2012 was great for gamers who adhere to a minimalist lifestyle or who are just running out of shelf space. Some of the year’s best games were digitally published. PopMatters’ upcoming top games of 2012 list already includes some of my favorites (e.g., Journey and The Walking Dead), but there were too many to fit all on one list. Here are five of my additional favorites:
1. The Unfinished Swan
The first-person perspective often seems married to violent games, but The Unfinished Swan reminds us this doesn’t have to be the case. Rather than yet another war story, the game follows the journey of a young boy named Monroe who learns about the strengths and flaws of his parents. Players participate in this metaphorical journey by exploring a kingdom with a variety of fantastical powers. Blank canvases are splashed with paint to reveal hidden geography. Magical vines form ladders when watered. Platforms can be conjured from thin air. In the end, The Unfinished Swan is a great reminder that not all video game fantasies need revolve around destruction and power over others; they can instead be about tangible and metaphorical growth.
On the other side of the storytelling spectrum, there is Super Hexagon. In many ways, the game is the standard bearer for the weird revitalization of arcade sensibilities that has happened over the past few years. The game is simple: dodge incoming obstacles. Play sessions are fast; sometimes taking less than five seconds to complete. The goal is to chase scores—yours and those posted to the leader boards. The visuals are simple, but mesmerizing in their own vector graphic way. Failure happens quickly and regularly, but mistakes are always clear, which makes it easy to instantly start game after game until you’ve whiled away an hour, 30 seconds at a time.
Dyad‘s focus on mechanical excellence resembles Super Hexagon‘s, and its tunnel-racing, obstacle-dodging structure resembles classic arcade experiences like Tempest. However, level names like “Space Giraffe” and “Eye of the Duck” demonstrate an explicit knowledge of self-awareness that not many games make. The fact that the psychedelic patterns can obscure the action starts to seem purposeful. The constant score checks and leader board notifications are reminders that achieving transcendence requires more than simply enjoying the trippy ambiance.
Like many games this year, Spelunky challenges players to survive within a system of harsh, unforgiving rules. Its cute, side scrolling presentation initially obscures the risk associated with taking virtually any action. Don’t stand too close to that jar when you break it open; there might be a spider hiding in it. Don’t just toss that rock in any random direction; it might ricochet off the wall and kill you. Don’t look too far ahead; you might trip a switch and be killed by a trap. Then again, don’t just focus on what’s in front of you; planning ahead is crucial to avoiding an ill-informed jump. This risk/reward dynamic permeates the entire game: choosing when to buy that life-saving item and when to save up for a shortcut to later levels becomes an agonizing choice, as one false moves deposits you squarely at the beginning of the game. Add multiplayer on top of all this and Spelunky gains the wild chaos of New Super Mario Bros. Wii while retaining the dire consequences of Dark Souls.
Dys4ia eschews punishing difficulty and score chases in favor of telling a deeply personal story told via interaction. It’s an autobiographical game in which Anna Anthropy gives us insight into her experience with hormone replacement therapy. It tells the story in a way only a game could pull off: a series of Warioware-style sequences systemically articulate the physical, emotional, and social dynamics of gender transition. Whether they’re metaphorical (navigating shapes through passageways not designed to accommodate them) or literal (NPCs spontaneously address you with the wrong gender pronoun), all the scenarios offer insight into another person’s experience. It’s a beautifully honest game that fosters empathy through its rules. On top of this, Dys4ia‘s medium and distribution also make a statement. The fact that it is browser-based and free to play means that pretty much anyone with an Internet connection and a computer can experience it. Made outside the constraints of the traditional studio structure and the demands of normal distribution methods, Dys4ia demonstrates the potential for video games to help us learn about—and hopefully care for—each other.