A running theme in my life is that I’m always behind, always late, which is why you are getting my list for my 2013 games of the year at the end of January of 2014. I wanted to give myself more time to actually play some games because my December is usually concerned with other matters. I got some played, but no where near as many as I would have liked.
As I look over other people’s and other sites’ lists for what they thought were the best games I notice a big divide, more so than probably any other year over the definition of what such an arbitrary list means in the first place. Are these games we feel were the best in some aspect so either through impact to the player, skillful creation, design innovation or by virtue of standing at some precipice of the avant garde?
I don’t know. The longer I do this the more I feel any such issuance or determinisms are less helpful, not more. I’ve taken to gut checks as a more valuable indicator for my own opinion as to a work’s worth than any other single measure. The reasons why come after. But at the same time a thumbs up or thumbs down is a different state of affairs to putting a work on such a pedestal. You are saying something about the work and about yourself when you step forward and declare it to be the best in whatever category, in this case of the year.
In such a case it says something about you. It paints what your priorities are and what you value about the medium to hold these high above everything else. It isn’t consciously understood that way. So many take it as a betrayal of their own values should a list come out the way it does. I should know. I’ve seen so few lists reflect my own ever shifting, evolving values towards the medium. But then I have my own list for that purpose, my own podium from which to speak.
I’m only going to do a top 10 this year.
10. Depression Quest
I’m lukewarm on most Twine games. I’m not besmitten with the creator driven revolution it represents as most are. I think the original novelty overran any internal editorializing towards the quality of what was being presented. The actual output isn’t any different from any other sector of medium. 90% of everything is crap.
Depression Quest stopped me in my tracks. It’s one of the few games this year that by the end forced me to just sit there and contemplate. This is probably one of the few time where the character was vacuous enough to allow anyone to allow themselves to slip into their position and have it work. The treacherous slide it presents almost completely out of your control and further enforces it by removing your options. At first I thought such a design choice is just clever, but soon it becomes infuriating and then horrifying. And when I managed to climb out of the worst of it, it was glorious to see those red strikes disappear.
It’s a game about setting you up in a mind space. It has to. Simply placing you in the shoes of a victim of depression isn’t enough. You have to occupy the mindspace. I recognize much of the behavior from the game in myself, but I also recognize I do not have the mindspace. It is a high achievement to split that difference so finely.
9. Beyond: Two Souls
I get laughed at or talked over whenever I mention I like this game. Apparently no one is suppose to like it. We’re all supposed to shake our heads, sigh and make more David Cage joke while we all refuse to engage with the actual work in any meaningful way. I expect that from the mainstream press, they can’t be bothered to look beyond the obvious, but from the more critical spheres I expected more. I myself thought I would hate it going in. David Cage did himself no favors during the hype period. The game did have its problems. Anachronic storytelling was probably his worst narrative gimmick to date, and be fair warned that is what it is. I would have loved a mode where I could play it from childhood to early adulthood straight through. It would have been better for it on so many levels.
As it is, it requires effort to get at what is so good about the game. For all Cage’s faults and babblings about emotion, he knows how to get at them. The individual scenes have a power to them in only the way a video game can muster. It’s the little things that makes his games work, everything from getting ready for a date to the more humbling pan handling for money on the street. The fact I spend most of my time talking about this game’s flaws instead of its achievements only cements how annoyed I am that Cage can never seem to stick the landing.
Jodie is one of the most interesting characters of the year and her relationship with Aiden one of the most realistic portrayals despite its supernatural basis. I love her struggles and the game’s theme of a woman never allowed to be in control of her own life. It’s determinism of her fate is the background radiation that permeates everyday adolescences in her early life, in her career later on and ultimately her body. In the end, whatever little variations Jodie could make seem hollow in regards to her stand on the web.
8. Tomb Raider
I have no connection to the series. This is the first adventure of Lara’s I’ve ever played. Know that so when I say this is the best AAA game I’ve played this year that it isn’t the nostalgia goggles speaking. I love a good swashbuckling adventure. It’s why I’m so drawn to the Uncharted series. Uncharted this is not. It may look like it, but from the tone, design and mechanics it is a very different game. Uncharted is a roller coaster, Tomb Raider is a jungle gym. The all important ability to spend your time traversing there various sections of the psudeo open world are some of the best moments of the game. The exhilaration is what I imagine mountain climbing to be without the fear of death and physical exertion.
