2013 is probably not a year I'm going to remember very fondly. The reasons for that are manifold and largely very personal, but honestly I can't think of too many years over the course of my life I've so eagerly anticipated the conclusion of. At least now, looking back on the year's video game releases in service of cobbling together a best-of list, I can say that 2013 offered me as diverse and memorable an array of experiences as any other year I can recall. I often looked to games both to blanket myself in my own misery and to help lift me out of it, and while there were tons of games I would have loved to include, I had to pare this list down to an acceptable number. Ultimately, I think these 10-ish titles were the most representative of the kinds of games I looked to for both escape and cathartic relief over the course of 2013.
But before all of that, there are a few other congratulatory notes I'd like to share regarding aspects of games this year I especially appreciated. Congratulations to Risk of Rain, Remember Me, and Grand Theft Auto V for having the original soundtracks I most wanted to listen to while doing things other than playing those games. Congratulations to Ninja Theory for managing to reboot Devil May Cry into something I actually wanted to play. Congratulations to Crystal Dynamics for doing the same thing with Tomb Raider. Congratulations to Firaxis for finding a way to suck another couple hundred hours of Civilization V playtime out of me. Congratulations to The Behemoth for finally releasing Battleblock Theater (it's pretty good!). Congratulations to Iron Galaxy for finally making a "fighting" game that doesn't make me feel like a giant idiot whenever I play it competitively. Congratulations to Saints Row IV and Assassin's Creed IV for being the only two games I actually tried to complete all the side missions in this year. Congratulations to FTL for being the 2012 game I couldn't stop playing in 2013. Congratulations to Luigi on finally having a year of his own. Pity it wasn't a better one, overall.
Lastly, here's a quick list of games I played, enjoyed, and considered for, but ultimately left off of, my primary list: Divekick, The Stanley Parable, Civilization V: Brave New World, NBA 2K14 (next-gen), Grand Theft Auto V, Dead Rising 3, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, Guacamelee!, DmC Devil May Cry, Battleblock Theater, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Tomb Raider, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, Risk of Rain, Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery
Papers, Please wasn't going to be on this list. I had already excised it in favor of other games I felt like I "enjoyed" more over the course of the year. Then our GOTY discussions happened and hearing people's passionate arguments in favor of Lucas Pope's Hopeless Functionary in a Fascist Society simulator, I went back and played through it a couple of more times, and yeah, I just couldn't bring myself to leave it off.
Frankly, I really like having these two games side-by-side anyway, as I think they represent the extreme opposite ends of the kinds of gameplay experiences that resonated with me most this year. Tearaway is this adorable, frivolous little adventure manufactured out of colorful papercraft artwork, self-idolization, and largely stress-free platforming and touch-screen mechanics, while Papers, Please is this stark, soul-draining experience painted in oppressive grays that strips you of any real identity, forces you to perform stressful, menial tasks, and make horrible choices that never result in anything but abject misery for people. Tearaway was the kind of game I wanted to play whenever I felt a desperate need for escape from whatever stress or depressing thing was going on in my life, while Papers, Please was the kind of game that I dove headfirst into whenever I felt like wallowing in whatever dark feeling was hanging over my head. Both games are small, but amazing achievements in ways that couldn't possibly be more different from one another, and yet I found myself loving them near equally.
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. Within mere weeks of its release, there were more think pieces and critical teardowns of Infinite's most minute details than I could reasonably get a handle on, so I eventually wrote my own thing looking at some of those criticisms in an effort to contextualize them against my own feelings on the game. In the end, I certainly had my problems with Infinite. The combat is clunky and noisy, and often feels at odds with the quieter moments of exploration and storytelling. Speaking of which, I also felt like too much of Columbia's rich back story is hidden in collectible Voxophones, often putting the onus on the player to go out of their way to understand why anyone is doing what they're doing. And then there's that ending, which...well, I'll just say that while I eventually understood it (after hours of mulling it over) and grew to appreciate it, that conclusion could probably have been delivered in a more elegant, less laboriously expository way.
But with those criticisms in mind, Infinite nonetheless captured my attention completely during my time with it. Columbia is one of the most fascinating and visually resplendent worlds I've ever had the fortune to wander through. It's the perfect artifice for the ugly undercurrent of hate that pulses through the city's inhabitants, and is just the kind of game world that begs to be examined in excruciating detail. And that's to say nothing of Booker, Elizabeth, Comstock, and the Luteces, the key personalities that kept me hooked into the complex and bizarre story Irrational Games was trying to tell. This is a game that swings for the fences, and yeah, in some cases, it strikes out hard. But there are enough home runs here to make it one of my most memorable experiences of the year.
