2011 was a massive banner year for games. Triple A titles and Indies alike got released in droves and came in such high quality it boggles the time, and made demands what little free time I had to even manage playing, trying, or sampling all the big and small games. There are a couple I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to try before figuring out this list, but as it stands, this lists represents what I thought were the best games of 2011, and the kind of games I’ll be learning from now that I’m an actual designer of such.
1. Batman: Arkham City
The Dark Knight Descends!
I’m the Goddamn Batman.
Few other games will truly re-create the immersion of being a superhero, flying high and pummeling faces. Arkham City takes the best of Batman’s lore, scatters its stories around an open world bursting with life, and sends you under the Caped Crusader’s cowl to do everything that he would do, to keep Gotham safe. The stories were a bit much, dueling their narrative threads for attention, but when focused, it told a superb Batman story, (with a few comic bookish handwavium applied) and ties it all up in one fantastic ending. If anything, Arkham City is one of the few Batman stories to really understand Batman and Joker’s relationship, then manages to build a smart game around it.
What we all can learn: How to do an ending. The start of its final mission to the final climatic, emotionally resonant end, and even the credits sequence is a testament to finishing games with a Bang, and an encore. All games should bow out with such pizzazz, even if the game opens up for you to wander about freely later on.
2. Dark Souls
He's not the Goddamn Batman.
You will die a lot.
Your sense of achievement in Dark Souls is hard won. This is a difficult game and many will give up in frustration long before they begin to discover the nuances of the game’s finely tuned systems. It’s a game that isn’t afraid to show you failure, and serve it up alongside a steady helping of distress, melancholy and tension, because it knows nothing is as sweet as victory in the face of overwhelming odds. And while’s there’s so much to be said about the games difficulty, and what you can learn from it, a few words must be said to celebrate the its massive achievement in world building and level design. Most of which will go unseen as gamers give up in frustration.
What we all can learn: No, not the difficulty, but the Level Design. Dark Souls world is a labyrinth of inter-connecting corridors, dungeons, castles, underground lakes, hollowed trees, swamps and cathedrals. It’s all so wonderfully build as a world to explore, hiding its story bits in its architecture and mood, while providing a constant stream of surprises and awe around every corner. It takes what Zelda tries to do with its world, and actually creates a fantastical realm that’s a wonder to behold, even as it does its best to kill you.
Seriously, no one screenshot will do this game justice.
I’m the goddamn Dovahkin.
Pretty much every major games journalist writes about the massive scale of adventuring Skyrim provides. “A narrative loom“; one where stories of all kinds spring forth from the world and systems Bethesda has created. A place unlike any other, of dynamic, personal experiences and the beauty of its vision. Yes, Skyrim is an stellar achievement in games and in world creation. But Bethesda still has someway to go in figuring out the nuts and bolts of game systems. Improvements to the combat system will not go amiss, and deeper quests will perhaps create more emotional resonance. Still, it’s great that Skyrim has done so well. For awhile, RPGs looked like they might die to a hail of gunfire from the pseudo-military shooters, Skyrim has blown that perception apart, dragonborn style.
What we all can learn: Content. No one other game will have as much content, from epic quests, to little side stories in the world, as Skyrim. And not any one player will see them all, but there will be those who try. Sometimes, it’s enough to create little details that only one guy will see. Cos hopefully when he does, he’ll shout how cool it is to all his friends, and it’ll get viral.
4. Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings
I'm the goddamn Witcher
2011 really is the year of RPGs. The Witcher 2 represents the other end of spectrum, a game which puts you in the role of a single character, and tells a fairly focused story. For all that Skyrim does not do, The Witcher 2 trumpets. Fascinating deep characters, nuanced complex stories, and choice and consequence in the story that actually changes the story as you play it, The Witcher 2 best represents the kind of storytelling that doesn’t pander to your average gamer crowd, instead, confidently populating with characters that might be hard to relate to, but fully fleshed out in their idiosyncrasies. Still, like Bethesda, CDProjecky Red can polish up a little of its game systems so they don’t always interfere with the story they’re trying to tell. Also, Kudos to the Witcher for being one of the few games where the confrontation with the final boss can be dealt with by interesting dialog.
What we all can learn: Sex scenes. If games are trying to be adult, then we should bring along a sense of class and actual understanding of intimacy. For all its grit, grim, backstabbing and monsters, Witcher’s sex scene and the enduring relationship between its principal leads, seems to be able to accurately portray what an adult relationship might be like. Well, an adult relationship in a fantasy land at least.
