Six platforms, ten (plus two) games, three game journalists, and twenty-eleven years. Richard Clark, Drew Dixon, and Luke Larsen rank their favorite games of 2011.
10. Forget-Me-Not (iPhone, iPad, Mac, PC)
How many times have you pulled your favorite childhood game out of storage, only to find that it pales in comparison to the game that was lodged in your memory? Games have come a long way, making what we consider to be classic games often seem surprisingly dull or frustrating as a result. But what if that game you pulled out of your closet was everything you remembered and more? That’s Forget-Me-Not.
Originally an iPhone standout, Forget-Me-Not is something like a cross between Pac-Man and Rogue, a score-based maze game that finds all of its punch in its enemies. The extremely varied characters you’ll run across say nothing, mean nothing, have no motives – but they do some extremely crazy stuff, throwing you out of whack at every turn. Forget-Me-Not becomes a minimalist adventure, charging the player with split-second adaptation, to do everything they can to get the highest score possible and advance to the next level. It’s one of the few games that seems refreshingly simple at first, only to open up and expand with each play-through. –Richard Clark
9. Battlefield 3 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)
We’ve been talking for a long time about wanting a war game experience that will probably never come. We hoped for a game that would treat war with nuance. One that would refuse to categorically glorify war and at least nod to its devastating consequences. We didn’t get it with any of the previous Call of Duty or Battlefield games and we were disappointed to find out that we weren’t going to get it with Battlefield 3. And with the recent release of a slew of similar war games, I really did not want to like Battlefield 3.
And in many ways I didn’t. The campaign is largely predictable and there are aspects of the game that I am pretty sure I will never be good at (is it just me or are the helicopters ridiculously hard to control?). But to be honest, Battlefield 3 is great for one reason–it offers a compelling and robust team-based multiplayer experience. B3 goes out of its way to reward survival, foresight, and teamwork in rather unconventional ways. The best players in a given game are often not the players with the highest kill/death ratio, but the players doing most to actually aid their team as a whole–the players who are actually committed to teamwork and survival. Success in multiplayer requires that players trust each other.
I am still tired of war games and I think Battlefield 3 could have done more to honestly deal with the sobering aspects of war, but none of that changes the simple fact that Battlefield 3 is the most satisfying multiplayer experience of the year. -Drew Dixon
8. Portal 2 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)
Unlike other attempts to incorporate heavy cinematic influences into games this year like Uncharted 3, Portal 2 managed to do it through excellent voice acting and dialogue writing. Throughout much of your journey through the Aperture Science Enrichment Center you are guided by the eccentric robot Wheatley, whose voice work is performed by British comedian Stephen Merchant. Without ruining any surprises, just know that the writers at Valve prove once again to be masters at character development. Wheatley, in many ways, was even more frightening to me than GLaDOS from the original Portal — featuring fumbling monologues and dark humor that could come right out of a Woody Allen film. It was such a refined single-player experience, that I couldn’t help but automatically add it to my favorite games of the year. – Luke Larson
7. Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)
In terms of modern game design, Batman: Arkham City is the perfect game. It’s great to look at, fun to play, tells a surprisingly memorable story, and adequately pays tribute to Batman and his iconic enemies.
What makes the game special, however, is how it constantly makes the player have to think critically. While much of the action appears as nothing more than traditional brawling, the combat in Arkham City is deep, complex, and dynamic. To successfully take on 50 guys at once you must constantly adjust your tactics, utilize gadgets, and take advantage of the environment. Batman has a ton of gadgets to use against his enemies—these gadgets are intuitive and can be combined with one another. Coming up with the right combination of gadgets to accomplish an objective is deeply satisfying. In a year that offered some of the most catastrophically bad boss battles, Arkham City manages to offer boss battles that feel natural and utilize gadgets and tactics that the game has been teaching players as they progress.
