! WARNING !
This post contains major story spoilers for Batman: Arkham City, Alice: Madness Returns, Dead Space 2, Portal 2 and inFamous 2. I don't really spoil anything in Uncharted 3.
! WARNING !
And for the record, no other GotY post will be as spoilery as this one. Nothing to fear from the upcoming posts! (Lots to fear in this one.)
When I think of the great games of the past year, whole products stand out - excellent in many facets - but many games crossed the line from "great" to "special" thanks to an inspired moment (or two) that crystallizes the experience. In a beautiful second, everything snaps into emotional focus and you feel so connected to a place, a person, a story or a feeling. Some examples rock the player on a fundamental and disturbing level, some evoke romance, helplessness, empowerment or a sense of strange camaraderie with our greatest enemy.
These are singular, powerful experiences, and 2011 had more such moments than any year in recent memory - so let's acknowledge the best of them. Now, naturally, some of the best games save the best for last - so four of the six moments listed here are from a game's final minutes. Clearly, here be spoilers!
Bastion - for Zia's Song and I'm Coming Home
Dark Souls - for a good 75% of the game
Portal 2 - for GLaDOS's resurrection
At the end of Batman: Arkham City, the dying Joker desperately needs the cure for the toxic overdose of Titan he injected himself with in Arkham Asylum. His fear is so great that he even employs the Dark Knight himself to aid in developing a cure, and after the game's final combative confrontation, Batman holds the cure in his hand and reflects on what will happen if he uses it to save his arch-nemesis.
"Every decision you've ever made ends with death and misery. People die. I stop you. You'll just break out and do it again..."
"Think of it as a running gag!" Joker snarls, and - unwilling to take his chances with Batman's better nature, shanks Batman in the shoulder. This causes Bats to drop the cure - which shatters, unusable, on the floor.
The Joker shrieks, violently trying to lick up the wasted liquid - but it's too late.
"Do you want to know something funny?" Batman asks. "Even after everything you've done, I would've saved you."
The Joker bursts into coughing, sickly, hysterical laughter and admits "...that actually is... pretty funny!" Then, he dies.
* * *
It is intensely to Arkham City's benefit that this moment - which so defines both central characters - is nestled at its kinetic and emotional climax.
These two towering personalities, seemingly for the first time ever, share a genuine connection and understanding. "You want to know something funny?" and "that actually is pretty funny" may be the first real conversation they've ever had - and they find they agree on something, here, at the end of their legendary relationship.
I called the last act of Portal 2 "without question, some of the best gaming I [have] ever experienced," and it caps off with the ultimate portal.
Throughout the game, subtle exposition about the world and its rules are deliciously layered in the kitschy, charming background noise of your adventure. A PSA here, a bit of AI chatter there. It paints the world in richer colors, but fades into simple, charming ambiance - until this.
In the game's most thrilling and tense moment - the final showdown with your ultimate foe - when all hope seems lost, the ceiling tiles shear away and you find yourself remembering this odd snippet of Cave Johnson's voice.
What did he say the portal surface gel was made from?
Oh, right. Moon dust. (Pull trigger.)
It took an incredibly elegant setup and a healthy dose of pure, gleeful, inspired imagination to give us this one. It is intensely clever, completely original and gives the player a sensation of total empowerment, despite how heavily structured it is. Delicious.
The Rub' Al Khali sequence in Uncharted 3 is one Naughty Dog's riskier moves in the largely exceptional series. Similar to the Himalayan village sequence in Uncharted 2, it sees the player do nothing but walk forward while the developer plucks at emotional strings in the background, unseen.
Our hero moves from hopeless determination to frustration to crazed belief in salvation to the exhausted acceptance of his impending doom, in a series of quiet moments that highlight nearly everything remarkable about the Uncharted franchise. It is visually spectacular, emotionally grounded and technologically magical.
As moving and desperate as Solid Snake's near-death experience struggling down a hundred-foot hallway that bombards him with microwave radiation, Uncharted 3's Rub' Al Khali sequence stands out as one of the most ambitious and successful sequences of story and emotion this year.
Throughout inFamous 2, Zeke Dunbar - hero Cole McGrath's longtime hetero life partner and brother from another mother - comes into his own as a charming and welcome sidekick. Thanks to inFamous 2's excellent story presentation, utilizing techniques tried and tested in the exceptional Uncharted franchise, by the end of the game the player is truly on board with Zeke, and values his companionship and unrelenting support as much as Cole.
If you choose the evil karmic rout in inFamous 2, Cole decides to participate in mass genocide - the destruction of the human race, to save as many people as possible from the plague that threatens to consume the world. Upon learning of his plan for mankind, Zeke renounces Cole and vows to try to stop him.
Atop the mighty cathedral that serves as a centerpiece for the city of New Marais, Cole does battle with fellow super-powered conduit Nyx. He wins the fight, but just as he is about to recover the Ray Field Inhibitor (which has the potential to save mankind, at the cost of the conduits), it is picked up... by Zeke.
Zeke cannot possibly win. He knows the flimsy, pathetic pistol he wields is no more of a threat to the demi-god Cole as a mosquito bite, but as he so simply points out - "I gotta' try."
In inFamous 2's evil ending, you murder your best friend. Zeke - so often a self-absorbed, severely flawed, exploitive reprobate - entirely redeems himself. He becomes a hero - a martyr for the cause of mankind - and Cole, for his part, destroys his final connection to humanity.
Beyond the sickly sensation of squashing an insect who just happened to stand by you your entire life, who you loved like a brother, inFamous 2's evil ending is genius.
Killing Zeke is an expression of theme - of meaningful change on the part of our protagonist - via gameplay. It's brilliant. In this final, entirely one-sided confrontation, Cole accepts the fact that being super-human, by its very nature, makes him something separate, something more - and, crucially, less - than human.
