I've never been what you might call a "competitive gamer."
It's not that I don't understand competition. I am, for example, a fiercely competitive editor that loses sleep when another publication scoops us. I also have to, have to get there first if we're both driving to the same place. And don't get me started on food: while I'm enjoying the meal you cooked, I'm secretly planning how to make it better. But when it comes to video games, I prefer a solitary experience. I'm of the Nintendo generation, not the arcade one.
There was something about Super Hexagon that compelled me to continuously best my friends and claw my way up the leaderboards. It reached inside and touched some kind of hidden, primal part of me that made me spend the better part of a Sunday afternoon trying to best a friend's best time that was just three seconds better than mine. Three seconds! How hard could it be?
Maybe more importantly than all that, though, Super Hexagon just may have revived my faith in this art form. I had a trying year in 2012, not really wanting to play any of the games I was seeing, wondering if I'd somehow "outgrown" games…in my 30s! But somewhere in this perfect little game I found the simple joy that led me into this career in the first place. Video games are awesome. Thanks for reminding me, Terry. -- Frank Cifaldi, News Director, Gamasutra
The Walking Dead
For the first time ever, I teared up at a video game in 2012. That game was Telltale's The Walking Dead, and it was by far one of the most welcome surprises of 2012, acting as conclusive evidence that an incredible narrative can in fact overcome middling gameplay elements. This Telltale-developed title features some of the most glorious story writing and choice elements I've ever seen in a video game, and feels like a huge step in the right direction for storytelling in our industry.
From the relationship between Lee and his daughter-by-default Clementine, to the trials and tribulations for Kenny and his family (some of which really got my eyes watering), the five-part adventure game pushes the boundaries of video game narrative. It's frequently heart-wrenching as your fellow apocalypse survivors are picked off one-by-one, but there are also numerous moments of fuzzy warmth, despite the zombie-filled surroundings.
Oh, and you know when a game says that it's giving you choices, but then those choices barely affect much at all? The Walking Dead's decisions actually matter, in such a way that choices you made in chapter one are still having great consequences by the final hurdle.
With The Walking Dead easily claiming my own personal game of the year tag, the hope is now that its presence will breed a new gaggle of video games that don't feature stories that I'd rather hammer the "skip" button through. I'm not exactly holding my breath, but hey -- at least The Walking Dead Season Two is confirmed. -- Mike Rose, UK Editor, Gamasutra
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
As I was sitting on my couch, Xbox controller in hand, something dawned on me: I'm playing a turn-based strategy game on my TV, it's a new XCOM, it's a big-budget retail release from a major publisher, and it's really good. So, good on everyone who worked to get this thing greenlit. XCOM: Enemy Unknown really appealed to me because of its layers of grand strategy, which are layered over a tactics system that played like a board game (which makes sense -- the developers used a board game to prototype the system).
It's also extremely rare for a strategy game to weave a narrative into the gameplay, but XCOM pulled it off, thanks to a brilliant framework that facilitated emergent storytelling and narrative.
Perhaps the most subtle, yet important reason that I enjoyed XCOM so much is that everything -- from the action figure-esque character design to the fact that it's based on a dormant PC strategy series -- gave me the impression that someone's hands were on this game. It's a big-budget, polished game, that wasn't just a product. This game meant something to Firaxis, and it shows. -- Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward
Spike Chunsoft, Aksys Games
A lot of people talk about the idea that narrative and gameplay have nothing to do with one another -- or, beyond that, the idea that story should be stricken from games entirely; the premise of this argument is that story somehow pollutes games.
I can't stand this, because I love stories. I love stories that have been crafted by writers -- stories that are full of ideas. That would be reason enough to love Virtue's Last Reward, as it's a complex but coherent story that's just bursting with them. But there's more going on here: it's a story that you explore, a story not aside from gameplay, but as gameplay.
Like any good mystery, it keeps you guessing. In fact, that's the engine that powers Virtue's Last Reward: you throw yourself into the story, trying to piece it together, and literally leaping from node to node, exploring every moment of its narrative. What's important? What's a red herring? What's just an interesting idea that's there just because it's interesting, and nothing more? It's all there for you to discover -- to fully participate in its discovery.
When you find yourself tackling this story -- piecing it together in your head as the game pieces it together in front of you, breaking open its "locks" as the pieces start to fit -- it's a real moment of forward motion in storytelling gameplay. It's a passionate exploration of what narrative as game can be by people who care about both. -- Christian Nutt, Features Editor, Gamasutra
Kris Graft, EIC, Gamasutra
Assassin's Creed III - Ubisoft Montreal: A lot of care was put into recreating colonial America, and it's the setting that I appreciate most about this game. It's a finely-tuned triple-A action-adventure romp, with lots of objectives to accomplish and enemies to dispatch, but the best part was just walking around and enjoying the scenery whenever possible.
Guild Wars 2 - ArenaNet, NCsoft: I don't like MMOs, but I've always been able to enjoy the Guild Wars series. Guild Wars 2 is one of the more beautiful games of the year, with an aesthetic that differentiates itself from World of Warcraft and other fantasy games. That, combined with coherent storytelling and tight systems made this a standout title for me this year.
The Room - Fireproof Games: This iOS game is a lesson in tactile and intuitive touchscreen design. It lets players explore not a vast world, but various puzzle boxes that players poke, prod and investigate. It's a personal experience, finely crafted and quite elegant.
Christian Nutt, Features Director, Gamasutra
The Last Story - Mistwalker, Marvelous AQL, XSEED: I wasn't even interested in this one at first, but I fell in love with it before long -- fell in love with its cast of characters, fell in love with its fat-free storytelling and gameplay, fell in love with its classic heart but innovative spirit. A surprise and a gem.