Batman might not be the most meaningful or spiritual game of 2011 but from a pure gameplay standpoint, it’s definitely the best. – Drew Dixon
6. The Binding of Isaac (PC, Mac)
It’s not exactly a story-based game: The Binding of Isaac is primarily a dual-stick shooter rogue-like, all about finding powerups and dodging enemies so you can make it to the end of the game before dying. Still, what makes the game such a stand-out experience is the subtle, and minimal story elements that are all the more affecting precisely because of their understated nature. It’s hard to express just how disturbed you might be once you realize what it means for a coat-hanger to cause Isaac’s projectile tears to fire faster. Why would a wooden spoon cause him to run faster? Why does he seem to be haunted by an unborn little sister?
These are questions tied to the misguided faith of his mother – introduced at the beginning of the game to be overly obsessed with televangelists and mistakenly submissive to voices in her head. It’s easy for Christians to withdraw from this game, assuming it’s not for them. After all, we can probably make the assumption that the creator of this game isn’t a fan of the faith. Still, there are valid criticisms here, and a story that simply must be told. These things, unfortunately enough, do happen. Playing this disturbing, humorous, truthful game reminds us that as kids and adults, sometimes we have to laugh and play so that we don’t cry. – Richard Clark
5. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (iPhone, iPad)
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about my taste in gaming this year, it’s that I will always gravitate toward games that aren’t afraid to throw out everything we’ve ever known about gaming to pursue the creation of ambitious, new gameplay experiences.. Plenty of games on this list exhibit this quality, but none more than the iOS indie game Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. Judging by the name and description itself, when I came across Sword & Sworcery it was easy for me to attach the same old predictable terms to it: pretentious, contrived. After all, the developers refused to call it a game, but a “psycho-social audiovisual experiment” instead.
At its heart, though, it’s an point-and-“touch” adventure game, of which there are many standouts in the iOS App Store. But in Sword & Sworcery, instead of finding and managing items or trying to escape from rooms, I found myself checking NPC’s twitter-like thought feeds, battling a Deathless Spectre, and solving environmental puzzles based in music and sound. At first, I was a little turned off by its incredibly self-aware tone, feeling like it might take me out of the experience a bit. But within the first few hours of gameplay, I was completely submerged in the world and impressed by the risks the developers took. Visionary isn’t a word I often use to describe games, but my time with Sword & Sworcery felt like a breathe of fresh air in an industry so attached to fulfilling expectations and genre cliches. – Luke Larson
4. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)
No character has dominated my thoughts this year like El Shaddai‘s protagonist, Enoch. A classic Christ-figure, Enoch is sent from Heaven to rid the world of sin – yet unlike most officially dubbed “Christian” games, the right thing doesn’t always feel right here. Often playing the role of Enoch ridding the world of evil feels more like setting the world back thousands of years, destroying progress and those who made that progress possible.
Answers are provided, but so are frustrating counters to those answers – your mind goes back and forth between faith and doubt until the very end. Sound familiar?
In a year filled with frustrations and fears, I latched onto Enoch as someone who found faith difficult but plausible nonetheless. His key ability was to find the “power of the Lord” wherever he looked. He showed mercy to his fallen friends, but understood the inherent need for justice. He persevered, in the face of physical and psychological warfare. Because of all of these traits, Enoch is my favorite hero of 2011 – it was an honor and a joy to play as him. – Richard Clark
3. Bastion (Xbox 360, PC)
Right from the beginning, I always felt that Bastion’s dynamic voice-over was more than just a novelty. It felt deeper, like a disembodied conversation between the game’s creators and I — or like a movie that was being made completely on-the-fly. At any rate, the narration in Bastion had me completely sucked into its story and it’s world, which is what kept the game on my mind long after I finished it.
