Best Emergent Trends (and Other Things) of 2012

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Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to narrow this list down to anything that is in anyway manageable. It’s been a great year for games- especially indies. At this point I think it’s more useful to look back at certain movements in this year’s releases rather than specific titles.

Naturally, in the course of that, we’re going to be discussing plenty of titles. I started out creating this “game of the year” list believing I didn’t have much to say about this year’s offerings. The more I looked, the more I found was there. This has been a great year for the single-author game; for grassroots and fan-driven projects; for outsiders; and especially for animated discussions about the medium. In this I’m very much in agreement with Michael Abbott– I believe we’re going to look back on 2012 as another important watershed year for games and criticism. The only lingering question I have remaining is– did it sneak up on you too? Or did you already pick up on it months before?

Best Nascent Genre of the Year: Queer Games

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Including but not limited to:

Analogue: A Hate Story (Christine Love)
howling dogs (Porpentine)
dys4ia (anna anthropy)
LIM (Merritt Kopas)
Mainichi (Mattie Brice)
A Closed World (Team Fabulous)

“Queer games are important.”

These were the words with which anna anthropy opened her panel at this year’s IndieCade in Culver City. In doing so, anna alluded not just to “queer” as “sexual minority” but as anyone outside the sociopolitical normal- ie, those not conventionally associated with the development or consumption of games. This year more than any other in recent memory I saw open and enthusiastic discussion of queer themes, critical practices and advocacy. That we capped off this year with something as significant as the #1reasonwhy hashtag says it all: the discourse is changing, undeniably for the better, just by virtue of how many are now speaking up, creating support networks, and carving out safe spaces for themselves.

The games here represent just the tip of an enormous, Titanic-class iceberg in the admittedly not new, but definitely growing field of queer games. In addition to checking out the links above (apart from Analogue, all of these are free, and Analogue is currently on sale on Steam- hint, hint), I definitely encourage you to read anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters for reference to many others, and to seek out some on your own. And make your own. Because if there is one rousing call to action more powerful than any other in anna’s Zinesters, it’s (to modify a bit of Dylan) “everyone must make games.”

Most Ridiculously Underrated Achievements of the Year: Volunteer Projects

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Including but not limited to:

Black Mesa (Black Mesa Modification Team)
Slender (Parsec Productions)
DayZ (Dean Hall)
Katawa Shoujo (Four Leaf Studios)

All four of the above titles deserve placement on this list for their own reasons. Black Mesa was a fabled piece of vaporware for years, the completely volunteer production to recreate and update the original Half-Life demonstrative of equal parts love and tenacity which can only be the hallmark of dedicated fans. Likewise Katawa Shoujo, whatever you might think of its subject matter or execution (and the general consensus there is that it’s problematic but way better than it could be), represents a significant investment of time and creative energy to produce something which could only come about because of the unique culture of a vast online community like 4chan. Both of these are damned polished games that should by rights come with a price tag, but their developers and the original IP holders who seeded the ideas (Valve Software and Japanese artist Raita, respectively) have elected to release them for free in the spirit of a creative gift economy (although this seems poised to change in Black Mesa‘s case).

On the other hand you have projects like DayZ and Slender which also represent a significant investment of an unpaid developer’s blood, sweat and tears, but their rough-around-the-edges presentation is exchanged for the grassroots enthusiasm that has sprouted up around both titles. An unauthorized mod and a first-time experiment in Unity respectively, both of these have caught on with a certain class of gamers in a way that can only be described as a phenomenon. And granted, while neither is likely to have the staying power of something like Minecraft (by dint of comparative versatility alone), you can’t deny both titles represent cases where amateurs vastly outpaced their professional counterparts.

Unlike Katawa Shoujo, which is admittedly located within a niche genre no matter how you slice it, Black Mesa, DayZ and Slender are all soon going the commercial route, so we’ll see how that influences their reception in the coming year. But there’s no denying that their success up to this point has to be credited to the outsider note of difference they each brought– and the developers’ dedication to their projects, despite all the highs and lows.

