2012 in gaming was a year of choice. Where games are usually measured by there technical progress, all of the games on my top 5 list this year explored player choice and agency in inventive ways. Some of them are driven by more traditional narratives, while others were emergent and allowed players to write their own stories. As what is possibly the last full year of this console generation comes to a close, I hope that more games in 2013 take time to explore non-graphical ways to innovate and surprise.
5. Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 had its share of controversy this year but looking back on my time playing it, there's no way it would miss this list. Mechanically, the streamlined quest log, bizarre side quest system, and easily exploited mining mini-game left a lot to be desired.
But as a fitting end to a universe that I will always hold near and dear to my heart? Mass Effect 3 hit all the high notes, and then some. The epic campaign sees you righting wrongs in the universe that are hundreds of years old, and the feeling of uniting the entire galaxy against a common evil is a powerful one. And hey, the multiplayer? Not so bad.
4. Mark Of The Ninja
Never has a stealth game contained such fluidity in control and mechanics. With Mark of the Ninja, Klei has finally crafted the perfect stealth game. Avoiding the enemy is just as fun as killing them, and being detected adds a new dimension of excitement rather than forcing you back a half hour. Mark of the Ninja has set a new standard for stealth games, and is simply one of the best playing games of the year.
There was a four month stretch of the year where, every Sunday, I would go to my friend's apartment and spend the afternoon playing Spelunky. Discovering new items, enemies, and environments left me as giddy as when I scoured Super Mario World for its secrets. Every so often I would get to my friend's apartment and she would be alight with rumors of a black market, a city of gold, A Hell level, and the "true" Spelunky ending. Our ensuing attempts at finding these secrets were full of grand misadventure, where frustration quickly dissolved into a fit of laughter.
Spelunky presents an intriguing world that is simultaneously scary and whimsical, with a sense of discovery that hearkens back to the reason I fell in love with video games in the first place.
2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
No game gets my pulse pounding quite like XCOM. Modernizing one of the most beloved PC games of all-time is a tall order, and Firaxis completely blew it out of the water. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a master class in how to streamline complicated mechanics without taking away the challenge and spirit of a game.
The incredible challenge lends weight to every victory and defeat that, at higher difficulties, will reduce the player's nerves to tatters. XCOM eases players into the conflict at a masterful pace, and zooming around between land-based skirmishes, base-building, and UFO dogfighting quickly becomes second nature. These solid mechanics, combined with the constant emotional pressure, make XCOM: Enemy Unknown a game that is impossible to put down.
1. The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is not just the best game of the year, it is also the most important. In adapting Robert Kirkman's zombie comic book series, Telltale Games have crafted an interactive experience that meaningfully investigates player agency and bestows emotional gut-punches that you likely won't ever forget. No other game inspired such fervent conversation among my friends as The Walking Dead did this year.If you have a skeptical friend who says video games cannot convey emotions as meaningfully as other entertainment, give them the controller and watch them play The Walking Dead. They will undoubtedly change their tune.
As video games continue to mature in storytelling ambition and scope, I can't help but feel that we will be referencing The Walking Dead as an influence on the games of the future.
Honorable Mentions: Journey, Sleeping Dogs, Dishonored, Hotline Miami, FTL