Games  |  Lists

The 20 Best Videogames of 2011

December 8, 2011  |  7:30am
Today we run down our twenty favorite videogames of 2011. This list looks exclusively at games released for consoles, PCs or traditional gaming handhelds. We’ll have a separate list for mobile, social and browser-based games later this month.

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10. The Binding of Isaac
Developer: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Platforms: PC, Mac, and Linux
The Binding of Isaac is the kind of game that I should hate. I am not a fan of overly challenging games. Additionally I am a Christian pastor and Isaac certainly takes a lot of liberties in its “retelling” of the classic Bible story from which it takes its name. The game is deeply dark, and often unsettling. There is nothing simple, understandable, or light about child abuse. Thus Isaac is thoroughly discomforting, challenging, and darkly funny. The game won’t make you able to understand child abuse but it will make you feel for Isaac—sometimes deeply. Other times it will completely bewilder you, much like Isaac’s world has done to him.—Drew Dixon

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9. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac
Between a story as well crafted as the finest conspiracy-laden sci-fi fare, solid mechanics, interesting character and player development and engaging gameplay, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a game for the ages. It will go down among the finest of our generation. In the year 2027, our world may not mirror the one of Adam Jensen. Until then, I will be content returning, again and again, to this version of the future. Embrace the revolution, or face losing it all. The choice is yours.—Bo Moore

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8. Batman: Arkham City
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
The central conceit of Arkham City is as elegant as it is effective: Having apparently heard that open-world video games are in vogue (presumably from a media-savvy intern), new Gotham mayor Quincy Sharp cordons off part of his city as an Escape From New York-style open-air prison. By imprisoning all (seriously, all) of the local supercriminals and finally Bruce Wayne himself, Sharp creates what is arguably the perfect setting for Batman to traipse around doing Batman stuff. The end result is almost exactly what you’d expect, and only barely different in any meaningful way from Arkham Asylum, but the attention to detail here— both in the sticky, satisfying physics of being Batman and in the look and feel of Arkham City itself— keeps AC from being a boring retread or cash-in.—Joe Bernardi

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7. Minecraft
Developer: Mojang
Publisher: Mojang
Platforms: PC
Minecraft isn’t easy to embrace. You might start by spawning in the middle of an ocean. It might take a while to craft a steel pickaxe. Punching a tree isn’t the most exciting start to a videogame this year. Progression takes investment, patience, research, and a reliance on the knowledge and efforts on others. These are values that modern convenience and modern media have encouraged us to abandon, videogames included. With every quest-line, every arrow pointing the way, and every pre-established reward we grow just a little bit farther outside of ourselves and buy in just a little bit more to the cultural zeitgeist. We’re content with this because we’ve lost the ability to create structure and meaning for ourselves outside of a pre-established system. In Minecraft, we’re finally left alone – a shockingly simple and subversive approach that makes the game both an unapproachable and essential experience.—Richard Clark

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6. Shadows of the Damned
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: EA
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Third-person shooter Shadows of the Damned is so straightforward in its tongue-in-cheek immaturity, it comes off as entirely natural, making it damn near impossible to not immediately be taken, mesmerized, down the dark and eccentric narrative path it throws in front of you. This is director Suda 51 truly embracing his identity as an auteur; just as Tarantino has seemingly flipped a stylistic switch with his films (weighing heavy tracts of his signature dialogue against fleetingly punctuated moments of incredible violence from Death Proof onward), so too is Suda giving us something expected-but-different in Shadows of the Damned.—Steve Haske

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5. Dark Souls
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
It’s not the significant difficulty or repetitive structure that earns Dark Souls a spot on this list. Those are just symptoms of what makes the game great: its insistent coyness. Dark Souls gives the player almost no direction, forcing us to explore and figure out things on our own, with only cryptic and potentially untrustworthy messages from other real-life players to guide us. Instead of ponderous text or cut-scenes Dark Souls tells its story of degradation by showing instead of telling. Some say Dark Souls treats players with indifference or outright contempt, but in truth it respects us, our abilities and our intelligence more than most other games.—Garrett Martin

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4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Developer: Bethesda
Publisher: Bethesda
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot these days. Screw up badly enough and it’s an epic fail. Scarf down a couple of cheeseburgers and it’s suddenly an epic feast. The word no longer has the punch it once had. Yet, there’s really no other adjective that so aptly describes The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game that’s epic in every sense of the word, from its immersive gameplay and jaw dropping visuals, to its sprawling storyline rooted in the real-world epics of Norse mythology. At the risk of fanboy-induced hyperbole, there really is nothing that comes close to approaching Skyrim as a game whose scope, design and presentation sets a new bar for the action-RPG genre.—Adam Volk

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3. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
Developer: Ignition Tokyo
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
El Shaddai’s constantly evolving art style manages to surprise and delight right up to the end credits and its refined combat is elusive yet engaging. Where most games struggle to take us to a new world, El Shaddai takes us to several.—Jeffrey Matulef

El Shaddai is full of the ambiguous happenings and statements that cause us to question the assertions of the game-world on its face. As a Christian, these questions and doubts are undeniably familiar to me. In this case, El Shaddai gives me the opportunity to ask them more openly, without my faith on the line. It may seem irreverent, but it’s also true: El Shaddai gives me a sandbox in which I can play with my beliefs. Who should I trust? God or the human race? Righteousness or human progress? What is the source of reward, and what is the cause of evil and suffering? Who is to blame? Who deserves praise?—Richard Clark

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2. Portal 2
Developer: Valve Corporation
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Portal 2 is a superbly crafted, joyous experience, a loving tribute to creative design, problem solving, and the remarkable flexibility of the human mind. Its puzzles are clever and for the most part immaculately constructed, and Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton and Chet Faliszek’s script earns the game a place alongside the very funniest of all time. I’d say that by any possible metric, Portal 2 was absolutely necessary.—Kirk Hamilton

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1. Bastion
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360, PC
Bastion finds itself on that ever-so-small list of games that left me short of breath and covered in goosebumps as the narrative conclusion drew nigh. What gives Bastion its potency isn’t its (admittedly simple) story or its (admittedly simple) gameplay, but its masterful synthesis of the two. Most games struggle to blend story and gameplay, as though one were water and the other oil. But Bastion, through a conscious and deliberate distilling of narration of play, through playing to the strengths of both words and games, brings the two into a much tighter relationship of worldbuilding. More than anything, Bastion is about piecing together a world that no longer exists. And it does so through its playing and its telling.—Brendan Keogh

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