Best Fuck-You to Publishers of the Year: Kickstarter

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Including but not limited to:

FTL: Faster Than Light (Subset Games)
Bhaloidam (ZakeIro)
Double Fine Adventure (Double Fine)
Wasteland 2 (inXile)
Project Eternity (Obsidian)
Sportsfriends (Die Gute Fabrik)
LA Game Space

It’s become a cliche at this point to refer to 2012 as “the year of the Kickstarter game.” We started things off fairly early with Double Fine Adventure and Wasteland 2, then the Ouya and Project Eternity wriggled in, along with more public-minded projects in recent weeks like the Sportsfriends bundle and LA Game Space. Even if you’re flipping out about the cult of celebrity ostensibly invading Kickstarter or the increasing tendency of mid-level developers to treat Kickstarter as a presale service, it can’t be denied that there is still some good to come out of this surge in crowdfunding enthusiasm.

Naturally, I’d like to wear my bias on my sleeve and give top marks this year to Corvus Elrod’s Bhaloidam, the first (and for a long time, only) Kickstarter project with which I decided to throw in my lot. Bhaloidam is a completely modular tabletop roleplaying game that is intended to play more like collaborative freeform storytelling. It’s informed by Joseph Campbell’s narrative principles in some ways, but while I have plenty of issues with the reductivist way Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and the like are often taught, I admire Corvus’s attempt to design a universal roleplaying game, one which is not bound by genre or heavy systemization. It’s a particular style of play I’ve always been drawn to in RP and it’s a game I’m very excited to start playing.

(And, on that note, I should mention I’m in the process of setting up a game with a few fellow enthusiasts in the Los Angeles area sometime in January or February. If you’re interested, let me know.)

Bhaloidam is a successful Kickstarter game. Corvus set out with a firm product design and has delivered on that product entirely to expectations. Most importantly, now that it is in print, it’s available for anyone for purchase. I could not ask for more out of a Kickstarter. And even if it turns out not to be the dream tabletop system I’ve always wanted, I’m proud to have backed it– just as I’m proud to have backed Project Eternity and LA Game Space, no matter what comes of either of them. At its most cynical, yes, Kickstarter is under threat of colonization from the same forces which dominated games publishing before, but at its most promising, Kickstarter is a means by which to disrupt a risk-adverse publishing model and usher in a new era of market transparency. The next few years will show us whether the optimistic or cynical view pays dividends.

Best Fuck-You to Critics of the Year: The Notgame

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Including but not limited to:

Thirty Flights of Loving (Blendo Games)
Dear Esther (Chinese Room)
Bientôt l’été (Tale of Tales)

One of the most gratifying experiences for me during this past IndieCade was watching Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn stand up to a microphone at a panel and defend the “notgame” label. Whatever you may think about the term, and there are certainly some vocal criticisms to be had against it, the steadfast way in which these developers have embraced what was originally intended to denigrate their creations is pretty dang admirable. Of course, if you ask Dan Pinchbeck, these notgames are games– and I’d agree, but I think the purpose served by the “notgame” label is to confront the user’s expectations of what a game is, and in doing so broaden, not restrict, the user’s understanding of “game.” To go about it the other way, to look at work like this and say “that’s not a game,” smacks of naivete at the least and gatekeeping at the worst, honestly.

In Esther‘s case, Pinchbeck has gone on record stating that his objective with the work was to progressively strip down “what a game is” to its most fundamental state. (And as an academic he’s done considerable and methodical work in the field of “what games are;” certainly he’s put more thought into the question than a lot of industry veterans have.) Or, how he posed it at the IndieCade panel in which he spoke, it was to ask: “Could you make a game which was simply beautiful?”

To be sure, both Dear Esther and Bientôt l’été are beautiful pieces of work. Both are eerie, of course, and Bientôt l’été especially has a sort of sinister quality to both the music and visuals in a way which truly unnerved me while I was playing, but in general they are both gorgeous worlds to invite exploration. So maybe they’re not games in the conventional market sense. But they certainly evoke play in a way I’ve seen few games do, and the fact that “notgames” have stuck in the craw of so many critics, reviewers, journalists and other cultural arbiters this year just cheers me to no end.

Best Reaction of the Year: Adverse Physical Response

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Including (and thankfully mostly limited to):

Super Hexagon (Terry Cavanagh)
Dyad (Right Square Bracket Left Square Bracket)

Confession: I fell asleep during the last level of Dyad.