Sucker Punch , color me impressed.
When I arrived at the door above - which is the only way forward - I could only exclaim "what the fuck." This is a horrible, horrible image. This is a horrible door. This is the Most Awful And Disturbing Door I Have Negotiated In My Twenty-Six Years Of Gaming - and though, at the time, I knew it was awful, I couldn't comprehend why the developers had dreamed it up and why they were subjecting me to it.
This was the first time ever, for me, that moving forward in a game left me with the notion that no amount of lye and scrubbing would make me clean again - but as the tale of Alice goes on about the business of explaining itself, this moment comes in to stark focus, and is revealed to be an act of genius.
Alice: Madness Returns is, mechanically, an action-platformer. In terms of narrative, it is the story of Alice coming to terms with the repressed memory of failing to protect her younger sister from sexual abuse at the hands of an authority figure.
In much the same way, Spicy Horse - with this door - forces the gamer into Alice's emotions. The scene disgusts us - it paints a deeply disturbing image of rape, and casts us as both the attacker and impotent bystander - as we must enter this innocent through the most intimate and perverse of avenues.
By walking through this door, the gamer tacitly accepts the symbolic rape of a child - as Alice failed to speak out against the literal rape of her sister - and is wracked by similar, gut-twisting guilt. By forcing us through this door, Spicy Horse casts itself as both Alice's attacker and educator - laying symbolic and emotional groundwork that pays off "like a shotgun blast to the chest" when the truth of Alice's past is laid bare, and we understand the why of this incredible, terrible, emotionally scarring moment.
The player and Alice are, for that awful moment, on precisely the same nightmarish page.
The final word of Dead Space 2 is an incredible moment over two years in the making. To appreciate it, you need to have played Dead Space through to its conclusion, and witnessed that game's final fright.
In Dead Space, spacefaring engineer Isaac Clark begins his journey by watching a video of his very, very long-distance girlfriend Nicole in which she laments how things stand between the two, and worries about the state of the ship she serves on. Over the course of one hellish day, desperately trying to survive the horrors of the dead/alien menace that has overtaken the planet-cracking (mining) ultraship USG Ishimura, Isaac finds Nicole - alive.
She appears to him, strangely calm amid the insane chaos going on around her, and helps Isaac on his journey to find a method of escape, and perhaps quench the alien infection that threatens the universe.
In the game's third act, it's revealed that Isaac has well and truly lost his mind as he watches the video of Nicole in its entirety. It ends with her committing suicide amid the madness that has overtaken the Ishimura - something we never saw, but he chose to forget.
In Dead Space's final moments, Isaac defeats the hive mind of the alien force and dashes to board a shuttle, shooting free of Aegis VII's atmosphere just in time to escape the cataclysm that occurs when a continent-sized chunk of planet crashes back into place.
For only the second time in Dead Space, Isaac removes his helmet, and we see his face. After the remarkable events we've steered him through, it's strange to discover it to be a plain, exhausted, human face.
He looks at the console in front of him. Checks a reading, hits a few keys and turns to the empty seat beside him, behind which a spectral vision of the dead Nicole crouches. She springs forward, shrieking into his face.
No one didn't jump when Nicole made her final appearance.
Two years later, Isaac wakes in the Saturn-orbiting, city-sized space station known as The Sprawl. A necromorph outbreak has taken hold of the station and he is freed from his forced sedation just in time to attempt an escape, and put his hard-won education in Alien Horror Survival to use.
As he negotiates The Sprawl, he discovers a fellow survivor in the hard-nosed, eminently capable Ellie Langford. While visions of Nicole still haunt him, Isaac sees Ellie as a way to symbolically atone for the sin of not saving Nicole.
By the final act of the game, Ellie has secured a shuttle which will allow them to escape The Sprawl - but Isaac locks out the docking clamp controls and forces her to take off without him. He turns instead to his destiny, and - still directed by visions of Nicole - heads to destroy the heart of this new menace.
Realizing too late that the vision of Nicole has betrayed him again, Isaac destroys the alien threat and - hopefully - its hold on him through the image of his long-dead love. As he collapses against the crumbling ruins of the necromorph symbol in a room the size of the Chrysler Building, he breathes a sigh of relief. It's over, and here's where he will die.
But Ellie has other plans. Using the shuttle's weapons she blasts through the walls of the room and decompresses the chamber. Isaac blasts up to the shuttle, climbs on board and they escape into the wide black yonder.
In the shuttle's cockpit, Isaac removes his helmet. It remains a strangely average face that has seen too much. He looks at the console in front of him. Checks a reading, hits a few keys and turns to the seat beside him.
There sits Ellie. When she notices him looking at her - so strangely! - all she can do is smile, shrug and ask "...what?"
She can't understand, of course. She wasn't there, on Aegis VII.
As in Alice, Isaac and the player are inexorably joined by emotion - as in Portal 2, it is an elegant moment built on knowledge we thought we'd forgotten - as in inFamous 2, it is wholly informative of character and as in Arkham City it is a wonderful, crisp piece of closing dialogue.
The ending of Dead Space 2 holds a delicious dichotomy. It is hopeful - Isaac has once again escaped intact, and instead of a vision of terror, he is greeted by an innocent smile - but it also wields a terrible darkness. While life may indeed go on, Isaac and the player cannot forget.
He - and we - could never view that simple moment as anything but an echo of past horrors. The most terrible violence does not leave scars that can be seen; what should be as warming and comforting as a sunrise is instead a creeping, clawing reminder that nothing can ever be the same again.
It is a sublime moment. Perfectly-constructed and emotionally arresting, demanding reflection. Best of 2011.