If I were to boil down the essential ingredients of what makes me like a game to just two elements, it would be: 1. They need to be fun. Sounds obvious but it’s remarkable how many don’t achieve this. 2. They need to conjure an interesting world. 2011 turned out to be a bumper year for both. My favourite games of the year are not only highlights from the last 12 months but they’ve also leaped straight onto my all-time list.
2011 was such a busy year that I have a hard time believing that it brought us Portal 2. Valve’s biggest single player game since Half Life 2 showed that they still know how to expand an idea from humble origins to something much grander, without losing the essence of what made it special in the first place. While it didn’t have the revelatory experience of those first few levels in Portal, it retained all the charm and wit while introducing a continual stream of new gameplay variations and possibly the year’s finest voice acting.
An aspect which doesn’t seem to have been discussed or lauded much is the game’s contextual use of music, the score adapting on the fly based on your activities. Hit a bounce pad and go flying through the air and the music trills with excitement. Start to align laser beams to solve a puzzle and a subtle cue gradually builds with each shift of the refracting cubes, affirming your actions and pushing you towards the solution. It’s the most successful adaptive score I’ve heard in a game and comes very close to feeling like it was composed specifically for you. If only more games would attempt to integrate their music more dynamically, rather than simply having alternating ‘Exploration’ and ‘Combat’ music.
Some people seem to have found this game sadistic and annoying. It’s definitely the former but it’s precisely that which I found so amusing, the game revelling in the absurdity of its own gruesome, contrived death traps. A man trap is one thing. A giant spider is pretty horrid, but we’ve seen them before. The entire screen rotating so as to plunge you to your doom? That’s just farcical.
Despite all the gloom and spooky atmosphere, Limbo is a game that made me laugh, chuckling as if partaking in some kind of deadly conspiracy with creator Arnt Jensen to perpetually undermine the kid’s efforts to Move From Left To Right. It’s a fascinatingly incongruous world, every few screens throwing up something entirely anachronistic to what has come before, but the gorgeous art style and mischievous humour somehow holds it all together. Crucially, it’s exactly the right length and doesn’t outstay its welcome.
More than anything, 2011 seems like the year that gaming came of age for a certain type of player. It’s that lessons of the past that seemed long-forgotten were suddenly remembered, with stunning results. This is nowhere more apparent than with the truly remarkable Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
The original Deus Ex came out a long time ago, way back in 2000. It provided several revolutions of its own, expanding or reinventing concepts of gaming narrative, non-linear progression and realistic settings, in the process distorting the boundaries between first-person shooters, stealth-em-ups and role-playing games. There’d been nothing like it before or, unfortunately, since. The promise of a new frontier of interactivity and sophistication in gaming disappeared for an entire decade, although its influence was perhaps glimpsed in hybrid titles such as Mass Effect. Even the game’s own sequel, Invisible War, didn’t seem to really understand the original’s achievements.
11 years later Deus Ex: Human Revolution arrives on the scene, developed by an entirely different team in a very different gaming industry. Technology and tastes have changed massively and I don’t think anybody truly expected Human Revolution to bear much resemblance to Deus Ex. And yet.
For those of us that were there when it all began, Eidos Montreal’s achievement still seems like it must be some kind of trick. Surely a modern, major developer couldn’t possibly have recaptured what made Deus Ex so special, and even improved and innovated beyond the original formula? After a decade, surely they hadn’t done what no other developer had even attempted? For me, Human Revolution is the year’s most remarkable game in that it manages to take everything that I loved about the original Deus Ex, update it to modern gaming standards and opens it up to a mainstream audience without losing that core personality. Perhaps that lost decade was about waiting for people that loved and understood the original to grow up and find positions in the industry? That it appears to have sold rather well is hugely exciting: perhaps we’ll finally get all those Deus Ex-inspired games that never happened?
Talking of grand returns, The Elder Scrolls returned with Skyrim in 2011. I had barely recovered from the wonderful nostalgia trip of Deus Ex: Revolution when I unexpectedly discovered that Bethesda had managed to recapture the glory of Morrowind, something that had eluded them for years. You see, I didn’t really play Morrowind. I visited it. Which undoubtedly sounds rather corny but it’s the nature of the game: quirky, obtuse, weird, difficult to get into; but wildly captivating once you got through the awkward interface and mechanics.
