My favorite games of 2011:
1. Johann Sebastian Joust
In case you’re not hip to what it is, JSJ is a physical folk game played with up to seven PlayStation Move controllers/players and a MacBook. Each player can only move their Move as fast as the classical music that plays, and must somehow get the other players to move theirs too fast – by slapping at their arms, shoving them, using a careful foot, etc. – to get them “out”. There are no rules beyond the goal of them game, which is what makes it so brilliant. The slowmo ballet of awkward interactions quickly engenders a physical trust and understanding between players of all shapes, sizes and ages, and rewards skill and creativity in equal parts.
Let me regale you a moment, as JSJ was also responsible for the best moment of my year, and one of the greatest of my life. I participated in a large-scale match a couple of months ago at IndieCade as part of their Night Games line-up, with a rotating group of seven players and a surrounding crowd of about 80 people watching. One of the final matches of the night came down to myself and another gentleman, as we circled and sized each other up like geeky gunslingers. Based on a simplified version of a move I had pulled off months before, I used my right shoe to pull my left shoe partially off of my heel while my opponent’s eyes were locked on my hands. Before he knew what was happening, my shoe came sailing through the air thrown from the tip of my foot, hitting him right between the elbow and shoulder of his Move arm as his light flashed red with failure. The crowd exploded in cheers and applause, as I instinctively set the Move down on the cement and lifted both fists to the sky in triumph (while my opponent disgustedly flung my shoe back in my general direction and stormed away).
A self-indulgent story I suppose, but one that I think demonstrates the purity and strength of great game design. With no screens, no board, and only one rule, Johann Sebastian Joust managed to make a crowd explode for a random nerd like me. I’ll remember and treasure that for the rest of my life. My favorite moment, thing, and game of the year.
(And I apologize that not everyone can play it yet [only those who funded the Venus Patrol Kickstarter], but now you’ll know how special it is when the time comes that you can.)
Bastion is probably the most coherent game I’ve ever played, and as a result one of the most enjoyable. It’s not just the painterly aesthetic, soulful soundtrack and inspired dynamic narration that work in harmony, but every game system beneath – from weapon upgrading to assembling the world hub to the unique skills you’ll outfit the character with between levels. Each new element inserted causes another interesting one to pop up somewhere else, as the design constantly feeds back into itself while building toward a crescendo of completeness – both narratively and mechanically. Where most games fall short of even polishing the loose ends they never stop introducing, Bastion wants for nothing.
If games are judged on the merit of how well they deliver on their concept, Dark Souls is as close to perfect as any have come. The world of Lordran’s indifference to your presence is its hallmark, while its unforgiving nature – so antithetical to the coddling of most modern games – assures that you’ll goddamn pay attention if you’re going to intrude. NO game will challenge you so holistically, and when progress is tantamount to exorcism, NO game holds higher satisfactions.
Rayman is a relic from a time when games were about running and jumping through gorgeous colorful worlds with silly music playing while sitting on the couch with your friends, yelling and laughing. How passé.
Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer
I’ve played a lot of Ascension this year. 243 games as of this writing, with 17 in progress and…lemme just take a few turns here…
So Ascension is an asynchronous deck-building iOS card game with serious strokes of Dominion and Magic: The Gathering, sans the lengthiness of the former and the expansiveness of the latter. The tutorial is fantastic, and teaches you the entire game – which can intimidate at a glance – top to bottom in 15 minutes. Outside of the ever-obtuse lack of a chat feature, the implementation is sublime and makes it a breeze hopping between taking my turn across 17 different games every chance I get. And while the ease of playing a fun game with friends originally outweighed the quality of the game itself, I find myself appreciating the design more every day, as some cards don’t reveal their true strategic use until the 93rd time you play them. Buy it, send me an invite (rocksolidaudio on GC) and we can play forever.
Shadows of the Damned
Only a Japanese game could turn the plot of Super Mario Bros. into a nightmarish exploration of survival horror tropes and dick jokes. Something uniquely horrifying lies around every corner, and battles of literal light and dark keep combat thoughtful from start to finish. While the pairing of Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur (a Hispanic Ash of sorts) and his sassy transforming skeletal sidekick Johnson is easily the most ridiculous this year, sharp writing and localization keep it on the right side of silly and turn eye-rolling lobs into genuine laughs. A gloriously successful roller coaster for the morbidly curious.
