I'm predicting Spec-Ops: The Line for #1. It's the only truly meaningful game left from 2012 you haven't listed yet. Except perhaps Dust: AET. But I'm patiently awaiting the result. Good call on spanning these out though, makes people (me at least) want to come back to read more.
4. Hotline Miami
Games that get deemed "repetitive" are usually seen as lazily made and generally dull, and thus find themselves docked in reviews and played sporadically rather than through to completion. Aside from the inevitable change in stage layout from level to level, Hotline Miami adheres to a very strict pattern that loops over and over again, much like the infectious and off-kilter grooves that populate its addictive soundtrack. But this is not at all due to poor game design. Hotline Miami uses the cyclicality of its gameplay as means of artfully and eloquently making a statement regarding the very nature of video gaming.
The game can essentially be broken into two halves. The first is the high - the running, stabbing, and gunning gameplay that serves as the game's brutal hook. Hotline Miami's fast-paced, gruesome gameplay is as entertaining and addicting as it is violent. And it's quite violent. The twitchy action, eye-popping pastel colored environments, and noisy grooves put you in a trance state, which is again furthered by the game's instant retry mechanic that lets you continue your rampage hassle-free once you're met with a one-hit death of your very own.
Once you shoot, maim, and dismember your way through one of the game's multi-tiered stages, Hotline Miami's more sobered half jolts you back to your senses like a splash of freezing cold water. The very second your last opponent is dead, the sickly beats cut out, and you're forced to walk back through the entire level, gazing upon the destruction you've wrought until you reach your DeLorean and quietly slink away into the darkness. The pair of interludes that precedes each level confront you even more directly, daring you to search for subtext in scenes that may not contain one bit of it, or flat out asking: "Do you like hurting other people?"
The fact that these distinct sections repeat predictably and ad nauseum leads the game's simultaneously mesmerizing and off-putting nature to come to the forefront of your attention on a consistent basis, eventually leading you to possess a sort of cognitive dissonance. Though the dark mysteries that lie beneath Dennaton Games' twisted vision of a drug addled, neon-soaked 1980s Miami are ones that you'll desperately want answers to, something deep down in your consciousness wants nothing more than to endlessly indulge in the game's hyper violent predatory stealth gameplay.
By the time you reach the game's end, all the various means of playing through and interpreting the game fold back into one solitary path. If you just wanted answers, then the game's open-ended finale will give you plenty of room for analysis, but the only way you can reach that point is by way of one last merciless double homicide. If you only wanted to cause one bloodbath after another, you'll certainly be able to, but not without being forced to feel the weight of your uncompromisingly brutal actions. Regardless of how you approach Hotline Miami's understated themes, you'll still be hit with the same conflicted emotions by the time the blue helmet biker speeds off into the Miami night, and a strong inkling to dive back into this impossibly deranged Floridian underworld will undoubtedly begin to develop as the credits roll.
3. The Walking Dead
I hate zombies. For the past few years, every popular entertainment medium has been positively inundated with stories about the living dead with no creativity to be found. The creative ingenuity that was formerly found in this monster fiction subgenre in films like 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead, or games such as Silent Hill 2 and Resident Evil 4 has been eschewed in favor of the most tired, cut-and-dry storytelling and atmosphere imaginable. It seems that even an undead apocalypse can be made mundane if left too long in the hands of untalented artists simply looking to capitalize on current trends.
Zombie stories are particularly troubling within the realm of video games, as most recent undead action titles have had a single-minded fixation on humanoid dismemberment, often doing away with any semblance of interesting narrative, mechanics, or characterization in favor of chopping dead people to bits (see: Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, The War Z, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Killing Floor, Lollipop Chainsaw, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, ZombiU, and - well, perhaps I'm getting carried away).
It should say something then that I found Telltale Games' zombie opus, The Walking Dead, to be a consistently captivating, even surprising experience. This is simply because the game is more concerned with its still-living protagonists than the walkers that shamble around them. As the group contends with not only the hordes of undead, but also the increasingly disturbing makeshift societies that have formed to ensure their members' survival, you're hit with one brutal twist after another. And as Lee Everett - the gang's de facto leader - you're forced to navigate these ever-escalating situations by making harrowing choices that will haunt you well after each episode come to a close.
