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Cara Ellison's Top 10 Games of 2013

Our current favorite Scottish person unveils the gaming experiences that stood out most to her in 2013.

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.

10. Teleglitch

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.

9. Castles in the Sky

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.

8. Saints Row IV

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.

7. Proteus

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.

6. The Stanley Parable

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.

4. Shelter

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.

3. ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL

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.

2. Papers, Please

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.

BONUS: if you’re lacking something to play on iPhone over the holidays, pick up A Dark Room for two dollars. Trust me. Trust me. Or you can test out the cut down version here for free.

God, that was hard to write.

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Posted by Mister_V

"IS LIKE ROLE PLAYING KE$HA" - I think that might be my favorite description of SR4 ever. Bravo.

Posted by Scotto

Good list. I had a feeling you might show up here after your appearance on Scoops and the Wolf.

My only quibble: Please don't compare SR4 to Ke$ha - you'll ruin it for me. :D

Posted by lennyy

ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL

No. 1 on my "Name of the Year" list.

Posted by conmulligan

Another great list. You guys really knocked it out of the park with the guests this year.

Posted by Video_Game_King

Who the hell considers Kotaku a "fine" publication?

Posted by JasonR86
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Posted by joshwent

Curse you obscure indie game mentioning GotY lists!

(now there's so much more I need to play...)

Posted by FauxBen

More Cara Ellison on Giant Bomb makes me a happy person. This list is great and I'm pleased someone else besides me liked Tomb Raider so much.

Posted by I_Stay_Puft

@joshwent said:

Curse you obscure indie game mentioning GotY lists!

(now there's so much more I need to play...)

Already added Gunpoint and Risk of Rain to my wishlists on steam. Truly feels like more than ever a rise in indie game love this year, really glad to see.

Edited by Dallas_Raines

Man, I really do need to fix my broken PC. I've missed out on a lot of games.(Games that happen to be sitting in my Steam library)

Posted by ogto

fuck yeah Teleglitch is AWESOME

Posted by Mister_V

@jasonr86: I can assure you that isn't the case.

Posted by Humanity

Yes finally someone recognizing the wonder that is Tomb Raider, and a female at that! The industry is saved! Thanks Cara.

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Edited by edgeCrusher

Interesting. Tomb Raider certainly got a lot of love on people's Top 10 lists this year. I picked it up via Steam sale a few weeks ago, will give it a whirl in the near future. Sadly, I don't think my GPU is up to handling TressFX. :(

Posted by GaspoweR

THE REAL BEST GAME IN THIS LIST IS DOTA 2, MOTHERFUCKER. CARA JUST DIDN'T PUT A NUMBER SINCE THAT GAMES BEYOND NUMBER ONE!!!!

BLAT BLAT BLAT!!!

WHERE'S MY CHOCO TACO???

Posted by csl316

Cara's game of the year is my game of the year!

Posted by Danin

All I Want is for All My Friends to Become Insanely Powerful is pretty great.

Edited by Brodehouse

Every guest commentator seems to have enjoyed Tomb Raider more than the GB team.

Edited by ThankYouGiantBomb

I don't understand ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL at all. It's insane and incomprehensible (although that in itself made it pretty interesting to play). I don't understand what the title has to do with the game either. Does anyone understand it better?

Posted by Camling

I don't understand ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL at all. It's insane and incomprehensible (although that in itself made it pretty interesting to play). I don't understand what the title has to do with the game either. Does anyone understand it better?

I don't, I just know it brought a huge smile on my face and that is more than enough for me :)

Posted by slowbird

High-five for never tiring of the dubstep gun! I used it more than any other weapon by far. Heck, I bought the stupid collector's edition extras on eBay just to have a "real" dubstep gun even though I played the game on PC, which didn't have a version with that stuff. Dubstep gun is the real Best New Character of 2013.

Posted by Soapy86

Very interesting list.

Posted by dr_mantas

YEAH Tomb Raider. Maybe I'll check more of these other games out, someone has good taste.

Posted by forestd

@camling said:
@thankyougiantbomb said:

I don't understand ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL at all. It's insane and incomprehensible (although that in itself made it pretty interesting to play). I don't understand what the title has to do with the game either. Does anyone understand it better?