A game about choosing which girl you should text message in between climbing away from monstrous embodiments of your relationship insecurities. The mundane aspects of Catherine are every bit as intellectually challenging as the puzzle bits are tricky, where moral consideration sits adjacent to brain-bending box arrangement. I haven’t finished Catherine, because you can’t exactly turn down the difficulty in a relationship, can you? (I wish the game would tell you this when you try to turn it to Easy.) Besides, it’s easier to walk away for a while and pretend that there aren’t any problems you need to face. Right?
While the storybook setting is more childlike than the game deserves, it’s a fine pretense for a stunningly beautiful fantasy world of misty swamps, shimmering glens and dozens of stop-you-in-your-tracks backdrops. Seriously, Trine 2 could make a very good case for being the best-looking game ever, all things considered. But looks aside (if I must), it’s also a fantastically fun co-op adventure with an absolute palette of physics fun to be had. Like Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light before it, this is a game where experimenting pays off, and feels immensely satisfying when it does. When each step outside of the box takes you one step closer to the solution, you know you’ve hit on something magical.
Where Is My Heart?
A gentle, genuinely thoughtful adventure through the woods with friends. While the comic panel puzzles would still be fresh and challenging stripped of all context and presentation, they wouldn’t be as soulfully satisfying. WIMH’s charms are effortless, from the subtle but warmly nostalgic score to the pang of guilt you feel when one of your trio of creatures cries for a moment at the fleeting death of another. The most likable game this year.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
is what happens when incredibly talented, creative people attempt to make something singularly special together and understand/trust/respect their audience and platform as implicitly as they do each other. Sworcery touches on its many inspirations with delicacy, distilling their most inspiring moments into moods, while also managing to feel new and impossibly self-aware. It almost doesn’t matter what you’re doing or what the game is about when the aesthetic is so captivating…but it kind of does, because the journey of the Scythian feels personal, and everyone you meet along the way seems to have existed for long before you showed up.
It always feels like a lacking compliment when I remark on how playable a game is, but dammit, Rochard is incredibly playable. Almost every element is inviting, polished and fun (the perfunctory story being the exception), with a few that truly soar like the spacey soundtrack and clever puzzles. Manipulating gravity serves as the lynchpin mechanic, and is used smartly and entertainingly throughout; you’ll easily perform acrobatic maneuvers in tandem with your gravity gun that end in a patrolling guard being crushed by a crate flung from across the room. Rochard evokes true modern classics like Portal and Limbo at times, and while it lacks a hook that would bring it to that level it stands out from just about everything else.
I’m torn about having this here, since it was probably my most disappointing game this year as well. But that’s only relative to the (perhaps unfair) expectation of the sequel being as innovative, exciting and subversive as compared to the first game as the first game was to everything that came before it. But it’s still expertly crafted, and – especially for a game brimming with robots – genuinely human and regularly hilarious. The entirely unique co-op mode/levels are the best part of the package, as the iterative puzzle-solving shines that much more when it involves the timing, coordination and communication of friendship.
Crash gets a lot of flak for not living up to the expectation of its legendary namesake from Burnout 3, which is perhaps the single best mode in the history of anything. But taken on its own merits, Crash (the game) is a very savvy puzzle experience steeped in casino-like compulsions. The balance of luck and skill feels off for the first few crashes, but the more time spent in the controlled chaos the more scoring subtleties/opportunities reveal themselves. The presentation is pure Las Vegas, with flashing numbers and audio flourishes punctuating most every action; gaudy perhaps, but masterfully done as near-constant positive reinforcement.
Games That I Love But Haven’t Played Enough Of Yet:
The Binding of Isaac
Rock of Ages
Games That I Love But Am Probably Too Close To To Judge Rationally:
My 10 favorite iOS Games that aren’t Ascension or Sworcery of 2011:
The Last Rocket
Zookeeper DX Touch Edition
My 10 Favorite Films of 2011:
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Life in a Day
Attack the Block
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
10 Songs that defined 2011 for me:
College – A Real Hero (feat. Electric Youth)
Fucking Werewolf Asso – II KEEP MY ADRESSE TO YOURSELF, CAUSE WE NEED SECRETS
Jim Ward – My Town
The Rapture – How Deep Is Your Love?
Foo Fighters – Bridge Burning
M83 – Midnight City
The Muppets – Life’s a Happy Song Finale
YACHT – Utopia & Dystopia (The Earth is on Fire)
The Get Up Kids – Automatic
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Summer of All Dead Souls
Thanks for reading. Have a nice 2012.