By now, everyone knows what an embarrassment of riches 2011 dropped on the gaming community. I can't recall the last time I had this much fun trying to condense everything I played down to 5 sterling suggestions, yet here we are. For me, these are set in stone, but you could put any of them at number 1 and I'd be just as happy.
5. Portal 2
Portal 2 is an example of a game that is absolutely perfect unto itself. It deftly balances Escherian puzzles on a flawless difficulty curve with a script that is equal parts silly and horrifying. Few games are as airtight in their game design and character development as Portal 2; it's one of the best linear adventures ever made.
4. Rayman Origins
I'm not a big fan of platforming, but Rayman Origins is the exception to the rule. My love for this game is outstripped only by my anger towards Ubisoft for releasing it in the same month as CoD and Skyrim (and on the same day as Ubi's biggest franchise no less!). Though it's publisher has doomed it to commercial penury, that doesn't change the fact that it's one of the best platformers ever made, and a terrific example of how relevant hand-drawn 2-D art still is to gaming.
3. Batman Arkham City
There are role-playing games, and then there are games that attempt to make players assume the role of a character that is already established and beloved in another form. Batman Arkham City is the latter, and it succeeds in that attempt so well that it's a wonder games weren't his first home to begin with. There's a reason that nearly every review of this game contains the phrase, "you really feel like Batman" and that's because it's so startlingly true. Never has a piece of fiction been applied to a game with this much attention to detail, such that it suspends the player's disbelief into a state that assumes "Batmanning" could be a real life occupation, and that Bruce Wayne is a real world figure.
2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
If Portal 2 is an example of the perfect linear game experience, then Skyrim represents the other side of the coin: it is the perfect open-ended game experience. The formula is simple; let players inhabit a world; give them money, magic, adventure, and well-written characters to interact with, then rinse and repeat. It's a game that literally tells you to "get lost!" and suffers no complaints for it.
1. Dead Space 2
Dead Space 2 isn't perfect. It's got some muddy plot elements, a useless and cynical multiplayer mode, and some infuriating difficulty spikes, but it gets in your head and sticks with you. More than any other game I played this year, Dead Space 2 has stayed fresh in my mind. Further, the more I thought of it, the more I realized all of the little things it got right: Isaac's development as a character, the implication that he might be hallucinating the entire thing, the progression of enemy types and set-pieces, and the best sound-design of any game in 2011. Dead Space 2 is my game of the year because it knows how to empower and manipulate its players at every turn; never depriving them of the confidence needed to move forward, but never letting them feel secure in either their motives or their ability to survive.
Honorable Mentions: Deus Ex: Human Revolution, L.A. Noire, Uncharted 3