What A Scrabulous Year!

Most journalists who write about videogames compile a list of the year's best games. At NEWSWEEK's Level Up blog, written by yours truly, N'Gai Croal, I'd rather single out the year's most important games. Here's my top five:

There's nothing new about Scrabble—which dates to the 1930s—nor was Facebook the first social network. But when you combine a game that most people know with a well-populated community of people with whom users have a real-world connection, the result is perhaps the ultimate time waster. Along with its various quizzes and list comparisons, Facebook is redefining interactive entertainment.

No, it wasn't a shoot- 'em-up for the thinking gamer, as some claimed. (See entries Nos. 3 and 5, if that's your bag.) But its "saved films" feature, which allows us to record all of our play sessions to the hard drive for subsequent playback, is the equivalent of a TiVo for videogames. For multiplayer, we used it to revel in our pwnage; for single-player, we dropped the camera behind enemy lines to listen to their chatter. The prospect of revisiting previous bursts of play years from now, as if they were home movies, is (for us) strangely intoxicating.

If Halo 3 is a first-person shooter, Portal is a first-person puzzler. You're trying to escape from a research lab, armed only with a gun that fires the titular portals: place one portal against a wall and the other on the ceiling, and when you walk into the wall you'll fall through the ceiling. From this simple, brilliant gameplay concept, Valve Software has created a minimalist masterpiece, with its twisted narrative serving as the icing on the cake.

How do you turn a mediocre collection of mini-games into a yearlong hit? If you're Nintendo, you package it with a Wii Remote and watch as the Wii Play bundle prints money for your company. After all, hardly anyone is buying the highly social Wii to play games by themselves, so those fortunate enough to get their hands on one of the consoles are easy marks for a salesclerk who says, "If you're looking for an extra remote, why not buy Wii Play for just $10 more?" At 3 million copies sold in the United States alone for a gross of $150 million, it's clearly the marketing move of the year.

Ayn Rand and art deco don't usually serve as inspiration for game designers. Thank goodness the folks at 2K Boston/Australia decided to draw on something besides "Aliens," "Black Hawk Down" and "The Lord of the Rings." At its best, this ambitious story of an undersea utopia gone horribly wrong is both thought-provoking and genuinely moving.

What A Scrabulous Year! | U.S.