With 2013 now in the rear-view mirror, as editor of the games channel here at CultureMass I wanted to reflect on the best of games in 2013. This is a personal list, and is meant more to celebrate the things in games I enjoyed (or hated) the most over the year, as opposed to be some form of authoritative, definitive list. This is also not a top ten list, which frankly are a dime a dozen these days, and often get too caught up in the format. Whether it was my favorite singular moment in a game, or a glorious proverbial car crash of a game’s launch that I couldn’t stop watching, these were my favorite things about video games in 2013.
Character of the year
Picking the entire family from The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home might be cheating. For me, however, that game was never discretely Sam’s story, but that of the entire Greenbriar family. The conceit of playing the elder sibling, Kaitlin, returning from a year abroad during which her family had moved into a new house was the perfect framing for the game, justifying why we would want to be snooping around this home (and why it wouldn’t result in a B&E charge).
Indulging in a bit of voyeurism and inspecting the artifacts and letters that, individually were inconsequential, added up to tell the story of this family’s life. While Sam’s story was the most overtly dramatic, piecing together Jan’s affair and struggles with her marriage, and learning about the demons of sexual abuse and feelings of failure Terry grappled with were incredibly well-told and intimate.
In many ways, each member of the Greenbriar family had some of the best realized and most personal stories I’ve ever played through, but together they added up to something truly unique in modern games.
Runner up: Trevor from Grand Theft Auto V for being the in-game embodiment of every GTA player.
Country of the year
What is in the water in Sweden? While Swedish developers have been around for a long while, 2013 was the year where that country put out such a high volume of such high quality games that I realized what the quiet giant Sweden is in the games scene.
I suppose that Marcus ‘Notch’ Persson and Mojang are worth noting, but they always seemed like an exception to the rule. However, taking into account the 2013 releases of Battlefield 4 by EA DICE, Crusader Kings II by Paradox Interactive, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons by Starbreeze Studios, Year Walk and Device 6 by Simogo, and looking forward to next year and beyond with The Division by Ubisoft Massive, Mad Max by Avalanche Studios, and SOMA by Frictional Games, the Swedish development scene seems to be firing on all cylinders across all platforms, genres, and budgets.
It’s not only the quality of these games that’s of note, but the innovative design in Brothers, Crusader Kings II, and everything Simogo does that shows these developers truly understand the medium and what sets it apart. With a population of 9.5 million (just under that of the state of North Carolina), the amount of high-quality and fresh design coming from that country per capita is astounding.
Runner up: The USA I guess? Maybe Japan?
Mechanic of the year
Playing as the brothers
Speaking of unique and fresh design, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons had the single-most cohesively design mechanic of the year. In a year where most AAA game design was continued to be marked by the trend to ape cinematic techniques to increase the production values of games, it is ironic that developer Starbreeze Studios working with award-winning Swedish film director Josef Fares designed a game that uses mechanics, not cutscenes, to tell a compelling story.
Every aspect of the game was designed around the mechanic of controlling two brothers, one with each analog stick. While uncomfortable at first, this mirrored the relationship of the titular brothers. As I progressed through the game and became more comfortable with the control scheme, the brothers’ relationship was also shown to have strengthened as they journeyed into stranger and more dangerous territories.
Lacking a proper script, voice-actors, motion-capture, set-piece ‘moments’, and other trappings that have been incorporated into the video game storytelling toolbox, Brothers tells a more powerful story than most of its competitors, and does it in a way that’s well paced and hinged on the core gameplay mechanic of the game. It’s easy to be jaded about how modern games communicate their narrative, but Brothers proves that story-telling through mechanics is not only possible but extremely potent, as anyone who’s experienced the final sequence in the game can attest to.
Runner up: Using text for both character traversal and storytelling in Device 6 and blurring the lines between novels and games.
Underrated game of the year
DmC: Devil May Cry
Developer Ninja Theory has a strong pedigree in creating believable, expressive, and well-acted characters in stories of equal quality. However, the gameplay in their projects such as Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Heavenly Sword has tended to be below average and a bit janky.
When I originally heard that Capcom was engaging Ninja Theory to reboot the Devil May Cry franchise, I was a little underwhelmed. Ninja Theory has created some wonderful IPs over the generation and this seemed like contract work on their part, and a money-grab on Capcom’s. I could not have been more wrong.
Not only was DmC distinguished by Ninja Theory’s signature approach to crafting stylish characters and stories, but was also one of the most mechanically tight and enjoyable games this year. The combat was straightforward and scaled well as the game progressed, and make me feel skillful and challenged constantly. On the other hand the style of the game was incredibly self-aware, and purposefully balanced b-movie kitsch with humor and irreverence wonderfully. The level and boss design were amongst the best this year. Most importantly, all of these well crafted pieces came together to make DmC more than the sum of its parts.
DmC was one of the most fun experiences I had this year, and I was greatly disappointed to see it not gain the traction it deserved.
Runner up: Metro: Last Light for creating one of the most gorgeous shooters that reminded me why the post-apocalyptic aesthetic can still be powerful and for using its mechanics to reinforce the themes of desperation and scavenging.
Disappointment of the year
It wasn’t just SimCity’s terrible debut fraught with constant server issues (which resulted in the disabling of core features in order to facilitate) that left me disappointed. I can understand the challenges of launching an online-only game in the current climate, and while it might be frustrating, having to wait a week for servers to stabilize isn’t the worst thing in the world.What did disappoint me tremendously were the numerous fundamental design changes that utterly destroyed the core appeal of SimCity to me.
