Not all of the below are new releases, and not all defy common sense. A few may have belonged better in a list from 2012 or even 2011, but here’s hoping you won’t notice the difference.
Star Citizen’s inexorable, ceiling-smashing Kickstarter campaign
What is it up to now, $35 million? I believe it because Eurogamer is telling me, and because the space-sim shall rise again. First, the adventure game re-birthed itself, and now it’s the turn of Chris Roberts, the Wing Commander mastermind-turned-crap movie producer. The project still seems a little duct tape and bubble gum, and it’ll be mighty interesting to see if Roberts Space Industries or whatever they’re calling themselves can actually pull off everything they’ve promised. I’m also a bit terrified of what additional goals further funding could unlock. Support for extraterrestrial operating systems?
Shelter, the badger game
This turned out to be not such a wonderful game, but it was the rare, cohesive animal simulator to grace our collective hard drives, so, that counts for something. The linear and sort of ploddy nature of the levels grows old before long, but the game is brief and punches high above its weight in terms of eye appeal. Not a lot of polygons, mind you, just some very skillful textures.
Terraria 1.2 update
Props here go to Re-Logic’s continued development of its sandbox side-scroller, which broke ground in more ways than one. If you know what I mean. As we are visited by an armada of games inspired by this cute little number from 2011, its creators continue to release very smart and free updates. Version 1.2 was by no means the overhaul than 1.1 was, but the effort was still appreciated. No DLC here, folks.
Even though Steam has gotten more and more into the business of wrapping old games in modern-friendly shells (see: System Shock 2), GOG still gets credit for curating a delightful mishmash of the old and new. They’ve managed to move away from their original mission (GOG = Good Old Games) without turning into GamersGate. Or something.
We’re going to thumb our noses at Spelunky, the slap-happy platformer that’s near the top of most everyone else’s lists. Rogue Legacy does a better job of making death fun. Even after your avatar dies, you retain some of the strength you had built up, meaning each succeeding generation rises stronger and more viable than the last. Perhaps what’s most heartening about this game is its demonstration of a pan-genre we might join in calling “casual hardcore.” Quick need not be easy.
I’m not as breathless about this first-person narrative as some people have been. I didn’t find the experience particularly spooky, or the character studies that meaningful. The central drama, of two teenage girls in love, was a bit Saturday morning special. I know, I have a heart of ice. What impressed me more was the simulation of a plain old house, complete with documents and little lamps and boring clothes. Realism (in terms of storytelling) is very rare in games, and Gone Home went for it, and almost succeeded. Bland, in a way, but not boring.
The return of The Walking Dead, The Beast Within lumbers out from its predecessor’s beastly shadow
Forget the TV show, which is lame. Season two of the game has so far turned into Clementine’s story and has produced, so far, a mildly promising first episode. Clem is the little girl you were trying to save from harm in the first series from Telltale Games. The Beast Within’s debut was darn good, in its own right, and built on The Walking Dead’s timed conversations, which were a simple but hugely effective innovation, if you ask me.
SUPER HOT demo
Gosh, this is fun. A stylized biz-thriller in which the action only moves when you move. This leads to something like turned based, first-person gunfights. According to the developer, this game was the fastest ever to achieve Greenlight status (five days).
This hasn’t gotten a lot of love in end-of-year lists, but it should stand as an example of how to do a nostalgic reboot well. Notice the stunning lack of over-reaching ambition. We need our Star Citizens, but we also need our games like this, just like we need our James Patterson novels. If the developer gets wise and lets modders have free rein, we could be looking at something special. Bet you’ve heard that before about a game.
The Stanley Parable goes standalone
The most memorable gaming experience of the year, and it succeeds not based on its gimmicks. Those became an avenue for some of the funniest monologues ever, in any medium. The interplay of tedium, terror and childish surprise is too much fun, and your entire job is to make things worse. It feels like what I’ve always wanted to do in a game but never been allowed to, or rewarded for indulging in, until now.