And so we come to the end. Try not to stress out too much if your game didn’t make the list, or if it wound up lower than you’d hoped. This list was just PC games, limited to the ones I’ve played and I thought were worth discussing. Just use this as an excuse to talk about / praise / eviscerate games we might not get to discuss very often. Read the intro to learn why we did this.
EDIT: Due to mis-numbering, I have nine games here. I didn’t notice until after the post went up. So the list ends on zero instead of one. Meh. Close enough.
8. Tomb Raider
Obviously Tomb Raider makes the list, but which entry? Is it the first one, which gave us the character, the gameplay, and a gunfight with a T-Rex? Or do we use one of the later entries, which more firmly established the look and personality of the character that would eventually grace the big screen? Or do we go with the one game that’s completely unlike all the others in tone and gameplay, but which is actually good? I say we go with the good one. No offense to 90’s Lara, but… actually there is no way to finish that sentence without insulting 90’s Lara. She was a narcissistic pinup girl, and her stilted platforming gameplay could never hold a candle to the graceful and satisfying feel of the Prince of Persia.
But I do thank 90’s Lara, because if not for her then we never would have gotten Reboot Lara. And Reboot Lara is an interesting lady in a mechanically solid game. The platforming here holds up when compared to your Uncharteds and Prince of Persias. The tomb puzzles are great, and their only flaws are that they’re too short and too scarce.
I’m a little uncomfortable having a game this new so close to the top of the list. I was crazy about the game when it came out, but I don’t know if it will stand the test of time. Will I still be playing this game next year? Will I still regard it as noteworthy? I dunno. Furthermore, my opinion of this game may shift based on how well this rebooted series evolves. If the series falls apart, the things this game did right will look like an accident. If the new series thrives, then this game will get credit as the start of something great. It’s almost as if these “Top X Games” lists are perilously arbitrary.
7. System Shock 2
A unique blend of everything I love: It has a cyberpunk setting. It has a focus on item scarcity and survival rather than empowerment. There’s an RPG leveling system that offers many ways to play that – while perhaps not really all that balanced – offers lots of replay. It offers a lot of open-world exploration where you can re-visit previous areas. It’s not quite a Metroidvania game but it does kind of scratch that same itch for me. There’s lots of environmental storytelling. It has a techno-horror aesthetic that can provide some genuine scaresOh god the monkeys! The monkeys!.
Sadly, it’s not without some really annoying flaws. The entire last section of the game feels really unwelcome, awkward, and poorly justified. The game features a biological enemy that the engine simply was not designed to portray. The PSI powers were expensive and only a few of them were useful. And the ending is clumsy attempt to set up a sequel that never happened. Still, we could use more like this. And no, BioShock doesn’t count. Don’t get me started.
6. Diablo II
Often imitated, never replicated. Not even by its own sequel. Like God of War, this is one of those games that looks easy to copy, but is actually very difficult to match. The world is filled with “Diablo clones”Which are really “Diablo 2 clones”. that came and went, while Diablo II continued to make money and devour lives.
People still claim that Diablo never had a story, or that the story didn’t matter. But in my view the story offered exactly what I want from this kind of game: Context and tone. The story was told in vignettes between chapters, not sprinkled throughout the gameplay like flow-breaking landmines. The story of Marius was brief, tragic, and powerful. The game itself was tense and dark.
Yes, the Diablo III Real Money Auction House hamstrung the core gameplay of D3, but it was the shift in tone that ruined the game for me. It wasn’t sinister. It wasn’t mysterious. It mistook the simple Diablo 2 story for a cheesy one, and the sequel felt like a Diablo clone instead of a Diablo successor.
Warcraft begat Warcraft II, and Warcraft II begat Starcraft, which was (at the time) the ultimate realization of everything that had gone into the Real Time Strategy genre so far. Three radically different races, all wonderfully balanced against each other.
It wasn’t the first e-sports game, but it was the first e-sports game to be a national sensation, to the point of getting television coverageIn South Korea.. All this, and it also gave us an imaginative pulpy new sci-fi universe to tell stories in.
4. Portal 2
Okay, yes – the memes from this game got really annoying after a while. But I don’t think we should hold that against Portal 2.
It took the innovative and interesting gameplay mechanic of the original, added to it, broadened the story, gave us some great characters, provided genuine laughs, gave us a deliciously varied visual palette, and ended before it wore out its welcome. If there are any sins in the game, it’s that it has nothing in the way of replay value. Puzzles and jokes do not hold up well to repetition. And I suppose the puzzles felt a little on the easy side.
I’ll take a short brilliant game over a long, mediocre one any day. Although “long and brilliant” would be nice. Speaking of which…
3. Deus Ex
See? This is why we can’t have nice things.
