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Klei's Mark of the Ninja feels like a distinct breath of fresh air for the stealth game genre.
Lead designer Nels Anderson opted not to follow in the footsteps of Metal Gear or Splinter Cell and instead bring stealth to a 2D game by introducing a number of clever systems that eliminate the genre's rough edges.
In many stealth games, for instance, it can be hard to tell when enemies can detect you, but in Mark of the Ninja, all of these systems are clearly telegraphed via a number of visual cues.
Enemy sight lines are represented as beams of light, loud noises project shockwaves into the environment, and characters lose saturation as they step into the shadows, so players know when they're at risk and how their actions will affect their enemies.
By making all of the mechanics so easy to read, the game becomes less about trial and error and more about using your wits to work make the most of the tools at your disposal. It makes the stealth genre far more enjoyable, and other games should make sure to take note.
Thatgamecompany is well known for designing games to evoke specific emotions. With Journey, thatgamecompany cofounder and creative director Jenova Chen managed to avoid the frustration, disappointment, and general misanthropy we normally feel while playing games online with strangers, and replace them with camaraderie, joy, and gratitude. Props.
Yager Development (former) / Spark Unlimited (present)
Yager Development/2K Games's Spec Ops: The Line made waves this year for adding a liberal dose of Apocalypse Now-inspired narrative twist to an otherwise fairly standard cover-based shooter.
Creative director Cory Davis's initial vision documents from 2008 describe Spec Ops: The Line as an "intense third-person military shooter with a dark and mature narrative...[that] confronts you with the horrors of war, as you face choices between bad and worse in challenging moral dilemmas."
Well, with Spec Ops: The Line, Davis did just that. We were impressed by Davis's creative vision in 2008, and we're impressed by how faithful the end product was to that vision four years later. Love it or hate it, you can't deny that Spec Ops: The Line's union of narrative and game design -- and Davis's willingness to use said design to mess with players' expectations -- was a bold statement in a genre that needed one.
Everything animator Dean Dodrill knows about programming, he learned while working on Dust: An Elysian Tale for three and a half years -- which was about 39 months longer than he had anticipated it would take to finish the game more or less by himself. Along the way, he won the Dream, Build, Play competition, made it into the Summer of Arcade promotion based on his title's strength, and even finished the game ahead of schedule to meet that deadline.
Aside from voice acting, music, and a little bit of writing, almost all of Dust: An Elysian Tail came from Dodrill and Dodrill alone, and we can't help but recognize the developers who devote themselves to such projects of passion.
Ian and David Marsh
Ian and David Marsh
"Casual airline sim" doesn't exactly sound like the most enthralling premise for a mobile game -- until you hear it's from Tiny Tower dev NimbleBit, anyway. Kudos to NimbleBit cofounders Ian and David Marsh, whose design work on iOS free-to-play hit Pocket Planes had us constantly picking up our phones for a quick hit of airline tycoondom. Making a profitable free-to-play game that doesn't feel like a naked cash grab is rare enough; that Pocket Planes is genuinely a blast is noteworthy indeed.
If we had a category for Neat Stuff, we'd probably put Benjamin Rivers on top of the list for Home, a critically acclaimed PC adventure game that plays something like a choose-your-own-adventure horror short story.
Home is unapologetic about how it wants to be played; turn the lights off, put your headphones on, and set aside an hour or two, because you can't save your game. We like that.
Why build a game when you can get your players to do it for you? RedLynx lead technical artist Sami Saarinen is responsible for building the Trials series' original 3D editor in 2008, advocating for its inclusion in Trials HD in 2009, and guiding it into its Trials Evolution incarnation.
But this isn't just a level editor, mind you; Saarinen's Trials Evolution editor actually gives players access to the game's visual programming language, so they can make and share fiendishly difficult tracks -- or even entirely new games altogether.
Harvey Smith and Rafael Colantonio
Dishonored wowed the industry at E3 and Gamescom this year with its compelling steampunk setting and remarkable focus on player agency. In an industry with lots of games focused on violence and killing, co-lead designers Harvey Smith and Rafael Colantonio's direction in Dishonored's design adds some genuine emotional weight behind the decision to kill, which is something we'd like to see more of.
Rafael Colantonio and Harvey Smith
Tetsuya Takahashi and Koh Kojima
While Final Fantasy and other classic JRPG franchises have struggled to find their voice during this console generation, Monolith Soft lead designers Tetsuya Takahashi and Koh Kojima's work on Xenoblade proves the genre has plenty of life left -- not by revisiting the genre's glory days, but by making a number of important changes that help bring the genre into the modern era.
Xenoblade gives players a sandbox-style world to explore at their leisure, and even uses a number of classic MMO systems to help expedite combat, streamline quest systems, and offer more freedom to the player. In other words, Xenoblade celebrates (and updates) the best of the JRPG genre.
Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin
Many games try -- and fail -- to elicit an emotional response from their players, but The Walking Dead is one of the few series that gets things right. Co-lead designers Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin have guided The Walking Dead to emphasize smart writing over complex mechanics, and in doing so, they've created one of the most affecting interactive stories we've seen in quite some time.
Like the comic book it's based on, The Walking Dead series doesn't spend all its time focusing on the horrors of the zombie apocalypse, and instead takes plenty of time to develop its characters and create a world that players can invest themselves in. While there's plenty of zombie fighting to go around, it's the game's quieter, more thoughtful moments that make its more horrifying scenes all the more poignant.
Perhaps most interestingly, the game forces players to make some extremely tough decisions that'll affect the characters they've grown to care about. Every decision comes with major consequences, and the game doesn't hesitate to twist the knife when things seem to be at their worst. Very few games manage to present choices that have an emotional impact on the player, and the fact that The Walking Dead manages to do so over and over again is a tremendous accomplishment.