Best Horror Game (Patrick Klepek’s Biggest Scare of 2013)
Horror is much like comedy. It’s an incredibly subjective genre that might affect one person profoundly, prompting the individual to scream with fright, and completely bore the next. The best kind of horror elevates past the trappings of the genre, using its ability to manipulate our fears as a storytelling mechanism. Year Walk, one of two tremendous games from Simogo in 2013, pulls this off wonderfully. By wonderfully, of course, we mean it scared the crap out of us.
Year Walk is a game that’s tearing at its own seams, begging you to set it free. You have to rethink what it means to interact with a touch screen, discovering new ways to open this snowy puzzle box. Jump scares are a cheap tactic in the horror toolbox, but used effectively, they instill a level of imagined tension no amount of horrific imagery can match. A simple exploratory game quickly becomes much more, as the player hesitates to move, wondering if this normally quiet game will decide to speak very loudly.
The game even makes tremendous use of the whole idea of "apps" In addition to Year Walk as a game, there’s a Year Walk Companion app, which includes additional information about the world and its mythology. To anyone that’s finished Year Walk, however, you know there’s much more to be discovered, and the unraveling of Year Walk’s true nature is a mixture of terror and delight.
Runners-up: Outlast, Dreadhalls
Games That Require Post-Launch Apologies
This should go without saying, but somehow, in this, the year of Luigi, it’s a problem. We're used to the idea of patches. In the most ideal of scenarios, patches are great. Games have become increasingly complicated beasts, so much so that even Nintendo, a company that prides itself on incredibly polished games, has been forced to patch the occasional one. But when games arrive so completely broken that patches aren’t enough, and companies are forced to issue several apologies after release, it’s now crazy.
You could reasonably make the argument this should be the “Electronic Arts Games That Require Post-Launch Apologies,” given the company was forced to hang its head for SimCity, NBA Live 14, and Battlefield 4 this year. With SimCity and Battlefield 4, the company couldn’t even be bothered to sound reasonably upset about the experience consumers were having. No, that came later! With Battlefield 4, the first apology even included the company patting itself on the back for having shipped another version of the game! With NBA Live 14, the game was basically indefensible, and EA fessed up right away.
At least those games are still available, though. Ashes Cricket 2013 was released...and then cancelled. It takes a truly heinous piece of interactive software to require such an insane switcheroo. That 505 Games’ apology for Ashes Cricket 2013's complete lack of quality standards felt so heartfelt was welcomed, but let’s remember that teary letter came after they shipped a game it’d happily accepted cash for.
Get your act together, video games!
We don't see a ton of games about bikers around these parts, but if Ride to Hell: Retribution is all the world has to offer, maybe that's not a big deal. Deep Silver and Eutechnyx combined to produce a game that starts out as equal parts hilarious and horrid, but as you get deeper into the action, the slider moves closer and closer to the "horrid" side. It's buggy, glitchy, and twitchy across the board, but it's the bone-dry action, which has you occasionally riding a motorcycle in an unimpressive fashion or attempting to fight bad guys in a decidedly awful way, that drags this whole thing down into the absolute depths.
You might have seen some videos that make Ride to Hell: Retribution look like the hilarious kind of bad game that might be fun for that YouTube channel you've been thinking of starting. But do yourself a favor: Don't play this game.
This isn't Naughty Dog's first time in the top spot on one of our annual lists, so in one sense it's not a huge surprise that they've made it here again (and on the same console, no less). But what is surprising about The Last of Us is the extent to which this game departs from not just Naughty Dog's previous, mostly lighthearted work, but from the irreverence and superficiality of most of the video game industry's output in general. It's not that there aren't other games out there that take themselves seriously; it's more that The Last of Us deserves to take itself seriously. It's a work of subtlety and gravity that makes you feel like maybe games do deserve to be regarded with the same level of respect as the best books and films.
The core of the game's triumph is the developing relationship between survival companions Joel and Ellie, and the way their motivations change (and sometimes don't change) as they come to rely on and care for one another during a brutal, year-long trek across a savaged United States. The Last of Us relies on its characterizations to move its story forward in a way few games are brave enough to do, and it's fitting that the tale culminates in a way that's thematically appropriate to the characters and the story, and feels like a natural end to the tale. There's no reason The Last of Us needs a sequel, and that's a compliment. As poor as most video game endings are, The Last of Us sticks the landing and makes it look effortless.
That's not to give short shrift to the game's impressive mix of stealth and shooting. Naughty Dog wisely chose not to reprise the death-defying acrobatics of Nathan Drake here, instead restraining and focusing the gameplay on hard-scrabble survival that's more consistent with the tone of the story and the grim reality of life after civilization has broken down. The struggle for resources, for allies, for safety and some small comfort pervades every moment of the grueling journey from Boston across a large swath of the Midwest. Though you gain more tricks in your survival toolkit as the game wears on, you never feel like you're truly safe from whatever horror lurks around the next corner.
Naughty Dog has proven itself with cartoonish action and theatrical thrill rides in the past, but it was a pleasure to watch their first effort at deeper, more meaningful work. They made an instant classic.
Runners-up: 2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, 3. BioShock Infinite, 4. Gone Home, 5. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, 6. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, 7. Dota 2, 8. Divekick, 9. Papers, Please, 10. Rogue Legacy