High Scores: The Best of 2011

Welcome to the new High Scores! Following last year’s debut, we polled our staff and contributing writers on their favorite videogames of 2011. Every writer received a pool of 100 points to distribute among up to 10 games, and this week we uncover the top 25 in the rankings. Today we’ve also posted each critic’s ballot and commentary and the full High Scores 2011 poster.

What’s changed in a year? Like our review scores, we’ve done away with the division between “big” and “small” games. The more we talked about what puts Angry Birds Seasons in a different category than Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the less room we had left for talking about why we liked—or didn’t like—them in the first place. So this is a list where all games stand on equal ground, except some have more points and are the winners.

Without further ado, we make our case for (and against!) the results…

The Leaderboard

1. Portal 2 (Valve Software, 267 points)

On June 15, 2006, The Oxford English Dictionary added “Google” as a noun to its collection of more than 600,000 words. It was an honor in the minds of most who dream to be idolized but a nuisance to the search engine giant who feared the distinction would jeopardize its trademark. Such was the sad fate of Pogo, Aspirin, and Thermos—a boon for us as native speakers, but a devastating financial loss for its former proprietors.

Sadly, Google was fighting a much older movement. Translating a thing into a verb is a time-honored tradition. In linguistics, it’s called “conversion,” and psychologist Steven Pinker estimates that one-fifth of all English verbs were once nouns like Google. This is a vital phenomenon to Pinker. “It is one of the processes,” he wrote in The New Republic in 1994, “that make English English.” 

And this brings me to Portal 2. Of the tens of thousands of years of human language, videogames have only been privy to the last 40 or so. Of those handful of decades, only a pittance of titles could be considered part of common parlance. There’s Mario and Donkey Kong, and then the list drops off considerably from there with perhaps Master Chief and Halo, the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and now, perhaps Angry Birds and FarmVille.

What Portal 2 lacks in economic potency it delivers with grace. Think of Portal as a namesake and you have a paragon of simplicity and beauty. You are you (well, you are Chell) and you travel across the room via ovaloid junctures. Robots are trying to kill you with one-liners and caustic acid. That the game says what it does is an absolute rarity (perhaps 2011’s only other name-as-play candidate is Bulletstorm).

That rhetorical simplicity alludes to the simple fact that Portal 2, like its predecessor, uses physics as a metaphor. You are trapped. Portals are your escape. Rinse, wash, repeat. At its heart, Portal 2 is a love letter to classical mechanics and Newton’s first law: The velocity of a body remains constant unless the body is acted upon by an external force. That statement, now understood in game terms, begets a universe of imagination as vast as man’s desire to fly.

Now, Portal 2, of course, embellishes on its predecessor. You now can bounce to undue heights with the Repulsion Gel, and there’s orange Propulsion Gel for speed. Stephen Merchant, co-creator of The Office, voices Wheatley, a garrulous personality bot and your initial guide; while J. K. Simmons, Ellen Page’s father in Juno, plays the part of Cave Johnson, the head of Aperture Science (your corporate captor) and the prototypical gruff, mid-century CEO. That the somber tones of the National dot Portal 2 only undergirds that this was not a just a game; this was a cultural event deserving of All Things Considered status on National Public Radio. This is middlebrow at its finest, the Radiohead of videogames, with solid highbrow credentials and undeniable lowbrow appeal. Check the Portal 2 page on Know Your Meme as affirmation.

What I am proposing is that a game as fascinating as Portal 2 deserves its own verbiage. Something to capture that alchemy of translating narrative inertia into physical inertia and back again. Something to describe telling a story of what you are and where you going through what you do. Something to encompass wit and the beatific and a touch of magic. I have a submission for OED—I think we should call it portalling. — Jamin Warren

2. Bastion (Supergiant Games, 212 points)

I could write some kind of treatise about how Bastion’s omnipresent narrator changes the way we interact with games, or how the look and feel of the game resurrect fond memories of playing Link to the Past and The Secret of Mana for the first time. But I never played those games when I was a kid, and I’ve always disliked the type of game this is—the type where you walk around on cobblestone and click on bad guys that sprout coins like piñatas when they die, and you have to squint just to make out your person’s face. I love Bastion because it does not matter what type of game it is. It is nice to look at, nice to listen to, nice to play too. You could pull out and dissect any one of these parts, but you would not still be talking about Bastion. That’s a deceptively hard feat to pull off, even though it’s been established that videogames are the perfect combination of every other medium in history, or something. — Ryan Kuo

