2012 In Gaming: My Top Five

The Games of 2012

2012 was an odd one for the world videogames, not least because it marked the seventh year of the current generation of consoles. If E3 was any indication, the glossy boxes that have been sat under our televisions for so long are no longer games consoles – 2012 saw them make the leap into the coveted status of ‘entertainment centres’; which perhaps explains why I spent most of the year waiting for the next big Netflix release.

The current climate in console development seems to be one of alienation; if you aren’t willing to fork out forty pounds on the next glossy shooter, it seems like this generation has already been and gone. Like everyone else, I got roped along into the likes of Amalur and Dishonoured, both of which proved to be hollow imitations of ground well-travelled ten years ago; and as much as I enjoyed Mass Effect 3, it did nothing but damage the series’ legacy with an astounding lack of spit-shine and rational thought. Even my shining beacon of light – Hitman: Absolution – turned out to be nothing but a dwindling flame in the end.

As a result, most of my favourite games appeared on the PC this year, in most cases developed by independent developers. By my estimation, until some new hardware gets announced, the Indies are ruling the roost.

Though I hope I don’t sound too cynical. For any and all complaints, 2012 is also the year that I really learned to appreciate what videogaming could do. Atlus’ Catherine, a 2011 release that only washed up on European shores this February, probably hit me harder than any other experience to date; and acted as the first jab of a one-two punch along with Binary Domain, proving just how effective good characterisation can be with even the smallest injection of interactivity.  Heck; Spelunky, Lollipop Chainsaw, The Legend of Grimrock, SSX – I could sit here and list games all day – but as I’ve come to find, if there’s one thing the internet is lacking right now, it’s a numbered list.

Here are my top five games of 2012.

5. Max Payne 3

Max Payne 3 Cover ArtI’m aware that Max Payne 3 is an oddball choice for a ‘best of the year’ list, and yet the more I think about it, the more deserving it seems. Ultimately, the value of Max Payne 3 hinges on the player’s investment in its tale, and for me, that investment came strong.

Yes, the world is linear, the crescendos are scripted, and the loading times are long; but – provided you have even the slightest care about Max and his descent into the underworld – it’s all justified and disguised within the narrative to the extent that you can ignore most of the game’s shortcomings.

To lay my cards on the table: I adored the story on display here. The tongue-in-cheek charm of the previous, Remedy-developed titles has been lost in translation; but Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 isn’t necessarily a misstep – more of a new direction: a more overt, action-packed take on the noir of old. Max Payne 3’s narrative never feels forced or compromised; it’s a brilliant demonstration of the classic tale of the fallen hero, told with enough of a modern flair that it feels worthwhile.

It’s not without it’s problems, of course. There are certain sections in the game that play the ‘social commentary’ card a bit too hard on-the-nose, and for all of the game’s attempts to afford some sort of thematic significance to Max’s tale, it’s worth remembering that around thirty percent of the game is spent shooting holes in disenfranchised youths in Brazilian favelas. There’s so much of a narrative dissonance between Max’s actions and speech that I find it hard to accuse the game of hypocrisy; it’s somehow gone full-circle back into the realm of sincerity, albeit uneasily so.

The redeeming factor here, then, is Rockstar’s R.A.G.E. engine. Since 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar have clearly been attempting to redefine the relationship between animation and control, and here, their efforts finally pay off. Heading forward through Red Dead Redemption and Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire, we’ve been able to witness the evolution of the publisher’s attempts to create characters that feel alive – that feel weighted within the world and interact with their surroundings accordingly, and in this regard, Max Payne 3 takes the biggest leap yet.

Characters no longer carry the momentum of freight trains, and turning ‘on the spot’ no longer requires a five meter turning circle. Max feels just as rooted into the world as Niko Bellic or Cole Phelps, but without all of the control hang-ups. His laboured jumps into the air feel suitably ‘chunky’, and his landings even more so, resulting in a painful thud and wheeze of air; perfectly matching the haggard, drunken persona he’s adopted. Getting up from the floor seems to be a task into itself – Max rests his elbows on his knees and arches his back in an attempt to gain some leverage – a triumph of realism, but from a narrative perspective, also testament to just how heavily a lifestyle inspired by John Woo has taken its toll on the protagonist.

