Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
2013 was a good year for me to get back into games. Due to certain financial realities, I had to be more of an occasional gamer for most of the 7th generation of consoles, playing old games that the home laptop could run and visiting the voice of our generation‘s house to get my Batman fix.
Finally getting a good job after graduating college allowed me to fully immerse myself in my first favorite hobby (in more ways than one!), that I can actually come up with a top 10 list of games I played that came out recently and in one calendar year. What’s even better is that the list turned out to be a good mix of AAA and indie titles.
I’ve long had my fill of the blockbuster games that major developers and publishers release, so discovering just now what the independent game scene can offer has been a refreshing eye-opener to the potential the medium in general can reach. That’s not to say that the big-time players have run out of cool ideas and fun systems even as we welcome in the new generation of consoles, as this list will show. With that I can definitely say that I’m very much excited to see what the future holds for the industry at large. Bring on 2014! Before I do get started on my list, I’d like to rattle off a couple of honorable mentions.
Papers, Please for tapping into my OC nature that I didn’t know I had and making me feel like crap for doing my job. A Dark Room for showing me the importance of fire and bone spears before embarking on an adventure. Gods Will Be Watching for preparing me to make the hard decisions in case I get stranded in a harsh alien world. Icarus Proudbottom Teaches Typing for reintroducing me to the joys of typing. Proteus for accomplishing synesthesia and making me appreciate life. Ibb & Obb for proving that I do in fact am ambidextrous and making me hate life. Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective for making me question life. Quirky little titles and web-based games are fun! Now on to the list of the BEST GAMES OF 2013.
I’ve already made my point on how games treat player choices in their narratives, but this HD remake of a 2011 Source mod explores all sorts of possibilities the issue of agency affecting story and is pretty fuckin’ clever and at times downright hilarious at it. Comedy hinges on delivery, and thanks to Kevan Brighting‘s droll voice work as the Narrator commenting on every decision the player makes, I found myself smiling and laughing at just about everything that came out of the Narrator’s mouth. What’s even better is that his tone as well as the level design invites you to challenge the Narrator’s authority, pushing you to find out all the outcomes of your choices. And boy are they inspired. Obviously, there is a limit to the results you can get in decision-making, and it’s unreasonable to expect any game to deliver everything such a premise promises. It’s just that once I had seen the endings, I had no reason to ever go back to the game. Still, the novelty of experiencing The Stanley Parable and the discussion it opens up regarding choice in video games is well worth the time that it cracks my top 10 games of 2013. Play it if you haven’t. Or not. It’s up to you.
I wasn’t that big a fan of the original Bioshock’s combat and how it played out in these very restrictive corridors, so Infinite opening things up with the wide arena-like environments was a breath of fresh air… up to a point. Because of how large the battlefields are, the logical conclusion is to fill them up with wave after wave of enemies. This makes for frenetic fights that are fun for the first half or so thanks to the cool vigors you can experiment with, but then get pretty tiring by the back end. Infinite makes up for that with its incredible sense of world-building and mind-blowing story revelations. The way it does handle some heavy thematic issues (the three R’s of race, religion and revolution) leaves a lot to be desired, but my one trip through Columbia and uncovering its secrets was memorable enough to earn its spot on the list.
I had to train myself using save states just to finish Super Mario Bros. and 3 on an emulator just this year because of how bad I am at platformers. Hearing the praise Guacamelee! received and the premise of you playing a superheroic luchador got me over my initial reluctance to try it for myself (the PSN holiday sale also helped). No regrets getting it for $3.49, as I had a delightful time piledriving, Rooster Uppercutting, and Goat Flying across a colorful fantastical Mexican world that worships the art of lucha libre and its Land of the Dead alternate dimension.
Although I respect the tension created by losing a life when falling off into an abyss in most traditional platformers, I don’t have the patience for that in intricate level designs that need precision timing to complete. Guacamelee! avoids that problem entirely by just resetting the masked player character Juan to his last position instantly when you slip up. Removing consequence let me focus on getting the jumps and special abilities just right, and it still feels good when you pull everything off cleanly to complete a platforming segment.
The brawling part of the equation holds up surprisingly well, too. The fighting skills you pick up can all be strung together almost effortlessly, letting you rack crazy long and satisfying combos on legions of the undead. Everything is tied up neatly in an eye-popping aesthetic that perfectly encapsulates the whimsical atmosphere of a straight-up fun brawler/platformer. If only it were longer!
Two months before its release, I had zero hype for the biggest release of 2013. A month before it, I was sold, not because of any exposure to marketing, but because of word of mouth. Everybody online and the people I played with online just kept asking if I was going to get it. I got it on September 18, but had to put off playing it till the weekend to finish Rockstar’s only current-gen masterpiece and its horrifyingly awesome DLC. I was floored by its scale and the amount of visual polish put into making the state of San Andreas feel real, that something so huge and something so good-looking can still be generated by aging consoles.
