Cara Ellison is a writer and critic who has contributed to such fine publications as Rock Paper Shotgun, The Guardian, Eurogamer, and Kotaku. She's also developed a couple of her own games, including Sacrilege and Sweatshop HD. Her Twitter account is @Carachan1.
Dearest Giant Bomb, this year has been my first year of Reviewing PC Games Full Time For A Living, and among some really great titles that I’ve come across, the larger budget games I spent time reviewing tended to be REALLY, REALLY BAD. No, honestly, amongst the things I reviewed this year were Ride To Hell: Retribution, Dead Island Riptide, and Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded. Honestly, do not buy these. I suffer so you don’t have to. So, most of the games I did get around to playing and really loving were very short independent titles, because they were low-investment, high reward, and could be completed in between all the absolute abominations I was reviewing. Here are my top titles that you might have missed, and some you certainly didn’t, in no particular order, for your delectation.
When I was very young, I used to watch Dr Robert Ballard’s footage of the finding of the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic over and over again. There was something alien, something completely science fiction about that underwater landscape, and and how the cloudy orange-green murk was trying to reclaim the wrecked skeleton of the once mighty cruise liner. Powerful lamps could see less than a metre in front of the submarine sometimes, the deep sea goop was so thick. This is the atmosphere I feel Teleglitch, a top-down sci-fi survival horror roguelike, has. This atmosphere is tense, murky, unreal, almost drowsy. You shoot because it’s necessary, and then the game bluntly refuses to help you out when there are more enemies than resources.
I’ve really just started playing Teleglitch. If you read me last year you might remember my evangelising of Hotline Miami, which I adored--that was my Game of the Year 2012. Teleglitch has a similar feel to the very satisfying shooting system in Hotline Miami, but Teleglitch plays very differently in many ways. Ammo is so, so short, and the atmosphere is lo-fi, so minimalist that sometimes it’s hard to make out what things are (which is clearly intended) and much of your slow dread comes from the fact you’ve run out of ammo, or crafted an ammo-expensive weapon that you’ve lavished all over meaty monsters and expended. It’s a wonderful thing, so complex and yet so simple. It’s fiendishly, dickishly difficult to play, but very worth the purchase. You should check out RPS Jim’s rundown of it.
Every so often I get violence fatigue, because I see a lot of games that are dark, cynical, gloomy, splatterworthy or just straightforwardly about death or disease. But indie developers The Tall Trees sent their debut storybook experiment Castles In The Sky my way, and it ended up charming both me and Scoops into writing reams of words about it. It’s such a tiny thing--like a little game picturebook about a boy climbing some clouds, with narrative written in the sky as you climb up and up, dreamlike. But when you finish this game, a real sense of contentment lays itself over you like a warm blanket. It’s a bedtime story. It’s only like a dollar. And if you’ve got a young family, it’s essential.
YOU HAVE GOT TO PLAY Saint’s Row IV. IT IS THE MOST JOYOUS, MOST FLIPPING OFF THE BIRDEST GAME ON EARTH. IT IS LIKE ROLE PLAYING KE$HA. This game revels in fabulous pop tracks, silly wisecracks, and is the poster child for gratuitous, zany, effed-up, ridiculous action role play, without ever being misogynist, without ever being exclusionary. It’s filthy without being nasty. It’s flippant without being dismissive. It’s exuberant, joyful, punch-in-the-gut dildo-flinging sandbox action, and I love it so much. I think it’s my favourite game of the year. And the dubstep gun never, ever, EVER gets old. Or the character creation screen. This is why we invented games. This is why flights of fancy were made white-hot digital my friends.
Okay, I’m including lo-fi procedurally-generated island simulator Proteus, and you can call me names all you like, but when I came home from a day working on commercial game titles, it was the only damn game I wanted to boot up. In fact, me and my friend Kerry would come home from working on games, and just have the lovely music playing in the background whilst we read and braided each other’s hair and pranced around the room in our underwear. (We actually didn’t do those last two things.) Proteus is just a another plane of existence you can log into, get your therapy from, and log out of, and really, that’s all it needs to be for. There’s so little interaction in it, and there doesn’t need to be. It’s a musical instrument you play that can never play a wrong note.
