December 23, 2012 by Devin
It’s that time of the year when everyone seems to be doing “Best of” lists. Considering I have not played nearly enough games to make such a list, this is just a list of games I found notable this year. This is in no way a claim of overall superiority.
Everyone does “Game of the Year” nods, and while I think that is a worthy endeavor, I prefer not to. Instead, I want to take a slightly different route with my category. Every year games come and go, and what I find notable is that the best games are not always the games that stick around in public memory and have an impact. A lot of games have great game mechanics, compelling stories, and exciting play, and yet they do nothing to push the industry forward in a meaningful way.
And yet there are also the games that do something new, exciting, and different, and while they may not be the most polished or most fun, they change the industry in a significant way. Minecraft is one such game, for example. While it may not have been a better game than other games released last year, it did more for the industry than just about any other game.
So I prefer to do my own category, one that does not try to say whether one game is objectively better than another, nor does it reward the games that only do what is known best. I hope to recognize a game that will not only be enjoyed now, but talked about for years to come. These are the games the games that I am most glad existed this year.
Runner Up: The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead will probably be remembered as the first time a point and click adventure game was able to reach a general audience. Telltale, the developer, messed around with the genre quite a bit to make it accessible. There are few obscure puzzles, and the game helps the player along with mixing items quite a bit, preventing people from going around and trying their one item on every clickable object in lieu of actually thinking about the problem. Some people may be annoyed that such “sacrifices” were made, but this was honestly the first point and click adventure game I was able to get through without a guide.
The focus of the game was shifted from puzzles to dialogue, a move that made this game closer to an interactive television show than any other game I have played. In other adventure games, talking to people is at best a way to hear something funny or something important and at worst an exercise in patience while looking for some clue on how to get to the next area. In this game, I talked to people because they mattered. I talked to people because I wanted to hear their perspective. I talked to people because I wanted to comfort them.
The Walking Dead will probably be remembered by most people as their first truly heartbreaking experience with a video game. Everything fits perfectly together. The story is fantastic but never dominating. The player is always an agent of action but is never left to wander without direction. The action is a rare but brutal, a feeling enhanced by the sense that something bad could happen at any time. The Walking Dead was a game that made you care about its characters and then tasked you with the impossible task of keeping them safe. And I took that task wholeheartedly.
The Game I am Most Glad Existed This Year: Spec-Ops: The Line
Spec-Ops is not the best game of the year. It does not have the tightest gameplay or the prettiest presentation. However, it does not aspire to be game of the year. It aspires to be a voice.
Spec-Ops will probably be remembered as one of the first attempts by a game to be a literary voice. That is a vague notion and I am not sure I can fully explain what I am trying to get at here, but essentially Spec-Ops does not exist for the player. Its primary concern is not to show the player a good time or make the player enjoy him or herself.
There are lots of games that take inspiration from literature, but few act like literature. Whatever points they make exist within themselves and often in a vague or disconnected fashion. There are lots of games that may be anti-war, for example, but there are few that are specifically against a war or go deep into the consequences of such a conflict. Spec-Ops does, and it does so by first targeting other video games’ depiction of war and then gradually moving beyond that into a larger discussion about war and the toll it takes on soldiers.
This is one of the few games that actually has something to say and is willing to be upfront about it. There is an old mantra when it comes to writing: “Show, don’t tell.” I think this is a valuable saying, but it is also being abused by gaming. So many games get close to saying something, possibly something important, but hide their message under the guise of subtlety, which means that most players will miss whatever message is there. Sure, that particular game could be anti-war, but most players will miss it because they are having so much fun shooting things and getting points.
The gameplay in Spec-Ops further reinforces the message of Spec-Ops. It is fun, sure, but more importantly it is brutal, and only gets more so as the game progresses. Eventually, the way the character animates and talks reflects a brutality not normally present in this type of game. The gameplay reinforces the point of the game and does not limit its intellectual and literary thinking to cutscenes.
Spec-Ops does not hide its message. It forces the player to confront the demons in the game. Spec-Ops could be criticized as preachy, though really only in comparison to other games. The reason I am glad that this game existed beyond all other games this year is because Spec-Ops was the first game I saw that was able to upfront and confident in its message. That ambition may not have succeeded completely, but future games will look toward this game and go, “Because of this game, we could move forward.”