Saints Row IV is a fucking stupid game, and I love it precisely because of that. I mean, yeah, Saints Row has been really fucking stupid since Saints Row The Third detonated a thermonuclear device on whatever remaining threads of self-seriousness this series still had, and in a lot of ways Saints Row IV just builds on the many, many absurd things The Third introduced. But while I may have found The Third more uproariously and shockingly funny, Saints Row IV is a terrific continuation of what came before it.
Yes, I think the alien invasion plot is way less interesting than the battle against the confederacy of gangs and government forces in the last game, and I did find myself periodically lamenting the fact that cars were all but rendered useless by your character's sudden onset of superpowers. But apart from those minor issues, I can't really think of many things I didn't enjoy in Saints Row IV. The whole superpower thing makes combat way more fun, the soundtrack is one of the best collections of licensed music anyone has yet assembled for a video game, and there are more loopy in-jokes and clever references scattered throughout this game's script than I could possibly rattle off here. This game also keeps Saints Row headed down this wonderfully unexpected, Fast and the Furious-like path of making you genuinely care about this cartoonish crop of ridiculous characters more and more with each sequel, even as the situations around them are ramped to ludicrous extremes. I don't know that you can top a game as insanely, unexpectedly over-the-top as Saints Row The Third, but Saints Row IV comes pretty damn close.
Definitely the big 2013 game I had the lowest expectations for. I mean, after the wet fart of a game that was Assassin's Creed III, I don't know how anyone would have expected a year-later sequel to re-energize a franchise that seemed to be just about out of creative gas. Amazingly, that's precisely what happened here, as Black Flag almost immediately sucked me into its brilliantly realized world of early 18th century piracy and kept me there for something like 40 goddamn hours. How did it manage that? Strangely, mostly by excising a lot of that extraneous Assassin's Creed-ness from the equation and focusing almost entirely on its historical setting.
I get that not everybody was as thoroughly done with the Desmond Miles storyline as I was even before Assassin's Creed III took that old workhorse out behind the barn and put it out of its misery. If I ever enjoyed an Assassin's Creed game, it was almost always exclusively for the insane amounts of detail poured into the games' historical settings. Yes, yes, the highly fluid murdering mechanics were a big help too, but the history, the history! Anyway, Black Flag has some of the present day Assassins/Templars nonsense, but it takes a seat so far in the back it might as well be in the trunk compared to the game's focus on making piracy a hell of a lot of fun. The sailing stuff is just the right mix of simplified controls and naval combat strategy, the open world built around the Caribbean islands is simultaneously gorgeous and filled to the brim with entertaining things to discover, and Edward Kenway was a real breath of fresh air compared to his grimly self-serious grandson. This is one of the few games of 2013 that, after finishing the main campaign, I eagerly went right back out into the world just to see what other kind of trouble I could get into. Maybe there's hope for this franchise yet.
6. Gone Home
I have roughly the same amount of interest in debating whether or not Gone Home qualifies as a "game" under the rigid framework some like to assign this term as I have in dunking my skull in a deep fryer to find out if I'll drown or scald to death first. So, let it be enough said that I found Gone Home's surprisingly rich narrative and basic investigative mechanics more than sufficient to make it on this list. A lot of indie games flirt with the sensation of being personal experiences, but Gone Home is of the rare breed to completely envelop you in a character, a locale, a sense of space. The titular home is lovingly crafted to look precisely like the kind of house any of your friends growing up could have lived in. It's chock full of discoverable details that do nothing except make the place feel more lived-in. I wanted to walk in every room, touch every thing, try to cultivate a complete picture of this family's life, and it's to Steven Gaynor and his collaborators' credit that they were able to achieve this in a way that feels close to effortless. The tale it tells is a lovely one, and by the end of it I felt like I'd actually learned something about a person, versus some overwrought video game caricature of one.
Look, guys. I'll level with you. All this time you guys have been gleefully tittering over a sequel to A Link to the Past, I've mostly been over here casually shrugging and trying to remember actual things that happened in A Link to the Past. No, this is not a dismissal of your love of that game. Yes, I played it a whole bunch when I was a kid, but it's one of those games that exists in my head as a blur of images that I remember enjoying a whole lot, but not for any particular reason. I mention this because it's taken a game like A Link Between Worlds, which is easily my favorite Zelda game since at least Phantom Hourglass (and probably further back than that, really), to actually inspire me to want to go back and play through A Link to the Past again. This game reminds me just enough of what I remember loving about A Link to the Past while still managing to feel like very much its own thing.
Also, item rentals! How great of an idea is that? The dungeon designs are also some of my favorites in the series in quite a while, and I even dug all the weird painting stuff! And that music! Man, there's a lot here to give one hope that Zelda can still be an immensely entertaining game. That's a feeling I haven't really gotten from the last few entries in this franchise, and it's nice to feel that once again.
