It's been kind of an angry year, you know? First everyone went mental about the end of Mass Effect 3, driving BioWare's founders into exile and appointing the internet as lead designer of the next one. Then E3 rolled around and every new trailer was like Saw vs. Hostel, the peak of which was Sam Fisher wiggling a knife around in someone's shoulder (presumably it's "Better with Kinect", too), and of course at around the same time Square Enix began to establish itself as the discerning choice for the discriminating gamer. Then there was that other business...
That's one take on the year, anyway. But there were plenty of other ways to look at it. It was also the year of the roguelike, thanks to games like Spelunky, FTL and ZombiU. It was the year of the loot-runner, thanks to Borderlands 2, Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3. And it was the year of skulking expertly through the shadows, thanks to Dishonored and Mark of the Ninja. There were brighter times for the battered racing genre as well, thanks to Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Ridge Racer Unbounded and particularly thanks to Forza Horizon. We even saw some convincing, economical storytelling, thanks to games like The Walking Dead, 30 Flights of Loving and Journey.
Then there were two new console launches. The Wii U and PlayStation Vita haven't exactly exploded out of the blocks, but they are already bringing us a mixture of unique new experiences and the comfort of old friends. 2012 also saw Kickstarter go from 0-60 (or, in Tim Schafer's case, $0 to $3,336,371), while free-to-play started to shake off its dodgy reputation with help from games like Tribes Ascend. And it was another 12 months without a new generation of Sony and Microsoft consoles - or any substantial news about them - which was felt everywhere.
You can paint 2012 any way you like, then. And even if your chosen paint was blood and guts and your brush was the barrel of a gun or the blade of a sword, there was still plenty to commend. Sure, there was exploitative trash here and about, but there was also Halo 4's haunting salute to Cortana, Dishonored's redemptive hands-free crawl through the bleached streets of Dunwall, and the psychotic sprinting disco fever dreams of Hotline Miami.
So yes, it was kind of an angry year. But it was also imaginative, funny, experimental, poignant, humble, preachy, bold, brave and colourful.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that our 2012 Game of the Year brought together many of the different ideas and themes that made up the year as a whole. As you'll see from the testimonials that follow from some of the Eurogamer staff who voted for it, it also drew a range of reactions, each of which is truly heartfelt. That feeling of being personally affected by a game is more common with small-scale developments, of course - the connection between individual creators and players can be diluted when there are several hundred people plugging their work into one production - but this game was uncommonly intelligent and coherent. It's a precisely engineered game with a singular vision that's as old as games itself, and everyone who plays it feels like it's been made just for them.
As voted by our staff and contributors, then, I'm very pleased to say that Eurogamer's Game of the Year for 2012 is Fez.
Reality is perception
Simon Parkin was prolific in 2012, penning some amazing investigative reports - including Who Spilled Hot Coffee? and Death By Gaming on the Taiwan cafe fatalities - and reviewing plenty of big games including Resident Evil 6 and Halo 4.
"At times it seemed as though the noise surrounding Fez might drown out the game's own voice," says Simon. "There were the controversial outbursts from creator Phil Fish in the press; the rumours of vicious infighting during development; the endless delays and, of course, the big-shot movie documenting the struggling creator's days as his life fell apart around the game in painful slow-motion.
"But all this surrounding bluster was silenced by the game's arrival. It's a crucial, historical game in more ways than one. It's a celebration of the medium's formative years, where clues to the game's heritage etch every wall. Tetris squares, Triforces, a smile-eyed celebration of the Nintendo childhood, here repackaged, repurposed in a living museum of pixels and ideas. The knotted conundrums, secret rooms, locked chests, arcane treasure maps and rabbit holes that lead you on and on through clockwork contraptions are from an earlier, purer time - even if their expression is vibrantly current.
"Fez is also a future-facing game - downloadable, independently-funded for much of its development, available for a snip of a price: its construction and back-story is as contemporaneous as any in 2012. A game too without peril: minus the fighting, the combat, the monsters, the blood or the death that characterise games in the cultural mind. Fall from its platforms and you'll be hoisted back to safety. But lack of threat doesn't mean lack of challenge, and Fez is an unpolluted example of how difficulty can be generated without the need for combative interruption, of how a pacifist heart can happily beat in a video game without neutering its capacity to captivate.
