The Top Five Impactful Games of 2012

Stolen courtesy of Columbia Pictures. There was some legal text at the bottom, so I snipped that.

I don’t think there can be any question that we’re living through a genuine Golden Age of Gaming when picking out the most impactful games of the year is difficult, not because I need to invent tenuous reasons to validate my choices, but because there are too many to choose from. I’ve whittled down the list, and what follows are the five games that most affected me in 2012. And boy, there were some doozies.

Lee is *pissed* he didn't win.

2012’s runners-up.

Limitations and Runners-Up

Before we start, let’s get some disclaimers out of the way.

First, these aren’t necessarily the best games of 2012 — those lists are all over the internet right now, and here at Space-Biff! we like to do things out own way. Besides, while I love kicking back and playing games for relaxation as much as anyone, the games I enjoy most are the ones that teach me something about myself. These picks reflect that, and in some instances they weren’t that great as games, but each and every choice here was fantastic at altering the way I perceive the world, or the people in it, or myself. If you find that pretentious, then you’re a caveman. Welcome.

Second, these are all PC games. I only own a PC. Well, and an iPad, but I only have that so I can play Summoner Wars and tell my friends that I use it for things other than playing Summoner Wars. I also write a lot about boardgames, but I haven’t yet encountered a boardgame that was “impactful” in the way that I mean a videogame can be “impactful.” So, yes, everything on this list is a PC game.

Third, this list is limited to games I’ve actually played, and in the year (2012) I played them. If another game was impactful for you this year, I’d love to hear about it. There were a few games that I wish had made it onto this list — for instance, we have a couple of strong runners-up. I loved Dear Esther. It had great writing and even better scenery, and definitely captured my imagination for a few days, but for whatever reason it didn’t stick with me the way the other games on this list did. I also had a tremendous time with The Walking Dead’s heart-rending choice-and-consequences system, which I was planning on chronicling in my Walking Dad series; unfortunately, crippling bugs kept me from playing past the first episode, thus knocking it out of the running. I hope to return to it.

Alright, on to the games!

Very few games have made me feel so crappy about being bad.

The darkly beautiful world of Dishonored.

#5: Dishonored

Dishonored is easily the highest-profile title on this list, and it received no shortage of praise upon release, including from myself. Its appeal seemed to spring from a tug-of-war between extremes: its setting, the whalepunk city of Dunwall, is both a technological marvel and a possessed husk; its protagonist, Corvo, is a magical assassin empowered with the best abilities and gear on display all year, yet you need not actually kill anyone; and its gameplay pays homage to a wide array of sources without ever fully embracing one or the other. It was wide and ambitious, marred for many by easy difficulty, incongruous systems, and late-game linearity.

Here’s why it worked for me:

I love tough choices and consequences in games. It’s rare enough that games will offer me choices at all, and most that do only present a veneer of consequence — a couple different lines of dialogue, a different gun, color-coded ending cutscenes, etc. There are very few games out there that really offer me excruciating choices: the first Deus Ex, Dragon Age managed it near the end, Mass Effect before the series transformed from Lovecraftian horror to hero-worship, Metro 2033, Fallout: New Vegas. The list isn’t very long.

Dishonored asked me to make tough decisions with every action, and armed me with the tools to make informed choices, especially with that damnable heart and its whispered secrets, which alone makes the game worthwhile. The tagline “Revenge Solves Everything” was more a question than anything, and the game itself was poised as the answer. Did I kill those that had murdered the Empress, kidnapped the royal heiress, and framed me? Did I kill those standing between us? Did I poison civilians along the way to removing a major threat? And if I did, what sort of man was I at the end of that long and bloody road, and what sort of empire would stand about me? Most of the game choices didn’t have much effect, but the endings validated this as one of the most affecting games of the year.

That name still makes writing about Lone Survivor hard. It's also one of the game's more leaden points. You?

You battles a zombie.

