Greetings,

For the final installment in the annual “Best of 2012″ series, I present to you the very greatest of the gaming from last year. This is the typical “Ultra-Late Edition” I have been doing lately, since I like taking additional time to play the numerous games which have piqued my interest over the last year, so I can give a proper opinion on what I thought was the supreme pick among them.

It’s never that simple though…

Where We Stand

2012 was a year which in the near future both gamers and academics will look back as the key turning point in the transition the entire gaming medium is going through.

Pushing the Limits

Pushing the Limits

We are right now at the flux of change, at the precipice of seeing our medium transition into something we hope will be much better without losing too much of what made us fall in love with it in the first place. It is clear that gaming — both as a medium and a community is no longer the single monolith it was a decade back. It has fragmented into these branches which have vocal supporters and flagbearers of their own. This is a good thing as variety only serves to enhance a medium, rather than destroy it.

It is important as change permeates around us that we take a moment to look at our own definitions and evolve them accordingly. I have heard many people deriding over what they see as “not game enough” and while I respect their opinions, I believe that with time definitions need to change, else they remain nothing but narrow-minded relics of a mind which couldn’t maintain pace with time.

As much as there were signs of negativity particularly from the bigger companies who continued to wade through stormy waters amid layoffs, giant losses and controversially disastrous games. It seems like only now, some of these big companies are realizing that the gaming bubble which got created with the rise of Wii and games like Guitar Hero and Call of Duty Modern Warfare has long since burst and by spending on forced multiplayer modes they are only spreading themselves too thin — something that comes back to bite their own asses.

This is a topic that I want to speak at length about and thus this blog isn’t the best idea to continue venturing on it. For now, this should give you an idea of how I perceive certain aspects of our medium.

The Diary of A Gamer in 2012

For me, 2012 was an excellent year. I did not only play the most number of games I have in a single year, but I also played games which only served to deepen my appreciation and love for the medium. In a time, when I see many gamers I know get jaded of AAA games, I am glad that my penchant to unconventional games from less-popular sources and genres has continued to keep me enchanted.

Be it visual novels in Katawa Shoujo or Analogue: A Hate Story or the incredibly complex grand-strategy in Crusader Kings II or my brief but prominent affairs with shoot-em-ups on PC with the Touhou series.

One of my beloved genres from the past saw a popular revival from a familiar source with The Walking Dead while little indie games like Unmanned and Dear Esther continued to redefine what “games” mean to me.

A brief affair with the danmakus

A brief affair with the danmakus

I also got a chance to play what has surely become one of the most enchanting and seductive worlds I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of through the means of a game in Vampire: The Masquerade-Bloodlines which also is a delightful RPG on top of it.

I was briefly intrigued by the Mass Effect 3 “Retake” controversy but ultimately came out unaffected and holding it just above the original ME1 in the pecking order.

Dishonored reminded me of moments I used to cherish in games like Deus Ex and Pokemon Gold but was thoroughly missing in recent times until it showed up.

As winter approached, I got into night-long conversations with NeonNinja on Steam and together we began a process of influencing each other into playing awesome games. I shall not speak of what games I influenced him to play(as there are many :P ) but I shall speak of what he made me play. Because I am greatly thankful to him for that.

He made me play Spec Ops:The Line. A deeply flawed military-shooter which embraces every cliche in the book of generic shooters, only to sharpen them into knives and put them in your gut — one by one. I don’t recall any game which has resulted in as much critical analysis in recent times as Spec Ops did. In its flaws and successes, Spec Ops and Hotline Miami defined the flux of change 2012 represented. They both abhorred and reveled in violence only to turn back the mirror on the player. Spec Ops in particular bravely showed how the medium had progressed yet how badly it was being held back by its own conventions.

You can look at my complete list of “Games Finished in 2012

Game of the Year Awards

Let us begin with the award categories. Each has a winner and a runner-up. Let’s do this.

Best Visual Design

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Winner:  Mark of the Ninja

Klei’s fantastic 2D stealth platformer was a brilliant 101 in how to explain every single thing that is happening on the screen through visual means. From spheres that indicate the intensity of noise your actions make to brilliant light & shadow effects. The masterstroke was the clear distinction between foreground and background which never distracted from the excellent stealth gameplay of MotN.

