The First Annual Digital Gumballs Game of the Year Awards

Winner, winner, chicken dinner

2012 is nearly over. Now is the time where we look back on the last twelve months and compare where we are now with where we were at the end of 2011. Personally, I’m in a much better place. A new town, a new job, a new giant plasma television… lots of new. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is just how few new AAA titles I’m willing to pay $60 to play. And then, two months later when they drop to half price, nobody even wants to talk about them anymore. So I don’t play them new, and I don’t play them old, but I’m still playing games constantly. A few have really sucked me in this year, and I need to recognize them, and you might even like to try them yourselves if you missed them the first time around. I’ll talk to you about them, I promise!

There were five games this year that pulled me in like few before (well… seven, but Dark Souls is technically a 2011 game even though I didn’t fall in love with it before this year because of Skyrim, and Picross DS is from 2007, although that didn’t stop me from playing it for an entire month of 2012). For me, it’s not about the graphics, or the sound design, or the game mascot, or the controls. The best games to me are the ones that most successfully make you feel like you’re in this different world. Those games that you dream about long after they’re finished. The games you wish you could experience again for the first time. Five games to change the world.

First, though, look at this list of supposedly amazing games that I didn’t even get to try this year for one reason or another: Far Cry 3, The Walking Dead, Halo 4, Max Payne 3, XCOM, Dishonored, Assassin’s Creed III, anything on the Wii U, Persona 4 Golden and everything else on the Vita, New Super Mario Bros. 2, Mass Effect 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Spec Ops: The Line, Hotline Miami, Retro City Rampage, The Unfinished Swan, Need for Speed Most Wanted, Diablo III, Darksiders II, Mark of the Ninja, Trials Evolution, Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, Sleeping Dogs, Borderlands 2, I Am Alive, Spelunky, Fez, Rock Band Blitz, SSX, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Angry Birds Star Wars, every sports game, and who knows what else. None of these games are on my list. There’s a good chance at least one of them is on yours. Good for you, buddy! I’m too poor/don’t care. Let’s do my countdown.

5. Fairway Solitaire

Spleeeesh.

Number five is a solitaire card game on the iPhone with a Caddyshack aesthetic. It’s hard to make it sound exciting. The thing is, there is a TON of strategy involved, and it can be played in short bursts, and the commentators are funny without being annoying, and there are new challenges every single day, and getting a run going is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done with my iPhone. I was trying to explain to a coworker exactly what makes Fairway Solitaire so strangely alluring, and… I don’t really know. It’s the kind of game you could play for twenty minutes a day for six months and always feel satisfied, and it’s the kind of game that will leave you stranded somewhere with no phone battery left because you burned through the entire thing playing a card game, you casual jerk. I guess I’m the casual jerk, but I get super hardcore about Fairway Solitaire. It is the best pure puzzle game of 2012.

4. Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Woo!

Paper Mario: Sticker Star had a lot to answer for. The Wii’s Super Paper Mario took so many of the things I loved about the first two games, threw them away, and left me beaten and bruised at one of the lowest points I’ve ever been at in modern gaming times. Sticker Star brought a new battle system, a new platform, and just enough clever story/dialogue and addictive collecting elements to keep me in this beautiful flat world for 30 hours over the course of a week and a half. There’s approximately zero replay value, but the music actually got me to play a handheld game with the sound turned up! That feat in itself is worthy of celebration.

3. 30 Flights of Loving

Tick tock, Clarice.

My first and so far only perfect score on Digital Gumballs, 30 Flights of Loving is the more polished, more expensive sequel to the sublime Gravity Bone. It’s only about 20 minutes long, but Brendon Chung packed more atmosphere, personality, and character into these 20 minutes than Assassin’s Creed has over its entire series combined. It’s strange, subtle, and doesn’t explain everything, plus there’s this weird bit near the end where you learn the science of flight. It’s just… it needs to be seen for yourself. Plus, it’s only five bucks. What’ve you got to lose? A better question, if you haven’t played it: do you have any idea what you’re missing?

2. Super Hexagon

Super Duper Hexagon

This is probably the single best iPhone game ever created. It is pounding music, twitch reflexes, and practice, practice, practice. A game – at first – will last you five seconds. Then you’ll play again. And again. And again. Pretty soon, you can dip and dodge through an entire 60 seconds of pulse-quickening action without breaking a sweat and your entire afternoon is gone. You will feel frustration, and relief, and empowerment, and a constant sense of self-improvement. You will lose, over and over. And you will always come back for more. The line between frustration and fun is eviscerated completely, and the self-discovery evoked in many gamers by such a simple premise is an interesting story in itself. It’s so rare that a game can teach us something we hadn’t known about ourselves. Super Hexagon does just that.

1. Journey

Took the midnight train going a-ny-whereeeee.

You are crossing a desert alone. Where are you going? Who are you? How did you get here? You are unsure. You press forward.

Then you meet someone, and everything changes. They become your life raft, your friend, your savior. You can’t talk to them, but they are as real as you or I. Flesh and blood, hopes and desires. Side by side, you cross the desert. When one gets too far ahead, they wait for you to catch up. You lead by example when you come to a difficult jump. You protect each other from the enemies, and the harsh elements. This wordless camaraderie has never been seen in games before, and the emotions it evoked in gamers the world over… unforgettable. I cried. And I don’t even have feelings most of the time.

Journey isn’t just the best game of 2012 – it’s one of the best games ever made. It’s a mere two hours long, but it is quite possibly the most important two hours you will ever spend playing a video game. Like the other wordless wanderers in Journey‘s desert, this game will enter your life silently, leave quickly, and change your world in ways you would have never imagined. Games are more than lines of code, graphics, sounds… games can be experiences that define our worldview for years to come. There is no better example of what games can be than Journey.

The only question that remains now: where do we go from here?

 2012 Almost-in-the-Top-Five Honorable Mentions:

Sound Shapes, Tokyo Jungle, and Frog Fractions – These games were all unique and amazing in their own ways and you’d be missing out on something special if you happened to skip any of them!

What was your personal game of the year, and why? Let the world (or at least the couple hundred people that read this blog) know in the comments below!

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