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My Top 10 Games of 2012

December 28, 2012

By Joel Jordon

I’ve never made a list like this before because I would normally struggle to name ten games released in any given year that I really enjoyed. This year, however, was a banner year for indie games. So-called triple-A games will always be around as blockbuster movies are always around, but the space for other kinds of games, which is much-needed, is expanding rapidly. As many small games proliferate, the path is opened for the exploration of so many more unique ideas in games. It seemed to happen so suddenly. Before this year, I hadn’t played more than a handful of great indie games. On this list of ten games, eight are independent. Lines are being drawn right now on the debate over whether and how narrative should figure into games, and these are some of the first games engaging with this question from new angles. It may not be fully realized right now, but this is sure to be a moment in the history of videogames that will be looked back on as changing and defining so much of what came after.

10. Little Inferno

littleinferno

A morbid critique of media consumption, Little Inferno forces you to question how you spend your time. The Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace is your new Wii U console, but as you stare at it the whole game, unchanging except for the fires you start in it, it also becomes the screen you sit in front of for so many hours every day. Games constantly deal with time, but too often they’re limited to just asking us to invest dozens of hours into them unquestioningly. Little Inferno provides a more interesting counterpoint, suggesting instead that as we complete meaningless goals in games and consume seemingly endless amounts of media we might just be wasting what limited time we have.

9. Tie between three indie games on the PlayStation Network — The Unfinished Swan, Papo & Yo, and Journey

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These are all linear, story-driven games that I would hesitate to include on this list if they didn’t also all emphasize the game as a played space. Whether it’s splattering paint to reveal the shape of a room in The Unfinished Swan, building a bridge out of houses and twisting it upward in Papo & Yo, or just surfing across sand dunes in Journey, these games encourage playful engagement with their environments. The walls and floors you peel back in Papo & Yo reveal the white space where you, like the protagonist, have to harness your imagination; this is also the space of the white room before you paint it in The Unfinished Swan and the space of Journey’s whiteout blizzard, which slowly saps control away from you before you gain the freedom to fly in the clouds. The stories of each of these games are only these white spaces until you begin really playing, at which point it’s revealed that the real surface of the experiences is what you’ve filled in.

6. Tie between two Nintendo games — Kid Icarus: Uprising and New Super Mario Bros. 2 or New Super Mario Bros. U (take your pick)

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So much stuff is packed into Kid Icarus: Uprising, and the game seems to urge you to somehow pay attention to all of it at once. There are dozens of weapons, items, and enemies, several multiplayer modes, and even a complex difficulty-scaling mechanic. All of the single-player stages are divided into two parts with very different gameplay, and there’s a plot that is communicated largely through dialogue filled with jokes that are easy to miss because it all takes place during heavily action-oriented gameplay. On top of all of this that’s dividing your attention there is also, of course, the 3DS’s 3D effects. And a twist near what appears will be the end of the game just about triples its length. The game revels in everything that’s superfluous about it, providing humorous and action-filled entertainment.

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The two Mario games released this year may be too similar for their own good, but playing them you can’t help feeling that Nintendo is newly revitalized and that these games represent the company’s design philosophy focused on accessibility at its best. These are games that not only can be played by anyone but also cater to players’ different skill levels. Stages in New Super Mario Bros. 2 are designed with coins sprinkled everywhere, which effectively makes for many optional challenges of varying difficulty. For New Super Mario Bros. U, the Wii U’s gamepad enables a less-experienced player to play the easier role of placing blocks in the stages (or this player could be aided by blocks placed by another player). In either case, the social experience—the communication outside the game—is universally shared and enjoyed. A more-experienced player can play the game’s challenge mode, which seems like what I’ve personally been waiting forever for a Mario game to have.

These are of course the odd games that don’t seem to fit on this list, but I think it’s important that they’re here because they show that I think Nintendo is still relevant. They’re still great designers, and although recently they might have been making some miscalculations they have never stopped pursuing a coherent vision in each of their games. This vision takes them in a direction that differs from where a lot of the other designers on this list are going in, but it will likely remain important and influential as it has been in the past.

4. Spelunky

spelunky

Impeccably designed, Spelunky presses you to improve with every death and every failure. There is great complexity: the world is randomly generated with traps and treasures, and as you obtain items and learn how to best use them, they can completely change how you play. Your narrative emerges as you learn and make choices. Once I had only climbing gloves in the ice caverns, and I suddenly had the realest-feeling mountain-climbing experience I’ve ever had in a game. I was climbing down a wall before somehow falling and ending up clinging to a rock above the pit at the bottom of the stage. I was sure I would have to die because there was no clear way back up, but then I tried throwing a rope above me. I had never tried doing this while clinging to a wall before, but it worked. After climbing the rope, there was exactly one block of ice I could jump to, and if I didn’t slip, I could then jump from there to safety. All of this felt anticipated by the game’s designer and planned out for the maximum dramatic effect, but it couldn’t have been. The stage was randomly generated, and I had only ended up in exactly that situation by my interactions with a chance arrangement of the game’s different rules. This is the kind of story that can emerge in a game, but it is only one of so many other stories that Spelunky’s design allows for. It is contained within the greater narrative of your struggle for progress, the details of which are constantly determined by you depending on whether you are able to remain patient or if you are willing to take risks. It is rare to feel so much like a protagonist as you do in Spelunky, where your actions decide how the game unfolds.

3. Tie between two games designed by Michael Brough — Zaga-33 and Corrypt

zaga-33

Zaga-33 and Corrypt represent videogames at their most undisguised. Aesthetically they are both made up of low-resolution pixels that are mirrored at the mechanical level by grids of movement. Both games are testaments to what games are capable of once they drop all pretense to realism and look and play transparently like games. It is, in particular, the abstract code operating underneath the aesthetics and the mechanics that drives these experiences. Zaga-33 is a roguelike stripped to its fundamentals. As you seek to discover the mysteries of the code underlying it, it inspires Zen-like meditation and a feeling of loneliness.

corrypt

In Corrypt, you struggle to solve rigid puzzles that have only one or a few solutions until you learn how to literally tear at the surface of the game. You seem to win freedom then, but the game maintains its feeling of oppression: it is a dangerous freedom that, acted on, can have potentially chaotic consequences that are not easy to undo. The subdued and abstract mechanics in both these games beget emotion more effectively than most other games that pursue it earnestly but wrap it up in overwrought narratives rather than allow it to arise out of play.

1. Dyad

dyad

Shawn McGrath’s Dyad, like Michael Brough’s Zaga-33 and Corrypt, does not attempt to disguise itself. It is completely transparent about being a game with rules and goals, and it condenses these down to their most fundamental and abstract forms. At the start it rigidly insists that you follow its rules, and the potential for failure, always lingering, produces anxiety. As you learn its systems, however, this feeling then gives way to the thrill of mastery. Finally it takes all the rules and goals away to show you a different kind of play. Dyad is a game exploring territory that can only be explored by games, a game purely about play and how its different forms can elicit different emotions. I will point you to the post below this one for more of my thoughts on Dyad.

Games I would have included in the top 10 had I played them before writing: Frog Fractions, Super Hexagon, and Proteus

Honorable mentions: Sine Mora, They Bleed Pixels, and Tokyo Jungle

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