Runner-Up: Mass Effect 3

In more than one way, ME3 was pretty much the best of the previous two games and it carried that even in terms of its visual design — which showed both the neat, bluish hues of ME1 that spoke out “SCI-FI” loud and clear while the darker colours did their job in displaying the gloom of a universe under siege. With a rich colour palette that is thoughtfully used, ME3’s art design consistently hit all the right notes throughout Commander Shepard’s final stand against the Reapers.

Best Audio Design

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Winner: Hotline Miami

Dennaton’s retro bloodfest would be nothing without its heady cocktail of trance-inducing 80s synth-pop that put you under a spell of endless repeats and mushing the tiny heads of your enemies into a bloody pulp. It has been said the most underrated sound in the world is silence. Hotline Miami pays its due respect to it and it wouldn’t have won if it weren’t for the sudden eerie silence that occurs when you kill the last enemy. The “silent walk back” wouldn’t be as effective if it weren’t for the sudden silence as the din of its synthpop tunes gives way to your rising guilt.

Runner-Up: Lone Survivor

Jasper Byrne’s kinda been my favourite indie developer in 2012. Besides making one of the favourite tracks in Hotline Miami, he also made this wonderful 2D-survival horror that evokes memories of Silent Hill only if you played it on an acid-trip. It burst into dreamy psychedelic jams amid eerie silence and the sharply increasing noise as enemies approached nearer as you hid in darkness, as you held the empty gun you have in your hand only increased the tension.

Best Game Design

WinnerCrusader Kings II

Like some of you may know, I have a great interest in game design so to me personally — game design while a very expansive topic also comprises of providing players with tools and a set of defined rules in a universe that is their playground. Some call it “sandbox” others call it “true freedom”. None are so in real sense.

Crusader Kings II is. Instead of focusing on battles and war, it focuses on character, dynasties, courtroom politics and relationships. In addition to giving an incredible twist to so many conventions of gaming least of which includes the very concept of “death” and it’s unpredictable nature sets it in a league of its own. Couple that with its ability to provide gamers with tools and rules and then leave them to their own doing in a world that’s as rich in its realism as its rife with randomness and the arbitrary. If I had ever seen a brilliant example of game design that didn’t follow the conventional rules, CKII would be it.

Runner-Up: Super Hexagon

On the opposite side of the spectrum is this minimalist masterpiece from Terry Cavanagh. Incredibly difficult might be its most common tagline but what Super Hexagon does is it encapsulates the entire history of action games within a game about a tiny triangle and converging sides of a hexagon. Be it reflexes, precision, instant-decision making coupled with observation and foresight — the skills we associate with action games — are the very core elements of this brilliantly designed minimal action game. The simplistic controls are merely the icing on the cake.

Excellence in Writing and Narrative

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Winner: Spec Ops: The Line

You might notice the mention of “narrative” in the title of this award. I generally don’t do that. This is the reason why. Spec Ops is not going to win any awards for its dialogues. But it is how its anti-war narrative weaves and blends every single aspect of its sandstorm of elements — its generic gameplay, the metaphors and the slow realization as it all snowballs slowly into something darker as the game progresses until it finally punches the player in the gut.

Exploring “the line” between the player and the character they control might seem like an impossible and overly-ambitious narrative, Spec Ops does exactly that exhibiting the growing disconnection between the players and Gen.Walker as responsibility on their own actions start to swirl into a spiral of questions as the game heads to its apocalyptic finale.

I could write essays about this game but they have already been written. It brilliantly explores the “space” between us and the characters we control in games to such a brilliant effect that it is a shining example of what games are capable of as a storytelling medium.

Runners-Up: The Walking Dead AND Analogue: A Hate Story (TIE)

More than a cop-out, this joint runners-up decision is apt because both the games deal with characters in extremely uncomfortable situations and how their spirits and relationships with those around them are constantly tested. In The Walking Dead, it is in a post-apocalyptic society where the very vestiges of human civilization break down into something worse than the plague. With emotional highpoints and powerful characters tied with a central relationship between Lee and Clementine make The Walking Dead one of the most powerful stories in recent times.

