I'll always remember 2012 as my initiation into the process of game design. Some very difficult games - Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Dark Souls, and more - really prompted me to look deeper than I've ever looked into a game before. And I realized that the games I enjoy most are often the ones with a smaller scope and stronger focus, and that those traits are often lost on the biggest, most expensive of the year. I'm certainly not snide toward the big guys, but indies dominated my brain, my hands, and my best games of the year.
The are an endless number of indie games that play with perspective and how you look at the game world, but Fez is different. For years, Polytron presented its debut as an unassuming puzzler, and that was enough to get me interested. Little did I know that a massive, Hideo Kojima-sized rabbit hole awaited just beneath the surface. Two or three hours into it, I had started a notebook of drawings, possible puzzle solutions, theories about the story. I was scouring the forums on Giant Bomb to see if anyone had found every last cube yet, to exchange theories on its multiple symbol languages. Fez is a great game that holds incredible secrets, and it might be the first game I've played that crosses the line from puzzle game into mystery game. Like the brilliant Twin Peaks it takes some inspiration from, Fez bores a hole deep into your mind and demands you surrender yourself to its beautiful, sinister world.
Starbreeze Studios have made a point to impress the hell out of me with just about everything they do, and their reboot of EA's Syndicate is no exception. The gorgeous, scary near-future of this game astounded me. Governmental conspiracies and discrimination based on cybernetic upgrade chips; your sick futuristic Google goggles that overlay info on everything from beer bottles on a table to a hobo in an alleyway; 'dat bloom lighting.
The juxtaposition of futuristic excess and grave human reality resonate strongly in this game, and this is no more apparent than when you remove upgrade chips from people's brains. You jab a tool into their ear, and as the screen flashes into an x-ray view, organic-looking tendrils emerge from it and work their way across the victim's brain, plucking the chip. It's a mesmerizing moment from a far-away future, but one that sharply meets reality when a pint of blood accompanies the tool out of the head. Although the plot itself isn't substantial, Syndicate more than gets its point across with its white-washed dystopia and gruff, shockingly violent cast of characters.
Deep down, though, this game will long be a favourite because of its incredible level of detail and adherence to its world. The gangster-style run and gun move. Gunshots that positively boom with bass and shred into your enemies' armor. Crazy, dubstep-scored boss fights. And of course, its kickass mission-based co-op component that enamoured even my jaded, single player heart.
3. Sound Shapes
When I heard Jonathan Mak was working on a follow-up to the incredible Everyday Shooter, I was skeptical. It took all of five minutes with his new game - Sound Shapes - to realize my negative energy was all for naught. A platformer whose coin-like Notes activate sounds across the screen to form lots of arresting music, Sound Shapes may be the closest I get to a synaesthetic experience. Hearing the song build up as I collected more Notes was always thrilling, and witnessing the active collaboration between sets of visual and aural artists unfold on my TV blew me away time and again. Best of all, the gameplay never suffers as a result of the incredible visual work and remains mechanically challenging and inventive, as well.
As soon as I finished Sound Shapes, I knew it'd be on this list one way or another. But when you consider the active, talented community still at work building their own jams and levels with the included editor, this could very well be a favourite of 2013, as well.
It was a couple days before the XBLA release of Spelunky that I finally tried out the original, PC release of Derek Yu's roguelike-like. And try I did, for what must have been four or five hours straight, to get past those damn ice levels. After dinner, I tried some more. The superior 360 version didn't help my condition. With some adorable visuals, music that's still not out of my head months later, and vastly improved controls, all was lost. A game of Spelunky can last anywhere from seconds to hours, but each session is filled with knowledge. Oh, you can trip those pesky arrow traps with rocks? With dogs, too? You can rob that crazed, gun-toting shopkeeper?!
The amount of ways with which all its individual pieces can be approached and manipulated was nothing short of astounding to me, and made Spelunky a pivotal moment in both 2012 and my perpetually developing perspective on game design.
1. Hotline Miami
Hotline Miami was my only 10/10 review this year, and with good reason: Dennaton's trippy action game is one of the most internally consistent, fully realized games I've ever played, and I wouldn't change a thing about it. It's a game that's not only tough but fair, but strikes that balance in a way that more or less restricts you from doing any planning. The gameplay is rock-solid and always works as intended, but you never really know what's going to happen in a given level. You just have to breathe, open that first doorway, and use your instincts and reflexes to make it through the hellstorm that follows, knowing full well that a single attack could spell both you and your foes' doom. Ultimately, what made Hotline Miami the best I played this year was the level of efficiency and utility it gets out of those simple, brutal, heart-pounding boundaries.
And now that I'm finished my game of the year list, I'm gonna go back for more.
Honorable Mentions: The Walking Dead, Mass Effect 3, Diablo III, ZombiU, Sleeping Dogs