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The 50 games that defined 2012: Part 2 Exclusive
The 50 games that defined 2012: Part 2
December 17, 2012 | By Gamasutra, GD mag staff

Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine staff continue the year-end series: The 50 Games That Defined 2012.

At the end of every year, you can count on Gamasutra for our annual series of retrospective roundup lists. Typically, at this point, we'd recognize the best games by platform -- PC, Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3, etc. etc.

This year we're doing things differently. We've nixed those platform-specific lists in favor of compiling (in alphabetical order) the 50 Games That Defined 2012, starting with the first 10.

This isn't just a list of awesome video games from 2012 (that much shorter list comes later). There will be some not-so-great games listed here as well. There will be some games that didn't release in 2012, but still made a mark on the year regardless. There will even be some games that will never release.

What all of these games have in common is that they're representative of a trend or interesting story that captured the zeitgeist of 2012 -- they all say something about what happened this year. [See part 1 here.]

-- Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra


Dean "Rocket" Hall

When Arma II studio Bohemia Interactive provided mod support for its realistic tactical war shooter back in 2009, there was surely no way that it could have predicted how huge a decision that would be three years later. With the launch of the DayZ survival horror mod, Arma II suddenly saw a tenfold increase in sales as players flocked to the DayZ alpha release. The survival elements appeared to sit rather well with thousands of players, and now the mod is getting its own standalone release in the new year. It was truly a meteoric rise to game industry fame for developer Dean "Rocket" Hall, and a reminder of the power that the modding community can wield, thanks to the open nature of the PC platform.

Dear Esther


When you first enter the lonely island of Dear Esther (pictured at top), you're not really sure where you're supposed to go, or what you're supposed to do. And that's part of the beauty of it. Dear Esther struck a rare balance between a distinct narrative vision and a unique brand of player agency. The result was an experience that flew in the face of the heavy-handed story-telling that is so prevalent in video games today, and launched a meaningful (and continuing) discussion about what a "video game" can be. Other developers, whether indie or part of major studios, would do well to closely examine how Dear Esther's unique approach to narrative left a heavy emotional impact on players. Hopefully others will take thechineseroom's experimental ideas even further.


Arkane Studios, Bethesda

In a year where complaints of sameness in triple-A ran rampant, Arkane managed to pull a sleeper hit that felt refreshing. Dishonored is a bit of a rarity these days -- a brand new property introduced late in the console cycle that relied not on the clout of a popular, established brand, but rather on a new world that challenged peoples' imaginations since the game's first unveiling. Dishonored's success is a victory for interesting-ness.

Players fell in love with the world -- the often-bandied "steampunk" is typically used to describe Dishonored's coupling of beautifully-bleak maritime industry with elegant architecture and the supernatural. But while the atmosphere has shades of Half-Life or BioShock, it has an inventive newness too rarely-seen in today's landscape.

The gameplay itself, combining stealth, unique magic and direct first-person mechanics, offers a range of well-tuned options, adding to the sense of freedom. Most interestingly, the game environment reacts to player choices -- the result is a certain thoughtfulness and elegance that sets Dishonored apart from its contemporaries. The fact that Arkane was able to burst back onto the triple-A game scene in such a fashion is as impressive as the game itself.

Diablo III


Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo III was plagued with tons of issues on launch, from server stability problems and missing features (player vs. player still isn't in the game yet) to deep-seated design criticisms related to the in-game auction house, real-money trading, and un-fun endgame grind -- but none of that stopped the game from setting a new record as the fastest-selling PC game to date or passing 10 million sales. Is Diablo III an example of what's wrong with the risk-averse triple-A game industry, or simply a strong brand doing business as usual? Probably a little bit of both.

Double Fine Adventure

Double Fine

It's entirely possible that 2012 will go down as the year that game development finally became democratized by game players and, in many ways, it all started with Double Fine Adventure.

The company managed to smash all of the previous existing video game crowdfunding records when it raised $3.3 million dollars on an old-fashioned adventure game, over eight times the $400,000 it was asking for.

And not only did it pave the way for the crowdfunding revolution: DFA also laid the groundwork for involving your community in your game's development, giving fans a peek into the offices with constant updates thanks to some backer perks and a video documentary series.

Draw Something

Omgpop, Zynga

We hate to say we told you so, but it turned out that yeah, Zynga probably spent way too much money when it essentially bought mobile game hit Draw Something (and its developer, Omgpop) for an eyebrow-raising $180 million at the end of a bidding war.

