What a year! This is not a top 10 videogame list — how many games do you have to play for a yearly top 10 to be a meaningful gesture? I have not played that many, even though I’ve played a bunch. Also these are not all games from 2010; more like games that have been on my mind in 2010. They are presented in No Particular Order.
- Starcraft II (Mac & PC). Prior to this year, I hadn’t played a real-time strategy title for almost a decade. I picked up Starcraft II this summer and have played more than 600 games; I’ve also watched probably hundreds of “professional” matchups. It’s an awesome experience to get deep into a game, and it’s been awesome to get deep into this one. I don’t know that SCII is the best-designed game, but it doesn’t have to be; it is good enough. The huge community of players constantly battling it out online and in tournaments means that the strategic environment of the game is extremely well-explored and dynamic. Chess isn’t interesting because it’s the best-designed strategic game (though it is well designed); it’s interesting because of the centuries of experience your opponent draws on in any match. I’m not good at the game but I’m not giving it up, either. I’m “Grobstein.885″; friend me up.
- VVVVVV (Mac & PC). VVVVVV is a very tight little puzzle platformer. The gameplay premises: 1) instead of jumping, you may reverse gravity whenever you’re standing on a surface; 2) you are exploring a network of interconnecting screens, as in Metroid (or as in Adventure!, an ancient game which VVVVVV actually seems to resemble both in visual style and level design — for example, one challenge of the game is extrapolating level shapes across multiple discontinuous screens). The game has super-lofi visuals: there is no scrolling, but rather a sequence of screens; each screen has only 3 or 4 colors; obstacles are frequently non-representational (e.g. you must avoid a block of letters that says “STOP”); the characters look like the silhouette of a lego figure. The music is appropriately “8-bit” and charming. The game succeeds because the level designs are clever and challenging, and because the trial-and-error feedback loop is extremely short — fail and you instantly appear at a checkpoint, usually inches away, ready to try again. (This is something games have been getting smarter about lately — see Braid, Super Meat Boy, and, on this list, Bit.Trip Runner.) Presently I am stuck on the sequence of screens starting with “Doing things the hard way” — but I’m improving, and will probably clear it in less than 100 more lives.
- Bayonetta (consoles). An action game about a ridiculously sexualized witch whose devastating kung fu frequently requires her to get naked (real no-kidding in-game explanation: 1) her clothing is actually made out of her hair; 2) her strongest attacks summon demons into the medium of her hair). The story is dumb and the premise is insulting. But the environments and enemy designs (chiefly bird-like angels) are really cool, and the combat rewards cleverness and precision play (rewards it with clicks of satisfaction, and also with obscured nudity).
- Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (consoles). Brilliant multiplayer game — you and seven other assassins blend into crowds in Renaissance Italian cities, revealing yourselves only as long as it takes to kill your target. As you chase one player, others are following you. This is so much more interesting than the multiplayer for any other 3-D action game it hurts. I am Grobstein on XBox Live; let’s play together.
- New Super Mario Brothers Wii. This is Super Mario World with 4-player simultaneous multi-play. I mean, I’m selling it a little short for argument’s sake, but here’s the argument: 1) SMW is close to being the best platformer ever, 2) simultaneous multiplayer is (in context) completely new and completely awesome, 3) a fortiori, NSMBW is at least completely awesome and close to the best ever. With my partners in crime, I have played every level in this game through several times. Some of the designs are basic; some are novel and brilliant. All of the levels are improved by the new mechanic of jostling with your teammates while under pressure from the environment. The platformer (esp. the Nintendo platformer) is the tightest genre there is; it seems obvious that this physics playground is spectacularly improved by opening it up to more players.
- Bit.Trip Runner (Wii, probably forthcoming on PC). Runner is another simple but compelling synesthesia game from Gaijin Games. Your avatar, basically a stick figure, runs through forced-scrolling levels against a blocky 3-D background, jumping over or sliding under obstacles. Every move you make corresponds to beeps and bloops in the evolving musical background; power-ups add layers to the music. It’s quite hard. In later levels you have to quickly jump over and duck under long chains of blocks that weave toward you in a sine wave. Toward the end, you have to learn each level minutely. This makes playing well very rewarding. The experience of everything coming together as you race through a level, tracing a rainbow behind you and the music resolving.
- Mirror’s Edge (consoles). What a beautiful game, and what a powerful experience. Running across rooftops in Assassin’s Creed is empowering but weightless; taking long leaps and wall runs and just barely catching the edge of a skyscraper roof in Mirror’s Edge feels almost real. Mirror’s Edge makes you work for your acrobatics, turning in tricky precision play; the frustration pays enormous dividends in immersion. Sitting here at my desk, I want to play Mirror’s Edge almost as much as I want to get up and run. I’ve been warming to the story as well; some silly ideas but some real emotional power. The first-person hug near the beginning gave me chills. That was not a metaphor. In fact, it gives me chills now. This is a landmark in gameplay and storytelling.
- Frozen Synapse (Mac & PC). Brilliant squad-based tactical strategy game, with asynchronous online multiplayer and simultaneous turn resolution. The rules are invisible but transparent; there are no numbers to track, it just works. Despite being a turn-based game, it’s extremely intense. (Each game simulates an encounter between opposing forces that might last 30 seconds.) A clever point system resembling duplicate bridge balances uneven tactical situations. The awesome visual style is icing on the cake (looks like the surveillance system of a futuristic office building). Game is (I believe) still in alpha, but you can “pre-order” and play it now. I haven’t played recently but want to get back into it. I’m “grobstein” in the game; if you play, let’s do a match.
- 100 Rogues (iPhone / iPad). A seriously challenging roguelike game with a good attitude. It’s very accessible (compared to the genre generally) and a lot of fun, plus it’s cheap and you can play on the go. I interviewed the designer earlier this year: link.
- Final Fantasy XIII (consoles). The plot is a hash of Final Fantasy cliches. The characters are quite a bit better-drawn than is usual for the series — you might even find them to be “mature.” Still. What I really liked about this game was the combat system. FF combat has (I suppose) always been about resource management in the face of adversity (how do I make my HP last longer than the monsters’?). But for me, that element has usually been too deeply buried — the underlying strategy obscured by power-leveling and exploiting elemental weakpoints and so on, mechanics that are not strategically interesting. FFXIII went a long way towards fixing this, with two major innovations: 1) level-capping: you just can’t power-level your way out of challenges; 2) no micro-management: instead of giving your characters precise orders in battle, you assign them to broad strategic roles (which you can flip in real time); they make their own on-the-fly decisions about how to play those roles. For me, this really brought the underlying truth of the combat system into focus; finding the right way to stay alive and do damage while getting relentlessly hammered by enemies became really interesting and cool. There was too much repetition, but repetitive strategy puzzles are way cooler than repetitive “FIGHT”-mashing. I couldn’t finish this game but it remains a bright point; I hope future Final Fantasies learn the lessons of XIII.
There you have it. I’ve actually wanted to write a little more about some of these titles. Perhaps I will. 2010 also had many probably wonderful games I didn’t play — check out the Steam sale! In the New Year, I’d love to get in some games of Civ IV, Civ V, Europa Universalis III, Mount & Blade: Warband, Gratuitous Space Battles, . . . .