3. Dark Souls (From Software, 150 points)

Dark Souls never made me cry, but it did trigger three or four depressive episodes over the 50 hours I spent with it. There was a night when I played for hours, dying brutal death after brutal death, while not making a lick of progress, and then defeatedly slunk to my bed to wallow in misery—my head buried in the darkness of my pillow. There were nights when I didn’t go to sleep at all, leveling up my Greatsword with fiendish dedication. There was a night when I got so angry that I swore I would never play it again. Of course, I did, because the game is hauntingly beautiful—tinged with an abstractness that brings out the darkness in your soul. You are already dead, and playing is a struggle to become less dead. I guess that is worth celebrating. — Jason Johnson

4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks, 143 points)

When I get lost in the mountains of Skyrim, I really get lost. Its endless laundry list of objectives is nearly overwhelming for an escapist like myself. But Skyrim is arguably greater for the blissful “getting lost” ecstasy it gives those of us explorers who want to occasionally look rather than do. Rather than dealing with the Mages Guild on a recent quest, I followed a lone fox around in the nearby hills—a deviation that led to hours of harvesting mushrooms and catching butterflies. What is most compelling, then, is when these lines are blurred: when quest completion is as rewarding as coming upon unfamiliar ground. Walk up on the highest peak and look up at the exquisite night sky—you will get lost for a moment too. — Lyndsey Edelman

5. The Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl, 137 points)

On October 18 I email my friend Jeremy with an email that says, merely, “The Binding of Isaac. Why aren’t you playing it?” Jeremy was the first person I knew to ascend to godhood in NetHack. He once built a Dwarf Fortress that looked like Hello Kitty when you looked at the cross-section. When I posted an article praising Isaac to the heavens, his was the only comment. “I’m getting to it,” he wrote. “I promise.” Jeremy was distracted by Tactics Ogre, then totally obsessed with Skyrim. But I knew he’d come around. This dark-hearted, Zelda-inspired, deliciously blasphemous roguelike was made for him. Finally, around mid-December, I receive a Steam chat from Jeremy. “Best game ever.” — Gus Mastrapa

6. Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo EAD Tokyo, 95 points)

See, we have the mythology of flight all mixed up. We shouldn’t be praising the Wright Brothers or Chuck Yeager. Fuck those guys. It’s the leaping that’s magical. Flight is the easy part. That’s the genius of Mario guru Shigeru Miyamoto—he understood that on the playground of life, it’s not the swing, but the seesaw that’s king. 3D Land is all about balancing that inertia, swinging between the manic dodging of Goombas and Koopas and the sweet, simple joys of aerial escape. That tension combined with a healthy dose of nostalgia (TANOOKI SUIT PEOPLE) makes 3D Land one of my favorite Mario titles ever. Moreover, for skeptics of 3D (such as myself), the title is a demonstration of the power of creators over the ability of technology—and those future-forward game industry nuts should take note. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. But with the right inventor at the wheel, you probably ought to. — Jamin Warren

7. Minecraft (Mojang, 90 points)

My introduction to this game came when I asked my friend Kevin where our friend Austin had been for the past month. “He’s been playing Minecraft. It’s this game where you go around with blocks. You build stuff, sometimes with people. Then, Austin destroys stuff.” That’s the beauty of Minecraft, though. It’s less a game and more a forum for following your bliss. Build pyramids, create odes to Escher, recreate the first level of Super Mario Bros. Or go around and smash a bunch of shit. Whatever, really. But it’s more important what Minecraft represents: the logical conclusion to the idea of a “sandbox” game. There are no walls, only the ones you build. This probably would have been higher on the list, but we already voted for it last year. — Drew Millard

8. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (Capybara Games, 86 points)

Sword & Sworcery EP is transcendent—an “audiovisual” indulgence and brilliant 8-bit mythology about, well, ourselves and how we interact. But while tweeting your progress and meeting the music composer in-game are welcome morsels of meta-interaction, the reverent throwback to point-and-click adventure games is what really gives Sworcery a place here. Sworcery is laden with postmodern concepts, but at its core is a respectful look back at what made logic-based gaming so great. It’s a monument to the learning of my childhood, when I came upon discoveries and lessons (and even misfires) with every click—although the clicking of yesteryear is gone. — Lyndsey Edelman

9. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Capcom, 75 points)

The premise of Shu Takumi’s Ghost Trick is a nugget of noir simplicity—you are dead and must solve your own murder using only your “ghost tricks” to manipulate objects in succession from behind the scenes. That powerlessness, that inability to change fate without resorting to ghoulish sleight-of-hand, is a cheeky indictment of modern games that stress omnipotence over texture or dialogue. Your lack of abilities allows other elements to blossom, from the deceased Sissel’s musings on the nature of mortality to the crackling physical humor fit for a Chaplin film. After death, animation is the main character, as the cabaret kicks and pirouettes of Inspector Cabanela amply demonstrate. That most people will not play Ghost Trick is saddening and enough to hope for an appointment-free afterlife to make amends for missed opportunities. — Jamin Warren

10. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Naughty Dog, 65 points)

We’ve been enamored with Nate since the first Uncharted: classic pretty-boy, always gets the girl, takes his fortune for granted, feelings of entitlement, and an astonishing overconfidence. With the third installment of Uncharted, Nate’s key character trait is unveiled: He’s the luckiest man on earth. Nate’s narrow escapes aren’t even surprising anymore; they’re inevitable. Like Nate’s friends, we’re starting to doubt if it’s worth it. This year, we’ve read critics saying the same thing: Uncharted 3 does what it does better than anyone else, but it doesn’t do anything more interesting than that. We still love you, Nate; you’re classically charming, though your self-awareness makes you someone we hate to love. Eventually you’re going to have to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Your constant survival is getting kind of boring. — Richard Clark

That’s the genius of Mario guru Shigeru Miyamoto—he understood that on the playground of life, it’s not the swing, but the seesaw that’s king.

11. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, 56 points)

The new Deus Ex is a shell containing so many different parts that there is something in it for everyone. Stealthy scenes that double as a second-rate first-person shooter. Check. Morality meters, cybernetic upgrades, and an L.A. Noire-style interrogation system. Check. A confined open world where there is nothing to do but hack into strangers’ apartments and read their emails. Check. In a way, it’s like a best-of-the-year list. If you look at it too closely, it starts to fall apart. Best to focus on the elements that tie Deus Ex together—its gritty cyberpunk overtones, the drony, ambient-drenched score, and an art direction inspired by Renaissance painters who made heavy use of the color black. — Jason Johnson

12. Shadows of the Damned (Grasshopper Manufacture, 55 points)

“Our very own road movie,” as the hero Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur calls it, follows a demon-hunting biker and his sidekick, a beheaded (and sequin-studded) skull, as they chase his half-naked girlfriend through hell. It’s as if Iggy Pop rewrote Dante’s Inferno: a circus rife with ram-horned demons exploding in waves of goat’s blood, penis-shaped handguns, bawdy humor, and the feeling that you have interrupted a Satanic ritual around every corner. “Just warn me if I have to fuck a horse to unlock a door.” This line sums up why you should care about Shadows of the Damned. — Jason Johnson

13. SpellTower (Zach Gage, 47 points)

A game about spelling ranked this high is either the platonic ideal of word games, or one of those token “at the end of the day we’re talking about games and we just want to be plain old entertained/impressed by solid craftsmanship/addicted for no reason” picks. But it’s neither of those. It’s a representation of the Tower of Babel at the moment of its toppling. Its stacks of jumbled letters are more bewildering than visions of either hell or heaven, because they trap even the secular, and only the lower species aren’t transfixed. — Ryan Kuo

14. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (Ignition Tokyo, 46 points)

I am not religious, but this deeply religious game based on the Book of Enoch left me in something like a state of exaltation. I finished it in two afternoons purely to see how it would keep poking at my higher faculties, which is the diametric opposite of how I usually play games. The experience of having my retinas seared by hyper-kitsch digital flora, only to be rendered nearly catatonic on my couch in an extended walking sequence that accomplished literally nothing but a feeling of blankness, was not anything like a game. I guess you might as well call it a religious experience. — Ryan Kuo

15. (tie) Jetpack Joyride (Halfbrick, 45 points)

A lot has been made of the game’s jetpack—it exists, though most of us will never use one—but not enough has been said about “joyride.” Compared to most, this is a light game. Its plot is barely a sentence: Run free and don’t die. Each game is a touchscreen Buddhist koan that I play when I’m on the bus, one that clears the mind and somehow occupies all of it. But unlike a Buddhist koan, Jetpack Joyride makes me scream an obscenity every time Ryan beats my high score. — Filipe Salgado

15. (tie) Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady Studios, 45 points)

My Arkham City review was hardly positive. It’s a strong game, one that gets across the brains-and-brawn approach of Batman’s vigilante justice. But its predecessor, Arkham Asylum, was already a great encapsulation of who Batman was and what he is all about: Arkham City has nowhere to go but down. Mixed in its dubious treatment of its female characters, and you have a game with a complicated legacy, and one that can’t be untangled in a year-end blurb. So, I will shake your hand out of respect, Arkham City, but don’t talk to me at the afterparty. — Filipe Salgado

17. Battlefield 3 (EA Digital Illusions CE, 40 points)

Call of Duty provides the dopamine hit when that hard-hitting level-up music plays, but Battlefield 3 goes beyond carrots to something more substantial. I suspect that if the military shooter weren’t such a tired genre, this game would have been much higher on the list—but truthfully, Battlefield 3 deserves better. It takes its gameplay mechanics from the themes that emerge from world conflict: controlled chaos, advance and retreat, squad tactics. The stakes feel higher than experience points, because your teammates aren’t your bros—they’re your brothers. — Richard Clark