This is easier to do than you might imagine, as the last level takes away any targets and then your reticle in pretty short order, while the screen continues to swirl and distort and the music makes you feel like you’re passing out from four days’ insomnia and heart-stopping exhaustion. So passing out is exactly what I did.

That’s cool, honestly. How often can you say you played a game that let you sleep- nay, induced the feeling in you?

Likewise, that’s kind of the deal with Super Hexagon. I adore it on its own merits, as a cruel game that nevertheless teaches you to constantly hurl yourself against it in order to improve. There’s just the little niggling issue that I can’t play it for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch before it induces headaches and vertigo. To be clear, I’m pretty sure I’m a rare exception here, and I’d recommend the game to anyone regardless (except for epileptics) because it’s just one of those games that is so elegant and perfect and like language that I feel it speaks to its medium in a way few games do… but yeah, my 30+ hours logged on the game over Steam do not reflect constant play, but more like isolated bursts bracketed by long stretches of keeping the window minimized. And no, I never play it in a dark room.

“But why the hell are you putting these in a category together based on the discomfort they give you?” you might ask. Well, that’s not quite it. It’s more that, as a lifelong gamer, I think I experience what a lot of gamers do in that I find I’m not especially bothered by distracting patterns or dense fields of detail the way nongamers often report they are. I -that is, a lot of us- have a gamer’s eye. We know where to direct our attention and how to adapt to rapidly changing stimuli. So when a game comes along that proactively strains the player, I find that exciting. I kind of want a game that makes me nauseous the way Super Hexagon does, or puts me in an uncomfortable trance like Dyad can. It’s different. Maybe not an everyday experience, but one that stands out.

Most Profound Gutpunch of the Year: Daddy Issues

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Including but not limited to:

Papo & Yo (Minority)
The Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow)
The Walking Dead (Telltale)
Assassin’s Creed III (Ubisoft)*

It was a few years ago when Heavy Rain released that we began talking about “father games”- games which took into account the aging demographic (while ignoring the gender parity) and shored up fatherly protagonists. Ethan Mars with his chronic inability to keep track of his sons; Big Daddies watching over their Little Sisters; even Solid Snake having a turn as a liver-spotted grandpa with an adopted daughter of sorts.

Walking Dead‘s Lee Everett plays into this trope as well, of course, but I don’t know. Something’s different this time. Lee isn’t simply watching over little Clementine; he’s raising her, reassuring her, providing her with much-needed emotional support. It’s a far more intimate father-child relationship than we’re used to seeing out of a game. As I played along I found I wasn’t simply acting how I believed I might as a parent but how I’d wanted my own caretakers to behave towards me. And, in what is possibly the most hurtful part, what I discovered was that I was inevitably reproducing the same patterns of hurt that had been inflicted on me as a child. That’s a serious head-game, right there.

There’s also Kenny and his family, of course, but more than anything I’m interested in how Kenny serves or doesn’t serve as a role-model for Lee (and the player, being asked to take the role of a parent as well). By the fifth chapter, Kenny’s developed a sort of subtlety in his animation and vocal performance I think few games have ever achieved with a secondary character, and what I found –the closer that I looked– was my father’s face.

…Hey, I did label this section “daddy issues.” Parent-child anxieties have been a recurring subject in my past writing, so this should come as no surprise. And this is no one’s “best of” list but my own. If I’m going to praise the games which drove right to the core of my being this year, it’d be shameful of me not to acknowledge which games struck right into an open wound.

Then there are Papo & Yo and Unfinished Swan, two games in which you take on the role of a child (inevitably, a boy) confronting his father’s human shortcomings. For the life of me, I could not have expected Unfinished Swan to reach me on the personal level that it did. Even though Papo & Yo was the more explicitly biographical (and that is praiseworthy in its own right- we need more high-profile personal games), Unfinished Swan spoke to my own experience in a way no game ever has. It’s a story of a family of artists. I’m an artist. My father is an artist. I cannot look at our relationship, strained as it is, without seeing that particular line that’s been drawn from him to me. And how often have we, in growing up, looked at our parents and found the ugly parts of ourselves reflected as well as the good parts? I credit my father for my creative side, but I also blame him for it. If Unfinished Swan –and the other “dad issues” games of this year– has shown me anything, it’s that I can work on keeping the positive while learning to let go of the negative.

