As far as video games go, 2010 might well be remembered as the year that controversy clashed with quirk. Or the 12 months that downloadable content went from novelty to staple. Or the 52 weeks where indies energized the mainstream. Or the 8765.81 hours of the iDevices‘ video game ascendancy. No matter how you slice it, it was a cycle of change, excellence and surprise. The games below symbolize all of that and more, depending on how you experienced them.
10. Osmos HD
“Osmos HD” rises head and shoulders above so much of the games content to be found on the App Store because of its thoughtful mechanics and abstract presentation. Though the action of avoiding absorption by other cosmo-microbe lifeforms can get frantic, the game still manages to impart a level of zen-like calm. The bigger screen real estate of the iPad makes the HD version of Hemisphere’s creation even more beautiful and the ambient trance soundtrack transports players to blissed-out interactive nirvana.
9. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
Coming just a year after “Assassins’ Creed II” notched even higher success than its predecessor, everyone assumed that “Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood” would be a quickly churned out cash-in to strike while players were still in love with main character Ezio di Auditore. What we got was an ambitious new vision of multiplayer interaction and gameplay tweaks that incorporated Farmville-style mechanics to make medieval Rome feel more alive. “Brotherhood” does more than make you feel like a bad-ass; it makes you feel like a strategic bad-ass. Bellissimo.
8. Heavy Rain
Long hyped as an edgy digital drama, the Playstation 3 exclusive promised a watershed moment in video game storytelling. It may not have been all breakthrough, but the “Heavy Rain” experiment proved successful as far as decompressing and adding emotional heft to a narrative told through a video game. Doing mundane things like brushing teeth or playing catch with a virtual boy-child may have felt odd, but the sudden absence of those things created a void that powered the gameplay. Yeah, the actors’ performances may have lacked polish, but ultimately the game’s true impact came from its interactive possibilities and the way that they hewed to and diverged from reality.
7. Super Mario Galaxy 2
In a year where the company mascot notched a 25th anniversary of starring in games with “Super Mario” in the title, the little plumber starred in an adventure that exemplified how Nintendo earns such vibrantly loyal fans. “SMG2” felt vibrantly alive and quivered with ingenuity at almost every turn. Everything in the game — from the partnering with Yoshi to the power-ups and the puzzle-like structure of the worlds — felt considered and easy to understand. Factor in the automatic assist of the Super Guide and you get a title that nearly everyone can finish despite its burly difficulty. Experiences like the one “Super Mario Galaxy 2” delivered are the reason Nintendo design guru Shigeru Miyamoto gets compared to Walt Disney. Play and learn, everybody else.
The triumph of “Shank” comes from synthesizing its inspirations — the Tarantino oeuvre, Silver Age comic books, anime cartoon stylings and old-school, side-scrolling beat-em-ups — into its own awesome entity. Klei’s effort felt finely tuned, with tight controls and clever balancing, and discretely crafted, too. Once players started, they knew they weren’t going to grind out 30 padded-out hours of diminishing returns on the downloadable title. You were going in to execute sharp, fast and beautifully gory vengeance, throwing your skills against these enemies as hard as you could. It’d leave a mark, “Shank” would, on calloused thumbs all over and on the gaming landscape at large.
5. Mass Effect 2
More than anything, the acclaimed Canadian dev studio’s sci-fi sequel showed that they understand the meanings of the word “epic.” It’s not a wideshot of an orange sun cresting over a ringed planet, or a cutscene of a gritty gun battle. Those things can be part of it, but the trick of epic starts small. The individual choices that you make as customizable series hero Commander Shepard — how to broker disputes, who to help and who to hurt — feed into bigger events that create continuities unique to a player’s personality. Leveling up certain abilities over others, the thousands of dialogue choices through branching story paths, the team members you sleep with or the ones who die in that final, fateful suicide run… when you look back at it all, you see not just the epic, but how it came about. All that’s left is to salute the ones who make it.
4. Alan Wake
Video games have yet to get that perfection’s overrated. Most high-profile games sandpaper over the inviting, pebbled textures of idiosyncrasy, leaving audiences only glossy, hollow experiences to play through. Not Remedy. Not “Alan Wake.” The hero of the Finnish dev studio’s psychological thriller makes you cringe with his desperate running, tortured writing and a brittle and neurotic affect. But those shortcomings snag you (maybe because they’re familiar?) and pull you along into a dark forest of metatext where metaphor becomes weapon. “Alan Wake” didn’t have to be perfect. It chose to be interesting instead. Here’s hoping other dev studios follow Remedy’s lead.
3. Super Meat Boy
Love is pain. And, in “Super Meat Boy,” love is jumping over giant saw blades and getting the finger from a fetus in an exoskeleton. The love’s readily apparent in the indie darling’s execution, from the way Team Meat shouts out other small developers to the way that it amps up the difficulty of a traditional platformer’s challenge to a fetishistic degree. “Super Meat Boy” wants you to wrestle it to the ground, pin it down and give it a bloody kiss on the lips. That’s the only love it understands and, thankfully, it got demonstrations of such from millions of gamers across the world.
2. Red Dead Redemption
Rockstar San Diego
Nobody knew what might transpire when Rockstar hightailed it out of the city in hot pursuit of the sunset. Gone were the radio stations and killing sprees, replaced by friendly howdys and herb picking. As a result of all that, the reluctantly reformed John Marston — questing under duress to round up his criminal cohorts — came across as more multilayered than anything else the NYC-based games juggernaut has produced so far. And the world he moved through felt wistful, like a dangerous postcard from times past. The trademark Rockstar violence didn’t disappear; it just got seated in a lonesome, surprisingly spare gameworld. As I wrote back when the game came out: “‘Red Dead Redemption’ happens just as the Old West is dying out. Electric lights dot the small towns you travel into and new railroad train lines are laying down the foundation of the infrastructure that we take for granted a century later. The people in the game know the world is changing and that awareness seems to charge the urgency of their words and actions: One last chance to get even, to get rich or to get glory.”
I only ever played “Limbo” once, but it’s haunted me ever since. The downloadable game’s stark visuals pulled me in like no other game this year and the nonexistent narrative added a level of interaction, because my brain kept trying to imagine scenarios that would explain the things happening in the game. Was this heaven? Hell? Purgatory? Why am I enjoying these funny, horrid deaths so much? Is there any thread to stitch the experience together to anchor it in plausibility? “Limbo” offered me no answers; nor did I want it to. So many games pack in overblown features and sturm-und-drang presentation in an effort to impress players, but it was PlayDead’s dedication to minimalism in “Limbo” that makes it one for the ages.