In contrast, Analogue: A Hate Story is bipolar switch between the light-headed conversations around cosplay to the serious depiction of a deeply burdening patriarchal society. Its’ characters are not burdened by something as immediate as the zombies but the suffocation in their society moves them to act beyond their character. A great showcase of both the humor and seriousness the visual novel genre is known for.

Best Soundtrack

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Winner: “Enigmatic Box of Sound” — Katawa Shoujo OST by NicolArmarfi, Blue8,delta, CplCrud and Juno

This was a pretty solid little visual novel that made people talk primarily because of its misleading premise and how it was made by a group of world-spanning 4chan users remotely over a period of two years. But once it got released (for free) it earned praise because its treatment was sensitive where it needed to be and solid otherwise.

The highpoint for me personally was the soundtrack. It reminded me of my love for classical music particularly those from Frederic Chopin and Scott Joplin, and some of these wonderful melodies using simple piano and acoustic guitar are so beautifully done that no words are needed to describe them.

So while you have “Daylight” describing the gentle calmness of the mundane, we have a sombre menu music in “Wiosna“. There is depression and broken shard of a person that was Hanako in her “Jitter” (high-point in terms of music describing a character’s mental state) while “Nocturne” captures the very essence of this soundtrack and what it is capable of. Solidly consistent throughout, this was as simple choice as any I have had to make in this blog.

Runner-Up: Hotline Miami

Which doesn’t mean it didn’t have any competition. Hotline Miami wouldn’t be the same game without its heady soundtrack which included licensed tracks and original from Jonatan Soderstrom’s fellow indie conspirators. While we had Pertubrator’s “Miami Disco” or M.O.O.N’s “Hydrogen“. There also had to be a brilliant Mission Score screen music with Jasper Byrne’s supremely ambient synth-mammoth in “Miami” which would bring back the 80s in gloriously loud fashion back to our ears.

Non-2012 Game of the Year

For those games from the yesteryears which I played for the first time in 2012.

Rich and intoxicating -- one of the best ever

Rich and intoxicating — one of the best ever

Winner: Vampire: The Masquerade-Bloodlines

It’s no secret that I’m a closet(?) goth and I adore dark and brooding atmosphere be it ones created by a game or music. Bloodlines was the final game made by the ill-fated Troika and they eventually shut down after its development. At release, it was a buggy mess and got mixed reviews. But when I played it last year, I adored it. It may have fixes but this game has what so many games lack — a soul and a beating heart. With a rich and brooding atmosphere that smells of approaching doom and a narrative design that weaves all the best elements of RPG. Add in a clunky but well-designed gameplay based on World of Darkness tabletop rules and brilliant music and you have one of the most immersive games ever created. Period.

It has its dips and highs in the form but it ends on such a brilliant note that you spend the next two minutes gaping at the screen in amazement.

The brilliance is in it’s second playthrough especially if you play as the Malkavian class. They are “bipolar, semi-insane and hallucinating” vampires so you have some of the most ridiculous experiences in RPGs. From having hallucinations and “voices” that subtly forebode events to come to having arguments with the STOP sign and the TV announcer, this is a game steeped so heavily on narrative ambition, it serves as a shining reminder of what RPGs are capable of.

2012’s The 5 Greatest Moments in a Game (spoiler-free)

(in no particular order)