Furthering the episodic downloadable game's power is its refreshingly simple gameplay. The Walking Dead never relies on the faulty adventure game logic that forces you to combine say, a jar, a lighter, and a a piece of paper to make a key. Instead, you should probably just look around for a key. The game's snappier, action-oriented sequences feel similarly naturalistic; every combat scenario is based around gut reaction, and thanks to the game's control consistency, following your gut and thinking fast will undoubtedly lead to success. This lack of unneeded (and, within the adventure genre, commonplace) deviousness is commendable as it keeps the game from basking in a false sense of its own cleverness, and ensures that each episode moves at a breakneck pace.
I also have to admit that the environment I played the game in contributed to the fun I had with it. Every time an episode came out, my roommate and some of our friends would all crowd around as I played. While the hard choices were technically in my hands, we would hold split-second conferences to decide what route should be taken before the game's fleeting decision timer was up, much like our band of digital survivors were doing on the screen before us. The choices that were ultimately made might not have been arrived at unanimously, but we had to live with them regardless and move ever onward toward the series' powerful finale.
That, I think, encapsulates the greatness of The Walking Dead. Despite its subject matter, the game demands to be taken seriously, and constantly forces its players to look inward and examine how their beliefs and principals would apply to its hellish scenario. This game is the exact opposite of the juvenile, asinine pieces of escapist "entertainment" that typify the rest of its genre. Such games are stagnant and lifeless. The Walking Dead, conversely, uses its focus on death and the undead to craft a narrative that's thrillingly alive.
Online gaming brings millions and millions of people together every single day, but rarely do these multiplayer experience truly capitalize on their capacity to form connections between players in a substantive way. Most online game design is built around nerd-rage fueled competition, and if cooperative play is involved, character progression systems are typically around to ensure that selfish actions are still rewarded. Even MMOs, the genre most associated with the formation of online camaraderie, mostly rely on chat functions rather than actual mechanics to establish a sense of kinship with fellow players. Journey is the best multiplayer experience of 2012 because it stands as an exceedingly rare game whose online functionality avoids the pitfall of simply putting a group of players together and calling it a day. The game's every facet actively seeks to build an unspoken bond of fellowship between you and your anonymous companion.
This anonymity is perhaps one of the most important reasons for the game's success in building an utterly memorable multiplayer component. With seldom few customization options, an extremely basic method of communication, and no opportunity to see the other player's screenname until the ultimate destination has finally been reached, Thatgamecompany tastefully restricts people's interactions with each other. They instead go on to set their focus exclusively on building on building scenarios and mechanics that will have players wanting to stick together and help one another.
This is precisely where Journey's expert gameplay comes into the fold, never mind the fact that it's so often ignored and written off. The game's jumping mechanic is the perfect example of this intelligent craftsmanship. By limiting how often the player can jump, but giving their partner the ability to quickly recharge this ability, the two expeditionaries are strongly encouraged to stay by one another, and have a constant willingness to lend a helping hand. More impressive than this, however, is the vast array of upgrades, and hidden moments of narrative the game tucks away. One player couldn't possibly hunt down all these secrets on their own, leading the game's strong community to possess a desire to pay it forward; veterans show newbies where to find these hidden goodies in hope that one day they might do the same for another overwhelmed player. Journey's online conceit doesn't involve one player succeeding while the other fails, it's one in which everyone can succeed, which, contrasted to the hyper-competitive environments of most other multiplayer games, is quite a beautiful notion.
