Tie: The Walking Dead, Hotline Miami, Mass Effect 3, and FTL.
Why can’t I pick four? These games, fantastically diverse as they are, gave me the highest-highs all year and I’ll be playing each again and likely again because they’re just so damn fun.
In The Walking Dead I’m managing a group of survivors. We have minimal rations that I need to distribute, and everyone’s on edge after we just lost a friend and our temporary home. The group is divided, and looking to my character, Lee, to choose and justify opposing sides. Nobody’s happy and you can feel it. Narratively-based games are tough to pull off and usually anchored by their main drive: crafting a compelling story that supports minimal gameplay and virtual human interaction. The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games, is concise in its five-chapter run and tells a complete tale that makes sense within the world it creates with the people who occupy it. You meet characters who feel like people and not just methods of forwarding the plot, decisions you make feel hard and lack the comfort of a binary ‘right and wrong’ morality gauge, succeeding doesn’t always instigate some kind of reward – these aspects play into creating the sensation of real dilemma, elevating the stakes in a way that feels more real than a rendered cut-scene or set piece. They’re small and personal, much like the experience itself. And the end result is really something special.
What’s really great about Hotline Miami is its simplicity. Focusing on only core gameplay mechanics, it gives room for the game’s incredibly visceral themes and presentation to support it in a way that’s coherent and tight. As a bad guy hired to take out other bad guys, that’s your only goal: finish everyone off efficiently and effectively. It plays very bare-bones as a top-down pixel art action game, similar to GTA 1 + 2, and the minimal approach is perfect for the games intended purpose of carrying the weight of graphic and violent interactions. Throw in a fantastically-cool 80′s vibe with matching art design and audio, and Hotline Miami becomes something special.
Mass Effect 3 is just really good. I love the other two Mass Effects, so there was probably no way for me to not like this one. Even if the ending was a virtual kick to the nuts (which it was). The franchise is a space opera where I’m a badass space cop who can woo one or multiple space alien babes – Game of the year/forever/my dreams.
And finally, FTL makes it on for successfully realizing my dream of experiencing the hellish reality that comes with being in space. In a nutshell, it’s a space ship management game that has you running from one side of the galaxy to the other, encountering enemy forces, rescue missions, space-things etc, along the way. Here’s an example of a playthrough: I’m running my ship, with four crew members each managing their respective consoles, and we’re making good progress through the galaxy. We make a jump to another system, and, surprise, it’s right beside a fucking star. Everything’s on fire and Pete is now dead. We barely make it out and jump to the neighbouring system where we can get our bearings and repair the ship that was just entirely on fire. Except nope, there’s a rebel ship that fires like thirty missiles at us before Chris can turn the ship on again. It’s over. Start again. And I’ve done that with slight variations about 400 times this year, with each one being amazing.