20. Lim (Merritt Kopas)
Merritt Kopas is one of the most exciting voices in videogames that I’ve discovered this year. Not only does she write amazing and insightful essays, but she created one of the most effortlessly meaningful games I’ve played this year. (Edit: The Nightmare Mode piece I originally linked here was actually by Porpentine, not Kopas. Apologies to both for the misattribution.)
Lim is a simple game that beautifully conveys its message through how it feels to play. By sliding this cube through a series of rooms, you sharply (and violently) feel the compromises Kopas and countless others have to make in their daily lives and the social exclusion they feel when they dare to be themselves.
A simple mechanic: other squares will ram you violently and refuse to let you pass unless you fit in. To fit in you hold down a button to change colours. When you do this, the camera zooms in on you, bringing fake-you under ever-increasing scrutiny as you try to fit in. Hold it down for two long and the screen starts to shudder, like the real you is trapped inside fake-you, banging on the walls and trying to get out. Eventually you let go—you have to let go—and the squares start attacking you again in a violent barrage. The juttering of the screen and the thudding sound are nauseating.
Then there is the beauty of being pushed out of the world itself, playing into an aesthetic of the glitch to send home such a powerful, powerful message.
When I say that Lim conveys its message effortlessly, I don’t mean that I think Kopas put no effort into the game. On the contrary, I think she has poured her everything into this. Rather, as a player, there was no barrier between me and what the game wanted to say to me. A marvellous, intimate game; a work of art; a must-play. Kopas is certainly a developer and a writer to keep an eye on in the future.
At The Border House, Zoya has a far more detailed breakdown of why Lim is such an incredible achievement. RockPaperShotgun also featured it and wrote a few paragraphs about it. Cameron Kunzelman also wrote a post about both Lim and Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia. On that note, Anthropy’s Dys4ia is an absolutely incredible game that will only take five minutes of your time. The only reason it doesn’t have its own place on this list is because I am a terrible person and only played it yesterday. But it is phenomenal and you really must play it. Dan Golding does it more justice at Crikey where he named it Game of the Year.
19. Pocket Planes (Nimblebit)
I was one of those people that really liked Tiny Tower. Sure, I understand why you wouldn’t, but the slow-burn gameplay, the way I gradually built up this tower in real-time was something I found incredibly rewarding—without ever spending a cent on the game’s microtransactions.
Pocket Planes follows a very similar formula as Tiny Tower, but with the added attraction of actually having things to do and some kind of creative input into the network you develop. Every Tiny Tower player has a narrow skyscraper full of random shops. In Pocket Planes, however, each player is going to start in a different corner of the world, will purchase different airports, will set up different trade routes. The same slow-burn, impossible-to-fail gameplay remains, but has been rendered much more compelling and customisable.
I loved watching my network slowly spread from Australia’s east coast back west across Asia and Europe to London. Sadly, I stopped playing before I crossed the Atlantic to New York, but zooming out and looking at the network I had constructed felt like a real achievement.
Pocket Plane’s most frustrating aspect was its flat, non-circular world. You couldn’t travel from Australia to LA! The Pacific Ocean just hits a wall. Though, this just made the other side of the world so much more exotic, so much more attractive.
J.P. Grant, who wrote a great analysis of Tiny Tower last year, wrote an excellent breakdown of Pocket Planes at Gamers With Jobs. Ryan Kuo wrote at Kill Screen about how the game demonstrates the importance of being bored in videogames. Gus Mastrapa makes a valid critique of the game at Unwinnable taking issue with the inability to set up automated routes in the game and wanting a button that presses itself. And also at Unwinnable, I wrote a “Pocket Treasures" article about how I enjoyed Pocket Planes as a kind of world exploration but felt unattached to its citizens.
18. Borderlands 2 (Gearbox)
All I wanted from Borderlands 2 was more of the same, and that’s what I got. People like to complain about Borderlands’s carrot-on-a-stick grinding and disposable, capitalist weapons; they lament the lack of a ‘point’ to the motions you go through when everything you are rewarded with will be thrown out for the next marginally shinier thing in five minutes. But what such critiques miss is that the process of grinding can be fun in and of itself. The goals and their rewards are meaningless in Borderlands 2, but they’re also not the point. The motions themselves, the process, is what is enjoyable about Borderlands 2.
The pleasure of Borderlands is that its infinite weapons are more than a gimmick. Each feels slightly different, and each requires a slightly different approach to how you play. The rest of the game is practically meaningless. What kind of enemies you are facing, what environment you are facing them in, the reason you are facing them. It is all irrelevant. It’s all just an excuse to see how this weapon feels in relation to that weapon. It isn’t enough to just read the stats and see which has the highest number. It depends on the scope, the speed of the bullets, the look and sound, the recoil.
This was the pleasure of the first game, and perfectly carries over to the sequel. Borderlands 2 adds a far more diverse range of possible attributes to weapon, keeping that persistent feel of experimentation all the fresher. All the guns simply just feel a bit weightier, too. Characters are more customisable; there are more kinds of enemies that must be approached in different ways; there are more locales and secrets. Borderlands 2 is a textbook sequel: more of what was good of the predecessor, refined.
