Carrie Gouskos is the Director of Studio Operations at Mythic Entertainment, an Electronic Arts studio. She has been working in or around the games industry for nearly 15 years, but many of her fondest memories come from just under 2 years working with the “dream team” of game journalism at GameSpot from 2004-2006. Twitter!
2013 was a memorable and emotional year for me. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to “get back on track” with playing video games for fun. As a game developer, I have gone through some shamefully long stretches without playing games after long days at work, and those are the only times that I regret that my career dovetails with my favorite hobby. Happily, I was able to play many of 2012’s and 2013’s best games this year.
Looking back on the year, I spent 90% of my game playing time on mobile, a huge change from previous years. Almost none of these games make my top ten list, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes soon. Mobile games are getting increasingly complex and interesting and showcase a remarkable range of mechanics--from retro cool to modern and game-changing.
Most of my professional achievements this year were bittersweet, releasing our studio’s first foray into mobile, Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar, which Jonathan Blow tweeted about (he said the first two minutes sucked). That has to be some kind of achievement. But I’m proud of the incredibly hard work the team put into the game, how ambitious it was, and that it received a blessing from Lord British himself, Richard Garriott. This year (on December 18th) we also shut down Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, a game that I spent nearly seven years working on or involved with in some way. It was an incredible game to be a part of, and the memories of working on and playing it have changed me as a person and a developer, forever.
Finally, and most importantly, a word about Ryan Davis. Ryan was an incredible talent, a steadfast friend, and a great drinking buddy. The years I lived in San Francisco, I am grateful for the amount of time I got to spend with him both personally and professionally. And I wish, deeply, that I had spent more time with him in the years since. It is no surprise to me that so many people who didn’t know him felt like they did. Those feelings are legitimate, because they’re everything that Ryan was--real, honest, and fun to be around. It’s a devastating loss, but his work was prolific and will most certainly live on. Thank you for everything, Ryan.
And now my favorite games of 2013.
Of all the mobile games I played this year, Hundreds had the best combination of aesthetics, simplicity, novelty, challenge, and replayability. There are others that I considered for this list: Device 6 (if House of Leaves were a mobile game) or Tiny Death Star (a reskin of Tiny Tower that made it vastly compelling) or Covet Fashion (the game I swore I would never admit to playing) or Pocket Mine (which I played more frequently, but also more mindlessly)--but none of them had all of those attributes combined like Hundreds does. Simple, beautiful, hard, and cool.
I don’t know if the term “platform hell” will take off like “bullet hell” but I know that I love these games with a hand aching passion. There have been quite a few in the past few years, but Battleblock Theater is one of the most elegant. From the art style to the truly murderous challenges, there were levels that I never wanted to play again, and then couldn’t stop myself. I think it will be awhile before we see “makes you hate everything” as one of the scoring criteria for a great game, but Battleblock Theater does that better than most and should be commended for it.
Admittedly, I have not played very much Assassin’s Creed, so I feel a bit guilty including it on the list. I had more time with Dead Rising 3 this year, but where Dead Rising 3 is another great entry that doesn’t progress its franchise too much, Assassin’s Creed IV is to Assassin’s Creed III what the AC2 trilogy was to the original game. That is to say, it took some good ideas and evolved the series. The most recent AC games may not have (to borrow a Brad Shoemaker word) the majesty of running around big beautiful Italian cities, but they’ve captured a new magic in its place. And while I can’t speak yet for how long this remains compelling, I can say that all I want to do right now is wrap up this list so I can get back to playing it. That’s probably a good thing.
Like other sequels this year, and despite the visual difference, BioShock is not markedly evolved from previous versions of the game. In this case however, that’s okay. A great game makes you want to keep playing it, and since the original BioShock released, I’ve been looking for another great mix of action and dystopian story. Infinite does its series incredible justice and may very well be the best one yet.
In a year of new consoles, it’s not surprising that some of the best games came out on the PC and 3DS. There were a remarkable number of thought-provoking independent games on the PC this year. I had considered including Gone Home, which is a beautiful story that is emotionally evocative--but in hindsight Stanley Parable does great emotional story telling better (though admittedly via a much different emotion). Funny and clever, The Stanley Parable is not a long game, but it’s a game you can keep playing to find all of its hidden moments. Just when I thought I had found them all, I watched someone else play and find completely different endings. If someone had pitched “a video game version of Stranger Than Fiction”, I wouldn’t have believed it could be pulled off, but The Stanley Parable does it perfectly.
5. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS)
New Leaf is a lot like the other Animal Crossing games, and yet it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s the same and yet it’s better, and I couldn’t stop playing it.
After I beat Beyond: Two Souls, I immediately wanted to replay certain moments to see how they might turn out differently. As a self-professed "non-reader," I find myself most compelled by games that do storytelling in a way that speaks to me without forcing me to read pages and pages of text. It could (and has been) argued that the game doesn’t have enough mechanics, but like Heavy Rain before it, Beyond: Two Souls generates some really strong emotional experiences that are memorable. Despite some dubious plot elements, the game was interesting, evocative, and new. It may not be like many other games in the traditional sense, but I love the idea that the genre continues to evolve with experiences that don’t subscribe to traditional definitions.
3. Tomb Raider (X360)
Tomb Raider was the best reboot to come out this year. From a franchise that has seen both highs and lows, the new Tomb Raider is the best of what made the series classic, and yet different in many ways. In thinking about my favorite games this year, I have commended games for being the same but better, and for being completely different. Tomb Raider manages to fuse both into one experience, and finally I don’t feel quite so guilty admitting what a fan I am of the franchise.
After reading commentary that included such hyperbole as "the best Zelda since A Link to the Past," I’ll admit that I didn’t want to like it. Nobody puts Ocarina of Time in the corner. But A Link Between Worlds managed to pull off a great feat: It felt and played so much like a 2D Zelda (and not just any 2D Zelda, but the BEST 2D Zelda) and it also is the first game where the 3D camera felt useful and made sense. As far as gameplay mechanics goes, this is a tremendous accomplishment. It feels both retro and evolved, and every Zelda fan, even those crazy people who like Majora’s Mask should stop what they’re doing and play it right now.
1. The Last of Us (PS3)
The Last of Us is tremendous. With rich characters and a story that is not a stereotype but actually very complex, The Last of Us pushes our medium forward by leaps and bounds. My only criticism of the game is that after playing it everything else felt so last generation. Its visuals, game mechanics, story, and narrative are a true testimony to the power of video games. At times it made me laugh and cry, made me scared and angry, and ran me through all the paces of the storytellers’ great imaginations. It may very well be one of the best games ever made.