While others will talk about the not-rape scene because of Crystal Dynamics incompetent marketing department or the homage to The Decent. Instead I always talk about the radio tower. That soaring sense of triumph as the camera spins around the highest point on the island. After all the struggle, pain and misery to have it validated with visceral victory is a wonder. But the game matches the narrative arc to the geography of the island itself. When you are at the highest point, at some point you have to make the trip down. Lara makes it hard and fast with the wreckage of the plane hot on her heels. Later she will descend underneath the earth, into the bowels of the island itself, into blood, when all hope is thought lost. She climbs out before ascending again, never as high and never as free. Lara can never reach for the open sky like that again. She has changed.
It’s difficult to make an action game so much about character, but they managed it somehow. Nathan Drake is described as the everyman, because the specifics of his character isn’t the important part of the adventure. Lara’s was built from it and it wouldn’t be the same without her arc to follow along the jumping of ledges and shooting of cultists.
7. The Walking Dead: 400 Days
I got into short stories last year. Mostly in podcast form, because that’s all I seem to have time for. Listen to enough of them and you notice the big changes necessary between the long form of a novel and the much more condensed short story. The 400 Days DLC is 5 short stories with a post ad hoc framing device. Telltale proved they aren’t held back by length and can deliver 5 very effective, engaging narratives in a much shorter amount of time.
We’ve get very used to the zombie apocalypse survival tale. But the world presented in the 400 Days seems a little different and a little more textured than we are used to. The stoners fleeing an unknown assailant, a drug addict trying to stay clean while flirting with a married man or a hitchhiking boy trying to get home. These aren’t tales of the zombie apocalypse. That is just a situation and one where the threat is too often focused on far more than the people. People aren’t always self-interested monsters either. The plurality of motives and behaviors are available to storytellers. Telltale seemed to give that a try here and it worked out for them very well.
I called The Walking Dead my game of the year for 2012. 400 Days continues along that level of quality. And somehow in the short span of time we are given, the harsh life or death choices we are forced to make are retain their power and enter a parable like state as in the prison bus or choosing to leave the diner behind or kill a friend.
I seem to be doing this more in the past few years. Putting a game on my list no one else had ever heard of or considered. Memoria is not the perfect point-and-click adventure game. I’d even say in certain parts it struggles with a few of the bugbears of the genre. But in my estimation a point-and-click is only as good as how it facilitates the story. Memoria is certainly imaginative in that arena and has got a really good story to tell to boot. It is said that video game stories are often measured by their twists, but I think it may be more warranted in Memoria given that it is a mystery. It’s a mystery to discover what happened at the end of a story from ancient times.
The game is about storytelling and power of the truths we find in them. Everything from the central conflict, to the character motivations, to the tidbits of mythology we are introduced to are governed by this theme. The god of this world writes down everything into his book of fate, but cannot see in a special magical location. Tell him what happened in there and he will make it so. If he finds out you lied, Satinav erases you from existence. The power of a story can change the fate of the world and the truth can save it. That is the lesson of Memoria.
The writing is top notch and I wish more people had the willingness to play the genre. More people should experience Sadja and her force of personality. More people should see how fantasy could and I’d argue more often than not should be done. It has its problems and a walkthrough might be in your future, but it something that should be played. Consider this my plea.
5. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Upon finishing this game, I started it again from the beginning. Often we say that what we as players crave is innovation. What we really mean is execution of new ideas. They aren’t the same thing. I don’t know if Brothers was the first to utilize twin stick controls for two characters or a dynamic cinematic camera or a single player co-op design, but it definitely the game that executed them the best. Everything was put together just so that you can see the face of its creator through the game. This wasn’t made because this is just how things are done. This was made to execute a specific vision and this is how you got that across.
