It has been an interesting year in gaming. There have been many milestones in the triple A space and the indie scene continues to boom. It is also the first year in my adulthood that I have been active enough a gamer to put together some sort of “best of” list. My list will not be ranked because I find ranking forms of art to be arbitrary and my best games of the year will also be greatly subjective. I have a very finite amount of time and money. I also don’t own a PS3, so I don’t have the opportunity to play everything. My decisions will be based on innovation in the game space, the lasting power of the games, and how deeply they affected me. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, there is a lot of pixelated noir in my best of list. There is also a decent blend of story, game mechanics, and innovative design. In no particular order, my take on the best games of 2013:
While BioShock Infinite might not have lived up to all of its hype, it did undeniably leave its mark on the year. BioShock Infinite‘s pieces don’t entirely fit together. If ludonarrative dissonance was an issue in the original BioShock – and I’m not entirely convinced that is was – it is exponentially magnified in BioShock Infinite. Looting garbage cans for foodstuffs and ammo might have made sense in the ruins of Rapture, it doesn’t make sense in the flying dystopia of Columbia. In one instance Elizabeth goes from crying after being tortured to gleefully picking locks in the blink of an eye, because that is her function. Using race relations of the early 20th century as a red herring for a mind-bending science fiction plot wasn’t admirable either. Still, where BioShock Infinite fails in its over extension of story arcs and conflated themes it makes up for in heart and emotional impact. While under a microscope BioShock Infinite‘s science fiction plot might fall short, the weight of the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth is at its core. Regardless of its efficacy in integrating its themes, the questions BioShock Infinite asks are more interesting than the ones it attempts to answer. What role does faith have in science? What can’t science answer? Infinite further comments on the nature of games, gamers, and infinite different playthroughs.
BioShock Infinite then took us back to Rapture with the DLC Burial at Sea. After opening the infinite possibilities theory, Irrational Games could have taken us anywhere. Instead they chose to take us back to Rapture – before its downfall – in a fully realized new engine. A return to a fully populated Rapture, complete with characters debating the tenets of objectivism, is the game I wanted to see. Adding in a film noir back drop with already established characters is like icing on the cake. While some may argue BioShock already said what Infinite says before – and better – BioShock Infinite is still one of the most memorable games of the year.
Monaco is actually two games in one. At its default it’s a four-player online or co-op puzzle game. Throwing the player into a heist scenario with three other players (likely strangers) reinforces its criminal themes. Though playful in nature, you play as a number of criminal classes, all with special abilities, trying to go after the big heist. Be it robbing a jewelry store, a bank, or an embassy to acquire passports, there is never a dull moment. In mutliplayer mode things will likely (and often) go wrong, resulting in a slapstick silent movie evoking game of cat and mouse. Played alone Monaco is an entirely different, but equally satisfying game. In single player mode Monaco becomes more cerebral and personal. You have more control of your actions by controlling only your character and not being dependent on other players to succeed. Everything in Monaco‘s art design reinforces its heist setup roots. Its abstract pixelated characters are mysterious and you never get a clear sense of who they are. Each character is color-coded in neon, leading PopMatters writers to label it “neon-noir.” Shadows also play a big role in Monaco because others’ line of sight will impact your own. Its top down design resembles blueprints, that of course cunning criminals would be examining when planning a heist. Monaco is so fun it leaves you wondering why there haven’t been more heist-styled games.
Gunpoint is the first game by designer Tom Francis, PC Gamer editor-turned-game designer. And for a first game it is done exceptionally well. Gunpoint is a stealth-based action puzzle-platformer. If that wasn’t a big enough of a mouthful, Gunpoint is also another edition to the year of pixelated noir. You play as freelance private-eye Richard Conway, who recently acquired magic hypertrousers that allow him to jump great lengths and survive any fall. This is one of the greatest aspects of Gunpoint. The game also outlines your jump trajectory similar to Angry Birds as you propel yourself to the tops of buildings in a single bow, or through windows, yes definitely windows. The physics feel amazingly realistic. Gunpoint offers great flexibility to how you solve its puzzles. Conway has an inventory of gadgets at his disposal. The most used is the cross-link, a hacking device that allows Conway to rewire alarms, light switches, and door locks. You can also go in fists blazing and try to tackle every guard you see, though your survival rate will be low. Novel design, great use of physics, and snappy writing make Gunpoint one of the best, and sadly overlooked, games of the year.
