2012 Game of the Year Awards: Numbers 3 and 2

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We've arrived at the top three – the pinnacle of this year's games. We'll save the best for tomorrow, but today we're happy to share two games that defied expectations and broke new ground. One was the little Kickstarter game that could, and the other is a game that elevates player choice to a new level of engagement and delivers an emotional gut punch unlike almost any game before it. Check them out after the break, let us know what you think, and stick around for tomorrow's reveal of our 2012 Game of the Year.

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#3 - FTL: Faster Than Light

September 2012 | Subset Games | Linux, OS X, Windows

My pet name for FTL is “Everything Is On Fire.” Another adequate nickname might be “The Galaxy Wants You Dead.”

I don’t consider myself a masochist. I rarely appreciate games that challenge my patience just for the sake of bragging rights. FTL, however, hooked me in ways very few games can.

The premise involves the player controlling a lone empire ship. Overthrown by a rebellion, the player must return to the remaining fleet before the rebel flagship reaches them and ruins any chance of taking back power. Think of it as a flipped version of the original Star Wars plot.

I won’t sugarcoat it. No one is going to complete their mission the first time they play FTL. There isn’t much of a tutorial, many game systems go under-explained, random events can screw players over, and the player can ruin their chances later on by making poor decisions early. Luckily, an average playthrough only takes a couple of hours.

I won’t use the term roguelike because actual genre enthusiasts have reacted poorly to this title appropriating that moniker. What FTL does do, however, is take many concepts from roguelikes and uses them in a more approachable and palatable manner. Each playthrough got me a little closer to my goal, made me a little stronger, until I finally reached the rebel flagship...and was promptly demolished.

What kept me coming back to FTL (despite being constantly beaten down) is the surprising amount of immersion despite being a fairly simple-looking game. The starting crew can be renamed but beyond that, what happens over the course of a playthrough can be handled but not controlled. Aliens may join the crew; space spiders may eat them. FTL’s unpredictability is it’s salvation, as that keeps the player on their toes and prevents them from ever truly dominating the game’s mechanics.

FTL also deserves praise for being the first of many Kickstarter projects I’ve funded to bear fruit. An indie, partially crowd-funded title created one of the most engaging and satisfying gameplay experiences I had this year. Anyone with an interest in Rogue-adjacent design and the scifi genre owes it to themselves to try FTL.

FTL manages to symbolize what games are capable of as a medium. The title has no voice acting, minimalist production values, and a randomly generated story, but it has emergent gameplay that empowers and challenges the player. The story told as you play through FTL is your own, and when you finally tell the story of the ship that managed to defy the odds and defeat the rebel flagship to save the empire, well, it might be one of the most satisfying moments in gaming. -- Tyler Martin

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#2 - The Walking Dead

April 2012 - November 2012 Telltale Games | iOS, OS X, PlayStation Network, Windows, Xbox Live Arcade

Episode Five of The Walking Dead Season 1 draws to a close. The final scene concludes, the screen cuts to black, and the credits begin to roll. I’m left holding a controller and unable to stop the tears that began a few minutes prior.

Not just a manly, single tear down the cheek; no, the conclusion of Season 1 left me a bawling wreck. I cannot remember the last time a piece of entertainment –- movie, album, book -– left me so moved, never mind a video game.

I’m unashamed to say that The Walking Dead left me in such a state because I know so many of you reading this will have played it and understand precisely what I mean. And it’s that ability to draw emotion out of players that saw Telltale Games’ effort rocket up our Game of the Year chart into the top two -- and, for a long time during deliberations, sit at number one.

For those who need a refresher: The Walking Dead Season 1 is an episodic adventure game taking place in the eponymous comic book universe, but without much crossover with the comic timeline. I think. All you really need to know is “zombie apocalypse” and go from there. What the game is really about is the same thing all zombie movies are: the relationships between the remaining survivors.

And, yes, zombies are a bit played out by now. Sure, adventure games are kind of an anachronism, something incredibly popular in the mid-90s but since left behind (kind of like ska in a way). But what Telltale has crafted is quite possibly the strongest story in gaming.

The central relationship in the game is between your character, Lee, and the young girl, Clementine, you find in the first episode. Her parents were gone on a business trip when the zombie apocalypse happens, and it’s up to you to look out not just for yourself but for a child; the resulting dynamic is one of the best story arcs in gaming history and must be experienced. As a single, unmarried, childless man myself, I felt close to Lee’s situation –- he has never been a father, and now for all intents and purposes is one. How do you go from zero to the guardian of a child?

The relationships between Lee, Clementine, and the other survivors you find along the way are the real core of the game. Who you align with in intra-party politics can have stunning ramifications, and can lead you to make decisions later in the game with massive repercussions. Indeed, they can even be life or death decisions in that moment. Or, at least, ones that feel like massive repercussions; much like Mass Effect, the game continues in a much more linear fashion than one would expect. Sometimes the decisions make a real difference; sometimes, they wouldn’t have mattered. That Telltale can use smoke and mirrors to give the illusion of unlimited choice is its second-greatest success (behind the Lee and Clementine relationship). That the world marches on, unflinching, uncaring, is a reflection of the real world we live in.

Despite the focus on relationships and adventure game tropes -- find the item, use it at the right time -- the gameplay remains fresh throughout. Partially this is due to action sequences sprinkled throughout the game. Some play out like shooting galleries, some require quick movements and unraveling the puzzle behind a location. Plus, Telltale is to be commended for responding to feedback. Since the game was released concurrent with development of later episodes, Telltale could institute changes when needed. This is seen in the shooting gallery controls, and how they differ between Episodes 3 and 4, for instance.

Unlike the Mass Effect series, the choices you make in Walking Dead are hardly clear-cut. There’s no simple “Renegade” or “Paragon” option, nor associated meters to fill. However, often, the decisions are between bad and worse; it’s shades of grey in a world gone to hell. In both these ways I think the decision mechanic is a success from a gaming standpoint: you are not trained to act one way and get an expected reaction, and with no score to achieve, you can react naturally to the situations. It mirrors real life in that manner; even the hardest, life-and-death options can be seen from both sides. After each episode, how other players reacted to major events is displayed on screen. There were a number of times where I saw the results and was in the minority. A couple times I was stunned, since I was sure I had made the “best” choice. Well, in The Walking Dead, there is no “best” choice. And, like in life, you’ll have people you upset with each decision.

An adventure game with less truly discernible “gameplay” than many other games on our list and dialog trees that deal more with relationship management than anything else. And yet, The Walking Dead becomes much more than the sum of its parts – or its mechanics. It’s a moving, amazing experience that everybody should play through. -- Doug Bonham