  • Crusader Kings II: “My Story Vol.1″ was basically my first playthrough of this brilliant game. For the first six hours, I alternated back and forth between the tutorial trying to grasp the majestic and complex systems of the game. I began as a small Count in Ireland. Smartly working my way through court, I gained the claim to my neighboring county and I smartly slipped poison into its count’s drinks and claimed it for my own. That marked the beginning of 400 years of “history” where I would rise to power eventually capturing all of Ireland, parts of Scotland and parts of France, only for my son’s homosexuality (a sin in those times) to make him hated by the nobles who staged a revolt and killed him. My young son who wasn’t of age was under a regent who got blinded in a tournament and his handicap nature resulted in the son(which was me) to become bloated and I ended up marrying a Muslim princess and converted to Islam. DISASTER. As the Pope and the King of England all declared Crusades on me and the second-half of those 400 years was spent fighting and scheming against enemies from all sides until I managed to survive with pretty much what I started when the 400-odd years of the game were completed. WHAT A STORY!
  • Hotline Miami’s “A Silent Walk Back” : In a game that reveled in its own violence by glorifying every bit of it to the point where it got a little too much. But still the loud music and the generally reckless combat made it too entertaining for the players to ignore. Until you had killed the last enemy in the area. When the “cassette” suddenly gets stuck,rewinded and there’s an eerie silence. As the din of the loud synthpop clears, you walk back the very same path you came. Watching your bloodied “masterpiece” as guilt slowly boils within you. A brilliant sequence that tied in perfectly with its anti-violence by irony theme.
  • Mass Effect 3’s “The Fate of Tuchanka” : This was always going to be difficult to select as ME3 had MANY brilliant moments but I finally went for this because not only was it an emotional highpoint but also it brilliantly merged the variations in decisions from the previous two games on a scale BioWare had never attempted before.
  • The Walking Dead’s “Farewell” : Everyone knew it was coming but still it brought in the emotions. Superbly done.
  • Spec Ops:The Line’s “White Phosphorus Scene” : At once, a brilliant criticism of modern military shooters and the blow-up of everything the game was building upto in its preceding eight chapters, this scene was the infamous gut punch which brought EVERY gamer — thoughtful and observant or trigger-happy in face with the brutality of war. Every bit of this scene and how it takes place is masterfully done.

The Best of 2012

I hate saying this every year but 2012 was really a solid year in every aspects and those who say it was downright the greatest year in gaming aren’t that far from the truth. The variety was another sign that as a medium it was taking all the right steps. There were clear signs that few games helped the medium progress far beyond what we expected. There were also some stellar representations of lesser known genre and basic creativity came from every angle in 2012.

I still cannot understand people jaded with “same-old” gaming. They are either not looking at the right places or are too narrow-minded to accept the new games. Because as far as I know, 2012 was a landmark year — one where the division in the industry became all the more clear and I’m glad for it.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Super Monday Night Combat
  • Binary Domain
  • Lone Survivor
  • Analogue: A Hate Story
  • Torchlight II
  • Borderlands 2

The Top 10

Narrowing down to a Top 10 was a mammoth task. I know few have given up on making a Top 10 list but I stuck with my intention to make a ranked list like every year.What I have here is a “snapshot” of what I thought. I may disagree with this list a year or so down the line but for me this is how it stands.

How have I differentiated in a year with so many great games? I have done so on two criteria: a) how much I liked them (top priority obviously) and b) on the basis of their importance to the medium.

10) FTL: Faster Than Light

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Subset’s roguelike space-simulator is a classic example of the creativity that is brimming in some of these indie developers. One of the early games to come out of Kickstarter funding, FTL showed that money in right people’s hands can result in challenging and intensely original games. With eight sectors and perma-death/no reload of roguelikes, FTL became that a solid “one more try” game for countless people. It helped that the MIDI-esque downbeat tunes helped create an enchanting atmosphere for our space adventures.

9) Mark of the Ninja

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Klei’s 2D stealth platformer is easily the best in it’s class because there is little that compares to it. But it also proves right my definition of stealth game which goes: “Stealth at it’s best is a puzzle with dynamic components”. MotN is a designer’s game and it shows in how impeccably designed every element of it is — from visuals to audio to its mechanics. It is a great example of how a solid vision behind a game can make it a cohesive and engaging experience.

8) Hotline Miami

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Dennaton’s reckless 2D-gorefest was at the forefront of the indie movement in 2012 because not only it represented the overused retro aesthetic but it did so while appearing fresh. Cactus aka Jonatan Soderstrom’s philosophy of “gameplay mechanics first” shows in Hotline Miami with it’s gameplay taking centerstage. Everything — from it’s Drive - esque story to its’ anti-violence by irony theme revolves around that gameplay. With brash aesthetics and loud music, Hotline Miami was a step in the right direction for both the medium and indie development.

