It's no coincidence that the first year I spent writing about video games was the first year I started asking myself what games were and what they should mean. Fortunately, this was also the year that developers seemed to know that enthusiasts needed something more than another Mass Effect or Assassin's Creed, and it gave me some of the best experiences I've ever had with the medium. The following five titles just happen to be my picks out of an incredibly unique year.
Splice, like most puzzle games, is far more intelligent than I am. I can sit for about an hour at one puzzle, solve it, and never feel as though I've intellectually conquered the game. Thankfully, the game's soft, colorful glow makes the mind-numbing puzzles of the later stages a breeze to sit through for hours attempting to unravel the biological mystery. In an age where every game requires a story, there's something soothing about Splice's sterile presentation and its scientific allusions never expressing a personality beyond the conundrums you're attempting to conquer. This is a puzzle game for puzzle lovers, wrapped up in a superbly clean and alluring aesthetic.
4. FTL: Faster Than Light
“Maranda, why didn't you reach the shields in time? Damn it, now we've lost visuals in half of the cabins and there's a fire raging across the ship. Jeff is busy repairing the tear in the O2 room, but I fear we'll never make the jump before the hull breaks. Why do some of my shipmates resemble The Thing from the Fantastic Four and a praying mantis? Ah, forget it. Get them on repairing the weapons room! Why didn't I realize our shields had been disabled by the enemy's ion cannon? Intruders! I'm burning alive! I've only been playing for fifteen minutes!” That's an example of my stream of consciousness during one game of FTL: Faster Than Light, where my shipmates (who have been named after my friends) and I embark on a grand journey of certain interstellar death. I can't wait to see how they'll set Doug on fire in my next one. FTL: Faster Than Light truly gives science-fiction enthusiasts reas—wait, I'm being boarded. Why is that ship so much larger than mine? I forgot to buy missiles at the last shop! If I can just fire at my own cabin that's housing the enemy...--transmission ends--
3. Sound Shapes
Where do quirky two-dimensional platformers go from here? We've seen the masochism of Super Meat Boy, the brooding ambiguity of Limbo, and even the emotional catharsis of Braid. Well, Sound Shapes squeezes its rhythms somewhere in the midst of all of those aggressively serious products and gives you a game that's nearly impossible not to beat—I mean this literally, as Sound Shapes may be one of the simplest platformers in the last few years. Much like the music it adores, Sound Shapes has universal appeal: the player embodies a cute blob, the musical stretches across a wide variety of electronic landscapes, and the joy of witnessing each different visual design is so splendorous that it remains difficult this day to elucidate on just how many endorphins have been released in my head since I played the first Beck-collaborated level. This isn't a game for music fans in the same way that Rock Band or Guitar Hero is; you only get so far with an appreciation of music that skims the surface. Be willing to meet every individual loop that Sound Shapes has to offer, and the your experience will be far richer for it.
2. The Walking Dead
Telltale has chased Quantic Dreams' legacy for two games now, and The Walking Dead marks the first time that they've succeeded. This is partially because The Walking Dead is not a game in the way that Heavy Rain was a game, and even though that was evident by the fourth chapter of the game's first season, I was still sniffling at the game's close. The strength of The Walking Dead isn't the story—a strange development, for a Telltale adventure game—but the game's excellent characters. These are fleshed out beings that don't act in ways you'd expect humans to act, but that's mainly because you've never been stuck with a team of misfits during a zombie invasion. The Walking Dead is at best an interactive storybook, offering little gameplay and a whole lot of linearity in exchange for some of the best character work done this year. I won't soon forget the actions of Lee, Clementine, or even that destructive asshole, Kenny as the years go by.
Flower was doomed to reach the audiences it needed to reach from the start. Embodying a flower petal is an abstract concept in itself, but spreading warmth and green to a polluted and gray world was borderline political commentary that further risked alienating those already opposed to the idea. I have no qualms with thatgamecompany's approach to games, but my hope was that Journey would bridge the gap between those who denied the developer's ideas on principle and those who saw the worth in tackling larger, more abstracted concepts. Journey is a humbling experience not simply because it plays closer to a standard game than any of thatgamecompany's previous products, but because of how much wider and ambitious its underlying notions are while accomplishing that. In a world doused in achievements, social media, and the ambiguous “next biggest thing” looming around every corner, the industry is soaked in reasons to only focus on the beginning and ends of any given game or period. The start of one game sparks discussion of a years-long franchise; we see the end of gaming as we know it through free-to-play and social media; we are already asking when Nintendo will reach Sega's untimely demise as a console developer. The truth of the matter is that the industry needs to spend more time fleshing out the present, exploring the unexplored, and carve out the corners that have gone ignored or neglected. Journey can serve as a metaphor for this tunnel-vision, a short and beautiful quest that focuses entirely on the space between a-to-b, instead of shifting focus on the effects or products that follow immediately after. You could even ignore all of that and take Journey for its face value: a gorgeously rendered product soaked in relentlessly enthralling moments, a brief trip into a dense and stimulating world. Its ambiguity may leave some with distaste, but I led Journey's mysterious, androgynous traveler on a number of sandy adventures throughout this year and not once was I left with dissatisfaction. In a moment of blinding white light and exhaustion, Journey typically left me wanting one more trip into the great sandy beyond.
Honorable Mentions: Dear Esther, Kid Icarus: Uprising, Dishonored, Spec Ops: The Line, Torchlight II