#4: Lone Survivor

Jasper Byrne’s tale of survival after the collapse of civilization bears mention for many reasons, but one stands out among the others. Not only is it deeply psychological, filled to the brim with snippets of interaction and personal thoughts, and short enough that I could endure finishing it (I’m a complete pansy when it comes to survival horror), it’s also shockingly optimistic.

The world has transformed into a rusted mess, filled with shambling mutants and organic muck and a cloud diseased air that still lingers at ground level. Food and water are as scarce as bullets and flares. The only people you meet are either imaginary or as deranged as you. You aren’t even very good with a gun. Chances are this is humanity’s swan song, provided it isn’t just the scenario running through your captive and insane mind. Which would be worse?

And yet. Things just might be okay. You can get better, you can heal, you can make it. Lone Survivor is as much about surviving as it is about thriving. It’s as much about killing or evading diseased monsters as it is about this:

Hey look, a cat on the internet.

You meets a cat.

As such, your triumphs are small things: finding a constant source of water, baking a ham, securing safe passage through one of your apartment building’s dark floors, making a friend and being good to them so they’ll be good to you, watering a plant, taking time for recreation, adopting a cat. Lone Survivor’s protagonist is possibly the most realistic post-apocalyptic survivor gaming has ever seen, preoccupied with human concerns and needs. And meeting those needs is all up to you. You can improve your living conditions, overcome your past, heal your hurt. It’s nothing short of empowering.

I also haven't written about this game for fear of sounding horrendously stupid.

#3: Thirty Flights of Loving

This is the only game on this list that I haven’t written about, and not for lack of trying. Brendon Chung is a Space-Biff! favorite, having made one of my favorite games of 2011, Atom Zombie Smasher, and the marvelously deceptive Gravity Bone. If you haven’t played Gravity Bone, do so — it’s free, takes less than an hour to complete, and plays all sorts of tricks on your heart and mind.

While I’m not convinced that Thirty Flights of Loving is better than Gravity Bone, that’s a bit like saying the Pietà doesn’t measure up to the David. And yes, I know how horrible that comparison is. Gotta use that liberal arts degree somehow.

Anyway, there isn’t much I can say about TFoL without giving too much away — the game lasts fewer than fifteen minutes, after all. And it’s worth each and every one.

The danger of always doing alt-texts is that now and then you write something somber and introspective, and it's actually quite hard to come up with a joke. Haha, look at you freezing to death!

One of Space-Biff’s jollier pictures.

#2: The Snowfield

As I wrote nearly a year ago, The Snowfield wins the distinction of being the only game I can think of that takes place after the battle. This student project nails it, marking the scene of battle as brutal, otherworldly, and cold.

Even if The Snowfield left it at that, at being the most faithful gaming representation of the tragedy of war, it would be great. But it’s more than that — it’s also about human compassion, casting you as the one survivor out of your entire regiment of the German Army with enough of his mind left to herd your fellow shell-shocked warriors back to the warmth of the fire. As such, it’s about fraternity, and sacrifice, and something profoundly good, especially coming after such evil.

This still affects me more than all the lovingly-rendered gore in games like Max Payne 3.


#1: Hotline Miami

This might have tied with The Snowfield, except for one little detail: Hotline Miami is absurdly fun.

Which is kind of the point. Cactus’s (Jonatan Söderström) first commercial project (along with Dennis Wedin) is about violence, addiction, and what we think of as fun. It’s a reeking mixture of score-chasing, puzzle, action, and compulsion. The more brutal you are, the faster you murder, and the variety with which you do immense physical harm to others all contribute to your score. It’s also got a rattlesnake of a soundtrack.

“Do you like to hurt people?” the game asks. At that point, the only answer is yes. You’ve made it that far, after all. You could stop at any time.

There isn’t too much more I want to say about Hotline Miami — I want to write about it more later, and some of my thoughts are still formulating — but it’s definitely the most disturbing, affecting, and horrifying game of the year. And as you can see, it was a great year for great impactful games. Here’s to hoping the Golden Age continues into 2013!

Posted on December 12, 2012, in Lists and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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