In fact, so much effort went into the storytelling I’d say that the story itself was lacking. But again it is all about the execution. The story was simple – fairy tale gets tossed around a lot, but this is a true fairy tale of a video game – but the storytelling doesn’t require one more complex. The more I played Brothers the more I felt as an exercise that game creators should try to tell a story without words so they could better get a grasp on the tools they have. The older and younger brother have character without speaking a single word of understandable dialogue. We understand everything about them and their relationship that we need to know through animation and the optional interactions with elements in the world.
The game has power in its simplicity. It gets you used to that relationship the brothers have. Each of them couldn’t make it through the world on their own, but together they have the skills and the will to make it against all odds. Seriously, some of the things they go through are bonkers and only make sense in the suspended reality of a fairy tale. It all means something in the end. The game knew what it had to do to see its vision through, get its meaning across and then get out of dodge before it outstayed its welcome.
4. The Stanley Parable HD
As you may hear on a podcast in the near future, I was asked to describe The Stanley Parable in one word. I went the Mary Poppins route and said paradoxicalparatextualpost-moderism. As much of a tongue twister as that is to say under the most practiced of circumstances, I think it might be the best way to sum it up. I’m sure I’m on the record somewhere, and if not let this be that record, I really do not like post-modernism. I might even go so far as to hate the movement. So the game must be something to be an unabashed post-modernism video game and for me to rate it so highly.
Actually this is the second time The Stanley Parable is on my end of year list, previously appearing as my number 5 back in 2011 when it was just a Source mod. The game has improved in a number of way, not the least of which is how it complicated itself, not only with more endings, but the variety of how they execute and the ways in which one achieves them. Each playthrough has a new relation between game designer, player, Stanley and Narrator. The rough analog and meaning between them changes along with the choices the player makes. Such a treatise on choice may seem quaint or even out of date, but the work is always in the detail. To write the game as understood at the first set of doors is the same as to make a game as understood at seeing a pixelated art style.
If a game has to be blatantly up its own ass as any work of post-modernism seems to have as a requirement at least its having a ball being there. The game is legitimately the funniest game I’ve played all year if not quite ever. And not all of it comes from the narrator, but all aspects of the presentation. It would be a poor video game about video games if it did not properly know how to harness the medium to its own devices.
This was one of the game I managed to catch up on in the extra month. It came out last January and I feel like kicking myself for waiting so long to get to it. The game is brilliant on so many levels. The game’s non-Euclidean space forces you to think about the world differently. The design facilitates the notion that you are not in Kansas anymore. Whenever I got stuck I wanted to rush to a walkthrough, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so. This isn’t a matter of esoteric logic or poor construction. This was me not thinking properly. I would quit and a few hours latter start it up again in an effort to push into a new room, get past the next barrier. I wanted to solve this game. It would not let go of me until I had.
Antichamber is a game about life. It’s very explicit about this meaning. The wall placards are everywhere depicting a scene from the timeline of a person’s existence with an aphorism that scene is meant to represent. Several placard scattered around the complex connect together as a sort of simple comic strip for certain life events. The lessons in this placards directly deal with the challenge either in front or behind depended on how you approached them. The basic theme may be obvious, but what it has to say is less so.
The final section, after the dissolving of the complex, is as evocative as 2001 must have been upon its release in theaters. Little understanding, but an abstract spectacle that gripped hard and would not let go. It’s like the work was impatient and want to affect the neurons to expand one’s mind for a greater understanding directing and skip all the go between elements usually in the way.
2. Gone Home
I knew I liked this game when I first played it as a rush job so I would be equipped to do that particular week’s TWIVGB roundup. I say as a rush job, but I still took my time. I just had an impending timer weighing every action down. But I was still deeply affected by the main narrative and in the way it was conveyed, something only a video game would do. What’s more it was the little details of the house that meant more to the texture of the story than anything else. I had to stand up and walk off my anger when I found the TV Guide clipping of a documentary about gay correction camps. I was worried for quite a while that is where Sam had met her fate.
Was it a game? Yes, but more importantly I don’t care. Is it great literature? Mu. I don’t wish to call anyone out, but some have denigrated Gone Home as merely juvenile and not in the same echelon as high art prose or some such other nonsense. As if the styling of work meant for a younger or broader age set somehow means it is less worthy of praise or aspiring of quality. The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are all considered children’s literature.
