Many of my favorite video games in 2010 can't be found at brick-and-mortar stores. This happens for me most years, actually; I dig around for games with new, risky ideas, and they tend to come from small teams with low budgets (and no distribution deals).
In years past, my out-there picks drew complaints and confusion—"What's a Braid?" "Where the heck is Call of Duty?" etc. etc. Lucky me, the tide is turning. I wrote here in October about the rise of micro-gaming: the short, cheap games, like Ma used to make, have made gaming history repeat itself this year. A quarter in the early '80s, good enough for a game of Ms. Pac-Man, is close to a dollar today—the sweet price for downloadable games on your smartphone.
This year, the number of people who've downloaded a cheap game, or borrowed someone's phone to play one, has reached critical mass. The classic arcade appeal has returned to our pockets and our Internet-connected game systems (where downloadable games reign at $5-15 a pop), a fact that our friends at the Tech channel missed. So here's to the new arcade, and to some of 2010's best games that you might have actually heard of.
Two Games a la David Lynch
MORE YEAR IN REVIEW:
Eleanor Barkhorn and Kevin Fallon: The 15 Biggest Entertainment Stories of 2010
Eleanor Barkhorn and Kevin Fallon: The 10 Biggest Sports Stories of 2010
The Atlantic Editors: The Best Book I Read This Year
The mystery adventure games Alan Wake (X360) and Deadly Premonition (X360, PS3) turned out to be two of the year's best guilty pleasures, though their first blushes are deceiving. Alan Wake, which follows a Stephen King-like novelist on a search for his missing wife, overindulges in bad narration, and DP, a carbon copy of Twin Peaks' "who killed Laura Palmer" plot, has the looks of a 2002 game.
Yet these Lynch-appreciative games do more than employ Northwestern scenery, oddball townsfolk, and rustic diners. They toy with our gameplay expectations with a wink and a smile, through intentionally campy scripts, claustrophobic fear moments, and what-the-heck plot jolts.
Monday Night Combat
"Desktop tower defense" games have been around for years, in which waves of critters come your way, and you mow them down by setting up little turrets and shields. It's an addictive formula (see this year's popular iPhone/PC game Plants vs. Zombies), but a small studio in one man's apartment turned the idea on its head with the sleeper hit Monday Night Combat (X360, PC).
In this online shooting game, players split into teams of six to destroy the other's base. Each player picks a class, from a strong-yet-slow gunner to a wimpy-yet-helpful doctor, then works out on-the-fly strategies (build turrets, create helper robots, team up to attack, pull back to defend) to prevail. This beautifully honed bit of online combat borrows from many other successful games to seem both familiar and fresh, and the variety of classes and splash of humor make this easy to enjoy even for new players.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
If you ever want to believe that games can be compared to films—and legitimately so, not merely because the comparison pool is so diluted—then Enslaved (X360, PS3) is as close as the industry has ever come. Primarily, this plays like the popular God Of War series—run around, beat up robots, solve puzzles—but there's more, and it's not just the plot. The developers landed contributions from novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) and actors like Andy Serkis (Smeagol in Lord of the Rings), yet the resulting story would be nothing without the game's facial animation tech. The main character Monkey's face lights up in ways that some of Dreamworks' dead-faced films could learn from, and Serkis' turn as the beastly hero is a complete performance—makes sense, since he helped with the motion capture, too.
Modern games wrestle with how to combine a great story with a game—maybe the actors should talk during the action, so as to not interrupt play, for example. Enslaved laughs off gimmicks and instead proves that when you bring a game character to life the right way, players will delight in wearing its virtual skin.
As of this year, every major home game console can run Netflix's streaming service with a downloadable app. This Trojan horse has been the tipping point to get video games into more homes—and to connect more consoles to the Internet, where people can find many of the new, downloadable games that folks like me go crazy for. If you want to call Netflix the "game" of the year, I won't blame you.