I don't, I just know it brought a huge smile on my face and that is more than enough for me :)

It's got two parts to it. At first, you do your job, breaking, killing, destroying (often yourself) in what seems like endless monotony. Parts of the (self) destructive events are related to sex and sexuality (the date, the "sex" afterwards). Then you hear the song and start to change, that's the second part. "I just wanna change" marina sings, and you do, small steps at the time. The title relates to this, i.e. self-realization is a form of power.

Now, what the protagonist wants to change is up to interpretation, but things become very pink and feminine, so something about sexuality and the like seems plausible, (the scene about ingesting pills and flowing through the black-now-pink goo is interesting in this regard).

TLDR: The player character leads a life of grey monotony and frequently dies (somewhat figuratively), but is inspired to make changes in his/her life.

That's how i'm interpreting it, anyways.

Posted by DinosaurCanada

Great to see some love for Shelter in these top 10's, definitely one of the most genuinely tense games I have ever played.

Posted by dezvous

Awesome! Despite incredible experiences like The Last of Us I ended up having the most fun with Tomb Raider. One of the most finely polished games I've ever played.

Posted by paulunga

I wouldn't call Ride to Hell or Leisure Suit Larry big budget. The second one was a Kickstarter game!

Posted by FlipperDesert

Man, now I wanna go look at pictures of the Titanic.

Posted by StarvingGamer

"Complex as a clock inside a clock"

Huh

Edited by Milkman

Nice to see Tomb Raider getting some love. I think it's a pretty critically overlooked game.

Posted by JackSukeru

That Shelter game is alright, good ideas. Some of its quirks when it comes to AI was annoying though, as I didn't always feel it was my own fault when I messed up and lost a cub. It's also rather shallow mechanically. Still, some good ideas on how to make a game with consequences. I thought the ending in particular was interesting when I considered how different it would have felt had I not managed to save any of my cubs.

I'm playing Tomb Raider right now, right at the end of the year. It's pretty great, kind of a weird mix between grim, seriousness and spectacle but good and fun. Definetly enjoy the gameplay more than I did the Uncharteds I played. Some drawn out gunfights are still tedious to get through, though.

Posted by GunsAreDrawn

Tomb Raider. LMAO

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Posted by ELpork

"IS LIKE ROLE PLAYING KE$HA".... I can not faint fault with that statement.

Posted by ike7779

Interesting list. Enjoyed Cara's Bombing in the A.M. appearance too.

Posted by RVonE

Tomb Raider. LMAO

Tomb Raider is a fantastic game.

Posted by thainatos

Fuck yeah Teleglitch. Fuck yeah Porpentine. Fuck yeah Cara. Best list.

Posted by Brackynews

All iOS games on these guests lists are bonus games for me. :) Nice to discover stuff.

Added A Dark Room to my wishlist. Can't think of a reason it needs to require iOS 7, and there are still reasons for me to stick with iOS 6 for now.

Posted by JamesM

Huge kudos for the Look Around You mention. That programme was great (particularly the first series).

Posted by 5Figh

well-written list and all but where's Slave of God, the game that she said was her GOTY on bombin in the am like three weeks ago?

Edited by TheManWithNoPlan

Great list. I really love seeing some of the variety these guest lists bring. A wide range of choices and a wide range of opinions. Fantastic.

Posted by Hassun

@mister_v: That line seriously made me not want to ever play SRIV.

Posted by axlvandamme

Finally Tomb Raider getting some love around Giant Bomb. It was my favorite game of the year.

Edited by Phuturist

Lara is not a murderer?!

Hell, she shoots a guy who is begging for her to kill him to make the pain stop and she grunts "Go to hell!". She is a terrible, horrible person!

But mechanically that game was dope, so I get why one would enjoy a less linear Uncharted. Still though....the writing....man.

Edit: So I read it again, and I got wrong at first. She doesn't like Lara being a horrible mass murderer as well. All is good.

Posted by White

Finally, someone ranks Tomb Raider highly. That game is under appreciated.

Edited by scottygrayskull

Problem with the suffering is you build it up to the point where people say "I gotta see this for myself!". Isn't that what happened with RE6?

Good list!

Posted by Xeirus

@rvone said:

@gunsaredrawn said:

Tomb Raider. LMAO

Tomb Raider is a fantastic game.

It really is, the only people who seem to talk shit about it are the ones who haven't -actually- played it... irony.

Posted by Y2Ken

Heck yeah, Look Around You. One of my favourite TV shows, period.

Posted by Xymox

Yes, this is a great list. I need to play that ALL I WANT game.

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