Kid Icarus Uprising - Project Sora, Nintendo: The sprawling creativity and appeal of its single player campaign is actually outshone for me by its multiplayer, which blends the kinetic precision of Smash Bros. with Western shooter gameplay. You wouldn't expect it to work but it does -- beautifully.
Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy - Indies Zero, Square Enix: Final Fantasy as rhythm game seems ridiculous at first blush, but the perfect selection of tracks, simple but responsive touch gameplay, and ruthlessly tuned progression kept me hooked. I'd play it in the morning as soon as I woke up, play it in the evening in stolen moments, guiltily -- and beg to play the multiplayer given half a chance.
Frank Cifaldi, News Director, Gamasutra
The Last Express - Smoking Car, DotEmu: Jordan Mechner's first, last, and best adventure game finally feels like it founds its home on my iPad's screen. I'm a big fan of interactive narrative confining itself to one small environment and spending its time fleshing it out as much as possible: what better place than a train to play with this idea?
Spec Ops: The Line - Yager Development, 2K Games: - I don't play shooters for reasons beyond the scope of this article. They're just not for me. But there was something so incredibly ballsy about the bait-and-switch this game pulled on its players -- a Heart of Darkness homage disguised as a Call of Duty knock-off -- that I couldn't help but play through it with deep respect and admiration.
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening - Nintendo: OK, so this game didn't come out this year, but I discovered it for the first time, and I'm floored by its elegant simplicity. Remember when video games felt like, you know, video games? Why isn't there anything remotely as good as this 19-year-old game on Facebook?
Mike Rose, UK News Editor, Gamasutra
Mark of the Ninja - Klei Entertainment: Stealth gameplay done so very right. It's slick, it makes you feel like a boss, and it lets you tackle each situation in a huge variety of ways. 2D platforming at its finest.
Trials Evolution - Redlynx, Ubisoft: I hated Trials HD, so to call Trials Evolution one of my personal favorite games of the year may sounds crazy. But what RedLynx did to the original formula -- gave it personality; made it more accessible while keeping the difficulty levels up; adding fantastic social elements -- was a godsend.
Gravity Rush - SCE Japan Studio, Sony: Both this and Uncharted: Golden Abyss made me love my PS Vita this year, but Gravity Rush just pipped Drake at the post for my most memorable Vita experience. There's nothing quite like soaring through the sky and watching the gorgeous visuals go by on a handheld screen.
Leigh Alexander, Editor-at-Large, Gamasutra
Tokyo Jungle - SCE Japan Studio, Crispy's, Sony: Cats, deer and dogs in party hats in an abandoned city. Charming and eminently playable, the way it makes light of the frailties of nature makes experiences you want to tell stories about.
Persona 4: The Golden - Atlus: More than just a remake, the fresh, modern and massive JRPG has gotten a coat of polish shiny enough to seduce new fans and to tempt old ones for another go. The JRPG often feels like a niche art, but this is the kind of formidable, appealing hit that hints there's still a big audience out there.
Eurydice - Anonymous: One of the top-ranked games in the 2012 IF Competition bypasses preconceptions about nerdy parser-struggles to deliver a sparse yet beautifully-written parable on love and death. It's one of my favorite experiences this year.
Brandon Sheffield, Editor Emeritus, Game Developer magazine
Dust: An Elysian Tail - Humble Hearts, Microsoft: I don't much care for the character designs, but this is one of the biggest passion projects I've ever seen. Incredibly detailed animation, a full, living world, clever puzzles and challenges, all created (by and large) by one person who couldn't even program at the start of development. The combat in this game is some of the most fun I've had in a 2D action title in years, and is the first game I actually played to completion this year. (Disclaimer - I'm only including games I beat.)
Lili - BitMonster Games: When it comes to high-end iOS games, you can have your Infinity Blades and Horns, those games' universes don't appeal to me. I like wonder and whimsey in my games, something you rarely see in the present era of realistic guns and guts. Lili's well-realized world is one I actually want to explore, and it has characters I'm interested in, and mechanics that don't drive me up a wall (your mileage may vary - definitely play it on an iPad). I found this game incredibly charming, and I would love to see more games follow suit.
Cave Rescue - Quikding Gamesoft: I'm not expecting anyone else to agree, but I love the bizarre, and Cave Rescue is a fantastically curious experiment. The game's inputs are simple, the graphics are MSPaint atrocities, and the music is like a gorgeous fever dream. And it all works perfectly together. Not only that, the game is loaded with extras, with bonus games peppered through the game's many arcade machines (walk up to one - like in Shenmue - and have a go). I'm constantly surprised that more people aren't singing the praises of Quikding's fantastical game oddities, but that probably says more about me than it does you.
Patrick Miller, Editor, Game Developer magazine
Hotline Miami - Dennaton Games: Hotline Miami's psychedelic, ultraviolent visual motif stands in direct contrast to its clinical, iterative game design to produce what i imagine is a study in psychopathology. Each level feels, to me, like a problem-solving exercise similar to a crossword puzzle -- even though I'm murdering hundreds of people. If there's one thing devs could learn from this game, it's "Show, don't tell."
Skullgirls - Reverge Labs, Lab Zero Games: Skullgirls embodies perhaps the best and worst of 2012 for fighting games. The game design, the score, the character art and animation -- everything about Skullgirls is a love letter to the 2D fighting game at its best. Had Skullgirls managed to pull in enough sales to build the critical mass necessary to sustain a dedicated, long-term competitive community, I think it would have had a shot at the top 10.
ZiGGURAT - Action Button Entertainment: Let me be clear: There are many mobile game developers, but there are not so many developers who know how to make mobile games. ZiGGURAT is a simple game -- one person, one gun, countless alien freaks -- but it is the only game I have ever played that made a touchscreen feel as finely-tuned and capable as any physical-button controller.