7) Dishonored

Dishonored

Arkane’s steampunk stealth adventure harkened back to the golden-era of PC gaming where Thief, Deus Ex and Splinter Cell existed side-by-side and level design worked in tandem with player agency without breaking immersion. Dishonored is the “Greatest Hits” of those stealth games implementing some of the best mechanics from each while giving its own original twist. It may have had an underwhelming story but the mission hub and its structure was so well-implemented that you could not help but praise Arkane (and Bethesda) for taking such brave risks in this day & age.

6) XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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Firaxis made the bravest attempt in the history of the turn-based strategy to remove all the barriers which had limited the appeal of this traditionally complex genre but in this “accessibility” they somehow managed to retain most of the richness of the XCOM series. Transitioning into the modern-era with cover-based turn-based strategy, XCOM Enemy Unknown is a golden example on how to make a complex genre accessible to almost everyone by a detailed tutorial and abstraction of lower-level design elements and only focus on the essential aspects.

That along with some of the emergent narrative aspects on the battlefield made it an immensely enjoyable game — one that takes the most looked down aspect of modern development and turns it on its’ head for a delightful strategy game without any inaccessible barriers. This is no longer an elite club, this genre is now open for everyone — was the statement Firaxis made with Enemy Unknown.

5) Mass Effect 3

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BioWare’s closer to their brilliant sci-fi trilogy had to be special. For two games and over eighty hours, their trilogy had captured imagination and had players invested in the universe and its inhabitants. But you could count on BioWare to dispel doubts after Dragon Age II, because they brought in their A-game for ME3. Making it a deeply personal tale as well as a galaxy-spanning “kill the baddies” was made special only because you had invested so much time and choice in the game. And it all showed beautifully. Tuchanka, Rannoch or the Citadel. It worked in ways both clear and subtle. The gameplay was an improvement — almost a best of both the previous two games and while sacrifices were made, they only reinforced the tension and urgency of a universe under siege.

Old faces brought in the nostalgia while new faces were admirably built. Much of the wasted potential of ME2 squadmates was developed here. It all built beautifully to the finale on Earth and no matter what you may think of the eventual outcome, nobody could argue that the 100+ hour journey spanning multiple games, planets and galaxies wasn’t worth it. The journey of one Commander Shepard was memorable. Thanks for the memories, BioWare.

4) Super Hexagon

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I learnt to appreciate minimalism in different ways and it all began with a visit to an art exhibition. But it was only when I played Terry Cavanagh’s minimal “action” game did I realize the sheer beauty of minimalist design. Super Hexagon captures the entire 25 years or so of action games in a tiny triangle and converging sides of a hexagon. It demands every bit of attention and skill you’ve used in action games for the past 2 decades be it observation, foresight and planning or plain old reflexes and quick decision-making. Super Hexagon is a wonder in design because every element it has is necessary. There is no filler, nothing you feel is excess to the requirement.

Chipzel’s high intensity chip-tunes and the ever-changing background colour and perspective makes Super Hexagon a tense experience capable of making your heart pump with excitement in a mere 20 seconds.

That is a sign of a solid game, if I ever saw one. Just look at *this* gameplay video to get a little taster of what it’s capable of.

3) Spec Ops: The Line

When I said at the start of this list that I’m ranking games with their importance to the medium being ONE of the important criteria, this was the game I was referring to.

Simply put, there was no game in 2012 which was as important as Spec Ops:The Line was. What began as a generic excursion to near-future Dubai with a typical dudebro squad, slowly started growing darker and more mature. By the time you were questioning the identity of your enemies and the very intent of why you’re supposed to shoot them down, you know this game had its’ claws on you.

