Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Top 11 Games of 2013

Well, garsh....that was kind of an amazing year for games, huh?

As one generation wound down and another sputtered to a start with a phlegmy, throat clearing cough, we were left, in the end, with a rather monumental pile of great or at least very good games, on all platforms.
Thanks to the sheer volume of quality titles, this was the year in which I found myself back into handheld gaming with the 3DS,  and genuinely "struggled"  (if such a word can be used for such a joyous pastime)  to budget my time adequately and keep up with everything I felt I "needed" to play.  As such, I never even got to titles like Assassin's Creed 4, Super Mario 3D World, and more that might have otherwise made this list. So if you don't see your favorite game on here, that's one possible explanation.  Another might be that we just don't like the same things, which is okay and doesn't mean we can't be friends.  Also: I am personally singling out XCOM: Enemy Within as a game that I imagine, in an alternate universe, would not only be on this list but probably at or near the very top,  but is not here at all simply because I played so many hundreds of hours of XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012 (and 2013, on my iPad) that I am still in a heavy XCOM detoxification mode and could not handle rekindling the addiction.

As always, this list is the one I happen to be writing right now while I'm in the mood I'm in right now. That is to say, it is not based on science and is entirely subjective, to the point at which I'm likely to disagree with myself as early as an hour after I post this today.  Knowhutumsayin?

So without further waffling or bet-hedging, let's do this.  Oh, yeah, and,  I guess it probably goes without saying but my favorite overall gaming experience this year has been with Dark Souls.  But since that was last year's game, it doesn't count here.  But we all know what's what.

11.  The Swapper
Just barely edged on to the list at the 11th hour, thanks to a recommendation from Giant Bomb's Patrick Klepek. Which is why I'm giving it the 11th spot.  Before he pointed me in its direction, I hadn't even heard of it.  But this PC-only puzzle game from Facepalm Games (available on Steam and from the company's website) is a profoundly clever little game, reminiscent of Portal in its mechanics, and instantly hit that part of my brain that loves this kind of challenge. How to get from Point A to Point B?  It looks impossible.  It seems impossible. Until you finally figure it out and it seems like it was obvious all along.  Here's hoping it finds a bigger audience in 2014.  It deserves it.

10.   Bioshock Infinite
If the rest of the game was as awesome as the first hour,  it'd be at the top of this list.  I loved the opening segment to pieces, writing at the time I played it that it was the best opener since Half Life 1.  I still stand by that.  And while the game was thoroughly entertaining and great to look at throughout, I had the same problem as a lot of folks -- the combat -- which to me just did not mesh well with  and did not have the same high quailty as the rest of the game. Bioshock Infinite abounded in cool ideas and clever, suspenseful storytelling, which is why it's on my list, but the gameplay itself fell a bit short for me.  Plus, I'm just too stupid to understand the ending.  And don't want to go through the combat a second time to try to figure it out.

9.   Rayman Legends
Like my #1 game  (I know you've already peeked ahead and spoiled it for yourself), this is a videogame that revels in being a videogame.  There is no point to Rayman Legends other than to ensure that you have a great time. And that I did.  This platformer franchise has always been mysteriously underrated and underappreciated, and I don't know why. Is it because Rayman has no bones?  Is it because it's actually somewhat difficult?  I do not know.  What I do know is that, even when the game was kicking my ass, I always had a smile on my face.  It looks great, plays great, has fantastic music,  and can (and should) be played by everyone in your family.

8.  Rogue Legacy
I think my average lifespan in this game was about 10 seconds. At best.  I am not very good at Rogue Legacy.  At times it feels like the gaming equivalent of beating my head against a wall.  But goddamn if a good head-beating doesn't feel good sometimes. Rogue Legacy's unique skill tree and progression are really what kept me going: funny in concept but actually super-smart in execution, with new abilities doled out just enough to feel like you may actually make it five more seconds into your castle run than last time. Everyone keeps telling me how hard Dark Souls is...and it is.  But I'll tell you this, I'm way further along in Dark Souls than I am in Rogue Legacy.  But it makes the list for continuing to make me come back for more even as it keeps having its way with me. I'm Rogue Legacy's bitch.

7. Saints Row IV
The sheer ludicrousness of the story is what made this for me.  Unabashedly over-the-top was absolutely the right way to take a franchise that used to draw comparisons to GTA, but has since gone its own way, gloriously, right off the deep end into zero-fucks-given absurdity. I gravitate towards "funny" games. It's just the way I'm built. I'm not sure where this franchise could possibly go now, but the cool thing is that the developers have proven themselves so imaginative now in conjuring the ridiculous that I'll basically follow them anywhere now.