None of these animations are firmly scripted. Max dynamically reacts and shifts his weight according to where you aim and move. Dive into a wall for example, and Max will slam into it and crumple to the floor, all the while trying his best to keep his guns centred on the aiming reticule, allowing you to twist, aim and fire, even when at an absolute physical disadvantage. He can’t carry an armoury, either; if there’s no room in his hands for a weapon, he can’t carry it, and it’s impressive unto itself simply watching Max’s model adapt to different combinations of positions and weaponry. Carrying a shotgun in one hand while firing a pistol with the other is a small touch that goes a long way – when it comes time to reload, Max will drop his shotgun under his arm; use his free hand to insert the new clip, then shimmy both weapons back out into reach – and it’s these natural little touches really help ground the story in reality.

That ‘reality’ is the crux of it, really. Videogame narrative and gameplay have often stood in stark contrast to each other in the mainstream: games with ‘gritty, realistic’ storylines will often have gameplay that equates to nothing more than another Master Chief-tinged romp through waves of enemies, only becoming truly ‘realistic’ when it suits them – in the cutscenes. Say what you will about the recent trend towards gritty, brown and grey shooters, but Max Payne 3 finally justifies the trend through more than its cutscenes. Max is as squishy as ever, and the game can be staggeringly difficult at times, in part aided by the restrictions put in place by its dynamic, believable animation systems. For this reason, Max Payne 3 is the only game that I’ve ever felt was expressly ‘realistic’ – strange, when you take the game’s more elaborate set-pieces and bullet-time antics into consideration. The story may not appeal to everyone, but the gameplay complements it every step of the way.

It’s in this regard that I view Max Payne 3 as the ideal reinvention of the franchise; retaining the hallmarks of the series’ past, while still allowing the folks over at Rockstar ample room to reinvent the more dated aspects of the gameplay and narrative. If you were expecting a nostalgic rerun of the Max Payne you left nine years ago, I have no doubt that you’ll leave this game disappointed. This is a true sequel, and a worthy continuation of Max’s story, built with his story in mind.

 

 

4. Dear Esther

Dear Esther Logo ArtAs the critical support for Dear Esther died down following its release, I couldn’t help but feel that it caught a lot of flak from people expecting it to be something that, quite frankly, it wasn’t. Does this mean the game misrepresented itself in its marketing? Maybe. The cryptic trailer and gorgeous screenshots were enough to hook me and many others in, but said nothing about what to expect from the experience of playing Dear Esther, least of all that it was essentially a two-hour long walk through some fields. When all is said and done, I can’t necessarily blame others for disliking it. As I noted in my review in March, Dear Esther is a tough one to describe, let alone sell.

Equal parts interactive fiction and tech demo, Dear Esther may lack the traditional frills and hooks of a ‘videogame’, but manages to rise above its initial simplicity with an emphasis on narrative. It doesn’t present its players with a singular, authorial directed meaning, but instead toys with the player’s interactivity and the malleable nature of the experience itself to great effect, in order to create something a bit more personal.

This is a game about discovery and interpretation above all else. Something as simple as a landmark rock formation could have been little more than a fleeting glance for player A, whereas player B may use it as the crux of his narrative, a symbol of culture tying in with his ‘Rosebud was a rock’ theory. Dear Esther’s journey may take place along a linear path, but a sheer saturation of detail, in combination with randomised audio and visual elements, shines a spotlight on the player’s subjective stance on the world along the way.

At risk of elevating the game above its station, I sincerely believe that Dear Esther provides a narrative exclusive to videogaming; one that toys with the boundaries of ambiguity in a way that was previously reserved for independent text-adventures. A book only offers you one perspective on events: if a novel starts off in a sitting room, the author may draw attention to a clock, suggesting that the clock, or the time it represents has some kind of significance, but a lot of other details might not be written down, suggesting that nothing else within that sitting room is important. You can’t bring the rest of the room into question.

In videogames, on the other hand, it’s up to the player to enter the sitting room and distinguish for themselves – informed by their own interpretations – whether the clock is significant, or if there’s anything else in the room that may be more vital to an interpretation of the story. Dear Esther monopolises on this fact, scattering the foundations of its story throughout the world itself, and simply throwing the player forward. Every sign is important. It takes videogaming back to its foundations of raw interaction, providing the means to approach a delicately ambiguous narrative from any perspective.

I have no doubt that the game will be overshadowed by bolder, more purposeful projects in years to come, but for now, it’s an example of what gaming can achieve when it leaves things to the player. This is a world and story that thrives on the death of its author, and the birth of the player within its world. Dear Esther stressed – to me, at the very least – the merits of interactivity at a basic level. Nathan Drake, agent 47 and Soap can go shove it; this story was mine.