"The fact that Fez's Escher-like spatial conceit - a 2D platform game set within a 3D world - isn't the main headline of its appeal says a great deal. This is more importantly a game about the wonder of exploration, both in the physical sense of searching out each of its spatial secrets, and the mental sense of understanding its glyphs and codes. No other game managed such coherence in 2012. No other game's voice could be heard so loudly over the din of the surrounding story."
Perception is subjective
Jeffrey Matulef joined Eurogamer full-time this year, becoming our US News Editor when Fred Dutton left the States in the summer. Jeffrey recently took an in-depth look at whether Steam Greenlight is working as its designers intended.
"In 1994 a little game called Myst came out that challenged everything we knew about game design," Jeffrey notes. "It featured no combat, inventory, stats, or dialogue trees, and it was pretty sparse with its NPCs. It postulated that all we needed was a beautiful, mysterious world with obscure, albeit sensible puzzles, and we would scrutinise its every nook and cranny to gain a better understanding of it.
"For whatever reason Myst fell out of vogue. Maybe its forgettable story became too convoluted, maybe it was the awkward human actors speaking in front of a green screen, or maybe the advent of 3D consoles and high end PCs made us just want to shoot stuff instead.
"Fez was the first game I'd played in nearly two decades that replicated that experience of first discovering Myst. I'd grown accustomed to having a sidekick whisper hints in my ear, a linear path or waypoint dictating where to go, or a mandatory puzzle that needed to be solved to progress. Fez did away with all that and simply let me march to the beat of my own drum as I scrawled down its various glyphs and riddles until I'd inevitably stumble upon that 'Ah-ha!' moment.
"And my reward? Usually another evocative, dreamlike vista hiding further cryptic clues. Games like Uncharted and Arkham City may cast you in the role of an archaeologist or detective, but only Fez, with its carefully crafted enigmas and mesmerising, abstract world, made me feel like the world's greatest sleuth.
"(Until I looked at the leaderboards at least, but I suspect that most of the top players cheated and are probably hating themselves for it now)."
Assemble the parliament
Christian Donlan also joined Eurogamer full-time in 2012 after four years as a regular contributor. He was busy throughout the year, reviewing New Super Mario Bros. U, Borderlands 2, Gravity Rush and many others.
"It's often the case, isn't it?" writes Donlan. "I didn't know what I was missing until I found it again.
"I found it in Fez, lost somewhere within the clutter of those breezy opening levels. There, in amidst lighthouses and waterfalls, I passed a building with a door on the side. When the time of day changes - I can never remember if the sun has to rise or set, but I think it's the latter - markings around the door are slowly picked out in gold. You could open that door: but how?
"'But how?' is the theme of the second half of Fez - the assault on the final selection of collectables after the first lot have all succumbed to a handful of hours of easy platforming. Suddenly Fez isn't about cheery exploration any more: it's about scribbling down notes, cracking codes, and working out what dark, otherworldly logic ties a selection of disparate parts of the map together. Rooms with thrones, statues of owls - what's the connection? What's to be done with the giant telescope? How can I open that golden door?
"This is what I was missing, I think: I was missing the pleasure of slow-burning discovery. I was missing puzzles where the solution requires dead hours away from the game while your mind puts the pieces together. I was missing challenges that rely on lateral thinking and dream logic to see you through.
"There are no waypoint markers to track in Fez, few hint systems, and even fewer invisible walls telling you when you're going the wrong way. It's a world that's confident enough in its own charms to confound and confuse you. It knows you'll come back, because there's always one more golden door that needs opening."
All of time and space
Tom Bramwell was also busy this year. Wait, that's me! Yes, I was busy. I reviewed loads of stuff in Q4 including Far Cry 3, Assassin's Creed 3 and Hotline Miami. And my high score in Flick Kick Football remains unbeatable. 1354!
"I love games where you can't feel the edges. Most games box you in within minutes, introducing their mechanics and then allowing you to perform variations on a theme for however many hours there are to follow, and that's fine - some of my favourite games of 2012 do exactly that, in fact, and you can still be surprising and daring and original when you make a game that way. But the games I really adore are the ones that give you a little advice but otherwise leave you to your own devices. Give me a game like Spelunky or Dark Souls, which at times can seem positively disinterested in whether you understand what's going on, and I'm yours.
