Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011: My Games of the Year

Reading so many lovely Game of the Year lists debates and lists had me thinking about the nature of GOTY roundups in general, why we do them, but also the inherent nature and how it alienates certain types of titles that may deserve recognition. Kotaku bravely discussed Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery as one of their top picks, and while anyone that played it may see the validity in that approach, an equal number of voices surely will be heard today saying, "An iOS game? What the fuck?"

The current state of games is in an exciting place -- that being that people are figuring out so many different ways to make them and platforms to distribute them on. While games look better than ever before, some longtime gamers also complain of feeling "less engaged," despite high end graphics and big budgets to create them.

I'm notorious for being a picky gamer, not the type to be satisfied with the average release. That being said, my GOTY picks rarely look anything like most lists, even though they can share common points. But, part of the excellence of appreciating games as a media art form is seeing how they affect people differently, and in the spirit of that, I'll share the games that meant the most to me this year.

This making the list is not mystery, as I'm a hardcore fan of the series and trumpet about it more or less any chance I get. Still, the Tengoku series has always been incredibly challenging, and to pull off a new title and make it not feel stale, the magic is in the music -- something that composer Tsunku has somehow managed to make work for three games in a row. Seeing Tengoku at its prettiest ever helps with the jump from portable console to the Wii, but its cartoonlike style also works really well on it. I don't tend to enjoy the Wii control scheme, but Minna no Rhythm Tengoku makes you forget about it entirely.

Called Rhythm Heaven Fever for its US release on February 13th, I expect this challenging rhythm title to capture some hearts with its catchy music and hilarious minigames. Tsunku's done it again -- and kudos to Nintendo for localizing this title and getting that there's an audience for it!

I love that one of the most affecting titles I played this year was on my iPhone. Obviously, the game is all the better on an iPad with more room to see, but even on the iPhone it made quite an impression. While S & S's aura of mystery was surely one of its most memorable attributes, what stuck out about the most for me was the distinct feeling that I was playing an unforgettable classic, something I wish I had realized when playing adventure games for the first time a decade ago. That emotion is difficult to invoke, so I applaud superbrothers for this one. I go into more detail about it in my review for GamesRadar, but this beautiful little gem was one of the most unique of the year and should not be missed.

I was worked up about Catherine long before the game's release -- all I needed was a trailer to send me flipping out and wailing all over the internet about how it would redefine how we perceived sexuality in games. In an editorial for Gamasutra, I sketched out a ton of ideas about what the game could symbolize, and a lot of them weren't quite spot on. While the initial trailers for Catherine made it look like a very sexy game, in the end, it was anything but.

Catherine was not always a pleasant game to play. If you dug deeply enough into it, however, you would see that pleasant gameplay would never fit this behemoth of a project -- it aimed to expose something even more uncomfortable than we originally speculated. On occasion it felt heavy handed, but the significance it placed on choices and their consequences was unforgettable. I'm not sure I will ever play Catherine again, but I can't name any other game this year that stuck its hand it my gut and twisted it so successfully. (My post-analysis of the game is here.)

Valve is king when it comes to a polished release, and the first Portal was so beloved it echoed through fan consciousness for years. I'm majorly wary of sequels, especially when I think the story has been already been told conclusively, and so it seemed with this series. At least, until I played Portal 2 and realized I had found the cure for the common sequel -- a story that introduced new characters that were completely compelling, writing that took an event that could be poor in lesser hands (GlaDOS' resurrection) and gave it reasoning and body, and added co-op that felt anything but tacked on. A model for what a sequel should be like, Portal 2 was nothing less than an absolute triumph.

To The Moon is the absolute opposite of a game like Portal 2 -- at least when it comes to budget and production. Portal 2 had a team to give it such shine, whereas To The Moon was created by one person ... and still shone with one of the brightest lights I've seen in some time. This clever RPG was a dream come true for a retro enthusiast, looking right at home alongside titles like Chrono Trigger.

However, To The Moon bravely plunged forward and did something that RPGs haven't done in all too long, too. Daring to tell a story that was emotional and sometimes painful, sketching characters that were memorable enough to truly care for, and accompanying it all with a score that's literally the most beautiful I've heard this year, To The Moon really did something special. It was worth it to borrow a PC to play this game, and I can only hope to see more games that dare to take such bold chances. My full analysis of To The Moon can be found here.

What games made your personal list? Why were they important to you?


Knives said...

To The Moon was such am amazing experience, I keep asking friends to get it but hardly any of them wanders outside of Steam. As for my personal list for this year, I play a lot of games, very different types and for different reasons, with that said I'd rather talk about what games I think I'll remember the most years ahead than what games I played the most or thought they were the "best" by some predefined standards.

From To The Moon I'll remember almost everything about it, the music, the characters, the emotional connection... the whole presentation, it's a work of art and I'm sure I'll always remember it fondly.

From Atom Zombie Smasher I'll remember the little yellow dots running away from the pink ones and actually caring.

From Portal 2 I think I'll always remember the great humor in it.

From Magicka I'll remember how easy it was to get yourself on fire and all the game and pop culture references that game has, also how easy it was to troll friends in it.

From Red Orchestra 2 I'll remember how tense and serious it gets, especially when compared to modern shooters.

From Dungeons of Dredmor I'll remember dying and losing a 5 hr character because I decided to play when I was in a hurry and ended up rushing into traps(I started over the next day).

From Terraria I'll remember the thrill of exploring and building and crafting things that I couldn't get out of Minecraft

From Skyrim I'll remember the wilderness, the dragon shouts, the music, but mostly the joy of getting back into a world I've been visiting for almost a decade now, and catching up on what has happened since the last time I was there.

Han said...

I like your list :)

3. Batman A.C. just for its colourful characters and I love comics

2. Portal, for it's brilliance

1. To the Moon, here's my opinion piece abt this most extraordinary game
Colette, you actually introduced me to To the Moon, I listened to the soundtrack from a link on your blog. The music touched me so deeply that I had to play the game. I've been gaming for decades and started giving up on finding something new. Thank you for writing abt it :)

Colette Bennett said...

Thanks Han! To know I passed To The Moon on to anyone really makes me happy, I think Kan Gao's work deserves major exposure. And that soundtrack! I could listen to it forever ^_^

Han said...

I agree, trying to do my bit here in SA, but sadly the gaming community is like from another planet :( I wrote an article on it, most responses were wtf why you playing a game like that. I'm doing an interview with him next year, hoping that'll introduce him to our community.

That music....its magical hey

Unknown said...

It's good to see that people are deviating from the games being hyped up to be the best but really carried some disappointment. This is great list :D ^5

Portal 2 was probably celebrated by many for it's game engine and gameplay but I found it to be so much more. A constant roller coaster of discovery. The storyline immersed me greatly and I found myself never getting saturated and ever wanting to find out more about it. It's as if I had gone back in time and learned the story, the life of another that had really existed, I could see the newly introduced characters as you have exclaimed in my minds eye and felt like I was getting to know them :)

That being said the gameplay was so addictive that I couldn't rest until i had finished it.

Platformers also caught my attention this year, Limbo was one of the greatest I have ever seen, it's dark and twisted aura, it's enticing silence and lure to it's realm of intrigue.

Trine 2 is also an amazing piece of artwork, I could get lost in it's beauty for hours :)

The Witcher 2 was a fantastic RPG to me, imo it was really under rated. I enjoyed the story line and the "history" the writers created.

All in all, a great year for gaming. L.A Noire was also at the top for me. I played it on PC and even dreamt about it for nights at end!