Like all the other open-world games Rockstar made, it features a diverse cast of characters bursting with personality voiced by A+ talent that lent more credibility to the world the game constructed. Having played through a series of other similar games within the months before and after playing GTA V, the contrast in graphical fidelity and presentation was all the more apparent. It’s a technical marvel, server issues in its online component notwithstanding. The real highlight of the game though are the heists. From the setups to the planning to the execution, you feel like such a (crime) boss getting through each one with millions of dollars in hand. It also justifies the new 3 switchable characters feature as a rewarding gameplay mechanic. Never mind not getting actual rewards for most of them, I wanted more of those in the game.
The story, while intriguing, didn’t really grab me though, and its relegating of Franklin (the black main character) in the third quarter of the narrative to resolve Michael and Trevor’s issues is problematic. There’s also a lot of missions that just have you driving from Point A to Point B, and masking it with character dialogue can only go so far. I’ve already said my part on GTA Online, so taking the entire package into consideration, GTA V can only go so high on my list.
6. Tomb Raider
While I greatly enjoyed my time playing Tomb Raider: Anniversary, I’ve no special nostalgic connection to any of the PS1 classics nor have I gotten into the other well-received sixth gen titles such as Legend and Underworld. Having very little attachment to the series–but an attachment nonetheless–helped me both enjoy the game for what it is and be disappointed that it could have been more.
It is one of the most mechanically sound games this year.
Traversing the varied and gorgeous environments feels smooth, whether I’m climbing up rock faces, zipping up and down rope bridges, or making leaps of faith across crumbling ancient architecture. There are hundreds of collectibles both immediately apparent and well hidden, and a good majority create a sense of space, inform character motivations and supplement the solid plot. The ability to fast travel to all areas, the treasure maps, the item highlighting system, and the unlockable skill to see the goodies through walls make finding all that additional content accessible and adds up to the entire experience.
Engaging enemies is either a fluid action-packed experience or a tight sneaking segment that makes me feel like a jungle predator. The freedom with which the game allows me to choose how I want to build up Lara’s skillset to match those different scenarios is appropriate, and differentiates it enough to keep it from being an out-and-out Uncharted clone (this is the snake eating itself considering the inspiration that series took from the original Tomb Raider).
With all that said, it does feel a bit too much like Nathan Drake’s PS3 adventures when it does the cinematic action sequences, without being as excellent a thrill ride. There’s the entire ludonarrative dissonance problem that it only slightly addresses with Obi-Wan-like “remember your training” lines and Lara making snarled threats at the hundreds of enemies she mows down throughout the game. There’s also a great shortage of tombs to raid with only one giving me real trouble to solve unlike the countless platforming puzzles Anniversary threw at me!
I can look over all that stuff because of how much I did enjoy the game, and I do look forward to future iterations where Lara’s innocence won’t be a storytelling hindrance, but the flaws do keep Tomb Raider from my top 5.
Coming out of the jumbled mess of MGS4 and the troubled development cycle, I wasn’t expecting much to come out of a hack-n-slash take on the Metal Gear universe with the silver-haired pretty boy Raiden as the lead. Tried out the demo, had a real hard time with the boss, and thought to myself that while I see how this could be enjoyable for some, this kind of game just wasn’t for me. I borrowed the game anyway from the blood god high priestess Villalon on a whim. Fighting LQ-48i was still a pain in the ass, taking me somewhere around fifteen or so times to beat, but I forged on because everything before that promised a game that would make my jaw drop in amazement and hurt in laughter.
And thank goodness I forged on.
As the basis for doing well in the game, finally getting the parry system to click by the second proper chapter made the counterattack-focused combat a pleasure. Controlling crowds of sword-wielding gun-toting cyborgs, halting mini Metal Gears with just your high-frequency blade, perfectly timing parries, entering Blade Mode and cutting enemies into a bazillion pieces then pulling out their electrolyte-fueled spines to crush them with your hand and absorb their nutrients to replenish your own energy all within a couple of minutes is so. goddamn. satisfying.
And good lord are the boss fights even better. As one-note as they are, the personalities they do have are over-the-top enough with some good one liners that had me smiling as I dodged, blocked, and counterattacked my way through their crazy and powerful movesets. The balls-out ridiculous ways the QTEs play out and how the raging metal/electronic/dubstep soundtrack kicks it up a notch in the right moments make them all the more memorable.
Speaking of bosses, the final boss is one of the best characters introduced in 2013, hands down. Amazing reveal, amazing monologue, amazing fight, amazing conclusion.