5. Shogun 2
None of them wanna be the last samurai.
So not a shameful display.
Strategy games are less story-prone that action adventure and RPGs, but Shogun 2 does a stellar job in creating the tableau for which your Daimyo’s rise to power takes place. The Total War series may ostensibly be about those land battles, armies of ashigaru charging across the field while Samurais stand poised for battle; but a finely tuned campaign, with its RPG-lite characters and wonderful Japanese Aesthetic manage to create the sense that I really am grabbing power in 17th century Japan.
What we all can learn: History. Few other games mine the majesty and depth of human history for their games to take place; Shogun 2 revels in Japan’s rich medieval lifestyle, abstracting what it can to its game and writing reams of words otherwise in its wiki. Shogun 2 has been one massively enjoyable history lesson and its a wonder it’s not requirement playing for any student studying 17th century Japan.
We're all friendly now, but for how long?
Kid’s got a story to tell, he’s gonna tell it.
Who would have thought Cormac McCarthy could have inspired a computer game. A transcendent synthesis of writing, music and art; Bastion best represents that games need not be epic undertakings of multiple hours to be influential and memorable. Perhaps it’s not the best game, it’s hacking and slashing are enjoyable enough, but it’s a game with more on its mind that just creating another dungeon crawl. It’s a game about uncovering lost, a minimalist story in creating history as economically as possible, a game more concerned about the mood and emotion of its audience that the thrills and spills of action and adventure. It’s a rare experience of gaming, music and story and it was exactly the right length for it.
What we all can learn: Among other things, how a soundtrack does the heavy lifting in setting the mood. We remember songs; the best kind latch on to the reptilian part of our brain and creates emotions we weren’t aware we could feel. Bastion takes that, marries it to the poetic style of its narration and creates a game that artfully bittersweet, about love and lost and sacrifice.
7. Dead Space 2
In space, no one can hear you scream
I’m honestly surprised to have liked Dead Space 2 as much as I did. Sure, its relentlessly bleak and gregariously gory. It takes its best cues for gore-porn horror movies with shock tactics and superficial religious iconography for some supernatural depth that at best, it’s B-grade horror movie with guns. But damn if it isn’t incredibly well done B-grade. Dead Space 2 is no System Shock, but it’s confident in its horror story, and it tells it well. It also seems to understand that real horror works best when your character is vulnerable. Isaac may be armed to the teeth with futuristic weapons, but its still a hard fight for your sanity, and peace of mind as your wander through the flesh-soaked corridors of Saturn.
What we call learn: UI? I guess not every game has to be an object lesson in design and storytelling; some can just be wonderfully crafted.
8. Atom Zombie Smasher
One last dot
When’s there’s no story, no grand ambition in theme or aesthetic, and no massive undertaking in scope and content, and no experimental existential experiences; there’s just game design, pure design. Pure design is just play, and play is just fun. Atom Zombie Smasher is fun. Sure, it’s dripping with quirky retro style, sun-blast 60s music and pink freaking zombies, and yes, there’s some narrative thread about evacuating survivors from a zombie apocalypse, but all that’s background to carpet bombing zombies, or planning strike teams moving from street to street, or just funneling zombies into mine-laced avenues. Fun!
What we call can learn: Sometimes, a clever quirky art style can do quite a bit of heavy lifting in setting the right mood for some fun. I’m happier when something is stylistically unique; at the very least, it’s something you don’t see anywhere else.
I haven’t had a chance to try “To the Moon” just yet, but I’ve heard many wonderful things. Similarly, Saints Row the Third sits out this list cos I have never played any of the previous Saint’s Row and have long since burnt out on Grand Theft Auto. But I hear great things of pure fun and will someday get to it. Also, Rayman: Origins I’ll probably love, so I’ll get to it soon enough. But for games I’ve played that deserve a mention; Driver; San Francisco is this year’s other surprise hit. Not since Burnout have I enjoyed a driving game. Anno 2070 would have been on the list for the amount of hours it has since sucked from me, but I don’t know what else to write about it. Orcs Must Die is the only tower defense type game I’ll play and enjoy, and Sonic: Generations made me enjoy Sonic again, and Portal 2 probably deserves a space up there for great writing, comedy and interesting mechanics, just that the puzzle part of the game was somewhat disappointing.
2012: I’m looking forward to Bioshock: Infinite, Mass Effect 3, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and one other game, which I can’t really talk about.