The Wolf Among Us is the followup to Telltale’s breakthrough series The Walking Dead. Similarly, it takes on a well known comic series, Fables, and uses the graphic novel style first established in The Walking Dead adventure game. Where it departs is in its heavy emphasis on action and less emotionally hefty choices. Less emotional weightiness isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. If all games were as dire in tone as The Walking Dead, we would all be the “the walking depressed.” Instead, The Wolf Among Us focuses on the economics of fairytale ex-patriots struggling to live in the real world during the 1980s. It is the right mix of fantasy and hard-boiled believability. The Wolf Among Us also injects an ’80s neo(n)-noir vibe into the backdrop of life under “Reagonomics”. You play as Bigby (short for Big Bad) Wolf and are the sheriff of Fabletown. His job is to stop the fables from killing eachother. The problem is, he’s not doing a good job of it, and no one really likes him. It’s an interesting role play in a point-and-click adventure game. While it is just the first installment in the episodic story, it is off to a strong start. If it keeps up the quality of production it could equal The Walking Dead, albeit much different in tone.
Shadow Warrior was a big surprise to me. If I hadn’t reviewed it, I likely never would have played it and this would have been a disservice to the game. I had never played the original but had heard of its racially questionable past. The Shadow Warrior reboot looks its racist reputation in the face, owns up to it, and then laughs at it. It is completely self-aware. Protagonist Lo Wang, the half Chinese-Japanese assassin, is as quick-witted and sarcastic as ever. The game draws on its pan-asian roots with beautiful and varied locals. It offers a diverse skill tree that expands into passive abilities and special powers. Shadow Warrior is also the most fun first-person-shooter I played this year (sorry BioShock infinite). But, Shadow Warrior is more first-person-slasher than shooter. Lo Wang wields a katana that feels as smooth as it executes. It is easily the most powerful weapon in the game. Shadow Warrior captures what a classic first-person shooter should feel like while keeping it fresh, with one pop culture reference after another and exciting skills to learn. Shadow Warrior is an old-fashioned hand-cramping good time and should be given a chance by any interested in the genre.
Grand Theft Auto V wasn’t initially going to be part of my list. I do recognize its technical achievement in making the most of the last console generation’s capabilities. The switching between three protagonists, by the touch of a button, in a Powers of Ten-styled transition is also impressive. Cutscenes flow seamlessly into gameplay this time around and its shooting and driving have all been improved. It wasn’t the misogynistic tone of the game or gratuitous violence that was keeping it off my list either. The misogyny actually makes sense in the world GTA is portraying. This is not to excuse the misogyny, because there is no excuse for unadulterated misogyny. There are no good characters, male or female, only shades of gray. The difference is we are meant to identify with the male characters. The female characters exist only to nag, pleasure, and punish our male protagonists, therefore “justifying” their misogynistic beliefs and behavior.
The satire of the American dog-eat-dog brand of capitalism is also on display, but GTA has done this all before. This time around, however, Rockstar hones in on our narcissism and self-obsession with the inclusion of an in-game camera phone and the ability to take and post “selfies” online. The cult of celebrity is also satirized, taking place in Los Santos, a parody of L.A. In fact, Rockstar takes on everyone in GTA V: Facebook, techies, fitness nuts, hipsters, new-age feminists, gangsters, the Hollywood elite, the FBI. No one is safe from its judgement. That was interesting but didn’t move me either. What did interest me is the portrayal of an unloved, and even despised, man going through a midlife crisis. Randomly switching to Michael, one of the three protagonists, can have you find him crying with his head down in the steering wheel of his car parked in a alley. Another time had him backing away from a motel, mumbling to himself that, “I can’t go through with it.” Or you could find him in the bathroom splashing water on his face, telling himself to get it together. No other GTA protagonist has had a family or wife. They ostensibly hate him, and understandably so, he is a bad person. Michael is also the oldest GTA protagonist. No one ever thinks about what would happen to these gangsters after they try to settle down. It’s like Goodfellas, only ten years later. What really sealed the deal though, was the yoga mini-game that Michael tries to get closer to his wife, and fails miserably. The mechanics of the mini-game replicate the rhythm of breathing and the difficulty of holding positions in yoga, using the game controller. It is truly amazing. It has you unintentionally breathing deeply insync with it. While characters in the GTA universe never really grow, helping Michael find his center might help him be a better criminal.