18. (tie) Catherine (Atlus Persona Team, 37 points)

In Catherine, Atlus’ Persona-style dating sim/puzzle game, buxom blondes tug at Vincent’s heartstrings (and other things … ahem), as his vaguely Freudian anxieties are portrayed through block towers reminiscent of Q*Bert. I’m not sure I learned anything about love or romance from Catherine, but I give it credit for its almost carnival portrayal of every terrible relationship mistake you’ve ever made, reading almost like a counseling manuscript for what not to do. — Lana Polansky

18. (tie) Frozen Synapse (Mode7, 37 points)

A cold, minimalist take on high-tech war, it’s a small miracle that Frozen Synapse made it this high. The most affecting thing you’ll witness in this game is your own few men collapsing into their own blood splatters. The asynchronous multiplayer is crucial to the game’s longevity. You can spend 30 minutes planning the perfect attack, only to log on the next day and find that while you were grocery shopping, your friend came up with a line of assault that never even crossed your mind. — Richard Clark

20. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo EAD, 36 points)

This year, like most years, was a popular one to hate on Nintendo. But then, like in most years, the toy makers from Kyoto release a game that quiets the poisonous chorus, reducing their noisy output to murmurs of awe. Nintendo’s standard-definition swansong, the evolution of Link’s adventure begun 25 years ago, finally delivers on the promise of motion control for a classically trained audience. Skyward Sword would have charted higher, but Kill Screen contributors are known to be allergic to their own dead skin (that means they have dust on their Wii, ha-ha!). — Jon Irwin

21. FIFA Soccer 12 (EA Canada, 33 points)

We’re not too big on sports here. I have no idea why. My editor gave me a funny look when I told him I’d been playing NBA 2K11 on repeat instead of, like, Portal. Which is why it’s all the more impressive that this soccer game made the list at all. All I know is that of the 10 or so rappers I interviewed for our Rap Map feature, all of them told me they played FIFA. So yeah. Sports! — Drew Millard

I will shake your hand out of respect, Arkham City, but don’t talk to me at the afterparty.

22. (tie) Dead Space 2 (Visceral Games, 30 points)

In space, no one can hear you die. No one can hear zombies die, either. So if a game is about fighting zombies in space, who really cares? It’s a game devoid of context, and this list is all about context. So why is Dead Space 2 on this list? Are you kidding me? It’s a game about fighting motherfucking zombies in motherfucking space! As far as high concepts go, it’s hard to beat that one. — Drew Millard

22. (tie) Forget-Me-Not (Brandon Williamson, 30 points)

Forget-Me-Not has been all too easy to forget. While this eat-the-dots game would look at home in a cabinet nestled between Pac-Man and Crystal Castles in an arcade, it was hot—very hot—for exactly one week in March. Then some guy scored 80,000,000,000 points by grinding on millipedes for 24 hours straight, the internet let out a collective groan, and it was so done that you could stick a fork in it. — Jason Johnson

24. Tiny Wings (Andreas Illiger, 29 points)

A game of Tiny Wings lasts about as long as one REM episode. It has the simplicity and poignancy of a bedtime story: a bird dreams of flying but can’t go very far before the night runs out. No wonder the app still hasn’t been updated with zombies and a playable flying cat and a hundred useless hats. The little bird’s 10 megabytes are enough, though they’ve been criminally overlooked for games with more “substance.” — Ryan Kuo

25. (tie) 2012 IGF Pirate Kart (Various, 28 points)

The 2012 IGF Pirate Kart started as a lark, a last-minute idea to compile a bunch of games and submit them as a single entry to the Independent Games Festival. The organizers ended up getting more than 300 games from over 100 developers. Games like Space Phallus, Murder Dog IV, and Tapdance Simulator don’t really fit anywhere else. The Kart, a punk-rock shout from the fringes of an already fringe scene, finally gives them a home. — Filipe Salgado

25. (tie) Rayman Origins (Ubisoft Montpellier, 28 points)

Michel Ancel’s original creation is a strange duck in a pond full of koi. Cartoon platformers not from Japan tend to fade from memory; somehow, after 15 years, Ancel’s limbless, slap-happy, hair-spinning hero has reemerged with this beautiful and challenging game, the illogical conclusion to a past era’s dominant form. That it barely eked onto the list, and is tied with the creative explosion of 100 no-name developers, is both a cruel injustice and a testament to the year’s bounty of quality work. — Jon Irwin

Illustration by Michael Rapa