The only thing holding this back from rising higher up the list is it’s just way too short for a full-on $60 retail game that really could have used more boss fights. 4 hours and about 15 minutes was all it took for me to finish it. Granted, that’s not counting the cutscenes and the amount of times I had to repeat certain areas. Still, going through it again on Hard difficulty showed a lack of content anyway when I breezed through it to completion. Definitely going to keep replaying it to unlock stuff and get better at killing things.
4. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Of all the games on this list, this wonderful little gem chiseled out by Starbreeze Studios and award-winning film director Josef Fares lives and dies because of its gameplay mechanic. Controlling two separate characters at once sounds gimmicky. However, the way the platforming puzzles are solved and, more importantly, the direction the narrative takes with it validates the choice of control scheme and makes a tremendous point of the unique storytelling only video games can do. Rounding it out as a complete video game that nets the fourth spot on my list is an art style that manages to be both charming and sumptuously grand.
Brothers has settings straight out of fairy tales with a grim undertone that react organically, and a plot filled with small moments of warmth punctuated by a tear-jerking ending sequence that will stick with me for a long time.
3. Gone Home Aside from knowing that people were talking about it, I dove into Gone Home with no expectations. Five minutes in, dread had gripped me that I was so anxious just entering rooms but curiosity had pushed me to keep going and going to uncover the mystery of the Greenbriar residence. The game is so adept at creating such an immersive atmosphere that the exploration never once feels dull. Pieces of paper are chock full of plot bits that all come together to tell compelling individual story arcs and form a strong unified narrative. Everyday items you’d see in a middle-class household in the 90’s grounds the world in a reality eerily and endearingly familiar. The very house itself and the rooms that make it up evoke distinct feelings that build on the atmosphere and complement the characters. The emotions I felt throughout the game and the expectations it built and then boldly defied carved out a special place in my heart and third place on my list.
I had just finished Saints Row: The Third when I got Saints Row IV. The gleeful absurdity of wailing on people with a giant purple dildo, burning zombie hordes with a flamethrower at the behest of Mayor Burt Reynolds, fighting a full-blown pro-wrestling match with a larger-than-life masked ganglord while tagging with a character voiced by Hulk Hogan, and skydiving onto a high-rise apartment and shooting shit up as Kanye West’s “POWER” blares in the background among a host of other insane moments are very much fresh in my mind. There was so much for the fourth entry in the criminally underrated Saints Row series to live up to.
Thankfully, it does.
And it does so in the only direction Volition could take it after the laugh out loud spectacle of the third – by becoming the ultimate empowerment fantasy. By the hilarious end of the intro sequence, you become the president of the United States of America. After making super important world-changing decisions such as choosing to sign either a bill that cures cancer titled “Fuck Cancer” or one that ends world hunger titled “Let Them Eat Cake”, aliens blow up Earth, enslave you and your staff, and you gain access to superpowers to run buckwild in the virtual simulation of SR3’s city of Steelport.
It’s more ludicrous batshit insanity from there on out that one-ups just about everything from the previous installment. Why drive vehicles when you can run faster than cars, leap over entire city blocks and glide across the sky? Set enemies on fire with flaming bullets or call down an airstrike? Pffft. Try shooting out black holes that suck and crush anything nearby or blasting badass dubstep to get people dancing while blowing everything up. Hell, why even use guns in the first place when you can freeze alien scum and then shatter them by throwing one of their hulking spaceships at them WITH YOUR MIND?!
None of the powers would be as gratifying to use without the many challenges presented in the short but sweet side missions and the smartly-written and sometimes gut-busting main quests. The former puts your skill with each power to the test with a grading system, while the latter lets you experiment and occasionally robs you of them to keep you on your toes. Its biggest strength still lies in the aplomb with which it tackles its zany subject matter while having a surprising amount of respect for the series’ lineage that dates back to when it was merely a parodical GTA clone.
Having never played the first two games, I still appreciated how it handled the callbacks to those installments with full confidence in the path it found itself heading from the third. Simply put, Saints Row IV is the most pure fun I’ve had in 2013. It’s just that after all is said and done, I don’t have much to say about it other than that, and that’s why it’s second only to…
What more can I say for a game that grabbed me from the start with one of the most powerful prologues in video games and never let go even after the end with its unforgettable heart-breaking closing dialogue? And for a game that leans heavily on its characters and story-telling, its gameplay actually avoids the schizophrenic break most other narrative-centric AAA titles fall into. Instead, it reinforces the bleak, tension-filled, and at times quiet and hopeful plot strengthened by immediate and long-term consequences to your in-game decisions.
The multiplayer being a huge surprise further proves how fun the core mechanics can be, too. It doesn’t innovate on anything, but what it does is take every single aspect of modern blockbuster gaming, pushes them to the limit, and brings it all together to make a technically and artistically beautiful masterpiece I won’t ever forget. That’s why The Last of Us is my game of the year.