For me, playing games toward the end of the year always ends up like that first turn in racing games; all the games I haven't played yet slam into each other as they vie for the top positions. Some get left behind, a few spin out and crash, others lose their front wing after attempting too close a pass on a straightaway, and... I've lost the metaphor. Anyway, here are this year's top finishers!
10. F1 2013
Codemasters has an incredible track record (see what I did there?) of making racing games that you can feel. In no other games do I have a keener sense of how much traction my tires are getting, where the momentum of my car is going, or that sense of speed that feels fast but still realistic. F1 2013 is no exception. Compound that with my newly-found fandom of actual Formula 1 racing, and this one is a shoe-in.
Lots of games claim to allow you to improvise your own solution to a problem. Too often I find this means you are given tons of useless weapons and gadgets in an effort to encourage "emergent gameplay," or that there is a "right answer" that you either find or bypass with brute force. Not so with Gunpoint. Not only did I feel like I was making my own solution to a problem, I also felt it was a valid solution. Plus, there's nothing quite like tackling a guy through a window.
We here at Giant Bomb appreciate going to great lengths in service of a dumb joke, so it's no wonder The Stanley Parable struck a chord. The game does a masterful job of toying with your expectations as a player, and best of all, it's just plain funny. The less I say about The Stanley Parable, the better. It's best to just experience it.
I liked Heavy Rain, and wasn't expecting much from Quantic Dream's next game besides "Heavy Rain with Ellen Page." I think that's why I liked Beyond as much as I did: low expectations. As a game that tries to merge cinematic sensibilities with interactive elements, Beyond is in my opinion much more successful than its predecessor. It's just smoother. Sure, the button prompts to open drawers are still there, but you're not twisting the controller around all the time or holding down four different buttons every time you want to see what's in the fridge. Additionally, the focus on one central character really plays to the game's strengths. Throughout the game, I didn't feel like I was playing an already established character so much as I was defining a character with every dialog choice. And HO BOY does that story go in some crazy directions!
Who would have thought that a 2D game where you play as an immigration inspector would be so engaging? I hesitate to call the game "fun" since it's hard to have fun while acting as the strong arm of a totalitarian regime, but the way the gameplay ties into the themes of the game is simply masterful. Your family needs your support to stay alive in a bleak, Soviet Union-inspired nation, but for them to prosper requires you to break the rules of your job or your own morality, like taking bribes or needlessly detaining people. What Diner Dash did for restaurants, Papers, Please does for communist bureaucracy. The game gets lots of mileage from its sparse elements (the "next please" loudspeaker sound effect alone will make you feel like you're waiting in a bread line), and immediately pulls you into its dystopian setting from the moment the title card marches onto the screen.
Confession time: beyond poking around the original NES version as sort of an archaeological experiment, I've never really played a Zelda game. I have instead absorbed the majority of my knowledge about the series through osmosis. As a result, I don't really have any of the nostalgic reverence for it that most players do. So it's with some surprise that I found A Link Between Worlds to be such a fantastic game in its own right. It is technically sound, with solid controls and a beautifully executed art style; it is wonderfully designed, with inventive puzzles and tight pacing; and to top it all off, it's just plain fun to play. This is a game that, despite being a part of a series that's older than I am, feels fresh and enjoyable, and can stand on its own without that nostalgic crutch.
I love surprises. When I first saw Brothers, I thought it was just a cute little puzzle game, with its quirky one-character-to-a-joystick controls and storybook setting. The puzzles weren't that challenging, but were fun enough if only to serve as a way to pull me through the game's gorgeous environments. But then the game turns. Before you know it, Brothers ceases being a fairy tale and starts becoming one of those dark stories that Germans wrote in the Middle Ages before they got turned into Disney movies. For a game without any understandable dialog (the characters speak a made-up language), the game manages to evoke a wide range of emotions. I commend it for delivering an emotional punch to the gut that I didn't know I needed.
3. Gone Home
I'm not a "collect all the collectables" kind of guy, but I scoured every inch of Gone Home's environment looking for more clues to unraveling its many intriguing story threads. I enjoy playing first-person shooters, but it's always nice to see something completely different being done in the first-person medium. The fact that Gone Home strays so far into experimental territory and comes out successful is really what impresses me, and it gives me hope that game developers are still willing to go out on a limb and try something new.
I'm a sucker for a good story, and Naughty Dog is among the best in the business at crafting video game tales. The characters of Ellie and Joel are believable and interesting, thanks to some fantastic voice work and writing. I never really got comfortable with the combat, but liked that I could tailor it to how I wanted to play (set to easy, sneak until caught, then light everybody up). The world of The Last of Us is not a place I would ever want to live, but man do I enjoy visiting it.
Irrational's ability to conjure up fantastical video game settings that are not only beautiful but also believable is, in my opinion, unmatched. I still got the same sense of wonder from Columbia that I got from Rapture way back in 2007. The wonderful historical touches and trademark Irrational twist to everything, from the floating cities to the giant murals of John Wilkes Booth, made me want to explore and see as much of it as I could. I didn't stray too far from the one-two punch of fireball and machine gun in the combat, but admired the fact that everyone I talked to seemed to play it a different way. And MAN is it fun to zip around on those sky-lines! The ending went way over my head, but I didn't care; I was too busy lamenting the fact that it was already over.