The most important key to understanding why Journey's cooperative gameplay is so powerful is found in examining how a solo playthrough feels. The games vast and varied landscapes, while awe-inspiring, have a lonely ambience about them, and trekking through them on your own can often take a while, as Thatgamecompany wisely and daringly restrains the aforementioned jump mechanic. This slow emptiness recalls Shadow of the Colossus's sprawling, but forgotten realm. Despite the serenity of experiencing Journey's sandy dunes, imposing underground dwellings, and snow-drenched cliffs, the feeling of isolation is overpowering, and the game's inherent design would almost seem to call out for some form of interaction and companionship regardless of whether or not online functionality was actually supported. Luckily for us, it is, and the game's would-be solemn, solitary pilgrimage turns into an impactful, interactive tale of loyalty and friendship. The fact that this narrative is also able to be conveyed while forbidding players to access their actual friend's list makes its this achievement even more stunning. The epithet-laden chatrooms of many online games serve as perfect proof for how effectively and frequently multiplayer gaming seems to bring out the worst in their participants. Journey's superbly-crafted mechanics and presentation, conversely, bring out the absolute best in people, encouraging us to treat fellow players like good friends rather than headshot fodder.
That's it for now. As you can see, I've ended up writing quite a lot about each pick, so it might take me a few days to formulate my thoughts on my 2012 Game of the Year, but keep an eye out.
There is something worse than the reduction of Zombies into cannon fodder... the appalling mis-treatment of Vampires... Twi-shite has a lot to answer for. I have some great Vampire books on my shelves but as soon as you mention them now all people think of is sodding teen anxst movies.
Hotline Miami was fantastic, and a total surprise. I'd heard a bit about it, saw it on the steam sale and took the plunge. Totally worth it. Haven't played Walking Dead or Journey though.
I have only played the first episode of the Walking Dead but I love the game already, one of my favorites of 2012
I had never heard about Hotline Miami, but this is the second Top 10 list where I see it. It sound great.
Hotline Miami is so on my favs list for 2012.
The Walking Dead has me interested as well. It seems to rely on story telling, relatable characters and a bit of humanism. Old George A Ramero zombie flicks, like: Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, did that to great effect. I know those flicks are "old" and have rather "dated" production values, but they told damn good stories that really reflected on the human condition and society.
And...for what it is...Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 are pretty awesome. :)
Looking forward to seeing what's number one, though I do have a hunch. The Walking Dead was really good. A bit overrated if you ask me, but still a great experience.
I don't like zombies too. They are in the same list of creatures I hate,along with vampires and warewolves.
I saw the TWD TV series first. Saw about 7 episodes and got tired of it. I tried the game only because it's TellTale and ever since the first episode, I got hooked.
absolutely fantastic choices. I haven't played Journey since I don't have a ps3 but have heard a lot of good stuff about it, walking dead is amazing and hotline Miami is fantastic.
Can't wait to see number 1!
unfamiliar with those two - there are just too many games to play and I've been reading instead of gaming recently
Those are some excellent choices. TWD and Hotline Miami are on my list as well. As for Journey,if I had a PS3, I'd have most definitely played it.
Journey and Hotline Miami are fantastic games. I haven't played The Walking Dead yet, but I just picked it up on the cheap, so hopefully it lives up to the crazy hype.
2012 - Year of the indie game.
I bought The Walking Dead expecting just another generic zombie game, but boy was I mistaken and what I got was probably one of the most satisfying stories in gaming. The episodes despite being short were so engrossing and left me wanting more. The choices you made despite not having an effect on the story made me really think and each one I considered carefully. The ending was sad though, but it was part of what made the game great.
@macrules_640 You're absolutely right about the game's handling of choice and consequences. Too many gamers think the act of making a decision in a game should yield some sort of substantive reward or noticeable divergence, but The Walking Dead brilliantly demonstrates that the power of a choice can lie in the act of making that choice itself.
more indie games :D I wanted to try Hotline Miami and this might be my calling :P also I can't wait to get a new Xbox so I can finally play The Walking Dead, and Journey is a beautiful game sadly it's pretty short but beautiful
@xDanny123x What can I say? There were a lot of fantastic indie games this year, and a lot of not-so-fantastic big-name releases. Definitely check out Hotline Miami and The Walking Dead, I highly recommend them (obviously).
Also, I don't think Journey would be better if it was longer whatsoever. In fact, it probably would've been worse. The game's implicit narrative is a very taut overview of the classic Hero's Journey arc. If it was a longer game, it would have to add to or exaggerate that progression, and in that case, they might as well ditch the whole concept.