So concludes the countdown of my person top twenty favourite games of 2011. This is the fifth and final post in the series, leading on from parts One, Two, Three, and Four.
4. Jetpack Joyride (Half Brick)
If you were to ask me what the greatest iOS game of all time is, I would answer Jetpack Joyride immediately. I wouldn’t even need to think about it. There are so many varied, surprising, and phenomenal games on the app store but none come close to the polish of Jetpack Joyride. Taking a few elements of Half Brick’s earlier title Monster Dash and remixing it with a whole heap of new features, Jetpack Joyride is the most complete, thorough, polished, addictive, entertaining Canabaltesque game ever.
Its goals are multilayered, giving the player something of a choice as to what they are actually aiming for. On the surface you are just trying to get as far as you can. You touch the screen to engage the jetpack’s thrust and release to fall as you weave and manoeuvre around the various obstacles. But then there are the missions, which act as kind of in-game achievements. You have three active at any one time, and completing them works towards levelling you up and rewarding you with cash and trinkets that can then be spent on different jetpacks or other various items. Then there are all the vehicles, each with its own unique controls and feel. Then the actual achievements. Then the slot machine.
Jetpack Joyride has taken the Canabaltesque genre and made it about so much more than simply getting as far as you can. But more than that, what makes Jetpack Joyride really stand out is the level of detail in its audiovisual design. From the scientists running around, to the way the Little Stomper smashes the glass floor when it lands, to the ‘ch-ch!’ of Barry reloading his shotgun singlehandedly while on the hog. All the polish and features and tight design come together exquisitely so that Jetpack Joyride simply feels good.
My stats recently got wiped in a transfer hiccup between my old and new iPhones, but I don’t doubt I have played the game for well over 30 hours now, more than most of the AAA games I bought this year. In fact, Jetpack Joyride is largely responsible in convincing me to make this one list for AAA, indie, and iOS games rather than separating them. When a small development team who literally work about ten blocks from my house can make a game for my telephone that captivates me no less than the multi-gazillion-dollar, multi-studio games that cost literally a hundred times more, it certainly seems foolish to treat iOS games as second-class citizens.
Strangely, considering how much I love it, the only thing I really wrote about Jetpack Joyride this year was a somewhat negative musing about the representation of science in popular culture, specifically in recent videogames. I also enjoyed Jason Killingsworth’s blog post, which is a guide to maximising your Jetpack Joyride high-score. It’s a short but interesting read just because it takes into account so many little things both inside and outside of the game. Jason is sitting well atop my Games Center leaderboard for this game, and I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon, so you can trust him on this.
3. Bastion (Super Giant Games)
When I saw Bastion at the IGF Pavilion at GDC, I was not particularly fussed. It just looked like a cutesy Diablo clone with some trippy visuals.
Of course, back then I was just watching over someone’s shoulder, and the player was wearing earphones, so I couldn’t hear the most crucial element of Bastion: its narration. I assumed Bastion’s primary pleasure would be that of a grinding RPG, not of a fascinating story and world. I didn’t even know about the narrator until it finally came out on Xbox Live Arcade months later. But then I purchased it and played it through twice in three days, and I decided there and then that it was my GOTY-so-far. Any games that came out after Bastion would be judged against it for GOTY honours (spoiler: two games topped it).
‘Beautiful’ can be such a generic, empty adjective, but there is no better word to describe Bastion. Bastion is beautiful. The style, the music, the narration, the story, the world all meld perfectly together into this beautiful, mournful work that is an absolute delight to experience.
Every element of Bastion, on its own, could be mistaken for a gimmick. The narrator turning your every action into a narrative a second later; the world putting itself together (or, more accurately, falling apart on reverse) as you step over it. At first you could mistake the story of a world fallen apart as tacked on simply to justify these audiovisual quirks, but it doesn’t take long for you to notice Bastion’s themes and narrative and gameplay resonate through the whole experience. This is about remembering a world that no longer exists, about yearning after it, about learning the tales of its dead and exploring it in segments of crumbled cobblestone and narrated nostalgia. By the time the game is over, you care about a world that was destroyed long before you first set foot in it—which is precisely how you should feel before you are stumped by the final decision you must make.
