The Games Of 2012, Part 2: The Top Five

Part 1 of this little list highlighted eight of my favorite games from 2012. This post lays out my personal top 5 games of the year.

5. Fez—Polytron Corporation

Fez

Fez is a window into another world. Two worlds, really. On one hand, it’s a game of archaeology. You fumble around in an unfamiliar land, putting together the culture of an ancient civilization. You uncover their language and writing, each new bit a clue to the arcane puzzles hidden below the game’s familiar facade.

With a little knowledge of the game’s troubled development, however, it’s easy to see Fez more as a window into the troubled mind of its designer, Phil Fish. Making this game ate away at his physical, mental, and social health. As he tells it, it nearly killed him. It’s a madness that you can feel as you fall deeper into the Fez rabbit hole. Soon you’ll find yourself scribbling notes and decoding ciphers. You start to lose it yourself. Fez isn’t just a creator making a statement about the process of creation, it forces you to feel what that creator felt. The player and Phil Fish are connected through this world and its puzzles. His descent into lunacy and frustration becomes yours. It’s an utterly unique and mystifying expression of the horrors of creation.

4. Far Cry 3—Ubisoft Montreal (primarily)

Far Cry 3

I love old adventure and swashbuckling movies like The Adventures Of Robin Hood or Captain Blood. Far Cry 3 captures the spirit of these films. It’s got exotic locations, pirates, knife fights (not sword fights, but close enough), improvisational combat, sliding down ropes, and fights surrounded by fire. It just feels like “adventure,” in the Hollywood sense.

The island your let loose upon is beautiful and teeming with stuff to do. It’s great to just screw around and let all the little systems—the bad guys, the good guys, the ecosystem—create fun for you. There’s also a great sense of mystery surrounding the locale, and, while not as well defined as it could be, exploring the ruins of the multiple societies that have come and gone gives off a pulpy, Indiana Jones vibe.

The game rewards you for playing slowly and taking in your surroundings. It’s such a joy to just hang out on a hill and watch your enemies, planning out your attack and poking them into a frenzy before closing in for your final assault.

3. Hotline Miami—Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin

Hotline Miami

It might be the most sadistic thing I’ve ever enjoyed, but at least Hotline Miami is doing something profound with its violence. The combination of the game’s frustrating difficulty, blistering pace and urgency grimy music, and bad acid trip visuals all lend to a sense that as you kill, your mind is slowly slipping away—presumably, just like that of your character. I ended up falling into a rage-filled trance, slamming the retry button and throwing myself at the bloody puzzles for hours at a time.

There’s also a great mystery below the surface. Who’s calling you and why do they want all these people dead? Why does the same dude work at the bar, the pizza place, and the video store? You don’t get all the answers, but the final story twist gives the preceding violence some more meaning.

2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown—Firaxis Games

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Much like The Walking Dead, XCOM is all about decisions, but where The Walking Dead merely offers up the illusion that your choices are affecting the fate of those around you, XCOM relishes in handing over responsibility. A soldier was killed by some nasty alien? He’s gone for good, and it was your fault. Thousands of French civilians are dead and they decide to pull funding from your international alien-fighting army? That’s on your head.

Having all these responsibilities is terrifying. There’s an almost overwhelming stress that comes along with playing through one of the turn-based battles, knowing that moving your soldier just one square too far into the unknown could mean their end. But watching as your perfect trap decimates those alien bastards makes it all worth it. Seriously, I can’t think of another game with as many “Fuck yeah!” moments as this one.  Then again, I can’t think of any with deaths as devastating either.

1. Journey—thatgamecompany

Journey

It’s impossible to overstate how much of an achievement I sincerely believe Journey to be. It’s the kind of work that, to a miserable cynic such as myself, serves to remind you that there is some good left in this world.

It’s a game made by people that understand and care about human emotions. You can feel it in the multiplayer, which creates a bond between nameless, voiceless strangers. You can feel it in the score, which provides the loops and corkscrews for your emotional roller-coaster. You can feel it in the visual aesthetics and the way the camera pans and zooms, turning every moment into a shot I would be proud to hang on my wall.

The musical score is the manipulative glue that holds everything together. Even when separated from the game, it still has the power to bring tears to my eyes. It tells the game’s story and facilitates your emotional journey in stunning fashion. It moves from solo cello—accenting your loneliness in the endless desert—to a playful confluence of violin, harp, and flute as you and your newfound companion race down glistening dunes. When you come across danger, it becomes menacing and oppressive. And when you finally reach your journey’s end, the score soars, climbing and climbing until the violins just can’t take it anymore.

It’s been difficult for me to talk about Journey. It’s just so pure and moving—an experience that has haunted me since first playing through it and can move me to tears with even a hint of its climactic melodies. It’s an important step forward for interactive art and a work the creators in this medium will be referencing for decades to come.

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About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

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