Deus Ex was a wonderful, sprawling game in a way that we just can’t have now that graphics have made gamespace so expensive to produce. It presented a fresh new world, which will never feel fresh or new again because publishers insist on continuing an existing storyline – no matter how final and complete the previous ending was – rather than wiping the slate clean and telling a new story. The characters were interesting to meet and the places were interesting to explore, because they weren’t treated as fan-service-y shout-outs and cameos for existing fans, but instead arose naturally from the needs of the story. It offered choice and consequence not as a gameplay gimmickLOOK PLAYER, YOU ARE MAKING A CHOICE NOW. YOU MAY CHOOSE RED OR BLUE. ISN’T THIS LIBERATING? REVEL IN YOUR FREEDOM! but as an organic thing that emerges naturally from your goals and the mechanics. And it offered tons of replay value because the gameworld and the mechanics were so broad and diverse that it was literally impossible to see it all in one play through, which runs against today’s trend that the player isn’t allowed to miss anything.
Human Revolution was a good game, and it’s probably as free and as deep as we can hope for in today’s world. But it can never match Deus Ex in scope or scale.
2. Half Life 2
As popular as it is, Half-Life 2 doesn’t have a legacy in the sense of numerous copycat games. In fact, even in 2004 it represented something of a throwback. More games were heading for voiced protagonists, camera-grab cutscenes, growling military-flavored machismo, and continuous action. But Half Life 2 has an empty vessel of a protagonist, allowing you to decide for yourself what you think of the world. The game is full of quiet time. In the first three minutes of the game it’s able to build a more convincing and palpable authoritarian dystopia than a dozen other games manage in twenty minutes of overbearing exposition.
But the real legacy of Half-Life is the boost it gave to Valve software. Half-Life made the company a fortune, and Half-Life 2 was the acorn that grew into the industry-enveloping oak called Steam.
1. World of Warcraft
The MMO that changed the course of an industry. Hundreds of millions of dollars – perhaps even billions – were pissed away by by arrogant nincompoops who thought they could just copy the “WoW formula” and make “WoW money”. The fact that they didn’t seem to understand WoW beyond the most superficial attributes only made their failures more painful. And perhaps we could forgive the first two or three, but at some point it got to be kind of disturbing, like watching the members of a suicide cult kill themselves one at a time. Fortunes were lost, jobs were obliterated, franchises were tarnished, and studios were closed. Innovative, successful, and interesting MMOs were forced to re-tool their mechanics to be more “WoW-like”, in hopes that some of those amazing WoWbux might land in their laps. (Spoiler: They didn’t. They just pissed off their existing fans.)
And WoW endured. At best, the new MMO of the month might siphon off some tiny sliver of the WoW userbase, but they always came back.
WoW ruined a lot of companies. Not by making a bad game, but by making a popular game that looked easy to copy and made so much money that greedy idiots couldn’t help but change the direction of their entire company in the hopes of striking gold. It was like a brilliant surgeon who saw America’s Got Talent and thought it would be great to be an international pop star. So he sold his practice, took singing and dancing lessons, and went on national television and made a complete fool of himself. Two years later he’s penniless. His wife has left him. His kids won’t return his phone calls. He tried to start up his practice again, but nobody wants to be operated on by the guy who made an ass of himself in front of the world. And he doesn’t have anyone to blame but himself. What a loser.
World of Warcraft didn’t ruin the industry. The industry ruined itself.
2.5×109 dollars. For an indie studio with less than a dozen employees and one released game.
But what a game. Minecraft is often compared to Legos because both have you building with blocks, but I think the similarities go deeper. Both can stand in as the universal symbol for their medium. Just as Lego is a ubiquitous toy with endless possibilities and an appeal that spans all social, cultural, and age demographics, Minecraft is the ubiquitous game with endless possibilities and an appeal that spans all social, cultural, and age demographics. If you somehow run out of things to do in the base game, there’s always the ever-permutating collection of mods that can turn Minecraft into a survival game, a shooter, an adventure game, an engineering game, an RPG, or any other of a thousand other things. If you run out of mods, then jump on a server and build with friends.
Minecraft has sold over fifty million copies to date. That’s more than every iteration of The Sims (The Sims to The Sims 4) combined. More than double the sales of Battlefield 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV combined. The only games to outsell it are Tetris (which has been selling for decades) and Wii Sports (which was the pack-in game on the Wii).
So those are 64 games I thought were worth talking about, arranged in some kind of order that probably doesn’t mean much. I have a final wrap-up post coming sometime in the next week. I hope you enjoyed reading this, even if you disagreed.
 Oh god the monkeys! The monkeys!
 Which are really “Diablo 2 clones”.
 In South Korea.
 LOOK PLAYER, YOU ARE MAKING A CHOICE NOW. YOU MAY CHOOSE RED OR BLUE. ISN’T THIS LIBERATING? REVEL IN YOUR FREEDOM!
Juvenile and Proud
Yes, this game is loud, crude, childish, and stupid. But it it knows what it wants to be and nails it. And that's admirable.
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?
A programming project where I set out to make a gigantic and complex world from simple data.
There's a wonderful way to balance difficulty in RPGs, and designers try to prevent it. For some reason.
The Best of 2012
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2012.