again. -- Christian Nutt, Features Director, Gamasutra
I've never been what you might call a "competitive gamer."
It's not that I don't understand competition. I am, for example, a fiercely competitive editor that loses sleep when another publication scoops us. I also have to, have to get there first if we're both driving to the same place. And don't get me started on food: while I'm enjoying the meal you cooked, I'm secretly planning how to make it better. But when it comes to video games, I prefer a solitary experience. I'm of the Nintendo generation, not the arcade one.
There was something about Super Hexagon that compelled me to continuously best my friends and claw my way up the leaderboards. It reached inside and touched some kind of hidden, primal part of me that made me spend the better part of a Sunday afternoon trying to best a friend's best time that was just three seconds better than mine. Three seconds! How hard could it be?
Maybe more importantly than all that, though, Super Hexagon just may have revived my faith in this art form. I had a trying year in 2012, not really wanting to play any of the games I was seeing, wondering if I'd somehow "outgrown" games…in my 30s! But somewhere in this perfect little game I found the simple joy that led me into this career in the first place. Video games are awesome. Thanks for reminding me, Terry. -- Frank Cifaldi, News Director, Gamasutra
For the first time ever, I teared up at a video game in 2012. That game was Telltale's The Walking Dead, and it was by far one of the most welcome surprises of 2012, acting as conclusive evidence that an incredible narrative can in fact overcome middling gameplay elements. This Telltale-developed title features some of the most glorious story writing and choice elements I've ever seen in a video game, and feels like a huge step in the right direction for storytelling in our industry.
From the relationship between Lee and his daughter-by-default Clementine, to the trials and tribulations for Kenny and his family (some of which really got my eyes watering), the five-part adventure game pushes the boundaries of video game narrative. It's frequently heart-wrenching as your fellow apocalypse survivors are picked off one-by-one, but there are also numerous moments of fuzzy warmth, despite the zombie-filled surroundings.
Oh, and you know when a game says that it's giving you choices, but then those choices barely affect much at all? The Walking Dead's decisions actually matter, in such a way that choices you made in chapter one are still having great consequences by the final hurdle.
With The Walking Dead easily claiming my own personal game of the year tag, the hope is now that its presence will breed a new gaggle of video games that don't feature stories that I'd rather hammer the "skip" button through. I'm not exactly holding my breath, but hey -- at least The Walking Dead Season Two is confirmed. -- Mike Rose, UK Editor, Gamasutra
As I was sitting on my couch, Xbox controller in hand, something dawned on me: I'm playing a turn-based strategy game on my TV, it's a new XCOM, it's a big-budget retail release from a major publisher, and it's really good. So, good on everyone who worked to get this thing greenlit. XCOM: Enemy Unknown really appealed to me because of its layers of grand strategy, which are layered over a tactics system that played like a board game (which makes sense -- the developers used a board game to prototype the system).
It's also extremely rare for a strategy game to weave a narrative into the gameplay, but XCOM pulled it off, thanks to a brilliant framework that facilitated emergent storytelling and narrative.
Perhaps the most subtle, yet important reason that I enjoyed XCOM so much is that everything -- from the action figure-esque character design to the fact that it's based on a dormant PC strategy series -- gave me the impression that someone's hands were on this game. It's a big-budget, polished game, that wasn't just a product. This game meant something to Firaxis, and it shows. -- Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra
A lot of people talk about the idea that narrative and gameplay have nothing to do with one another -- or, beyond that, the idea that story should be stricken from games entirely; the premise of this argument is that story somehow pollutes games.
I can't stand this, because I love stories. I love stories that have been crafted by writers -- stories that are full of ideas. That would be reason enough to love Virtue's Last Reward, as it's a complex but coherent story that's just bursting with them. But there's more going on here: it's a story that you explore, a story not aside from gameplay, but as gameplay.
Like any good mystery, it keeps you guessing. In fact, that's the engine that powers Virtue's Last Reward: you throw yourself into the story, trying to piece it together, and literally leaping from node to node, exploring every moment of its narrative. What's important? What's a red herring? What's just an interesting idea that's there just because it's interesting, and nothing more? It's all there for you to discover -- to fully participate in its discovery.
When you find yourself tackling this story -- piecing it together in your head as the game pieces it together in front of you, breaking open its "locks" as the pieces start to fit -- it's a real moment of forward motion in storytelling gameplay. It's a passionate exploration of what narrative as game can be by people who care about both. -- Christian Nutt, Features Editor, Gamasutra