6. Gone Home
Enough digital ink has been spilled on whether this is a "game" or not, so you're getting no more of that from me here. All I know is that I was riveted the entire way through, keeping me guessing (incorrectly), messing with all of my expectations, until arriving at an ending that showed that sometimes the most riveting stories are just the simplest and most mundane. Like the #2 game on this list,  and #3, too,  it focused on family, in a real way, in a way that resonated. That's good enough for me.

5. Papers, Please
On paper, perhaps the most boring sounding concept for a game of all time.  You get to check passport documents and entry visas for people trying to enter into a fictitious Eastern Bloc country, all in gloriously pixilated 2D graphics. Yay?  But, again, execution was everything here.  And what might, in lesser hands, have been a tedious exercise in "hidden object" gaming, turned instead into a funny, often poignant, and surprising meditation on power and choice,  on duty versus morality, on selfishness versus altruism....all laced with grim humor and damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't decisions.  What would you do if this was your real job? Not many games ever really make you think about your own morality.  This one did, and did it while never forgetting to

4. The Stanley Parable
The funniest game of the year  - as long as you're already a gamer.  Like Gone Home (but in a totally different way), The Stanley Parable messes with our expectations around games themselves.  It assumes we've played many of them and then defies us to make sense of this one.  It has an answer for every wiseass decision we try to make, and then out-wiseasses us. Every time you think you may have finally figured out a way to "break" the game, you realize that the developers were still five steps ahead of you, and had a joke ready for you when you land there.  Super entertaining, hilarious narration,  a game about games that's still a great game itself.

3. The Last Of Us
This one climbed higher and higher on the list the further I got into the game.  I'll admit it: After the first hour or two, I didn't even think it'd be on this list at all.  I found the opening section tedious and underwhelming, with a whole lot of "Press A to continue" along with a story that didn't feel very original. Another zombie apocalypse?  Really?  And another character who may be the hope for all humanity?  And even the first rounds of combat didn't do much for me at all. As in Bioshock Infinite, I felt the combat inferior and subservient to the developers' storytelling ambition -- except at least in Bioshock Infinite the story felt original.  But..I kept playing.  And it grew on me. A lot.  The sheer detail of the world began to impress, and, much more important, the dynamic between Joel and Ellie began to gain weight and resonance.  As the story continues, the combat that at first felt mundane takes on increasing urgency, and the story itself takes enough unexpected, suspenseful turns to actually justify itself as the primary raision d'etre (sorry) of the entire experience.  I don't think it's the masterpiece that its strongest adherents feel it is, but it's the one "AAA" game I played this year that seemed like it ultimately justified its budget.  If this was mostly just a game as a big-budget movie, it was a movie I was glad - very glad - to have seen.

2. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Still, for all the emotional resonance that The Last of Us provided,  Brothers did it even better, and more profoundly, with far less.  And without even one word of dialog.  Brothers did something very cool this year, in the humblest of ways.  It presented an almost entirely new way of even thinking about game controls,  with one clever puzzle after another, while, simultaneously, telling an emotionally rich story with an ending as overwhelmingly brutal as any I've ever experienced in a game.  The game world itself is bizarre and mysterious and is never fully explained - thank god - as the developers seem to get that less truly is more, that showing is better than telling. The game looked and sounded beautiful, too.  I always think that the "games as art" discussion is pretty ridiculous.  Still, if any game was "a work of art" this year - whatever the hell that means -  it was Brothers.

1.  Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Pure joy.
I'm neither a Zelda nor a Nintendo fanboy.  I don't have a Wii U and don't particularly want one. I don't even remotely understand the history of Hyrule or how any of these games fit together, nor do I really care.  What I do know is this: I had more fun playing this game than any other game in 2013.  Every single moment in this game, every screen, every piece of music, every puzzle, was pure joy for me.  I played and played and played until I was finished, and then I started it again.   I've read complaints about the small dungeon size, and about the relatively easy difficulty level overall, but for me they were both just perfect.  So maybe that says something about me.  It probably does. But so does every list, and every choice on a list.  For me, A Link Between Worlds was just about perfect. Just challenging enough to make me have to use my brain, but not so tough that it held me up for long.  The wall merging was a brilliant gameplay addition, And that god.  I don't know what really constitutes a "best" game of the year.  Every game on this list was awesome.  But Zelda made me happy every minute I played it.  It was pure joy.