The Best Flash Games of 2011

by G. Christopher Williams

3 January 2012

These games taught me: the danger of following the rules; the pleasing presence of unexpected personalities; the pleasures of a well paced and meditative process; the joys of a frantic and chaotic twitch-fest and; the satisfaction derived from a game that brings out my inner masochist.
Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars (Adult Swim 2011) 

Much like last year, “The Best Flash Games of 2010”, I spent a fair amount of my gaming time at both Newgrounds and Kongregate this year. Though the early part of the year was largely devoid of anything to get excited about, there was a lot to like in some of the Flash titles released early in 2011 in particular.

Especially pleasing were a collection of new titles that didn’t fall into the standard platformer, tower defense, and puzzle models that typify a lot of Flash gaming (though a few standout platformers did make my list this year, nevertheless).  In addition to those somewhat familiar Flash game play styles, my favorites of this year also contain some interesting strategy elements, as well as some nods to retro arcade-style action. 

5. Skinny (Thomas Brush, 21 November 2011)

Yes, yes, Thomas Brush follows the seemingly stereotypical model of building “artsy” Flash games. Take a platformer, mix with a moody, but pretty soundtrack, and pepper the game with some strange, esoteric characters and dialogue.  However, much like his debut title, Coma, Skinny does all of these things especially well and is also quite beautiful to look at.

Like Coma, the minimalist plot hints at darker concerns with the way that a system may take advantage of an individual. The titular character, a robot whose dreams suggest that a hope for some kind of humanity and individualism might exist in himself, haplessly aids in eroding the humanity of others by making sure that they do not feel the “pain” of existing outside a virtual system that keeps human beings happy and content. 

Despite its ambiguous ending, Skinny feels very much complete as a short meditation on the potential danger of following the rules.

4. Rebuild (Sarah Northway, 12 February 2011)

With all the games about dismembering and being dismembered by the undead, one would think that the gaming market is just a tad oversaturated by the image of the zombie. Nevertheless, Rebuild is not a survival-horror game or an action-horror game; instead, this is a turn-based-strategy horror game. That this unusual take is accomplished via a unique set of game mechanics makes all the difference in arguing for Rebuild not following the run-of-the-mill “splatter zombie brains with a baseball bat” approach of most games interested in this kind of monstrosity. 

By focusing the player on resource allocation, expansion of territory, and assignment of roles to a ragtag group of humans trying not merely to survive but to redevelop a society, the game maintains a moody and dark horror vibe but still sets a more hopeful goal for the player to achieve than is usually found in the hopelessness of zombie fiction: the ability to rebuild. The game finds a way to reconsider the value of a collective in the face of a vastly less human and humane form of “civilizing” group, the aforementioned zombie hordes, by allowing you to develop individuals into useful members of a renewed social order.

The game suffers from “the snowball effect”, much as many other strategy games do, making the late game a bit tiresome; your eventual successes will mean the zombie horde will cease to be all that threatening in the end. However, the early decision making that the player is forced to grapple with and some nice touches of personality applied to what might otherwise appear to be rather faceless “troops” makes Rebuild a nice way to while away a few hours.

3. Alphaland (Jonas Kyratzes, 4 May 2011)

Yes, this is a platformer. However, it is one that is focused less on reflexes and speed running than it is on exploration and discovery.

Tasked simply with helping out a game designer with some alpha testing, the player soon finds himself lost within an unfinished set of systems. The pleasure of the game is figuring out the rules of a strange, new world.  What is refreshing about Kyratykas’s approach to exploring games through his own game is his argument here that the player and system aid in creating one another, in creating a world. This more romantic take on the player-game relationship stands in contrast with the antagonism that games like Loved argue is inherent between the system and those that submit to it (or, for a more mainstream gaming example, think the relationship between Chell and GlaDOS in Portal or the protagonist and those in power in Rapture in Bioshock).

Well paced and meditative, this is a platformer that doesn’t frustrate. It merely wants you to take the time to see what it is all about.

2. High Tea (Preloaded, 4 February 2011)

“1830, Britain is in the grip of a mass addiction to a foreign drug. TEA!”

That addiction is the driving force of a game that I want to describe as a twitch-based economic sim. The historical premise of using the profits from selling one addictive substance, opium, to one nation, China, and then turning even bigger profits by taking advantage of Great Britain’s addiction to another addictive product, tea, becomes a very fast paced game of smuggling and following the most obvious of strategies: “buy low, sell high”. 

The explosion of demand produced by addicts, though, turns this into the fastest-paced economic sim that I can ever recall playing.  It also seems to be part of the message of the game, which turns profiting in misery into a frantic and chaotic twitch-fest, rather than a thoughtful bit of entrepreneuring.

It’s probably the game that I have found myself replaying more than any other on the list just because of its simple gameplay and the rapid escalation of its challenge in a short period of time.

1. Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars (Anna Anthropy, 7 April 2011)

Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars is about punishment.  Wedding retro arcade-style graphics with retro arcade-style difficulty, the game will punish you.  But only because you allow it to. 

The camp throwback to sexploitation cinema is a theme that is reflected in the mechanisms of play itself here. Anthropy makes an argument with the punishing difficulty of the game that play, pleasure, and ultimately co-operation only arise from submitting to the rules, the system, and the authority that both represent.  This game takes a different and perhaps more cynical tact to “describing” the relationship between the player and the game than Alphaland does. Playing on may cost you your dignity, but that is all part of the negotiation of power that Anthropy senses is inherent in any game.

Not everyone is going to love this experience, but I find Anthropy’s argument that pleasure and pain are related more than a little compelling, as this game brings out my inner masochist, and I find that he is pleased every time he suffers through and succeeds at one more brutal level.

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