 

3. Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami Logo Poster

I didn’t like Hotline Miami at first. As a matter of fact, after ten minutes with the game, I was left on the verge of sickness. With little in the way of introduction, Hotline Miami throws its player into control of a nameless killer, taking instructions from a shady back-alley figure as to how best kill the three nameless men circling him – resulting in a liberal spattering of brains, blood and guts being spread across the alley’s floor. Anyone who came away from the tutorial for Rockstar’s justly-maligned Manhunt feeling icky should recognise the feeling that this game instils; a bitter mixture of disgust and uncertainty that doesn’t ease up.

Stick with it, because this is a good thing.

Played from a top-down perspective, Hotline Miami never evolves beyond the ‘go here, kill a load of dudes’ stage, and yet manages to innovate enough within those constraints that it appears fresh. There are a few obvious comparisons to be made here: early Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne, and Manhunt; oddly enough, all of which have flown under the Rockstar Games banner, and perhaps the best explanation is that Hotline Miami has nailed the Rockstar ‘feel’ – their same shameless experimentation with time and place, and intelligent approach to shock and gore. Whereas the likes of Max Payne aims to evoke the surface atmosphere of 50’s hardboiled noir fiction, Hotline Miami turns its attention towards the surface sleaze and decadence of the 80’s and thrusts it forward as the game’s defining ethos, much akin to Nicholas Winding Refn’s breakout hit last year, Drive.

I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that this game owes a tremendous debt to Refn’s work, either. From its casual heapings of hyper-violence to a soundtrack oozing seedy electronica (not to mention a trailer that clearly pays its dues), Hotline Miami layers its tale over the same neon underground that worked so well for Drive just over a year ago, inverting its lighter emotional finesse in favour of pure viscera. Just imagine the elevator scene in Drive, if it were placed on repeat and turned into a videogame, and you’ll know what to expect here.

Granted, it may not have the largest body-count, but every death is portrayed with such a gruesome attention to detail that Hotline Miami may end up leaving even the most heavily-weathered of gorehounds feeling a little uncomfortable. The juxtaposition between garish purples, reds and greens and the viscera that comes to obscure them is unsettling, and applies an edge to the visuals that never quite wears off.

Hotline Miami remains interesting solely because it rationalises hyper-violence without any regards for morality. Through its overwhelmingly intimidating – and yet satisfying – difficulty and an emphasis on tight mechanical gameplay, it manages to force its player into having fun, regardless of the subject matter, creating a jarring thematic conflict between the ick and the slick. It will leave you curled up crying in the shower the next morning, sure, but you’ll come to love it for taking you there.

 

2. Telltale’s The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead Cover ArtIt took me a while to come to terms with Telltale. Back when they picked up the long-defunct Sam and Max franchise, the gaming media highlighted them as the saviours of adventure gaming, a genre that, ever since I first sat in front of Monkey Island on the Amiga, I’ve absolutely loved, from the highlights of Grim Fandango through to the more questionable lowlights of the AGS archives.

After playing through the first series of Sam and Max, however, I can remember feeling a distinct disappointment – taken by the belief that they were simply watering down the tropes of the genre and presenting them in a sickeningly palatable form, a feeling that only grew as they moved onto Monkey Island, Back to the Future, and the woeful Jurassic Park. With studios as great as Wadjet Eye going unnoticed in the shadow of Telltale’s increasingly ham-fisted work, I couldn’t help but remain bitter as Telltale continued to grow.

So I suppose it speaks volumes about their episodic adaptation of The Walking Dead, that I can now sing their praises along with everyone else. If Dear Esther proved the virtues of an emergent narrative, then The Walking Dead did the same for a scripted one, building on the foundations left by the Mass Effect series and proving once again how far videogames have come in the last five years.

Oddly enough for a game so concerned with ‘choice’, however, The Walking Dead doesn’t alter its story structure based on the players decisions (Alpha Protocol has already stolen that spotlight, anyway), the main story beats will always remain the same in any given play through of the game, with only slight divergences with regards to time, people and places. Where The Walking Dead excels is in its ability to personalise its linear narrative, and the extent to which your crew of apocalypse survivors will change based on your interactions. The subtle shifts in dialogue that occur as a result of character’s shifting stances on your decisions throughout the series really bring home the idea that this is your story, even if everyone will end up in the same place anyway. To state that The Walking Dead offers the illusion of choice would probably be right, if insulting to just how malleable its interactions eventually prove. My decisions may not have crafted this story from the ground up, but they gave it a heart and character that was all my own, both for better and worse.