Gone Home was the indie breakout of the year and it rightfully deserved the attention and accolades it received. The less one knows about Gone Home before playing the better. However, The Fullbright Company – formerly having worked on BioShock 2 – created a fully sustained world in the confines of a suburban house. The storytelling unravels through exploring the house and the protagonist’s family’s possessions. The designers of BioShock 2 are no stranger to telling a story through environment, and they didn’t disappoint in Gone Home either. Gone Home successfully tells the story of a family, the kind that we never see on the surface, the kind only revealed through being in the inner most circle. And that is the thing. You play as Kaitlin, a college student returning from abroad to a house she’s never lived in before. In many ways she is seeing her family for the first time. She is both insider and outsider, which compliments your position as the player. Gone Home plays with player expectation, using horror game conventions to subvert its subtle mysteries. But, Gone Home also goes deep, turning production limitations into opportunities to tell a mature story devoid of power fantasies. Gone Home is part mystery novel, part coming of age story, part exorcism, all rolled into one. It also reignited the debate over what is and what isn’t a game. Gone Home is most definitely a game and an example of the depth of storytelling gaming can undertake in the future.
Rogue Legacy is as hilarious as it is difficult. As its name suggests, Rogue Legacy is a rogue-like and an addition to the “metroidvania” subgenre. Rogue Legacy captures the feeling of early 2D action-platformers dead on and adds several twists. You play as a knight defending your father and family’s honor. Castle levels generate dynamically, always leaving you unsure of what you are going to get yourself into. Death is imminent and frequent. Only in the case of Rogue Legacy, instead of beginning the game as the same player you restart as one of your descendants. Heredity plays a large role in whom you may choose. Your descendant might be a powerful mage but be born with dyslexia, and all text will be scrambled. Traits vary from the hilarious (coprolalia) to debilitating (tunnel vision – in effect blurring the edges of the screen). Rogue Legacy also includes being gay in the trait tree. Being gay adds no penalties to gameplay – which in itself sends a powerful message that there is nothing wrong with being gay. Additionally, being gay doesn’t change your character’s abilities or appearance at all. Ironically though, whether your chosen heir is male or female they will look the same with the exception of a pink bow. Needless to say, there are a lot of bearded-ladies. Rogue Legacy also touches on how heredity and inheritance interwork. While your upgrades will be passed on to your descendants, your money will be lost, further adding to the notion, “you can’t take it with you.”
As it happens, last year’s most addictive game also became this year’s most addictive game. Xcom: Enemy Within is actually an expansion to Xcom: Enemy Unknown. And while it doesn’t change the overall story of the game, its additions take it over the top in the terms of how you decide to level your soldiers and play the game. Xcom: Enemy Within adds the resource of meld. Meld recombination allows the ability to augment your soldiers. This can take the form of super-human genetic modification or turning your soldiers into mechanized tanks. Ethical concerns aside, meld recombination more than levels the playing field against the alien invasion. The aliens have more tricks up their sleeve as well. New enemy types, added powers, and class change reductions help keep you on your toes during battle. The added maps also add more verticality to game play, further changing the way you strategize. The added super-human gene modifications can take advantage of the new emphasis on height. For instance, adding muscle fiber density will allow your soldiers to leap up multi-story buildings – particularly valuable for a sniper – saving you several moves. Or imagine socking a Muton Berzerker to death with a rocket-assisted punching fist that can perform a free-aiming melee attack with your MECs. Xcom: Enemy Within further complicates matters by adding a third faction, a group of alien sympathizing terrorists known as EXALT. With covert operations, base defense, and a third player in the war against the alien invasion Xcom: Enemy Within is like an entirely different game. Playing ironman is still the way to go. The ever-present fact that one of your invaluable soldiers could permanently die at any moment is nerve racking; and worse yet that it will likely be the result of a mistake you make. Xcom: Enemy Within will still have you clenching your fists anytime an animation cues up and quite possibly screaming at the screen if it’s one of your high-ranked soldiers that is taken out.