I think games are the only place where I see so much active disdain for sequels, with gamers using them to cite an apparent lack of originality in the industry. Four out of my five game of the year picks are sequels, but they are awesome sequels. They took the core things I loved about the franchises, and expanded upon them to make more rich, diverse, and enjoyable games. I hope that industry folk look at these titles as the way to do sequels right going forward. My overall game of the year, though, was a downloadable indie title that absolutely blew me away. Read on for my picks!
5. The Witcher 2
The Witcher 1 made a great case for why people should still play single-player, character focused RPGs. With The Witcher 2, CD Projekt Red did it again. Geralt is a really interesting protagonist to get to know as you play the game. I also appreciate that, very early on in the game, you make an important narrative decision that results in two completely different series of events, not just slightly changed dialog. The overhauled combat system is fast-paced, challenging, and rewarding all at once. Finally, I didn't play Uncharted 3, but I seriously think that The Witcher 2's art direction make it the most beautiful game of the year, if you've got the PC to back it up.
4. Portal 2
The most charming game of the year. I have never been more attached to a cast of robots. Portal 2's campaign was brilliantly paced, and took unsuspecting twists and turns that kept you invested in the story of the faceless protagonist. I also laughed out loud quite a few times, thanks to the brilliant monologues by Cave Johnson. The co-op puzzle solving was the most fun I have had gaming with a friend in 2011. One particular room saw us totally stumped for about 30 minutes until I had this really crazy out of the box idea that ended up being the solution we needed. We celebrated with a virtual high five. It was awesome.
3. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The original Deus Ex is one of my top 5 games of all time, so Eidos had large shoes to fill with Human Revolution. Fortunately, Eidos did the unthinkable and was able to keep the spirit of the original game alive, while bringing the rest of the gameplay up to date with a sleek new look. Human Revolution's story of intrigue takes you through a variety of open city areas that are a joy to explore. The game also gives a great sense of player agency, letting you shoot, sneak, talk, or karate chop your way around any situation.
2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Bethesda has long crafted some of my favorite game worlds, and Skyrim is no exception. It may have taken them five installments to get it exactly right, but Skyrim is Bethesda's most seamless, believable world of all the Elder Scrolls games. Beyond simple set dressing, the gameplay systems make the towns feel lived-in and the wilderness feels legitimately dangerous. While a number of technical flaws mar the otherwise perfect face of Skyrim across all platforms, they shouldn't keep you from getting immersed in the best fantasy world in recent memory.
Bastion is a game that is simultaneously nostalgic and forward-looking. While Supergiant Games relied on a lot of conventions from the games of my youth, they found a way to integrate narrative and gameplay in a truly groundbreaking way with "reactive narration." The post-apocalyptic plight of The Kid and his ragtag band of survivors makes for a surprisingly moving tale of loss, trust, and betrayal. The combat system is easy to learn and difficult to master, and the challenge areas with scalable difficulty also made for a game that is surprisingly replayable. The production values were also off the charts, with beautiful hand-drawn visuals and a trip-hop country soundtrack that still gets stuck in my head sometimes. In a GOTY list otherwise populated by sequels, Bastion was a beautiful breath of fresh air.
Honorable Mention: Batman: Arkham City