Ever the timely one, here’s a list of my favorite gaming experiences of 2012:
Journey was a singular experience for me last year. When I played the game, I just happened to do so at the perfect time, in the perfect place, with the perfect amount of advance knowledge of what to expect (that is, very little). Sitting in a darkened room, with sound piping through gigantic headphones and a nice, big screen consuming my vision, I was able to focus on nothing but Journey for its duration (2-ish hours).
It’s difficult to describe the sense of wide-eyed wonder that I felt while I played the game, and I know it’s the kind of feeling that I can never re-capture (should I play it again). Every area was new and unique to me. There was no pressure to charge boldly ahead to reach the next enemy encounter or boss fight. I had nothing better to do than to drink in my surroundings and tinker with whatever I happened to find in the world.
And then I found a friend.
I can’t stress enough how important it was that I didn’t have all of the details of Journey’s multiplayer functionality before I played the game. I was totally unaware that numerous people were seamlessly dropping in/out of my game and assuming the guise of my silent companion. To me, my companion was always the same person and we were on this trek together. As a team.
That sense of partnership heightened the emotion of every new section of the game. From the blissful highs of the surfing sequence (one of my all-time favorite game sequences) to the trudging misery and despair of the frigid snows, we were going through it all together. Every step felt important.
To find out during the credit sequence that my companion had been played, in turns, by upwards of 10 people was mind-blowing. It’s a testament to the game’s brilliant design that I never noticed.
Journey is one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had. It was also the most personal. I doubt that’s a coincidence.
Yes, it’s an iPad game. Yes, the title says 2013 (even though it came out in 2012). No, I don’t care.
One of the reasons 2012 was notable for me was because I picked up a hobby that I never predicted I would: Playing Magic: The Gathering. I’ll probably write a whole big thing about it sometime, but suffice it to say that I was both surprised and delighted that my new hobby had a portable digital form.
I played it on every flight I took. I played it at night before I went to sleep. I played it while pretending to watch my wife’s favorite horrible TV shows. I played it over the holidays when I probably should have been interacting with other human beings.
And I’m still playing it.
Mark of the Ninja
In start contrast to Journey, Mark of the Ninja is a videogame-ass videogame. You are never under any illusion that the game will draw you in and make you forget about the fact that you’re holding a controller and moving a little dude around on the screen. And that’s its real strength.
Stealth games often fall down for me when their rules become unclear. If I can’t tell when I’m in vs. out of cover, when shadow is concealing me, where an enemy is looking, I tend to screw up and get frustrated. Mark of the Ninja prevents that by providing you with all of the information that you could possibly need to make an informed decision about what to do. In doing so, the game empowers the player to be the most insanely badass ninja they can be.
Dishonored had flaws. The stealth wasn’t very good, some of the characters were severely underdeveloped and the plot was devoid of meaningful twists. Even so, I loved it.
Why? Because of the world. Dunwall was such an interesting place to be immersed in that I adored the game, warts and all.
Plenty of games build elaborate worlds for you to explore. Usually, they’re immensely boring and devoid of life (see: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning). Dunwall, though, struck a chord with me in the same way that Rapture had in Bioshock. It felt very real. I could believe that it existed, even if only in the confines of my TV.
That immersion, combined with solid (non-stealth) gameplay, provided for a visceral experience that I would like to return to at some point. Another playthrough, with a different build of skills, would almost certainly be just as enjoyable as the first time around.
I know what I’m doing this winter…
Honorable Mention: X-COM: Enemy Unknown
X-COM is amazing. Read any one of the million reviews on the Internet to find out why. It was not, however, one of my favorite gaming experiences of 2012 for one simple reason: It stressed me the fuck out.
Every move of every battle was agonizing. Every research cycle I set into motion or new structure I started building left me second-guessing myself. The constant pressure of the ticking world clock drained me of my enthusiasm and replaced it with cold dread.
The satisfaction that accompanied every successful mission was a huge rush, but it was inevitably short-lived. So, even though X-COM was one of the best gaming experiences I had last year, it wasn’t one of my favorites.