I wrote this review for Paste in practically a single draft, and it is still the review I’m most proud of this year. I also wrote this follow up post about the endgame choices and how both choices are clearly the right choice (obvious spoiler warning on that one). Ryan Kuo also wrote a phenomenal review at Kill Screen, and Mike Schiller has a very in-depth three part series analysing more closely Bastion’s elements and how they go together.. Zach Alexander also has a good summary post of the game with some interesting insights into the final moments of the game that completely passed me by. Kris Ligman’s thoughts on the narrator’s affect are well worth a read. And, finally, Nathan Grayson’s post about why every choice in Bastion is the right one says what my blog post on choice tries to say but far better.
2. Skyrim (Bethesda)
Number Two hardly seems fair for a game that, at the time of writing, I’ve sunk ninety-two hours into in only a couple of months. I rarely hit the 100 hour mark on a game, and never in such a short period of time. If I were grading games on sheer quantity of content alone, Skyrim would be Number One, no doubt. But in terms of quality, it is going to have to settle for about Number One-Point-One.
Much like Gears of War 3, Skyrim was everything I hoped it would be—no more, no less. It took the best of Morrowind and removed the worst of Oblivion. Since I first set foot in Morrowind all those years ago, I have loved exploring Tamriel and its people and its mythologies and its histories, and with each new games has come a new region. Those first steps into Skyrim filled me with this kind of giddy excitement comparable to the first time I stepped off a plane in a foreign country.
Even with previous Elder Scroll games, I have never been sucked into a virtual world as completely as I have with Skyrim. 90 hours in and I still feel like I am progressing and exploring new lands; not like I’m just grinding the endgame. I probably got to 60 hours of play before I even visited all the major cities. Skyrim is big and dense and so full of seamlessly integrated stuff that not one step that I’ve taken through the world feels like a distraction. Everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve gone, every quest I’ve completed has forwarded the story of my character as she journeys the realm of Skyrim.
I could probably go on for quite a while more about why I love Skyrim so much, but my review for Pixel Hunt and my further thoughts say it already. I also outlined why I was so hyped for it before its release for a post on Games On Net, and I wrote about how I adapted (or failed to adapt) to its time-jumping mythology as a seasoned Elder Scrolls player on Gameranx. Mattie Brice wrote this thought-provoking piece for Popmatters about Skyrim’s quest structures and how she wants to do away with them. I can’t say I completely agree with her, but it is one of the few constructively critical pieces on Skyrim out there that goes beyond the typical and lazy generic-fanatasy-is-generic/glitches-are-glitchy/Skyrim-isn’t-Dark Souls complaints. On that note, comparing Skyrim to Dark Souls is kind of like comparing Grand Theft Auto IV and Mario Kart because they both have cars. Anyway, Rowan Kaiser, also at Gameranx, wrote this about Skyrim’s weather (and on that note, I will say one major criticism I have of Skyrim is that, not once, have I gotten the sense that it is cold). Meanwhile, Adrian Forest wrote this detailed analysis about how Skyrim distorts spatial relations. And not articles per se, Dead End Thrills already has a spectacular collection of photographs taken within Skyrim (such as the one above), and this pseudo-photo-diary of one player’s venture beyond the invisible walls of Skyrim’s borders is an interesting read, almost as a piece of amateur virtual travel writing.
1. Modern Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward)
One attribute (or lack thereof) can almost entirely be credited with Modern Warfare 3 topping Skyrim on this list: expectations. I had a whole heap of expectations for Skyrim and not a single one for Modern Warfare 3. I never expected to enjoy Modern Warfare 3, which is dumb. I never expected to enjoy Modern Warfare before I finally got around to playing it, and then I loved it; same for Modern Warfare 2. But between Infinity Ward falling apart and my inherent game critic presumptions of “Call of Duty is dumb” that I still struggle against, I still somehow managed to assume I would not like Modern Warfare 3.
So then I came to Modern Warfare 3 with the assumption it would be dumb and I wouldn’t like it. This made that initial playthrough feel like the equivalent of taking off a blindfold and realising I’ve somehow teleported atop a rollercoaster.