You play as The Kid, whose job it is to help put the broken world you wake up in back together. The world is beautiful and filled with color, but has been ravaged by a catastrophic event called The Calamity; an apocalyptic event that left the world in shambles. I couldn’t help seeing parallels between Bastion’s story and the story of our own world. Its a simple, but beautiful story of redemption, but its one where we’re presented with choices that certainly do matter. Do I care about the world I live in or do I simply exist, waiting to move on to the next one? More than the beautiful art style or the voice-over narration, this question was what made Bastion such a memorable experience to me. – Luke Larson
2. Skyrim (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)
Let’s be clear: I’m not a fan of the excessive exposition that you are regaled with when first entering a city. I find the broken seams of Skyrim to be an unfortunate scar on some moments that are meant to be full of meaning and wonder. Townsfolk often regale you with dry exposition, companions follow you around making stupid mistakes and saying idiotic things, and people wander back and forth illogically, often getting stuck on a rock. But somehow, Skyrim overcomes those things with the sheer force and will of the studio that produced it. It’s clear that Bethesda set their sights incredibly high with this one, planning for a game so full of lore, life and opportunities for unique experiences that someone could play the game for years without feeling bored.
1. Minecraft (PC, Mac)
At times I couldn’t sleep, I skipped meals, and I stayed up much later than is healthy for a working man of my age. I don’t think I have ever truly been addicted to a videogame—as a games writer, I make a special effort to make sure my wife, family, and friends always come before games. Minecraft, however, gripped me more tightly than any other game ever has.
It is a rather simplistic game of survival, exploration, and creation. A lack of stated goals allows players to set their own course, create their own structures, mythology and even culture. Playing on a server with friends is where Minecraft shines brightest. Multiplayer Minecraft is a unique communal experience where instead of competing against each other, players share, rule, and build the world together.
I am not proud to say that I was obsessed with Minecraft for a time, but I am also very aware that that inability to handle Minecraft was my fault. My problem with Minecraft arose because the beauty, wonder, and community of Minecraft were too much for me to handle. My excessive emotional attachment to the game is a testimony to its brilliance. I have recently returned to Minecraft, equipped with a bit more self discipline. I am glad I did because when I visit Minecraft, I find a world I want to help build and friends I want to share it with. – Drew Dixon
Not all great games can make a yearly top-ten list. By our count, only ten or so can. But we felt the need to sneak one “runner-up” into the video game wrap-up. So, here are the Games We Wish Made It onto The List, But Sadly, Didn’t:
Rat On A Snowboard (iPad, iPhone)
Possibly one of the most criminally unrecognized games of the year, Rat on a Snowboard is no joke. It may seem simple at first (control amounts to a simple tap, causing the mouse to jump), but prolonged time spent diligently improving your mouse-jumping skills will lead to an obsession that seems, miraculously, justified. Outsiders may view this game as a pointless distraction on the level of Farmville – they’re both wrong and right. The sequel to the much-loved-by-me Rat on a Skateboard, Rat on a Snowboard takes a proven formula (something like rat + vehicle = fun) and iterates on it ever so slightly, creating an experience that amounts to darn near perfect for what it’s trying to do. And yes, what it’s trying to do is distract you. But unlike some of the more insidious games with this as its’ sole purpose, Rat on a Snowboard manages to pack an immense amount of depth and exhilaration into a tiny, affordable and momentary package. Play it once or twice and you’ll have enough fun. But keep playing and you’ll find the game providing opportunities for various strategies, opportunities and events within a little, high-score focused game. All it takes is one tap, one snowboard, and one daring rat. – Richard Clark
Dance Central 2 (Xbox 360 Kinect)
Every other Thursday night when I come home from coaching soccer, I find a group of girls dancing in my living room. My wife hosts a girl’s fellowship at our house. She cooks them dinner, they have a devotional, and afterward they play Dance Central 2. Though I am a terrible dancer, I usually join them. As a pastor, I have to be careful about how I interact with the girls in my church and consequently my relationships with them suffer. I have found one of the most natural ways to build camaraderie with these girls is to make a fool of myself dancing in front of my Xbox.
Dance Central 2 is the best game to date for Xbox 360’s Kinect–it feels great to dance free from the burden of the controller. Additionally Dance Central is one of the few games for Kinect that consistently feels fair–it nails feedback. I hope that Kinect provides us with some more creative experiences than dance games but if it doesn’t at least we can still enjoy making fools of ourselves trying to dance to Bad Romance with our friends. –Drew Dixon