The game was a rising star with growth that seemed limitless -- there was even a deal for a network TV show -- but even the most popular games must plateau at some point. And Draw Something plateaued fast.

The fad seems to have gone away, with Draw Something players abandoning ship so fast that Zynga blamed them for being a major contributor in two consecutive quarterly losses that have seen investors abandoning the company faster than, well, Draw Something players.



Ever since its announcement in 2007, the spectre of Fez loomed large over the indie scene, the albatross around the neck of mercurial creator Phil Fish, who wrestled both publicly and privately with mounting expectations, legal threats, dwindling resources and his own obsessive vision.

But the long-awaited Xbox Live Arcade debut earlier this year was met with nearly-universal acclaim. Fez presents a dreamlike world where a lavish attention to craft is obvious -- more interestingly, the game swells with circuitous mysteries and secrets, like the dream palace of some mad royal. Fish spent the year suffering blowback from frustrated fans for some ill-chosen remarks and a controversial public persona -- which makes the game's atmosphere of gentleness and love, a tribute to the Zelda ilk of our wide-eyed youth, of special note. The standards were always going to be high for Fez after so long. But in the end, its existence and its richness feel like a small miracle.

Final Fantasy XIII-2

Square Enix

Despite its desperate attempts to push the boundaries laid down by Final Fantasy XIII, this game is not very good -- in fact, in many cases, it's bad because it's fighting against the original game's stark limitations.

But Final Fantasy XIII-2 also teaches us something interesting about fans and the abdication of creative intent. The original game was blasted for not living up to the standard set by the series. Instead of going back to the drawing board to carry the franchise's ideals forward, this sequel features a checkbox design that sloppily incorporates features fans said they wanted without rhyme or reason, butting up against legacy technical and design constraints. The result is a mess.

But in the end, many players -- and critics -- were satisfied. Is it because this is a better game? Or is it simply because their voices were heard?

FTL: Faster Than Light

Subset Games

FTL: Faster Than Light is The People's Game of 2012; it was made by an independent two-man development team, finished with Kickstarter funding (they aimed for $10,000 and ended up with over $200,000), and its design draws inspiration from classic roguelikes (particularly its combination of permadeath and procedurally-generated challenges) and Star Trek in roughly equal measure -- hardly a recipe for mainstream success. FTL delivered pretty much everything that crowdfunding promised us in the beginning of 2012, and it did it right when we were starting to feel dumb about throwing too much money at too many slick Kickstarter campaigns.

Guild Wars 2


While the debate over free-to-play vs. subscription-based MMOs raged on, Guild Wars 2 took a cue from the first Guild Wars and went for the middle ground, allowing players to buy the game at a typical retail price, and actually give them true access to the entire game, with no required subscription fee. The game is also supplemented by an inoffensive microtransaction system that is there if you want to use it. The point of mentioning the business model here is that Guild Wars 2 is also a critical hit, and the fact that ArenaNet didn't have to bend its vision to a subscription or free-to-play model most certainly played a role. With a Metacritic score of 90 and 2 million units sold as of September, Guild Wars 2 became the triple-A MMO success story of 2012, something the game industry needed.

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Lyon Medina
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So.....Kris, I am guessing the ones with pictures are the games you liked, while the ones without were not worth the time trying to find a photo for? Because if that is true, then I tottally agree.

Kris Graft
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No, not at all! The layout just ended up that way.

Lyon Medina
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Hahaha, it's alright man, you are among friends.

Frank Cifaldi
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It's true, Kris hates Double Fine Adventure.

Alex Covic
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How can he "hate" something, that still does not exist? :P

Frank Cifaldi
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He hates unicorns too.

Kris Graft
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Jeff Cary
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I alerted Kris to that news story. I would like it to be recorded that until today Kris did not believe in unicorns.

Lyon Medina
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So does that mean you do hate Unicorns? Because North Korea has apparantly proven they do exist.


Haha, awesome.

John Flush
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Dear Esther did define my year as well - it gave me a blunt realization that some games are just terrible despite their aims. Many claim it ran along side the intellectual draw that Braid did and that is what drew me to the game. Unfortunately I hated the game so strongly that it made me think twice of anything I bought for the rest of the year.

