“Game of the Year” lists. Everybody’s got one, and they all tend to look the same. This year’s blockbuster hits, sequels to long-standing series, new projects created by popular development teams. After some reflection, I realized there were many gaming experiences that I excluded from my own list because I had some presuppositions of what “should” be on such a list. We expect high profile games that cost us $60, typically rewarding games that improve a formula instead of taking risks. If the recent presence of the indie development scene tells us anything, it’s that high end production and price tags aren’t necessary for making a successful game. What about the free games or the extremely niche titles? I decided to put together a small list in the spirit of rewarding some 2011 games that are unlikely to be featured elsewhere but deserve recognition for the risk taking that they took to advance the medium.
Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story by Christine Love
Visual novels are about as niche as digital media comes; very few genres suffer the stigma that they do. Many don’t see them as games or find the strong influence of anime fandom to be off putting. Needless to say, the market for visual novels outside of Japan is sparse, making the decision to create one a unique decision in itself. Don’t take it personally, babe… tackles many social issues and presents them within internet culture. It comments on how the internet influences our lives, while also managing the melodrama of teenagers exploring their identities. This is probably the first time that I’ve seen a gay couple treated with maturity in a game, and there’s two here!
To the Moon by Freebird Games
For a game cited as having made so many people cry, it’s a surprise that To the Moon is rarely discussed outside of indie-focused publications. The writing in the game is some of the best this year, balancing humor alongside serious moments. Music is also a very powerful aspect of the game’s aesthetic, as you move through a dying man’s memories to make his wish come true. Be prepared, most of the game is meant to make you think, reflect, and reevaluate your humanity, not to present you with detached puzzles to solve and strategies to formulate. Most people overlook games that appear to have been created by something like RPG Maker, but To the Moon proves you don’t have to have the resources of a AAA studio to make an emotionally compelling game.
TRAUMA by Krystian Majewski
Many hesitate to call TRAUMA a game but that might be a part of what makes it special. It is reminiscent of adventure games that focus on exploration of an environment. The scenes in the game depict a woman’s struggles after an accident, prompting the player to treat their exploration of the game as a process of working through psychological distress. Interactivity and discovery are key to TRAUMA, reaching beyond the game level and into the thematic vein of the narrative. On a first run through, the player might feel like they are clicking through pictures, but once the act of exploring is tied to sorting through emotions and uncomfortable feelings, the game takes on a powerful meaning.
Sweatshop by Littleloud
How often do you see a flash game on a “top games of the year” list? Sweatshop is part tower defense, part adorable, and part socially aware. One of the main critiques of the idea of “games as art” is their lack of relevance to current events and real-life problems. These kinds of games are a tough sell to players that want their games to be mostly about fun, but Sweatshop gets it right. Its version of a tower defense games actually helps the player gain empathy for the workers being exploited through free trade agreements, speaking through both the mechanics and the intermission screens that are filled with fun facts. It’s a game that handles a serious, current problem well without lecturing the player, which is much more than most AAA games can claim.
Choice of Intrigues by Choice of Games
A sequel to a romantic, political, dramatic Choose Your Own Adventure-inspired stat-building game? Yes, please! Choice of Intrigues continues the great writing and character drama found in its predecessor, Choice of Romance but raises the stakes as you defend your reputation and the power that you have established. With a boom of interest surrounding the romance systems of later additions to the Persona series and BioWare games, it’s nice to have a game that focuses mostly on relationships and explores these topics and problems from a design level. This series is a continuation of Choice of Games’s attempt to create games that are inclusive by allowing relationships between any gender and managing details of the story world expertly, so that it makes sense in their fantasy setting.
Most of the games on this list are free and the priciest is under $12. They aren’t multiplayer and probably won’t be featured on major gaming sites but that doesn’t discount their successes. Here’s to including more than big budget games in 2012!