[This marks my third year of doing one of these end of the year roundups for story-centric video games. I guess it's a thing now. You can check out previous entries here, and look for my new bi-monthly column on wordy vidyagames coming debuting sometime in January.]
As I mentioned in my Best of 2012 post, this has been a pretty hectic year for me. Right along with not being able to read as many books as I’d have liked, I didn’t have much time to play games either. When I did, it was mostly on a Sunday morning when I should have been studying or on the train when I could sneak in a half hour with my 3DS. So while my pool to draw from is a little shallower this year, it forced me to choose only the games I really wanted to play, making my choices much easier. Here are the 10 games I played this year that scratched my inner book geek game itch.
Before even getting into the story stuff, this game looks and sounds beautiful. It’s got one of the better soundtracks for a game this year (this is my favorite–seriously check it out.) The game is fun too, a mix of 2D and 3D spatial platforming where pretty much the whole point of the game is to explore. Where this game will really tickle your inner nerd though, is when [bit of a spoiler] you realize the game has its own written language and philology that you can investigate and use to your advantage. It’s really hard to explain without giving too much away. If you’ve got an XBox you should download Fez.
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (DS)
A lot of my train ride game playing was spent with games like 999: “visual novels” that are more akin to a choose your own adventure book or 90′s computer adventure games than your typical modern fare. The plot is pretty captivating. You wake up in a strange room and quickly learn it is a death trap that you will only survive if you can solve a puzzle. Soon you meet other characters, each with a particular back story and idiosyncrasies and you must find a way to work together to escape (it’s a lot like the movies Saw or Cube, but with a glossy, Japanese sheen). There is no way you can actually beat the game on the first try, you will die, and have to start all over. At first this infuriated me. But since you are able to take your experiences (and knowledge of the other characters) into account the next time around, you can make different decisions. When eventually you reach the “true” end, it’s a bit of a mindfuck that makes it all worth it–one of the better bits of plot writing (in any medium) I’ve encountered in a while.
Dust: An Elysian Tale (XBox)
What starts as a pretty looking button-masher that feels a bit like the Secret of Nihm cross-bred with Sanjuro, turns into a deep and pretty damn dark story that is about as affecting as a game about a bunny rabbit rönin can possibly be. While the setting and gameplay differ greatly, the basic layout has a distinct Metroid feel to it, which I always appreciate.
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 3 (XBox, iOS, Steam)
The first two games in this series, based on the popular web comic, were good but not great. When the series was cancelled, Zeboyd games, the two-man outfit who made the excellent Cthulhu Saves the World was tasked with bringing their own style in to revive the series. It worked great. The game’s look and feel will feel right at home to any fan of 16-bit RPGs and the writing is sharp and funny. You can get this for a song on a number of platforms.
Pheonix Wright: Ace Attorney (DS, iOS)
This was the first of the “visual novels” I got into this year. There’s not much game here, but the story is fun and engaging. You are a defense attorney, and you must interview witness to learn information, then make objections and present evidence at the right times to clear your clients’ names. It’s not grounded in reality at all, so the plots are crazy and the characters varied and quirky. It might be a little too Japanese-zany for some tastes, but if this sort of game is up your alley, the $5 asking price for the up-rezed iOS version is a steal.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
I’m a huge Zelda fan, and to be honest this game left me a little disappointed. My expectations of Zelda are a bit unreasonable though, and it’s by most all accounts a very good game–one of the best pieces of software for the Wii–it just focused a bit less on exploring than I would prefer a Zelda game did. The trade off for that, however, is the increased focus on storytelling. For a series of games that are largely similar in plot, it’s interesting to see Nintendo finally focus on characterization and actual dramatic themes. It sets out to be an origin story that coheres a lot of otherwise hard to sync plots from previous games and does an admirable job of pulling it off.
Little Inferno (WiiU, Steam)
This isn’t so much a game as a toy. Basically it’s a fireplace place simulator. I know, doesn’t that sound enthralling? It’s actually pretty engrossing. The game situates your television or monitor (or the WiiU gamepad, but it looks really nice on the TV) as your new fireplace, and you have mail-order catalogues from which you can pick out things to light on fire. The combustible stuff is weird, from spider eggs to toy cats stuffed with fake poop, and you progress by burning “combos” based on wordplay or themed clues: for instance for the clue “Cold War” you must burn “Uncle Sam’s Blam Blams” and “Russian Nesting Dolls” at the same time. Occasionally you’ll get letters from a neighbor, and weather updates from some crazy guy in a balloon, and from these a dark, Tim Burton-esque story of the apocalypse begins to form. It’s a great little diversion, and it comes from good pedigree, as this company’s last game, World of Goo, was solid fun.
Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii)
This is probably the best looking game on the aged Wii. It’s a sprawling, lengthy game, and a ton of fun. It’s fairly difficult to explain the plot, but basically it’s a fun cross of sci-fi and fantasy; the world is a real pleasure to explore. The characters are all interesting, if a bit boilerplate, and though the combat systems take a little getting used to, once you get the hang of things it’s easy to appreciate the innovation. Definitely worth the time for RPG fans, just make sure you’ve got a lot because the average length for this beast is 65-100 hours.
The Last Story (Wii)
From the creator of the original Final Fantasy comes one of the better RPGs of the last few years. It’s fairly short, but that works to its benefit. Most of the systems are streamlined and uncomplicated, so you get to focus on the story. The story doesn’t do anything too original, but it does tell itself quite well. The real strength here is the cast of characters. It’s not often enough a game actually devotes time to nuanced characterization (FFVI and Mass Effect are on a short list of examples I can think of), so the payoff here is excellent. If you have a way of playing Wii games, this one is a must. (And if you don’t, go here and now you do.) As a bonus for us book nerds, the game is packaged to look like a book.
The Walking Dead (XBox, PS3, PC, iOS)
I love the Walking Dead comics, and have a love/hate relationship with the TV show (I currently am leaning back toward loving it). This game is without a doubt better at storytelling than either (and for the most part uses unique characters). It’s set up as episodes, with 5 currently available as the first season and (hopefully) more coming soon. There’s very little playing; it’s more or less an animated choose your own adventure story. But the choices you have to make range from uncomfortably dark to down right grisly. Will you let a woman in distress continue to agonize loudly as human bait being eaten alive in order to grant your group more time to escape, or will you put her out of her misery with a bullet to the head? Choose fast, if you hesitate she suffers and you won’t benefit… I played this on the XBox, but if you have an iOS device its touch interface is probably the best way to take in the experience.
Honorable Mention: Paper Mario Sticker Star
A charm-soaked offshoot from regular Mario fare, the Paper Mario games are much more story-focused semi-RPGs. This one goes the extra mile in the visuals department, using the 3DS’s capabilities to render the whole game to look like cardboard shoe box dioramas. The story here isn’t very meaty, but the writing is pleasantly witty and self-referential.