All I remember of the game is wandering around at a really slow pace trying to get to the next part when the game would jump in and speak to me. After I was done I was so confused at what I had just wasted my time with (having got zero enjoyment out of it) that I had to look it up only to find the same thing I found with Braid at the time, endless forums of people that couldn't figure out what it was trying to say. Where subsequent playthroughs would merit some different sections of dialog - having to tape multiple playthroughs together to get anything meaningful out of it.

With Braid I at least had my own thoughts about what I had experienced, Dear Ester just left me bored and annoyed.

So to agree with the article, yes developers should look at Dear Ester at how to tell stories in games - and stray far from it.

Then again that was my experience and I'm sure it differs from a lot of people at this site because all I ever see is praise coming from Gamasutra about it. Sorry, I guess I finally boiled over on it.

Kris Graft
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It's a polarizing game. You're certainly entitled to your own opinion on it. :)

James Coote
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I enjoyed the way Dear Esther threw you a series of mysteries and snippets that kept you guessing until close to the end

I think my one disappointment was the lack of branches / exploration. I felt like I was on the classic rollercoaster rails, rather than being able to explore the story in a less linear fashion

Jason Withrow
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"I enjoyed the way Dear Esther threw you a series of mysteries and snippets that kept you guessing until close to the end"

I suppose that's why I didn't like it. I had figured it out before the caves, the rest was doldrums dotted with pretty lights, which I could only walk past verrrrrry sloooooowly. Maybe I got a lucky deal of random snippets, I don't know. I don't say that to brag, I say that as a caution: if your game depends on a mystery to gain any value whatsoever (especially if it's as restricted as Esther, I agree on virtually every one of John Flush's points), make sure the mystery is watertight! Or, alternately, make it so you don't rely entirely on any one, single element as its only leg?

Robert Boyd
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Final Fantasy XIII-2 is actually a really good game. Could it have been better if it hadn't been shackled by its predecessor? Sure, but it most definitely isn't "a mess" or "not very good."

John Flush
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It is interesting to hear this because I played the first one and pretty much avoided the sequel at all costs. Is it worth looking into if I never made it through the first? or is it a sequel game that isn't really worth picking up if you didn't stick through the first?

Cary Chichester
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The sequel is worth picking up, and it does a decent job of recapping the events in the first game. I can understand wanting to avoid the sequel given how bad the first game was, but XIII-2 did turn out to be surprisingly good.

Joseph Legemah
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Liking that Guild Wars 2 and Dishonored.

Carl Chavez
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I hope Eador: Genesis is on this list. It defines 2012 because it shows how a high-quality game can pass under the radar of all major game media simply because it isn't translated and its graphics aren't what they expect. It shows that there needs to be more effort by American and Western European companies to find and translate the hidden gems in Eastern Europe and Asia (and probably other places). Just search various game forums for "Eador" to see how many people are losing sleep over the game, now that it has been translated to English three years after its original release.

Kenneth Blaney
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Looks like he's going alphabetical.

Thom Q
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I think DayZ added more then just reminding people of the power of mods or boosting the Arma 2 sales. It truly is a unique experience, something I have never seen before.

The list is solid, can't think anyone won't agree on any of the titles. I'm curious for a Top X best-games of 2012 as well btw :)

Robert Marney
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It's a very good sign that both DayZ and Journey saw critical and commercial success, as they have diametrically opposed views on multiplayer: Journey intentionally restricts players to being helpful as a way to draw out people's innate helpfulness, while DayZ intentionally leaves players' intentions ambiguous as a way to foster fear and uncertainty. (Compare with the Souls series, which forces one player to decide whether to be helpful or harmful, and another player to accept whichever mode the other one has chosen.)

James Coote
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Hmm. I kinda glanced over FTL and decided it probably was too far down my list to bother with. Perhaps I'll give it a second chance

ian stansbury
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I'd give it a go if I were you. Maybe wait till its on sale on steam. Think I picked it up for like $4? If you've never played a rogue like it will probably seem way to hard. I've actually never beat it on normal just on easy. Took me a couple tries on easy as a matter of fact. But when I did there was a sense of accomplishment, something Ive been missing from games lately.

Kale Menges
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I'm glad to see FTL on the list. Its aesthetics could've used a little more love, but the game play was spot on. Definitely one of the most well designed games of 2012.

Daniel Erickson
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Not being one of the original kickstarters for FTL, I arrived late, handed over my money and was 100% satisfied with what I received in return. 2013's question: Will the success of certain "dead" genres at crowdfunding lead to more variety for game funding in general?