You know how you can get hooked on a game and look up at the clock only to realize eight hours have somehow disappeared forever? (That’s basically every time I ever play Civilization). This entire year has felt like that. It’s absurd: June is already almost over, E3 was three weeks ago and the avalanche of holiday game releases starts in just over two months. Where has the first half of 2012 gone? Did I really spend it all digging holes in Minecraft on the 360?
We divided our recap of the best games of 2011 into two lists, one for traditional console and computer games and another for smartphone and tablet games. We might keep that wall up for our year-end lists again in 2012, even though it’s feeling more arbitrary and unnecessary every day.
Differences in graphics and interface might remain, but mobile games can offer experiences as deep and memorable as any Xbox or expensive PC rig. Looking at our midyear list, you might think we’re actually doing traditional videogames a favor by sequestering them away from iOS and Android releases on our year-end lists. For now though we’re lumping everything together into a single easy-to-skim rundown of the ten best games we’ve played so far in 2012. It’s been a better year for games than you might remember, particularly for independent games, and if the industry sticks to its old tricks it’ll only get better through November.
10. Lone Survivor
Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor is a stock premise, but here it is taken to a relentlessly bleak place. The game is 2D with dark pixel art. Everything is crumbling and falling apart. The sound design relies heavily on drones and static to create an atmosphere of tension. It is a game played in a perpetual state of anxiety. —Filipe Salgado
9. Dear Esther
Dear Esther uses the immediacy of the first-person perspective commonly employed by shooters to minimize the distance between player and story. As you explore its island, walking through caves, empty shacks and a shipwreck-strewn shore as if you’re prowling a barren battlefield in a peacetime Modern Warfare, always inching closer to the radio tower that flickers in the distance, you’ll hear occasional bits of narration that obliquely fills in the history of this island and your character. At certain moments you’ll notice brief glimmers of figures in the distance, ghostly memories of the lost ones mentioned in the narration. It’s a sad elegy for your character but a novel new direction for first-person games. —Garrett Martin
8. Xenoblade Chronicles
Here’s the rhythm of the game: cutscene, conversation, combat, exploration, menu, repeat. Xenoblade Chronicles shifts between these well in those first 20 hours, becoming denser and denser, keeping you engaged by always giving you something new, something to look at, something to do. It’s the kind of pace that, if you surrender to it, makes 100 hours not seem like very much time at all. —Brian Taylor
7. Rhythm Heaven Fever
Rhythm Heaven Fever is a game born from a creative process so free that the first step in game design can be a tune tinkled on the keyboard or a sketch of a Mexican wrestler idly drawn on a notepad. If music games have felt too rote lately or the subject of most popular games too homogenous you’re looking at the answer to your prayers. —Gus Mastrapa
6. Diablo III
A lot of the social joys of the Diablo series are gone, but the feeling of taking down a nightmarish group of special enemies remains unmatched. And now that the real money auction house is implemented, I’ll try my hand at Blizzard’s new idea of making every player a gold farmer. The fact that some people are potentially going to end up spending over a thousand dollars on gear is stupefying, but it’s reassuring to know that the Diablo series can still turning us into slavering zombies after all these years. —Simon Ferrari
5. Mass Effect 3
Endings are hard. Not everybody knows how to handle them. Sometimes a perfectly acceptable conclusion can incite a virtual near-riot among fans who don’t know how to let go of something they’ve spent a hundred hours on. Mass Effect 3 might have angered a vocal portion of the franchise’s fanbase, but the final installment (for now) of Bioware’s sprawling sci-fi epic succeeds both as a game and as an emotional send-off to an unusually well-crafted fictional universe.—Garrett Martin
Sometimes Fez’s puzzles require you to look a little bit outside of the world, or look at it through a different lens, to solve them. Some require a knowledge of videogames, of the Xbox, of technology that comes from outside of Fez, but they’re not just “gamer” shibboleths. These moments are where Fez really shines; but they’re also shibboleths of a different kind, creating a challenge not of manual dexterity like so many other retro-looking platformers. Instead, the challenge is mental, and maybe even cultural: where Fez’s retro tendencies, its very self-aware nature of being a game, of technology, become the language of what you do. —Brian Taylor
The minimalist Journey would be a bore if it wasn’t both gorgeous and very short. It takes barely two hours to reach the end, but it’s a smartly paced two hours, with nothing overstaying its welcome and new twists introduced at regular intervals. Instead of wilting under Journey‘s asceticism, Thatgamecompany wrings as much as they can out of their self-imposed rules, ending with a surprisingly poignant conclusion that hits an emotional high the rest of their game doesn’t even attempt. —Garrett Martin
Ziggurat‘s unique greatness only becomes clear once you get sort of good at it. Like a Dorito (and most good iOS games, I guess), it’s defined by an extremely focused shallowness, targeted entirely towards getting you to dive back in. Ziggurat costs a dollar. It has a great knack for creating itches and then permitting you to scratch them, if you can. It is one of the best iOS games I have ever played. —Joe Bernardi
1. Waking Mars
Thousands of video games ask you to take life, but very few ask you to create it. Waking Mars is one of the rare creatures in the second camp. It’s also the rare mobile game that excels in all phases of its execution, elegantly integrating story, mechanics and aesthetics. If Portal makes “surviving science” fun, Waking Mars makes “doing science” fun. —J.P. Grant