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

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


Arkane, Bethesda Softworks
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

Hero Academy

Robot Entertainment
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

Sound Shapes

Queasy Games
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


Mossmouth, Microsoft Studios
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

Super Hexagon

Terry Cavanagh
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

The Walking Dead

Telltale Games
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

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Firaxis, Take-Two/2K
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

Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward

Spike Chunsoft, Aksys Games
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

Honorable Mentions

Kris Graft, EIC, Gamasutra

Assassin's Creed III - Ubisoft Montreal: A lot of care was put into recreating colonial America, and it's the setting that I appreciate most about this game. It's a finely-tuned triple-A action-adventure romp, with lots of objectives to accomplish and enemies to dispatch, but the best part was just walking around and enjoying the scenery whenever possible. Guild Wars 2 - ArenaNet, NCsoft: I don't like MMOs, but I've always been able to enjoy the Guild Wars series. Guild Wars 2 is one of the more beautiful games of the year, with an aesthetic that differentiates itself from World of Warcraft and other fantasy games. That, combined with coherent storytelling and tight systems made this a standout title for me this year. The Room - Fireproof Games: This iOS game is a lesson in tactile and intuitive touchscreen design. It lets players explore not a vast world, but various puzzle boxes that players poke, prod and investigate. It's a personal experience, finely crafted and quite elegant.

Christian Nutt, Features Director, Gamasutra

The Last Story - Mistwalker, Marvelous AQL, XSEED: I wasn't even interested in this one at first, but I fell in love with it before long -- fell in love with its cast of characters, fell in love with its fat-free storytelling and gameplay, fell in love with its classic heart but innovative spirit. A surprise and a gem. Kid Icarus Uprising - Project Sora, Nintendo: The sprawling creativity and appeal of its single player campaign is actually outshone for me by its multiplayer, which blends the kinetic precision of Smash Bros. with Western shooter gameplay. You wouldn't expect it to work but it does -- beautifully. Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy - Indies Zero, Square Enix: Final Fantasy as rhythm game seems ridiculous at first blush, but the perfect selection of tracks, simple but responsive touch gameplay, and ruthlessly tuned progression kept me hooked. I'd play it in the morning as soon as I woke up, play it in the evening in stolen moments, guiltily -- and beg to play the multiplayer given half a chance.

Frank Cifaldi, News Director, Gamasutra

The Last Express - Smoking Car, DotEmu: Jordan Mechner's first, last, and best adventure game finally feels like it found its home on my iPad's screen. I'm a big fan of interactive narrative confining itself to one small environment and spending its time fleshing it out as much as possible: what better place than a train to play with this idea? Spec Ops: The Line - Yager Development, 2K Games: I don't play shooters for reasons beyond the scope of this article. They're just not for me. But there was something so incredibly ballsy about the bait-and-switch this game pulled on its players -- a Heart of Darkness homage disguised as a Call of Duty knock-off -- that I couldn't help but play through it with deep respect and admiration. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening - Nintendo: OK, so this game didn't come out this year, but I discovered it for the first time, and I'm floored by its elegant simplicity. Remember when video games felt like, you know, video games? Why isn't there anything remotely as good as this 19-year-old game on Facebook?

Mike Rose, UK News Editor, Gamasutra

Mark of the Ninja - Klei Entertainment: Stealth gameplay done so very right. It's slick, it makes you feel like a boss, and it lets you tackle each situation in a huge variety of ways. 2D platforming at its finest. Trials Evolution - Redlynx, Ubisoft: I hated Trials HD, so to call Trials Evolution one of my personal favorite games of the year may sounds crazy. But what RedLynx did to the original formula -- gave it personality; made it more accessible while keeping the difficulty levels up; adding fantastic social elements -- was a godsend. Gravity Rush - SCE Japan Studio, Sony: Both this and Uncharted: Golden Abyss made me love my PS Vita this year, but Gravity Rush just pipped Drake at the post for my most memorable Vita experience. There's nothing quite like soaring through the sky and watching the gorgeous visuals go by on a handheld screen.

Leigh Alexander, Editor-at-Large, Gamasutra

Tokyo Jungle - SCE Japan Studio, Crispy's, Sony: Cats, deer and dogs in party hats in an abandoned city. Charming and eminently playable, the way it makes light of the frailties of nature makes experiences you want to tell stories about. Persona 4: The Golden - Atlus: More than just a remake, the fresh, modern and massive JRPG has gotten a coat of polish shiny enough to seduce new fans and to tempt old ones for another go. The JRPG often feels like a niche art, but this is the kind of formidable, appealing hit that hints there's still a big audience out there. Eurydice - Anonymous: One of the top-ranked games in the 2012 IF Competition bypasses preconceptions about nerdy parser-struggles to deliver a sparse yet beautifully-written parable on love and death. It's one of my favorite experiences this year.

Brandon Sheffield, Editor Emeritus, Game Developer magazine

Dust: An Elysian Tail - Humble Hearts, Microsoft: I don't much care for the character designs, but this is one of the biggest passion projects I've ever seen. Incredibly detailed animation, a full, living world, clever puzzles and challenges, all created (by and large) by one person who couldn't even program at the start of development. The combat in this game is some of the most fun I've had in a 2D action title in years, and is the first game I actually played to completion this year. (Disclaimer - I'm only including games I beat.) Lili - BitMonster Games: When it comes to high-end iOS games, you can have your Infinity Blades and Horns, those games' universes don't appeal to me. I like wonder and whimsey in my games, something you rarely see in the present era of realistic guns and guts. Lili's well-realized world is one I actually want to explore, and it has characters I'm interested in, and mechanics that don't drive me up a wall (your mileage may vary - definitely play it on an iPad). I found this game incredibly charming, and I would love to see more games follow suit. Cave Rescue - Quikding Gamesoft: I'm not expecting anyone else to agree, but I love the bizarre, and Cave Rescue is a fantastically curious experiment. The game's inputs are simple, the graphics are MSPaint atrocities, and the music is like a gorgeous fever dream. And it all works perfectly together. Not only that, the game is loaded with extras, with bonus games peppered through the game's many arcade machines (walk up to one - like in Shenmue - and have a go). I'm constantly surprised that more people aren't singing the praises of Quikding's fantastical game oddities, but that probably says more about me than it does you.

Patrick Miller, Editor, Game Developer magazine

Hotline Miami - Dennaton Games: Hotline Miami's psychedelic, ultraviolent visual motif stands in direct contrast to its clinical, iterative game design to produce what i imagine is a study in psychopathology. Each level feels, to me, like a problem-solving exercise similar to a crossword puzzle -- even though I'm murdering hundreds of people. If there's one thing devs could learn from this game, it's "Show, don't tell." Skullgirls - Reverge Labs, Lab Zero Games: Skullgirls embodies perhaps the best and worst of 2012 for fighting games. The game design, the score, the character art and animation -- everything about Skullgirls is a love letter to the 2D fighting game at its best. Had Skullgirls managed to pull in enough sales to build the critical mass necessary to sustain a dedicated, long-term competitive community, I think it would have had a shot at the top 10. ZiGGURAT - Action Button Entertainment: Let me be clear: There are many mobile game developers, but there are not so many developers who know how to make mobile games. ZiGGURAT is a simple game -- one person, one gun, countless alien freaks -- but it is the only game I have ever played that made a touchscreen feel as finely-tuned and capable as any physical-button controller.

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