But then, there came the metaphorical sandstorm and the game continued to rise steeply in ambition. At one point, I was sure this game was going to cave in. But that moment never came. It was a narrative-driven experience with generic shooting and sloppy controls and cover mechanics. That is not the reason why this game is No.3

The reason it is No.3 is because it not only criticizes its own genre by ironic example and shows the brutally dark side of war but it also explores the medium and points fingers at the player. But that isn’t it, it continues down that path exploring the growing disconnect between us and the character we control questioning the responsibility of the characters’ actions and our involvement in the game.

As body count piles and brutalities get worse, Spec Ops marches towards its chilling finale. In the end, it is a game I’d never play again. The controls have nothing to do with it, but I’d rather not experience a game where I’m tired shooting people I don’t want to shoot. Where I’m tired following a path I don’t want to follow, playing a character whom I am growing increasingly disconnected with.

It explores the never-asked question in games “Where does your character’s responsibility end and yours begin?”

In words of a certain review I don’t recall, “The only way to really win Spec Ops:The Line is by switching off the game and walking away”

2) The Walking Dead

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For what had once been my favourite genre in games, point-and-click adventures went through a very rough patch in the past decade. But Telltale had always been at the forefront of the revival and the revolution. The revival was for the point-and-click genre — over past six years — Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit and Back to the Future are some of the few shining examples in their catalog. The revolution was that of episodic gaming. What was seen as a cash-grab model, turned out to be a perfect fit for The Walking Dead which thrived on its short-length episodes to administer maximum impact on its players.

The emotional tale of a convict trying to redeem himself in a post-apocalyptic world where the very foundations of civilization are slowly rotting into barbarianism, Lee finds his only hope for redemption in Clementine, a lone child amid the chaos. Together along with a ragtag group of memorable misfits, TWD creates one of the most memorable adventures with moments of intensity and twists and emotional high-points.

Players made decisions at key points which didn’t impact the story as much as how everyone viewed Lee. This worked wonders especially during the latter two episodes where Telltale learnt to manage both storytelling and their cinematic gameplay in a natural manner which certainly the likes of Quantic Dream and Hideo Kojima can learn from.

It may have revived the popularity of a genre but TWD is at No.2 because it shows that emotionally powerful tales of relatable human-like characters can be told through games.

1) Crusader Kings II

Recipe for disaster,bro.

Recipe for disaster,bro.

This should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has been around me for the past year or so. From Twitter hashtags #CKII to constantly annoying my friends on just how rad this game was.

And it is.

In many ways, CKII is my dream strategy game. It is a game filled with immense depth and complexity. I love that in any strategy game. It is also not RTS. That helps too. But it is not a game about a “nation” or a “faceless ruler”. CKII is about a character — one which you character and whose shoes you walk in as. It is essentially a role-playing game in a grand-strategy’s clothes. You have attributes, traits and negative aspects. You interact and build relationships with people around you to achieve higher.

Besides intricate court-room politics and the general dose of backstabbing and scheming, CKII treats player death very uniquely. When your character dies, it is not GAME OVER. Instead, you continue playing as your heir. You inherit the situation your ancestor(the previous character) left you in but are now a new person. New positives and new reasons for people around you to hate. This is akin to a Reset button while carrying the entire baggage and shit your ancestors left you in.

It works brilliantly. Death can occur anytime,anywhere. On the battlefield, in the courtroom. You could be assassinated, you could fall off your balcony. You could catch the plague and survive or you could die while having sex with your wife. It is extremely random and unpredictable JUST like actual death. No other game I know treats death like this and this has tremendous affect on how a player looks at this game.

I was constantly worried about death. When I knew I was having a good run, I wanted to secure the future. Make sure my heir is well-educated, has no enemies but then he has an accident and dies and now I have to contend with his vastly inferior younger brother. You have to live with your own sins and decisions and this is the sheer beauty of CKII. Only one of the many aspects of it.

In a year with so many quality, grade-A level games, there was never any contender for the No.1 spot for me. CKII was the clear and simple choice.

And with that, the “Best of 2012″ series comes to an end.

I hope you enjoyed it and if you have comments on what I said about the industry and various games OR want to criticize my No.1 choice as CKII (which shall be met with fire!!) or anything else feel free to do so.

Until next time.

Take care.

And see you on the other side.

Ansh