Without spoiling too much about Walking Dead, you spend a good chunk of the final chapter making a thesis out of this tumultuous “parenthood” experiment of Lee’s. The last words I chose to tell his adoptive daughter Clementine were “Don’t be afraid.” Those are the words I often tell myself these days, and I wish they were words I’d heard more often as a child.

*I include AC3 on the list as a technicality, because while it was definitely another high-profile release this year where a father-son relationship is featured prominently, I haven’t played it and by all accounts it seems to have plenty of other issues holding it back from critical accolades.

Best Fuck-You to the Status Quo of the Year: AAA Games Taking a First Timid Half-Step Outside of the Box

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Including (and basically limited to):

Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)
Spec Ops: The Line (Yager)
Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (Ubisoft)*

You should have expected these games to pop up on this list at some point. As with last year when I praised Dragon Age II for being a bravely broken yet politically loaded game, I feel that both Spec Ops and Mass Effect 3 are better for the disagreements that have sprouted up around them. That is to say, I like it when a AAA game does something other than satisfy the consumer appetite.

My thoughts on Mass Effect 3 I’ve already shared in detail elsewhere, and as for Spec Ops: The Line, I’ll cede to the guy who wrote the book on the subject. But it’s interesting that both these games provoked such strong reactions in their players, for reasons largely having to do with the emphasis given to story rather than gameplay. Spec Ops‘s writer defended the so-so mechanics by claiming the game needed to keep focus on the narrative; Mass Effect 3‘s writers defended the controversial ending and then the studio gave in to pressure from players to “clarify” a creative vision- which sets a dangerous precedent, but it remains to be seen whether it actually gets taken up as an industrial trend. (I hope not.)

Overall, though, what causes me to admire these games is that they each represent an occasion where a developer for a mainstream title elected to step slightly outside the industry comfort zone, in an industry where taking such risks is actively frowned upon.

*I haven’t played AC3: Liberation, but I plan to once I pick up a Vita. Alternatively, developers could start putting games on platforms people actually own. Either way, its inclusion here is due to the bold choice to go with an African-American woman as its protagonist, which I’ve heard best described as “the pink unicorn of games.”

Most Unexpected New Love of the Year: Interactive Fiction

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Including but not limited to:

howling dogs (Porpentine)
Unmanned (Molleindustria and Jim Munroe)
Analogue: A Hate Story (Christine Love)

Interactive fiction has always been something that has stood at the periphery for me. It was something I dabbled in myself as a teenager, in total ignorance of the field at large, designing non-linear hypertext stories I would host on my website. Later, when I found it was an actual thing, I always found the IF of others strangely impenetrable. This all changed with the increased emphasis on IF that has been happening in the last few years, and in 2012 I finally took the plunge and started investigating not just select IFs but also some of the tools for making them. If all goes according to plan, sometime in 2013 I’m going to start writing my own.

As for this year’s works, I would say that if any interactive fiction pieces stood out head and shoulders above the rest, it would be Christine Love’s Analogue, an epistolary novel set in a misogynistic patriarchal society; Molleindustria’s and Jim Munroe’s Unmanned, about a day in the life of a drone pilot; and Porpentine’s howling dogs, which still makes me salivate thinking back to some of her amazing prose. None of these three are easily described, which I think is one of the great strengths of the form: it’s just a little inscrutable, but at the same time so rife with depth and untold potential that I look forward to seeing this genre hit the mainstream in a big way. Someway, somehow. As we continue to butt up against the reality that graphical polish and frames-per-second are not the be-all and end-all of game design, I would love to see more works adopt IF as a frame of reference and pursue a decidedly more literary (and often, expressionistic) style as these do.

Best Nostalgia of the Year: The Not Very Nostalgic Game

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Including but not limited to:

FTL: Faster Than Light (Subset Games)
Retro/Grade (24 Caret Games)
Dust: An Elysian Tail (Humble Hearts)
X-COM: Enemy Unknown (Firaxis)
Tokyo Jungle (Crispy’s)

I hate “retro” for its own sake. Inasmuch as I believe close study of the game designs of yesteryear is interesting and valuable work, I worry that too much emphasis on past epochs of development will turn into a total design trap. Nostalgia is nice, but progress exists for a reason.