"I knew Fez was going to be one of those when I started getting my head around its world map. You would push on in one direction and then it would sort of loop back on itself, or send you off down tangents within tangents. It would put you in beautiful places, each more mysterious than the last, rarely huge but always teeming with puzzles and ciphers. I always remember being delighted by the realisation that you could solve every puzzle in Braid the first time you encountered it, even when it seemed impossible to do so without some untold new ability, but whereas beating Braid felt like a form of decryption, digging deeper in Fez feels like achieving greater understanding of something, even if it's only a greater understanding of Tetris shapes and owls. By the time I had felt out the game's edges and maxed out the completion percentage, for once I was too much in awe to be concerned by them."
The Sixty Four Bit Name of God
After a year off creating life, Ellie Gibson returned to Eurogamer this summer to set the world to rights. This included reviewing Tokyo Jungle, a game that may well have been designed with her in mind, and finally finishing her epic report, A Horse Named Gizmondo: The Inside Story of the World's Greatest Failed Console.
"Sometimes I am accused of hating video games," she says. "That's not true; I just hate the derivative, repetitive, poorly scripted, gratuitously violent and needlessly noisy ones. I like to pretend this is because I am mature and discerning, but of course those are just other words for old and moany.
"I love Fez. I love its originality and bravery. I love the way it presents new ideas and bends old rules, without ever doing anything for the sake of it. I love the way it feels retro and modern and timeless all at once. I love the fact it's the only video game my Mum has ever walked in on me playing and said, 'Gosh, that's beautiful.' But most of all, I love it because it's quiet.
"Fez never shouts at you or screams for attention or tells you that you're doing it all wrong. It trusts that you're smart enough to work things out. All the while, the lilting soundtrack creates a sense of peace and a feeling of poignancy without ever announcing its presence. Along with the freedom to explore, there is space to think. I love Fez because it is a game for people who crave not adventure and excitement, but a nice sit down. It is one of the most elegant and memorable games I've ever played.
"Mind you, it's no Just Dance 4."
The Point of Origin
Oli Welsh became Eurogamer's deputy editor this year and reviewed tons of big games, including Fez, which he gave 10/10. I guess he feels time told on that one. He also reviewed Indie Game: The Movie, which tells some of the story of the game's creation.
"Fez is my favourite game of 2012, and it's also one of my favourite albums of 2012. The brilliant soundtrack by Disasterpeace - AKA Rich Vreeland - is much more than the usual hipsterish retro chiptunes. Appropriately enough for a 2D game about a 3D world, Fez is work of hidden depth, and that goes for its music as well.
"Vreeland's digitally distorted textures may mimic the sound chip of a Commodore Amiga or Atari ST, but his musical influences run deeper and older than that. You can hear the '80s synth epics of Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis, the '70s Krautrock of Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, the '60s English psychedelia of Pink Floyd and Soft Machine - even the early 20th century modernism of Erik Satie. It's spacey, ethereal, often pretty but rarely upbeat; it sometimes swings into dark moods described by distorted bass and crawling white noise.
"It's powerful, haunting stuff, and its contribution to the game is incalculable. Vreeland underscores artist/designer Phil Fish's surreal locations and playful illogic with notes of mystery, melancholy and awe. With its cute use of language and irrepressible blob of a hero, Fez could so easily have been twee, but the music goes a long way to counteract that.
"A great musical score is an important component of all the greatest game worlds - think Zelda: Ocarina of Time or World of Warcraft - and so it proves with Fez. Improbably for a virtual space that is so weirdly constructed and illusive, Fez's world lives in my memory just as Hyrule or Azeroth do. I only need to hear a chord of Vreeland's music to be transported there, and the thought of visiting it again and seeing its blood-orange sunsets fade into starry night makes my spine tingle. As a place, it's beautiful, evocative and - the word is overused, but it applies here - magical.
"And it's yet more than that. Fez's locations tell a story, written in hieroglyphs on the walls of the ancestral buildings you unlock as you proceed through the game. It's the secret history of a race of people learning to hunt, to worship, to count and spell, and finally struggling to understand the existence of a third dimension. It's a perfect, wordless sci-fi parable - and an elegant comment on the development of video games themselves, expressed in a way only a game could articulate. Other games made louder statements in 2012, but for me, none were so coherent or memorable as Fez."
The Eurogamer Game of the Year is voted for by our staff and contributors. The Eurogamer Readers' Top 50 Games of 2012 - with plenty of commentary from you guys on your choices - will be published tomorrow.