Easily my favorite 2D platformer of the year, and probably my favorite of the last several years. Origins is still a game I hold in very high regard, but Legends improves on that game's design in so many key ways that I found it kind of hard to go back to. The controls are tighter, the visuals are even sharper, and there's just so much different stuff to play through that I found it nearly impossible to get bored with it. Granted, different versions of this game have some differing mechanics--specifically, those touch-screen levels that are rejiggered a bit for non-touch consoles. So if I had to pick a specific version I loved most, I suppose it'd have to be the Wii U one. This is one of those rare games where touch-screen-based level design actually benefits the experience, as these levels are some of the most purely thrilling in the game, second only perhaps to those wonderful musical levels that appear in each world. I don't know what else to say. This game rules, and not enough people played it. If you didn't, you should really fix that.
Easily my favorite 3D platformer of the year, and probably my favorite of the last several years. This game is a goddamn delight nearly from beginning to end. The absurdly colorful visuals, the dangerously catchy music, the surprisingly well-implemented multiplayer, the cat suit...oh Jesus Christ the cat suit. Hang on, tilting my head back and drooling in a Homer Simpson-esque state of pure, uncontrolled bliss over here.
I think at some point I was talking about this game during GOTY deliberations, and I said something to the effect of, "Mario 3D World is what I imagined video games looking like when I was a kid." It really is. When I was playing those old 8- and 16-bit versions of Mario, I obviously adored them, but I also tried to render out the more primitive looking visuals in my brain into something crazier and livelier. Mario 3D World feels like exactly what I was picturing when I was playing those games. Sure, maybe the worlds in my head weren't specifically tuned for four-player multiplayer, but I'm not complaining. I get why a lot of people don't like this kind of simultaneous multiplayer in Mario games, since it can devolve into chaos. But I think 3D World does the best job of designing its levels for both single and multiplayer situations as any game in this series. It's a blast to play regardless of who you team up with, and every single little detail seems custom made to make tingles in the pleasure center of my brain. This is the game that made my Wii U purchase finally feel like an okay, and not recklessly stupid thing.
Brothers is another game, like Gone Home, that feels like an intensely personal expression through the medium of video games. It's possible you've already read up on Josef Fares and what brought him to collaborate with Starbreeze on this project, but if you haven't, you really should. It makes what already is a fantastically crafted journey seem all the more magical.
But even outside of its development origins, Brothers stands on its own as one of the most memorable gaming experiences I had all year. Others have commented on how every piece of this game feels vital, how there aren't needless extra puzzles or gameplay segments that don't service the main progression of the game, and I wholeheartedly agree. This is a game that delivers what it needs to in the exact amount of time required, sans any extraneous pieces that might cause its progression to drag. Its mechanics are also deceptively simple, or maybe they just were for me. I didn't have as hard a time as a lot of others apparently had trying to master the "one stick controls each brother" control design. Maybe this is one of those cases where being a drummer, I've just trained my brain to make my hands do two different things at the same time with relative ease. I don't know.
All I do know is that this game is gorgeous. Gorgeous to look at, gorgeous to listen to, and yes, it even plays gorgeously. I loved the control design even before I realized what those learned mechanics were eventually building toward, and once I got there, I was floored. For me, no other game stuck its landing so perfectly this year.
There was a long time where I wasn't entirely sure I would even get around to finishing The Last of Us. That is largely due to the fact that my time spent playing The Last of Us unfortunately brushed up against one of the darker periods of this year. When Ryan passed, I was a good chunk of the way through the game, but couldn't really bring myself to continue on with it once that happened. As much as I loved Joel and Ellie as characters, as much as I loved the scope of the post-apocalyptic world Naughty Dog had built around its protagonists, the relentlessness of the game's sad, desperate world was just too much for me at the time.
So I put it down for a few months, until I got myself back to a place where I felt like I could handle the emotional drain. I'm glad I did. Not because The Last of Us suddenly becomes uplifting, because it most certainly does not. Ultimately, I'm glad I worked my way through The Last of Us because in it, I found one of the most truly complete games I've had the fortune to play in my many years of doing this. Joel and Ellie are exquisitely realized characters, nuanced in their motivations and wonderfully voiced by their respective actors. Outside of a few moments that go a bit overboard, death also feels consequential in this game. The act of killing never feels routine or unremarkable. Each kill has its own sense of impact, each combat scenario requires thoughtful tactics, and regardless as to whether you're fighting an infected monster or a ill-intentioned survivor, the tension level is equally harrowing.
I think this is one of, if not the very best looking game from this past generation of console hardware. I think the multiplayer mode--so often a meaningless afterthought in single-player focused games like this--is shockingly enjoyable. I think this is the first zombie game I've played in ages that didn't really make me think I was playing a zombie game. And that ending is...well, if you've played it, you can probably divine what I'd be saying right here, were I not adamant about not spoiling the conclusion for others.
The Last of Us is, simply put, an achievement. My sincerest appreciation goes out to everyone involved in its production.