That’s why I’m pleased that this year had so many games that I’d describe as fresh takes on old formats. FTL gave us Oregon Trail in space. Retro/Grade blended shmups with Guitar Hero. Dust recalls the quirky localization style of mid-90s Working Designs together with Metroidvania gameplay and (let’s face it) furries. X-COM: Enemy Unknown took a franchise you must apparently be a hipster to even know about, slathered it with a fresh coat of Valkyria Chronicles and some X-Files pastiche, and sent us off to make cannon fodder of our friends. And Tokyo Jungle… Actually I have no idea where or how to categorize Tokyo Jungle, except as a “revenge eating simulator.” It’s strange and reminds me of something traumatic I might’ve played in some odd formative part of my gaming adolescence many years ago. Like that first time red ants invaded your colony in SimAnt when you were six. I don’t know, let’s just move on.

What I’m getting at is that each of these games is neither completely hearkening back to an older generation of development nor completely forgetting some of the more charming idiosyncrasies of those bygone trends and genres. It’s nostalgia in a way that’s comforting, but doesn’t compel me to don a felt fedora and skinny jeans. Progress.

Best Coffee Table Game of the Year

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Journey (thatgamecompany)

Yes. We can’t get around it. If 2012 needs to be known by one game alone (which is definitely a discredit to the huge breadth of games coming out in a given year, as should be evidenced by this sampling above), it ought to be Journey. It expounds upon ideas set out in Tale of Tales’ Endless Forest to offer up a game in which conversation with other live human beings is symbolic, the road taken is winding, and the story is at once deeply spiritual and completely open to interpretation. Its score is in the running for a Grammy. Its art design has inspired a veritable flood of fanart and cosplay. It is simultaneously the simplest and most elaborate of Jenova Chen’s output to date.

Lastly and most importantly- like any good coffee table art book, Journey exists to be discussed. The ambiguity of the narrative and the inevitable variation to the experience when factoring in a) other players, b) own play style, and c) expectations means that Journey is indeed a road that many travelers take, but the actual journey is intensely individual in nature.

There are many games I would advance as more provocative, more original, even more potentially influential in the long run… but if you wanted to go with one game which defined 2012, and really gaming as a whole, it has to be Journey.

In many ways I believe it’s impossible to talk about this year in games without mentioning the writing that’s sprung up around them. So it is that I don’t think you can adequately look at Porpentine’s body of work without referring to her manifesto on Nightmare Mode and her interviews with Emily Short and John Brindle, and I don’t think it’s possible to now look at Spec Ops: The Line and not refer to Brendan Keogh’s book. This isn’t totally new –it at least stretches back to Bioshock and Clint Hocking’s 2007 seminal post on ludonarrative dissonance, if not Jedi Outcast and Always Black in 2004– but I believe it’s become something that is not so much recognized in retrospect as it is now a coda which develops alongside, and is digested alongside, a game’s release.

I am so pleased to see more and more developers turning to blogging during and between projects. I am so pleased that the line between critic and developer is blurrier than it has ever been. If I have any aspirations for games in the coming few years, it’s “more like this, please.” More innovative, disruptive, provocative work from both devs and critics. More critics crossing over into game design. More (to reference anna anthropy again) “freaks, normals, amateurs, artists, dreamers, drop-outs, queers, housewives, and people like you” getting into games, and writing about games, and being seen as well as heard. More end-of-the-year lists like these, where indies make up the bulk of our critical favorites, not the odd token game on a roster of overcooked brown manshooters.

I’ve been gaming since I was four and writing about it since 2007, and this year beyond any other I’ve been privy to has turned into a great year for games. If this isn’t the year where indie development finally overtakes AAA in the public consciousness, it’s something we’re going to see just around the next bend. Exciting, yeah?

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Comments

  • Porpentine (@aliendovecote)  On 12.24.12 at 12:03 pm

    i’d like to note that my games fall under queer too (not complaining, i know you had to categorize things somehow–just for the benefit of people reading) :>

    thank you!

    • Kris Ligman  On 12.24.12 at 12:06 pm

      A lot of these fall under multiple criteria, but yeah, I should’ve listed howling dogs under “queer games” too! Let me fix that.

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