It helps that the writing is genuinely gut-wrenching, and even though the voice acting may occasionally falter, The Walking Dead never ceases to gun for the emotional jugular. It’s popcorn stuff, done well. Whether or not you’re interested in the whole ‘choose your own adventure’ shtick, it’s worth playing if simply for the closing twenty minutes. This is ‘cinematic’ gaming done right.

 

1. Fez

Fez Logo Art

Not only my favourite game of the year, but most likely of the last five, I’ve never before played a game like Fez, and I doubt I ever will again. Within the space of 20 or so hours, it managed to present me with a grand tapestry of unique, oft-contradictory puzzle elements, all working in tandem to form an inexplicably cohesive whole. ARG elements, puzzles that change based on each individual player, Kojima-esque utilisations of the controller and console, and even the classic ‘change the system clock around’ bit, all presented with a clear reverence of gaming’s history on a distinctly personal level.

In Fez you control Gomez Gomez, an adorably goofy 2D being living in a 3D world. Five minutes into the game you’re presented with the titular fez, a transcendent bit of headwear that allows you to rotate the world in 90 degree increments around you and its inhabitants. Most of the game’s earlier puzzles revolve (ha!) around this element, forcing you to adapt your 3D surroundings to best fit your 2D interactions within the world, somewhat akin to Echochrome‘s experimentation with perspective. Akin to Valve’s Portal – you should embrace the fact that your earlier moments with the game will be spent having your mind fall into disarray.

The game’s open world approach to puzzle-solving is equally novel, allowing you to work your way through the game while still admitting defeat in the face of its grander challenges. Developer Phil Fish has crafted a game that encourages you to step away from walkthroughs, and merely onwards, towards the next puzzle. Not to mention: multiple, logical, solutions present themselves for numerous puzzles and mysteries, and this really goes lengths towards creating a world that feels real, and oozes mystery.

One of the game’s earliest overarching mysteries is the world’s fictional language, found littered throughout the game’s surroundings and dialogue. While standard cryptography skills like pattern recognition and frequency analysis could easily allow you to decode it, the game throws enough hints out there for people who might not feel up to that particular task, ensuring that no mental approach gets left behind. The fact alone that you’re never offered a codex to spell everything out for you is a miracle of game design. Hearing that familiar jingle every time you solve a puzzle is made so much more gratifying under the knowledge that you had no assistance getting to it.

Fez might sell itself as a standard platformer, but the sheer depth of this particular rabbit hole is commendable. You’ll barely scratch the surface of the game on the first playthrough, and if you want explore every corner of Fez as intended, a notebook and pen are absolutely necessary. By the time I was finished, I had a double-sided sheet of A4 that looked like Dr. Jones’ notes on the holy-grail.

For me, Fez was a modernisation of the experience of retro gaming. The puzzles are hard, the world is demanding, and in releasing exclusively on what is arguably the most closed system on the market, the puzzles and world stayed that way for a long time. The first week or so following the game’s release was genuinely a special thing – very few people had the inclination or means to delve into the game and start decompiling and deconstructing code and assets, and so people worked together within the game’s boundaries to solve the game’s puzzles, one at a time, and it lasted just long enough to keep people speculating and working away around the clock – without resorting to XNA decompilers or voodoo.

At the risk of sounding inflammatory, I’m glad that this game wasn’t initially launched with a PC version, because I think that the open nature of the system would have ultimately spoiled a large degree of the game’s mystery. By all means, I’m hoping for a staggered release now that the game’s core mysteries have been resolved, but for its week of release, I was just glad that the gaming community got to play right into Phil Fish’s hands and experience the game as intended: collaboratively staggering into the unknown, relying on patience and effort rather than technical know-how and hacks.

For a brief moment, Fez managed to bring the playground mentality back into the internet age – somewhat ironically, over the internet. All you have to do is look at any series of posts on GameFAQs, GiantBomb or NeoGAF from the first week of the game’s release to realise just how successfully this game caught the zeitgeist. People swapped bullshit stories and tips, speculated on what was to come, and praised and derided the eventual solutions in equal measure.

It’ll never quite recover that same initial sense of wonder, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still the best game of the year – it remains one of the most emotional, atmospheric and rewarding games I’ve ever played. Fez is an enigma within an enigma; a transcendent dive into the unknown crafted to perfection. Fez, put simply, is something else.

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