Gone Home isn’t an example of a new form and isn’t avant garde experimentalism. It is a highly polished work of simple means and simple ends executed beautifully. I didn’t know how much I liked it when I first played it. It was when I replayed it a few months later because I wanted to, knowing all the beats and all the story turns and still every single one of them hit home.
But first a list of games that I played, liked, but didn’t make my top 10 for one reason or another. Either I liked the game, but not on the level of a game of the year candidate, or I more respected the game than actually liked it or I simply ran out of spaces in which to place them. In alphabetical order
Europa Universal IV – I really like this style of storytelling engine game, but I think Crusader Kings II does everything it tries better. It’s easier to construct stories with faces to attach to nobles than amorphous nation states.
Papers, Please – A strong argument for mechanics augmenting narrative points through theme, but ultimately it doesn’t pack the emotional power or intellectual depth of other games.
Race the Sun – I got really hooked on this game for a while for the arcade thrill of flying a supersonic sun craft through a procedurally generated course.
Rouge Legacy – I still go back to this game from time to time to get a little further in the dungeon and leave a few more generations in my wake.
Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! – There is something to playing the adventurous journey into the unknown like a one on one tabletop RPG session as a text adventure. A simple desire, but an oh so satisfying one to fill.
1. Kentucky Route Zero
So far there are only two of the planned five episodes out, plus the demo prologue Limits and Demonstrations and the interquel The Entertainment. I legitimately don’t know what to expect out of this game at any given point and I like it like that. I knew back in September when I played the first episode that this was going to be my game of the year. I didn’t see how it couldn’t be. The fact that there was still a second episode to play plus some extra, related content could only solidify that fact. The second episode could have just been more of the same. It could have been a new area with a new map, but the same fundamental setup and design and I would have been satisfied. But it doesn’t try and top itself, it steps sideways. It does something completely different.
The main debate I had with myself was whether or not to include Kentucky Route Zero at all. It isn’t finished and there is so much more before a final judgment can be passed on it. Yet, in the end, an incomplete game is more powerful and thought provoking than many that were finished. That alone means it deserves to be honored.
Kentucky Route Zero is a game from a discipline I’m not as familiar with. It comes from the world of experimental theater and installation art. Not movies or literature or even video games. In Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, he says that the artist must first choose the idea they wish to express and then choose the medium in which to express it. I don’t think that second step ever really happens. They adapt the idea into the medium they are an artist in. Kentucky Route Zero feels like a work that was chosen to be a video game over all the others instead of just done because they are video game designers.
With allusions to Greek mythology, southern gothic novels, country music, geek entertainment, point-and-click adventure games and the economic realities of the 20s, 70s and present day, Kentucky Route Zero is a thematically meaningful work with more interpretations and nuance than any other I’ve played. There is a joy in simply experiencing the weirdness of the tale and more joy to be had in understanding it. Most say its Lynch, I say its Bergman. It’s both and somewhere in between. I feel art unfolding before my eyes. I see work that has never been done before. I know it is the best video game 2013 has to offer.
As always I haven’t played every game that came out last year. I haven’t even played all the contenders that might have made it on the list. Games like Saints Row IV, Amensia, A Machine for Pigs, The Swapper, Starseed Pilgrim, State of Decay and many more lay in my pile of shame and Steam library waiting to be played.
In looking back over my list I notice that 9 out of the 10 games are Adventure games of one kind or anther. Tomb Raider is the lone Action title represented. Maybe Brothers depending on your categorization. Only 2 AAA titles, which falls into line with what I hoped for 2013 at the beginning of the year. But most importantly it displayed a greater emphasis on stories and how video games tell them over other considerations of the medium.
Online I don’t present myself as an authority, rather as someone who is still trying to get a grasp on whatever the hell he is doing. 5 years later and I still don’t think I know anything, but there is certainly growth. That list above it the growth of my ideals and values in the medium. That nebulous artistic quality of a work having more value to me than tight mechanics or fun. I wonder where I’ll be a year from now. It’s almost as much an exercise in defining the best of oneself as it is in defining the year. I fear I may not be the best at either, but here is my flag just the same.