Games like SimCity and Civilization have always had a special place in my heart as I feel that they are the video-game equivalents of gardening. I have spent countless Sunday mornings with a coffee mug in hand and music or podcasts playing in the background quietly building my cities and empires, stepping away to do laundry and other household tasks in what I call ‘low-impact’ gaming. The appeal here is to have a game that is utterly massive, that you can pour hours and hours into building and tweaking and rebuilding.
Reducing the city-size (likely to facilitate the always-online nature of the game), eliminating city water distribution systems and electrical power lines, and making it much more difficult to build a grid-based cityscape all curbed the core appeal of SimCity. The worst problem however was forcing cities to specialize in specific resources and services. While this was clearly meant to facilitate online-play, it was so difficult to coordinate play sessions that it fell flat. Not only that, but it utterly destroyed the quiet, contemplative, gardening style of gameplay that made me fall in love with the series in the first place.
Runner up: Battlefield 4 for still being completely borked months after release. Combined with an aggressive roll-out of DLC map packs that will fracture the player-base, I don’t know I will ever get into Battlefield 4.
Game I never want to hear about again
Seriously everyone, I think we’ve hashed this one out. In all seriousness BioShock Infinite spawned some of the most interesting, heated discussions in games criticism of the year. It easily was the most talked about game of the year.
In light of this debate, Patricia Hernandez called it the ‘best multiplayer‘ game she’d played this year. However the debates and discussions around the game became a bit too voluminous, to the point where dead horses were beaten. Alex Navarro stated in his top 10 games of 2013 post, “I can’t think of a game this year more people went out of their way to tell me I should not have enjoyed than BioShock Infinite“. This isn’t to say that the criticisms of BioShock Infinite were unwarranted, nor were those discussions not worth having, but with the new year upon us I’d be happy if I never heard about BioShock Infinite again.
Let’s focus on some other games now, there’s a lot out there for us to talk about.
Runner up: The versions of BioShock Infinite that exist in other realities where they are also talked about way too much.
Moment of the year
The Ending of The Last of Us
To called the ending of The Last of Us bold would be an understatement. Creative director Neil Druckman has described the final moments of The Last of Us as having performed terribly in focus tests, leading to lots of internal consternation within the studios of developer Naughty Dog over whether it was too vague, too cynical, and too bleak to be left in the final version of the game. It takes a lot of grit to trust in a vision when you have strong evidence that contradicts its impact.
The Last of Us is a fascinating game that addresses the problem of why as the player-character is it ok for us to be killing all of these ‘enemies’ by putting you in the shoes of a psychopath. Joel is not a good man, and will do anything he can to survive. After quite the arduous journey it’s clear to Ellie that she needs Joel if she wants to continue to survive. Until the last few sequences of the game, she makes it clear that she doesn’t value simple survival above all else like Joel does. She has within her the cure to save humanity from the plague that has destroyed civilization, and an organization called The Fireflies can harvest that from her, killing her in the process, but giving all of humanity a chance through her sacrifice.
So Joel removes The Fireflies from the equation.
He lies to Ellie, and tells her that her sacrifice wouldn’t have saved humanity. Faced with the reality of how far Joel will go to keep her alive, Ellie calls Joel out on his lie not because she wants the truth, but because she wants him to promise to commit to the lie. She needs a promise that he will give everything up for surviving with her regardless of the further immorality needed to do so.
You could make the argument that by accepting his lie, Ellie is also accepting his love and reciprocating it, forgiving him of his acts. That’s in some ways, however, inconsequential, and in the final moments of this game Naughty Dog commits to the truth of these characters by having Joel commit to the lie and Ellie becoming complicit in it. They will sacrifice all morality and kill anyone who stands in their way to survive together.
That final line, where Ellie accepts his lie and whispers “ok”, destroyed any hope I had that these characters could be redeemed and was the most powerful moment I felt playing games this year.
Runner up: Getting the “8888888888888888” achievement in The Stanley Parable for breaking my mind and sending me cackling into insanity.
Game of the year
When I saw Jonathan Blow tweet out a picture of the character in the feature image for this article from Simogo’s Year Walk in February this year, I knew that I had to play this game. The distinction art-style was not the only thing that I ended up loving about this game however. In fact, Year Walk is masterfully crafted in every aspect, and is a game that challenged my notions of what a game can be, how to interact with a game, and what my role is as the player of the game.
As someone who has never found most handheld and mobile games very interesting, Year Walk completely sold me on what the platform has to offer. Using touch controls in a way that felt graceful and restrained, Year Walk had some of the most interesting puzzles to interact with. Swiping my way through the dark, snowy forests of Scandinavia was a moody, contemplating experience that used the mechanics of backtracking and wandering around without a map to reinforce the theme of going of getting lost on a spirit-walk deep in the woods.
Some of the best sound design of the year went a long way to creating the feel of the game. From the sounds of fresh snow crunching under your feet as you explored the depths of these woods, to the mournful soundtrack, to the unexpected shrill screech of a dark spirit, Year Walk is a textbook example of why sound and music can be the most important facilitator to immersing the player in your world.
Year Walk was also the best horror game of the year, which was achieved by creating an incredibly uneasy atmosphere punctuated by a handful of sucker punches that felt less like “gotcha moments” and more like cracks in the tension. The descent into insanity that game pulls the player down into, implicating them as more than just puppet-masters of in-game avatars was an experience like no other that proved to me why games are such a powerful medium when focused on incorporating the player into the game more than as a button-pusher.
While I was playing Year Walk, I knew it was something special. When I got to the ending, however, the way Simogo challenged my concept of how we can interact with games, and with a story that culminates into one of the darkest, most heart-wrenching and twisted endings I have ever played in a game, well, that’s when I knew Year Walk was more than just an amazing game.
Year Walk is a transcendent piece of art that left a scar on my psyche, and I will never forget playing it.