I was hugely excited about the follow-up, Oblivion, and initially everything seemed good, with the clunky mechanics of Morrowind much improved. After whistling through the main quest I suddenly realised that I had absolutely no investment in the world. I’d barely touched side quests or explored the world. It was lacking a soul. Matters got worse with Bethesda’s reinvention of Fallout, with Fallout 3 being perhaps the dreariest, dullest game I’d encountered for quite some time, the potential of its world entirely hamstrung by the most appalling voice acting and animation.
Skyrim wasn’t even really on my radar. I’d simply assumed that whomever was responsible at Bethesda for the wonders of Morrowind had long since left the company. Then word started to come in that Skyrim might actually be good. Alec Meer over at RPS tipped me over the edge, writing that “I’m sorry Morrowind – I love you, but I don’t need you anymore. I think, at last, there is a new Best Elder Scrolls Ever.”
Demonstrating how versatile the RPG genre can be, Witcher 2 strikes a very different pose than Skyrim. It perhaps even owes its allegiance more to Deus Ex than to true open world RPGs, deciding instead to embrace a strong, driving narrative within which there is huge potential for your choices to influence the outcome.
I adored the first Witcher game despite its numerous technical flaws and was therefore rather thrilled to discover that Witcher 2 propelled the series into the very top tier of gaming production values. It’s hard to choose between this, Battlefield 3 and Batman: Arkham City as the most visually impressive PC game of the year, but in a fight I expect Witcher 2 would win because it’s not only technologically on top form but also features the most gorgeous art design, proving that you can make a medieval fantasy setting feel fresh and original and exciting despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Where Skyrim succeeds in player freedom, sometimes at the cost of a coherent, singular experience, Witcher 2 follows a twisting, forking narrative with bold characters, mostly excellent voice acting and memorable, unique locations. Crucially, as with the original it’s again a game that understands subtext, every turn of its story weaving in motivations and history that operate on levels below and above the core plot. Those subtleties sometimes leave you bewildered at the density of its political machinations but the feeling of being involved in events slightly beyond your comprehension fits perfectly with the depiction of Geralt as a reluctant hero, drawn unwillingly into a clash of kingdoms.
Almost every game I’ve played this year, I’ve thought to myself “aha, this is definitely my game of the year,” only to have that assumption usurped by the next big title. As I said, it’s been a good year. When I started writing this article, I thought that Deus Ex: Human Revolution would probably edge out the rest.
Then I remembered Bastion.
This game gets under your skin. Essentially a hack-and-slash romp with some RPG levelling/improvement elements (think Diablo, perhaps), the game rises up above its genre formula to become something magical and lyrical. It’s the ultimate testament to the power of world building, the art, music, creature design, weapon design and narration all combining transforming what might otherwise be a repetitive, derivative experience into something utterly unique.
Bastion has the warm, cosy feeling of a good book being read in bed on a cold night. It’s a triumphant melding of story and game, the final proof that even well established and tired genres could be revitalised if only developers would move beyond Burly Space Marines, American soldiers and Tolkienesque elves and wizards.
What could have been a gimmick, the narration, instead becomes the game’s beating heart, adapting to your playing style and pace in a similar fashion to Portal 2’s score. It’s a stunningly effective technique which personalises the narrative and heightens the sense of lost beauty that pervades the whole world. The game doesn’t rely solely on charm, though, with the deceptively basic combat of the first few levels developing into a hugely satisfying and customisable system after only a short while.
Unusually for an indie game, Bastion feels exceptionally well designed. The Batman games are often lauded for the effortlessness of their mechanics, which enable you to pull off increasingly complex activities without feeling overwhelmed. Bastion doesn’t attempt the same level of technological complexity but it does feature a perfect selection of diverse weapons that continually redefine the nature of the game.
If you play one game this year, make it Bastion. You know, if you like that sort of thing.
Two other games nearly made it into this article. Batman: Arkham City is a beautifully designed game is extremely fun, but suffers from a strange density of content that entirely destroys the pacing of its storytelling, resulting in a rather flimsy and throwaway overall experience.
Battlefield 3 is a technological wonder and a brilliant online shooter, but was irrevocably marred for me by its determination to make it as hard as possible for me to actually play with my friends. While updates have apparently improved the woeful squad systems, I haven’t quite found the energy to go take another look yet.
Also, a title which may well have made my list but which I didn’t play due to absurd console game prices was Uncharted 3. I’m thoroughly looking forward to checking it out next year.