And then there is Borderlands 2’s story, which isn’t really refined so much as rubbed in the mud. The game shows an absolute disregard for its story as though, like most games, it has to go out of its way to tell you how much it doesn’t care about its story. But then this becomes a weird kind of playing chicken with the player, where both game and player try to care less about the story than the other until the player loses simply from the sheer amount of time they’ve invested about it. I wrote about this weird phenomena. So did Lana Polansky. It never really succeeds as a parody, nor does it succeed as a good story. It just works as a story that breaks you, and that is something.
Though, there is still the pervasive casual sexism throughout the game. Sometimes it seems self-aware (like when you fire an artillery cannon at some misogynist’s house) but mostly this just comes across as the game trying to find an excuse for its behaviour. Then, of course, there was the “Girlfriend Mode” fiasco before the game even released (that really should not have been a fiasco at all, if Gearbox had just apologised for poorly chosen words). I was one of the hot-headed people during that drama. I regret foolishly saying I was going to boycott the game, but I don’t regret being angry over an AAA developer stubbornly refusing to apologise over some casual sexism.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there has been plenty of good writing about Borderlands 2. Apart from the (at times) fruitful discussion during the Girlfriend Mode thing (see above link for those articles), and the articles about the weird storytelling, I wrote about the unique way guns are used in FPSes to convey our character to us. Patricia Hernandez looks at the game’s blatant consumerism. And at The Wall Street Journal, Yannick Lejacq looks at how irony functions in Borderlands 2—or perhaps how it doesn’t.
17. Trials: Evolution (RedLynx)
I never played Trials HD when it came out. I was never a fan of motorbikes, or of racing games, so it didn’t really look like my kind of thing. It wasn’t until various friends started getting hyped the Trials: Evolution that I realised this wasn’t a racing game, it was Super Meat Boy on wheels, and that is exactly a game for me.
Trials: Evolution is a precision platformer. It’s about being in exactly the right position in exactly the right place at exactly the right speed so as to be in the next position 0.0001 seconds sooner. What’s so refreshing about the Trials games, I think, is that the language of a dirt bike (accelerate, break, lean forward, lean back) is an entirely new vocabulary for platforming (opposed to the usual walk, run, jump, jump higher). The need to focus on exactly where your rider’s body weight is in relation to their bike creates this really intimate bodily connection between player and character and controller.
When you screw up, you know exactly what you did wrong. When you make a jump that should be impossible, maybe bunny hoping onto a protruding pipe just large enough for your rear wheel, then flipping forward to land with both wheels perfectly on a downhill ramp, it feels like the greatest achievement of your life.
I’ll always have a soft spot for twitchy games that require that real intimate understanding of the controller in my hands. Games like Geometry Wars, Super Meat Boy, Ziggurat. When I am able to get good at these games (or even just ‘capable’) I feel like my flesh has merged with the technology, like I understand it just that little bit better. Tilting my weight just that little bit forward or back with the left stick, tapping the right trigger to throttle the engine just enough, has brought me closer to my 360 controller than any other game.
For an idea of the kind of precision that Trials: Evolution demands, here is a video of Jason Killingsworth (twitch gaming extraodinare) completing one of the game’s Extreme difficulty levels. Note the images in the bottom right corner that show the replay viewer exactly how much he was pressing each button on the controller. Watch. Learn. Simon Parkin wrote about the phenomenally unique “Gigatrack” course. And Mark Serrels compares Trials: Evolution to rock climbing.
16. Spaceteam (Henry Smith)
In September this year, I went on my first international press trip. I flew to Montreal, at the publisher’s expense, and spent two days playing two much anticipated AAA titles. Since I was in town (and since it took me about 30 hours of airplanes and airports each way to get there) I spent a few more days of my own time just checking the place out. Neither of the games I was paid to see are on this list. But while in town, I went to the Mount Royal Game Society monthly meet-up. There I was introduced to former Bioware programmer Henry Smith and his local multiplayer iOS game Spaceteam. The loud bar was the perfect place for a game that requires two people to co-operatively yell over the top of each other.
Spaceteam is a simple idea magnificently realised. Two to four players, each with their own iOS device, have to obey the computer’s written commands: pulling levers, turning dials, flicking switches. The trick is that the commands you receive probably apply to a control panel on another player’s screen. So each player is frantically telling the others what to do while, simultaneously, trying to listen to those other player’s yelled commands.
It’s a strong central idea, but what makes the game are the little touches. The tongue-twisting dial names (“Flushflux” almost actually made me cry with frustration after having to say it ten times); the need to wipe away dripping slime or grab on to panels that have popped out of their holdings. The game demands you look after so many things at one time, leaving you exhausted by the time you inevitably get consumed by an exploding star.
We’re currently going through a re-birth of local multiplayer games, it seems—visible both through the re-introduction of split screen multiplayer in various shooters this year, as well as the Sportsfriend kickstarter. But unlike Johann Sebastian Joust or its ilk, finding people to play Spaceteam with is a breeze. Every other person has an iOS device, and the game itself is free (but seriously, buy a 99c upgrade and give Henry some money).
I wrote a more thorough review of Spaceteam for Unwinnable, which includes this cliffhanger video of Helen and I playing a typically intense game.