Why am I doing this? It’s Eric Swain’s fault, as usual.
Okay, it’s actually been out for three years now, so sue me. When I finally got a PC this year that could handle games, this was the first thing I bought through Steam. And it remains the most-played entry in my library.
Why? Well, Brendan Keogh put it best: “You don’t just see your music in Audiosurf; you feel through a sensation less like listening and more like dancing.” Audiosurf takes music and transforms it into a complex visual index of signifiers to match the aural nuances of its source material. It’s like semiotics synaesthesia.
10. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Skyrim‘s plot is pretty rank at best. The voice acting and incessantly recycled audio clips turn it into one long, unfunny Seth Rogan comedy. It’s buggy, it’s uninspired, and you need mods just to create a halfway decent avatar. But damn is it pretty. And damn, is it fun to hoard. I’ve lost the storyline completely under one of my floor-to-ceiling cheese piles and I can’t be bothered to dig it out again.
09. LittleBigPlanet 2‘s soundtrack
I’ve given the game a lot of flack for being difficult to play on anything smaller than a gigantic HDTV and for falling short on its pedagogical promises. But its story mode and especially the soundtrack will always be among my most treasured, particularly its ending theme from Passion Pit.
This is another game which earned a harsh score from me, perhaps undeservedly so. It’s a unique experiment in genre hybridization– a music game RPG replete with Atlus-esque cutscenes and finger-on-the-pulse memetastic humor. I loved it more than my review ever managed to let on and I do so look forward to the developers’ next project.
Another quiet little entry which seemed to escape everyone’s notice during end-of-year retrospectives, including yours truly when it came time for the Critical Distance Confab. A traditional side-scrolling schmup with anything but traditional time manipulation and splitting mechanics, it looks the part of a luminous retro-futuristic arcade title and I’ll bet it’s the sort of thing Ender Wiggin would play.
The game that’s on everybody’s list this year, and with good reason. Bastion is a luminous, candy-coated-bittersweet-center cutesy, magical and dreadful take on the American West. Even if you went in fully expecting its awesome narrator, it’s less likely you knew to expect the multiple gutpunches that rustic voice manages to deliver over the course of the story. As I wrote in my review:
“Bastion‘s truest beauty is in how dark it becomes, and how subtly it draws the player into that darkness. If the West had been won by nuclear war, this is how it might have played out in one’s nightmares. And yet it is so charming, so colorful, so cute with its chibi character designs that we might sooner expect something on the level of Spirited Away, not Grave of the Fireflies. But grim it is, though the game is always careful to provide you with just a glimmer of hope.”
Viciously smart in the execution and a real testament to what a small team and a distinct point of view can accomplish.
05. don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story
I read two works this year that seemed to perfectly capture the approaching social media singularity. One was Charles Stross’s Rule 34. The other was Christine Love’s indie visual novel don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, involving the lives of the youth in a generation that’s grown up without conventional ideas of privacy.
There have been plenty of great readings of DTIPB, but as a mod for a kids’ game frequently (and involuntarily) privy to the growing pains of adolescents, Love’s work struck closer to home than I expected. Once again, my own remarks from earlier in the year capture the sentiment best.
The mod in me envies John Rook’s squandered opportunity to meaningfully interact with Arianna and Taylor about their priorities. The feminist in me sees such an action as treating the symptoms rather than the disease in which young women (and young men) sign up for their own exploitation. Ultimately, however, my anxieties seem to align with Goodwin’s description of “guilt-by-click-association”: by involving ourselves in the digital lives of others, we become in some way accountable.
04. Minecraft 1.0
Few games have the distinction of showing up on GOTY lists for three straight years. I don’t know if any blurb I could write about it here would adequately do it justice. It’s not only probably the biggest indie game success story of all time, it’s something of a new gaming lingua franca. Everyone has played Minecraft.
03. Child of Eden
I described this game recently as an atheist creation fable. It’s a loving tribute to the sheer magical awe that is biology and the ascendency of life. Sure, the space whale is silly. So was the Buddhist meditation in The Fountain. At some point you either allow these missteps in visuality to kill the experience for you or you just embrace it for the childlike wonder it’s trying to impart. Honestly, I don’t find space whale any more ridiculous than a lot of the iconography the religious hold in such solemnity. But anyway, from my various rants on it:
“For all its frenetic energy and at times vicious difficulty, it is a game about positive emotion and spiritual transcendence. Your two weapons act as purifiers, while the stages you explore are a set of technorganic ballets.”
“There is a quality to its contained narrative and the role of the player as enactor thereof which is deeply moving, as in being witness to the birth and exaltation of mankind. This is a game in which human history from microorganism to vast neural networks spanning time and space takes shape.”
“If games are systems, and God (as natural order) is a system, then God is the game we are playing right now and have been since the dawn of time. It’s the spin of electrons that as much give rise to life as computer games. And games are one of many ways in which we, the universe knows itself.”
02. Portal 2
As I mentioned on the Critical Distance Confab, I consider the Portal games to rank among the best of a generation. Rarely do you get a game like Portal 2 which really is the complete package. Great challenges, great writing, great performances, great design. But above all, Portal and Portal 2 are teachers. If you wanted to look to one instance of what digital pedagogy looks like in 3D simulation, Portal and its successor would be it.
And if you’ve been following along, you know which one I haven’t mentioned yet, so let’s get to that, shall we?
01. Dragon Age II
I am generally in favor of any game which inspires as much ongoing discussion as DA2 has engendered. I also enjoy any game which makes entitled straight guys uncomfortable. And I will happily promote the work of writers with a social justice agenda, because damned if they aren’t horribly rare in this industry.
But none of those reasons are why Dragon Age II is my Game of the Year.
This game has lodged itself into my heart the way it has because for the first time, I saw a glimmer of hope that games could be something more. That this hobby which so enticed and frightened me, which did its very best to alienate me at every given opportunity, yet entranced me again and again because it offered another world to plunge into that wasn’t mine, could be all the provocative and ambitious things we adore about other media, could prove it can do one thing excellently which denies our shallow demands for design conformity.
In short, Dragon Age II is my Game of the Year for the exact opposite reason Portal 2 is my runner-up. DA2 is my Game of the Year because it dared to suck.
No, that’s too simplistic. In terms of combat system, item management, map design and epic set pieces, all the things we’ve been programmed to believe are requirements of a good game of its genre, Dragon Age II doesn’t deliver. I can see that as plainly as any of its detractors. But what it does well, it does better than any other game I’ve ever played.
I’ve compared Dragon Age II‘s limited locations and confined scope to The Wire, and maybe that analogy doesn’t work for a lot of people. Try this one, then: Dragon Age II is to RPGs what Dead Man is to Westerns. Looked at under a conventional lens, without being aware that the creators are intending to subvert the genre, the thing is unforgivably broken. Looked at under its own terms, with the story it wanted to tell and the characters it wanted to share with the player, it is dead on with everything that it needs to be.
I would surely have not have complained if more time had been spent in development to release a more finessed game which delivered on mainstream expectations as well as providing the story it wanted to tell. But come right down to it, between a Dragon Age II with a perfected battle system and no heart, and a broken Dragon Age II with the most provocative narrative I’ve ever played out in a game, I know which one I’ll take every time.