The campaign was heartstopping, immersive, and visceral—all the words I’m never meant to use to describe a videogame. From the very first mission it grabbed me by the collar and pulled me through. Once I started I couldn’t stop. I had to finish the game in a single sitting. Well, if you exclude the few breaks where I just had to pause the game and walk away to let my hands stop trembling and my heartbeat slow. To be sure, Skyrim has given me ninety quality hours while Modern Warfare 3’s campaign has given me about 15 across the three times I’ve completed it. But Skyrim has not once affected my heart rate.
The pacing of each level is superb with a gradual but consistent heightening and final release of tension that I can’t describe without an orgasm analogy. Every level starts simply enough with a straightforward firefight or infiltration then escalates towards the ending in a cacophony of explosions and destruction and violin strings before that final release as you are in the helicopter or off the cliff or in the water or dead. It is absolutely insane, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that that first play of the campaign was one of my most memorable single gaming sessions of all time. It just worked.
Yet, I find it so, so, so hard to describe my love of this game. It is so easy to say why I should hate it within the boring, narrow-minded orthodoxy of what a good videogame ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do, but it is so hard to describe why I love it. Ultimately, I think my love of the Modern Warfare series as a whole and Modern Warfare 3 in particular is a formal kind of love. It’s story is dumb and absurd, but it is told so incredibly well. The way Infinity Ward use the multiple perspectives offered by multiple characters to full affect; the way they never take you out of the action even for the most scripted segments; the way you always feel like you are in control as long as you follow your orders perfectly. You are always there looking through the eyes of one character or another as everything happens around you and to you. If you want to tell a linear story in a first-person shooter, this is how you do it: by taking away just enough power from the player so that they try to do exactly the only thing they can do. Many people deride Modern Warfare as a badly done Battlefield. For me, Modern Warfare is a superbly done Heavy Rain. I wish more people would play and appreciate the Modern Warfares and how they tell their stories so exquisitely through the medium of videogames, and then use what they learn to tell a story worth telling.
My problem is I struggle to critically deconstruct my experience as I get so sucked into it. My pleasure of Modern Warfare 3 is almost entirely uncritical, and this is problematic. In fact, I talk about this on a post at Games On Net. I can write in these horrible, vague terms about the fact that I love it, but when it comes down to pinpointing that love, I struggle to find the words. Ultimately, I think Modern Warfare 3 tells a really dumb story exceptionally well.
More notoriously, I jumped to Modern Warfare 3’s defence on a post on Kotaku Australia. Context: Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker wrote a sweepingly negative review of Modern Warfare 3 which I first read on Kotaku. It made me furious. Not because he didn’t like it, but that he thought his dislike was enough to dismiss Modern Warfare 3 as a game. So I wrote my (somewhat provocative) rebuttal, and he wrote a response to my rebuttal. I didn’t write again, but Destructoid’s Jim Sterling wrote this which sums up my frustration perfectly.
Ultimately, I think it is easy to hate a game, or to say why you hate a game. As players, it is very easy to make a game stuff up and do something it shouldn't. I could refuse to follow orders in Modern Warfare 3 or I could do the back-and-forth, level-up-alchemy-to-level-up-enchanting-ad-infinitum trick in Skyrim to get a stupidly powerful weapon ridiculously early. But why? We tend to try our hardest to break games and then complain when they don’t work. With Modern Warfare 3 I just did what I was told to do, and I had one of the most exhilarating gaming experiences of my life, and I still don’t know why or how.
And perhaps that has been the biggest lesson for me in 2011, as I have compiled a list with nearly as many iPhone games as AAA titles: it is pretty easy to hate (and to explain why you hate) a game; it is much, much harder and much, much more rewarding to love (and explain why you love) a game. This doesn’t mean we should go easy or be uncritical of games, especially ones as problematic as Modern Warfare. But perhaps we need to meet them halfway; perhaps we should be slightly less concerned with doing whatever we want to do and be slightly more concerned with trying to hear what the videogame is trying to tell us. Otherwise we are unable to account for the unique pleasures offered by the more linear and prescriptive games out there.
And those are my games of 2011! All sorted in a linear and ranked order that should not be seen in anyway absolute. All 20 of these games (and many others) have made 2011 a superb year for gaming that I can’t imagine being topped any time soon. As always, please feel free to comment with any interesting articles I’ve missed, and with your shocked and disgusted opinions on my choice for top game. Thanks for reading!