I find tremendous pleasure in games that allow me to name my characters, humanize them and create their unique, intricate backstories, for the sole purpose of making me watch those beloved little guys burn to death on a cramped space ship. No game does this better, or more often, than FTL: Faster Than Light.
Another alluring aspect of FTL is that it's an indie game that looks indie. The game's strength lies in the incredible interstellar journey the player takes with her crew, and the graphics do everything they can to stay out of the way of these space battles and indiscriminate deaths. It's a mental game, high-energy in synapse rather than the screen – much as I've heard the original X-COM described. And like X-COM, playing FTL isn't just a wonderful experience today, but it promises greater, better things to come from Subset Games.
When I think back on the good times I've had gaming, the most prominent memories are ones I've shared with friends, local-multiplayer style. A Virus Named Tom evokes not only the nostalgia of living room multiplayer, but has a distinctly classic vibe, hearkening the glory days of Pac-Man and arcade cabinets.
A Virus Named Tom is puzzling, frustrating and interpersonal in the special way that makes you think all your friends are idiots at the same time you're all on the floor giggling in glee. It's OK though – they're thinking the same thing about you.
A Virus Named Tom is a brilliant puzzle game in singleplayer, too. The only difference is that there's no one around to blame for your lethal mistakes, nor is there anyone to laugh with.
My grandpa's leftovers generally consisted of cheddar cheese on mincemeat pie and sauerkraut, and I'm happy to report that Black Pants Game Studios' Tiny and Big is much better than any combination of those things. Tiny and Big is a stylized romp through a destructible world, following an engaging story of how complicated family ties can get when psychic powers are thrown into the mix.
Tiny and Big offers a range of solutions for each of its environment-shifting puzzles, allowing players to truly transform the terrain, platforming aspects and entire game according their own play styles. This is a game that doesn't take itself too seriously – it's about a boy searching for his grandfather's underwear, after all – but allows players to become true masters of laser-based demolition, mind control and logic, should they want to be. And really, who wouldn't want to be all of those things?
Sequels are tricky – the good ones need to capture the charm of the first turn, whatever made it worthy of a sequel, and introduce new elements that build upon existing items and feel natural in a universe that players have come to love. Borderlands 2 has, and I quote, "87 bazillion" new items that blend seamlessly into the bright, barren world of Pandora.
In actuality, Borderlands 2 has just 16 million guns, and while that's shy of a vaguely large, made-up number, it aptly demonstrates the sequel's emphasis on more, in general. Borderlands 2 is a planet packed with beasts to destroy, quests to complete and a main antagonist with more emotional appeal than most FPS' protagonists. I can clearly picture the developers at Gearbox sitting around and saying, "The people like guns. The people like killing things with those guns. Give them that." And then they did.
Trilogies are just as tricky to pull off as sequels, but if Borderlands made a second game inevitable, Borderlands 2 calls for a third.
I'm a sucker for a video game with an adorable main character. Snapshot is more than just cute, of course (I'm not that shallow); it's a brilliant twist on the classic platforming genre, executed incredibly well. Snapshot adds something so simple – the ability to take pictures to move the terrain – and creates a deep puzzle experience in what would otherwise be a straightforward time trial and star hunt.
Snapshot is entertaining enough in its own right, but layers of objects to discover and challenges to complete deepen the final game to a full, replayable experience. Besides, PIC the little robot grabs his antennae when he ducks and it's the cutest thing. His antennae.
After an impeccable alpha trailer gone viral and subsequent high-profile cash grab, Hawken is the indie Cinderella story of 2012, and it launched just in time to make this list. All the hype wasn't for naught – Hawken is a streamlined, multiplayer mech shooter with gorgeous graphics and a price tag that couldn't be better (free).
What's better is Adhesive Games' decision to launch Hawken as an open beta, putting more pressure on the developers themselves to respond to player feedback, tweak what needs itand add more content in a timely manner. During the closed beta Adhesive proved itself capable of open communication with players and methodical updates, and Hawken keeps looking mech-er and mech-er.
Yesterday was a delicious surprise early this year. Pendulo Studios presented it as an adventure game with a cartoonish art style, but in truth it hid a dark and demented story filled with death, psychosis and subtle Batman references. As a point-and-click adventure game, Yesterday shows off precisely what Pendulo has done so well for so long.
Yesterday is a point-and-click for lovers of the genre, offering detailed settings, rocky relationships and mystery around every click, all in an extremely pleasing art style. It's not for the faint of heart, as it contains some truly disturbing moments. Just like I like 'em.