I think everyone who loves games should play the first person narrative exploration game The Stanley Parable. It’s a game about the act of playing games. It’s satire on us, the player. And it’s really, really funny. The level design is great, the narration is almost like being in an episode of satirical ‘educational video’ series Look Around You, and it’s just incessantly narratively surprising. A delight. I’d even show it to someone who had never played games before, completely unembarrassed. It’s the Monty Python of games, almost. Like a sketch from Flying Circus. Made me proud to like our silly digital junk.
5. Gone Home
The nauseatingly award-plied Gone Home, another first person narrative exploration game, stripped back shooting, removed all NPCs, and just told a really good story about women living in the 90s that didn’t involve hardly any embarrassing dialogue. Expertly narrated, and again, with very natural progression through level design, I thought this game did just what it needed to do and no more, and it made me laugh out loud several times at some of the quirky objects and notes I came across. Moving without being cheesy, and completely unpandering to the player in terms of hand-holding. Perfect. The very definition of pragmatic design with a delicious Riot Grrl soundtrack.
I feel like I’ve played very few games that have moved me so much as Shelter did, and it did it without any real… ‘characters’, I guess you’d say. This game, which you may not have heard of, is a game in which you, the player, control a badger. That’s right! It is a third person BADGER role-playing simulator. With a beautiful watercolour Japanese art style, this game is about you, the badger matriarch, guiding your little AI cubs from your sett across the big bad scary world (and it is very scary!) through several levels, or ‘fields’, whilst feeding them, and keeping them from being brutally killed. It’s surprisingly, surprisingly moving. I explained it better here, I think.
This is a game made by my colleague at Rock Paper Shotgun, Ms Porpentine, its title originally taken from a tweet by prolific game creator J Chastain. It’s a short interactive fiction browser adventure set in a dystopian future world. It’s easily spoilered, so I won’t say much other than you need to turn your speakers up to optimum listening levels. I had a rough time this year, and this game injected me with the power to keep going, and often, was the inspiration in my making my own games on the side. It made me feel extremely happy. It became important to me as the year progressed, to remind myself that not everything is static. Everything moves on.
Papers, Please is a stressful, important game about difficult choices that you make as a passport control agent in a sparse, Soviet bloc-inspired 2D world. It is a little game about the moral crunch of either depriving yourself and your family of resources, or watching someone else suffer instead. It’s hard to play, hard to watch someone play, and though it is full of black humour, in the end, it reminds you that life is fucked up, and that games can be too. I’d be surprised if you haven’t played it by now, given how championed it’s been by reviewers, but it’s the dark sense of humour that they often gloss over that really puts the cherry on this mechanically excellent and visually striking game.
1. Tomb Raider
The original Tomb Raider is a game that really made me want to play games for the rest of my life, and so the spruced-up gritty rebooting of Tomb Raider this year after a slight detour of the franchise into wacky plots was something that I’d always been looking forward to. Traditionally speaking, this new game bore the least resemblance to a contemplative Tomb Raider game yet, since it took most of its mechanics from Uncharted--the quicktime events, the funnelling the player into shootouts and things on fire--the linear nature of it. I often found the cover shootouts fatiguing though shooting was much better than most Uncharted games, but Lara for once actually had movement that seemed to flow, a camera that wasn’t a total tosser, and a sense of exactly who she was as a character. The biggest let down for me was that it wasn’t exploration, puzzle-based, or survival horror: if I designed the next Tomb Raider, I’d go much more Half-Life 2k14 with the levels. Give us some tombs to raid, yo. Lara isn’t a complete murderer. She’s just a nice lady who fell in a jungle. Anyway, a super competent action romp with some multiplayer attached that I assume someone played sometime somewhere, but, well, it’s a Tomb Raider game. Grab some of that single player. Lara also had nice hair.
I’d say something about Dota 2, but I guess everyone’s been playing that for ages anyway? Dota 2 is amazing and wonderful and complex as a clock inside a clock. Get 4 friends and sink yourself in its depths together.
A special mention goes out to the wonderfully written Hate Plus, the expansion to Christine Love’s Korean sci fi epic visual novel Analogue: A Hate Story, which has so much sex in it I felt a bit blushy. And I do not get blushy easily. And also to Depression Quest, which is a game that actually attempts to help spread awareness of how depression functions--a noble, noble thing.
And lastly, Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic is one of the most radical attempts to convey meaning through game mechanics I have played this year. Liz’s musical scores are also some of the most atmospheric in the business. The work is being done. Props.
God, that was hard to write.