2012 was overall a shit year for mainstream games, and as far as indie-games-that-you-have-to-pay-for go, it seems like there were plenty of games people loved but not many of them struck a chord with me (Journey, Dear Esther: I’m lookin’ at you). I also played far fewer videogames this year than in the past, as I’ve been doing other things with my free time. ANYWAY here is my obligatory list of Games That I Really Liked That Came Out in the Last 365 Days.
The Pleasuredromes of Kubla Khan, thecatamites (PC). Some sort of virtual reality nominally educational tour of Kubla Khan’s Mongolia, through the lens of the wretchedly bad Coleridge poem, with a dash of what appear to be sex-crazed Fraggles thrown in for good measure. When I first played this game, which takes only about 10 minutes, I thought “Huh, okay, that was funny and weird.” But the game stuck with me. I find myself thinking about it whenever I see an educational game, or sometimes in my introspective moments. It has wormed its way into my psyche, and that is terrifying.
Smooth Operators, by Heydeck Games (XBLIG, coming soon to PC). This game is a call center simulator. It is pretty detailed: you have to build out a physical office space and hire inbound and outbound marketers, project managers, account managers, IT staff, janitors, etc. Each individual employee can be micromanaged to the point where you can control their actual shift schedule, their individual salary, etc. The game has a rhythm to it that makes it incredibly relaxing to play. While aesthetically it reminds me a lot of the phone game Tiny Tower, on a mechanical level it’s much more like a Sim Tower or other classic management titles (here you’ll find no forced “energy” mechanic, thank god).
FTL, by Subset Games (Win/Mac/Linux). I’m a huge fan of “roguelike-likes”, and FTL kept my rapt interest for several weeks, even inspiring me to write up a short strategy guide. A wonderful game that does exactly what it sets out to do (giving you the command of the crew of a small spaceship), and consciously manages to improve upon one of my favorite games, 2005′s Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space.
Dishonored, by Arkane Studios (Win/360/PS3). Plenty has already been said about this game. What I’ll say is that any game that causes me to utter the following sentence is a winner: “Next time I play through it, I’m going to focus on possessing fish as my primary strategy.”
City Tuesday, by Return to Adventure Mountain LLC (XBLIG). I’ve always been shocked that more indie games haven’t used The Noun Project as a resource for free art assets, so I was really happy to see these screenshots pop up on my Xbox dashboard. City Tuesday is a short, stylish puzzle platformer that features sharp, sardonic writing and an overall aesthetic that reminds me a little bit of Robert Yang or Brendon Chung.
Tokyo Jungle, by PlayStation C.A.M.P. and Crispy’s (PS3). This game made me laugh more than any other game released this year, and it’s another one of those “roguelike-likes” that I love so much. I’m really not sure what to say about it! I just enjoy the hell out of it.
XCOM, by Firaxis Studios (Win/PS3/360). Turn-based squad tactics is one of my favorite types of game (Jagged Alliance 2 and Final Fantasy Tactics being among my favorite games ever), but they are rarely done right, usually collapsing under the bulk of their own complexity and tedium. XCOM takes the original XCOM formula and streamlines the hell out of it, leaving only exactly what is good about the series and the genre.
Dys4ia, by Anna Anthropy (web browser). In addition to adapting the framework of WarioWare to tell a story about being transgender and electing to start taking hormones, I just have to point out that the music is my favorite videogame music of the year. Composed by Liz Ryerson, it is available for free here. (I also need to point out that Liz is my favorite new videogame critic/blogger/smartperson whose work I discovered in 2012. You should especially read her brilliant take on Hotline Miami and videogame violence, and her adventures in level design series.)
Proteus, by Ed Key and David Kanaga (Win/Mac). Just fucking magical.
December 2012, by Courtney Stanton. Okay so I’m a little biased in that I’m married to Courtney, but I think this is a really important project. As an exercise in learning Twine, she’s making (not quite done as of today but almost!) one Twine game for every day in December. But it’s not just a formally interesting exercise in personal-journal-as-hypertext-game: the games consistently surprise me. One of my favorite moments was when she used the technique (common for Twine games) where you embed a YouTube video to get background music, but tweaked it by layering a whole bunch of different videos to get a cacophony. Each day is its own little experiment, each day does something (technically, content-wise, or design-wise) that all of the previous days have not.
Bonus! Games I fucking hated.
Spec Ops: The Line. I go into more detail here. While I regretted every moment I spent playing it, I even moreso regretted every moment I spent reading about it.
Dark Souls (came out in 2011 but I played it this year and I have to rant about it somewhere). I’m sorry, but I can’t do it. It took me four hours to beat the tutorial boss. And yes, that was with knowing exactly what I was supposed to do and taking the advice of many, many people on Twitter. It’s not like I don’t like hard games. I love FTL and Spelunky and Liberal Crime Squad and have beaten all of them multiple times. But playing that Dark Souls tutorial was the only time in 2012 that I yelled at the TV screen and threw my controller. The game transformed me into some kind of angry, rage-filled monster of a person, and I will hate it forever for doing that to me. Tons of smart people I know like this game, but for me, all that I really want to say is: fuck Dark Souls. Fuck it straight to hell.