High Scores: The End of 2011

Lists? They make no sense. This is the unspoken truth behind every publication’s enumerated movies, albums, and games of the year. The name makes it official and the numbers make it count. We play along because it’s convenient and distracting. Because hyperlink hysteria and Like accumulation are winning out against a critical and ethical center (the thing that happens slowly as we grow and develop tastes and test out our opinions). We need the results now because Mass Effect 3 comes out in March already. There isn’t any time left.

So game critics have the yearly ritual of scrambling to recover the ground of the past 12 months, so the games from January we forgot about can be properly eulogized. At some point criticism is going to reach parity with broadband, and our iPhones will tell us whether we like things via hourly Push notifications and a bedtime reminder from Siri.

We took a slightly different approach to the High Scores 2011 list—special thanks also to our illustrator Michael Rapa for the incredible poster of the winners, laid out in full below and in the shop too! But as I was saying, lists make no sense. In January 2011, Anthony Tommasini at The New York Times put together his top 10 classical music composers in history for fun. “You know that a new year has truly arrived,” he wrote, “when critics stop issuing all those lists of the best films, books, plays, recordings and whatever of the year gone by.” For him the list became an “intellectual game.” How do you interpret centuries of music through numbers? Order the composers by their expressivity and genius. Stare at the rankings too long, though, and your brain starts to swell uncomfortably. But Bach won, and that’s what counts, right?

The system we went with—having our writers vote by allocating a limited pool of points to a max of 10 games—turns the critical process into another kind of game, like arranging herbs and grenades in your Resident Evil 4 briefcase. It’s one that The Village Voice made infamous with its Pazz & Jop poll of music critics. How else do you account for the individual tastes of hundreds of people?

We had fewer critics, but the numbers still carried a weight in the end: From Nos. 11 to 25 you see a steady point-by-point crawl to the top, as Forget-Me-Not keeps its head above the overflowing Pirate Kart for memorability and the crowd-pleasing Deus Ex triumphantly edges past the more nihilistic Shadows of the Damned by a point. And the top 10 sees a sudden leap in scores, starting with Uncharted 3 and ending at Portal 2 with a 55-point lead, a runaway win however you cut it.

Then you look closer. Forget-Me-Not gets a nod from five critics taking its advice—so far, so good. But the only reason Pirate Kart made a dent is because Jason Johnson lost his marbles and put 18 whopping points into its 300 games! What does that even mean? And did you notice Darshana Jayemanne awarded Deus Ex with six points, thus tipping it past the competition? Why don’t they think in fives like the rest of us? Plus, our reviewer didn’t even like Uncharted 3!

It’s true that numbers don’t lie. What they do instead is cover up our humanity. Our individual tics and momentary whims. Our personal meanings, and our meaningless preferences. What you see, when you read the individual ballots and commentary below, is that each critic was following their own formula in the end. If we have anything in common, that’s best borne out in words—and it’ll take a lot longer to tell what connects us than a December scramble. It’s fun because the numbers don’t add up. The secret is they’re never supposed to. That’s not a problem, it’s a privilege. — Ryan Kuo, Managing Editor

The Winners

The Highlights

Dark Souls is a poem. Every word matters, every word does a staggering amount of work. The aesthetic impulse of the poem is towards control, towards order. There is nothing pointless in it. The irony is that for such a difficult game, as it is with a very good and difficult poem, you have the feeling from beginning to end that you are being taken care of by an intelligence. Something with its own rules that does nothing by accident. Gamers need more poems.
 — Joseph Bernstein

Fans of Portal were startled, no doubt, by the sequel’s two-player mode, which encourages cooperative puzzle-solving. (And pantomime, of all things!) To succeed, both players need to coordinate their rhythm and timing. Was there ever a game so much like couples ice skating? 
 — Jenn Frank

Surely the [Rock of Ages] sequel will deal with modernism (Sisyphus, meet Camus)—although it would need to be updated. Rocket of Ages! Imagine careening through a Johns-inspired American flag track in order to squash a helium-voiced, two-dimensional John F. Kennedy. The final boss could be Banksy. It would be great.
 — Darshana Jayemanne

As someone who constantly hears from colleagues that Japanese game developers are creatively on the slide, that three different games from Japan ended up on my year-end list, two of them addressing issues and taboos Western developers wouldn’t even consider—perhaps that sentiment says more about them than the actual state of Japanese game creation. The next time a game seems like it may start pushing you outside of your comfort zone, you should consider that a good thing.
 — Patrick Klepek 

The midnight movie. Japanese psyche rock pressed on vinyl. The hand-stapled mini comic. Videogames have always had their outsider equivalent. But never has the shaggy and offbeat side of electronic diversion felt so vital and so mandatory. 
 — Gus Mastrapa 

[Winter Voices is] a real-time strategy game where you struggle to survive against memories and forces of nature. However, the part that will drive you to tears in frustration is the instability of Adobe Air, translation errors, and constant bugs. But somehow, I could see past all the flaws and it made realize that I desperately wanted this game. I really did. Unfortunately, it will never be a finished game as the developer, Beyondthepillars, has filed for bankruptcy.
 — Diana Poulsen

This was also an important year for eSports. Not the lame competitions for overinflated versions of Counter-Strike or StarCraft. Those were fine and good. But Ramiro Corbetta’s Hokra was so much better, and promises a more pure version of what eSports can do. On the other side of that coin, Die Gute Fabrik’s Johann Sebastian Joust showed us what the Move was really meant for, and why the term “videogames” is pretty meaningless.
 — Adrian Sanders

Battlefield 3‘s single-player mode is a brilliant heightening of sensory experiences: the slowed movement speed, the momentary blinding of bright lights, the obscuring dust that kicks up from bullet fire, the echoing disorientation of hearing gunfire but having no idea where it’s coming from. The gunfights are hauntingly distant and play against a thick blanket of silence that is always there in between shouts and the cracking of automatic weaponry. Being 30 feet from my other squadmates, crouching behind a brick fence in front of a Tehran apartment building, a strange city, with a strange language on its signs, enemies off in the darkness, enemies visible only as thin beams of light coming from flashlights or the momentary brightening of their muzzle flare—I have never felt more emotionally involved in the circumstances of a game.
 — Michael Thomsen 

The Ballots

Tom Armitage
Majed Athab
Chris Baker
Joseph Bernstein
Richard Clark
James Dilks
Rob Dubbin
Jenn Frank
J.P. Grant
Andrew Hayward
Jon Irwin
Darshana Jayemanne
Jason Johnson
Brendan Keogh
Patrick Klepek
Ryan Kuo
Kyle Lemmon
Sam Machkovech
Jordan Mammo
Gus Mastrapa
Jeffrey Matulef
Reid McCarter
Kevin Nguyen
Lana Polansky
Diana Poulsen
Danielle Riendeau
Thomas Rousse
Filipe Salgado
Adrian Sanders
Brian Taylor
Michael Thomsen
Jamin Warren
Luis Wong