Once again, the virtual marketplaces had an absolutely barnstorming year. Even if you never bought a boxed game in 2012, you would have found yourself with an overwhelming array of quality to keep you entertained this year. One again, the highest of bars in this category can be recognised from those that didn't quite make the cut to the final shortlist. Exceptional honourable mentions must go to Alan Wake's American Nightmare, Joe Danger: The Movie, Papo & Yo, Sine Mora, Sound Shapes I Am Alive, Pid, and Awesomenauts.
It was a hard job, be it had to be done. Eventually we whittled down the shortlist to eight:
NB. Click on the thumbnails for price comparisons and the game's title for the relevant review where available.
Dust: An Elysian Tail may have taken more than three years for Dodrill to create, but the result was truly time well spent. The great thing about indie games is that they don't follow convention and they refuse to be pigeonholed... but let's do it anyway in the broadest possible terms. If Fez was 2012's Braid, then Dust: An Elysian Tail was quite possibly its Bastion.
In many ways, Fez reminded us of Portal. Both create moments of supreme frustration in the player at the limits of knowledge and understanding, and both provide exceptional payoffs when the player finally overcomes those hurdles. If you were willing to play the game and truly get involved, Fez rewarded you time and time again. With its simple conceit (and fantastic execution), Fez took a commendably mature approach to letting you discover things for yourself. It was a flawed work of brilliance to be sure (*cough* patches), but brilliance nonetheless.
Gloriously life-affirming, utterly transcendental, Journey was one of those few games that not only provided a thoroughly unique experience, but also deeply personal one too. It didn't matter whether or not you considered it art, or even if you defined it as a "game", one thing was for sure: it was absolutely unmissable.
Shank was good, Mark of the Ninja was better. In ditching OTT action for graceful, shadowy stealth, Klei made a great game, not just a good one. It's rare to see true stealth embraced in such emphatic fashion these days, with publishers impressing on all parts of the industry that we gamers must be constantly stimulated and can't possibly appreciate games that require patience or, god forbid, thought. But this was a title that thrilled us with its clandestine delights. It's a bold, brave game to have placed so many of its eggs in one stealthy, shadowy basket, but it was undoubtedly one of the finest XBLA games of the year, and a stunning end to a somewhat flat Summer of Arcade because of it.
Who would have thought that you'd be able to produce a thoroughly compelling, utterly unique storytelling experience, with motion control at the very core. Well, that's exactly what The Unfinished Swan achieved this year. Dazzlingly original, The Unfinished Swan was a modern classic - a delightful interactive fairytale that finally gave us a resounding reason to pick up a Move controller.
Telltale could perhaps have structured their releases a little better, and maybe fixed that infuriating cross-platform savegame bug, but otherwise there was little to complain about from The Standout Storytelling Experience of the Year. A cracking adventure game, with some utterly fantastic scripting and voice work, Telltale's take on Kirkman and co.'s zombie-ridden franchise was miles ahead of the TV series, and showed BioWare that it's possible to pull off a brave ending without compromise. There were tears. So many tears.
As well as being bastard hard, Trials Evolution was also enormous fun. Whether shaving nanoseconds off of your times, or enjoying the pick-up-and-play appeal of the multiplayer modes and racing your friends, Trials Evolution delivered ultimate satisfaction and boundless entertainment. Better yet, RedLynx took a leaf out of Media Molecule's book, providing a comprehensive level editor that has ensured that there's not been a week gone by this year without having engaged in some fast and furious motorcross platforming. Unmissable.
The Walking Dead provided the storytelling experience of the year with five superbly wrought episodes that forced us to make hard choices time and time again, and care more about a bunch of virtual characters than many of us do about things here in the real world. Fantastic writing, excellent voice-acting, expressive and dynamic art design, and a ruthless approach to pushing our emotional buttons, all of this added up to a phenomenal series that saw fans across the world make an event out of each chapter's release, pointing towards another resounding success for the episodic download model. We collectively hungered after each instalment, and raced to download new content as soon as it was available. As important as it was astounding.
NB: Do be aware that the "Download/Marketplace" category is more for digital console titles, PC indie titles will be recognised later to day in our Best Indie Game 2012 award.