Adam's Top 10 Games of 2013

10. Year Walk

Year Walk isn't a horror game. Not really. But it's atmospheric in a way no other iOS game has ever done for me. It's easy to play this game alone and, after a good while, feel like there's someone else there with you, watching what you're doing. There aren't any cheap scares (though there are some scares, so you never quite feel safe), it's all an unsettling blend of emptiness/loneliness.

The other winning piece of this is the puzzles, which often require you to write logic down on a piece of paper or even use another app on a phone to try and solve them. I was completely into it the whole way. (Special shoutout to their more recent game, Device 6, for doing the same stuff.)

9. Pikmin 3

I bought a Wii U like many of you. And like many of you, I spent a lot of time thinking about the tablet, going "what is this thing even for". ZombiU (and later, Wind Waker HD) was a neat answer to the question, though the idea of a separate inventory/map wasn't enough to convince me of its practicality.

But then Pikmin 3 came along and stole my heart. The tablet didn't feel gimmicky anymore, it felt like an essential tool. Using it for multitasking, and sending multiple characters around the map and giving orders, felt natural and when I nailed it down, I found myself ripping through the game at a hilarious pace. Even at the midpoint where they hit you with an unexpected obstacle, I didn't ever feel like I was struggling to keep up. It had its quirks, but no other game has used the tablet that well as far as I'm concerned. I hope Nintendo keeps running with that example.

8. Proteus

The sound design is second to none, and exploring and re-exploring the colourful island is a joy to me. But. The real reason I picked this game spoils it a bit, so probably don't read beyond this paragraph if you don't want that.

Still with me? Cool. (Also remember, like any piece of art, this is just my interpretation, so take that as you will.)

Proteus deals with the ideas of life and death in a progressive way. The changing seasons, from birth and discovery in spring, to the vivid life of summer, to weary decay of fall, to the stillness and finality of winter, perfectly reflect a human life. But it's the circle of statues that took my interest. They're out of place, and your reaction to them differs by season. They seem odd and distant during spring, but during fall and winter, they seem more and more scary. But by winter, they aren't scary at all any more. The game reacts to them neutrally again. To me it feels like a reaction to the idea of death during that period of your life.

So, OK. I should be more direct: I played this during a year in which I saw several deaths - the one that affected me most was one I'm sure you shared, since you're on this website too. It was during a time of quiet and reflection, and it brought me comfort.

That sort of game is pretty special to me, that's all.

7. Beyond: Two Souls

I don't need to talk about the reasons why I love the style of Beyond, much like any David Cage game. (They're often the same reasons other people can't stand it!) But, I think I had the ideal experience playing this game for the first time. Let me tell you about it.

I played it with a friend. She controlled Jodie, and I controlled Aiden. Most people I spoke to played the game solo, but it was from splitting up this way that I think we had the best experience.

As either character you can hand off control, but you can't take it back again until the other player gives it back.

This led to situations where she, as Jodie, would walk out of the birthday party without exacting revenge, and I'd be furious that she didn't turn around and teach them a lesson. Or, during other scenes with Aiden, I refused to let up and would often end up killing characters and making her furious that I didn't stop attacking. It could get really frustrating for both of us, but that's exactly the relationship that Jodie and Aiden had. It could also be more tender, and when we did cooperate, it was way more satisfying.

It brought us closer to the characters and once you're that lost in a story, it doesn't matter that the writing isn't that stellar or animations can get clunky. We were in it all the way.

6. Outlast

I play horror games. I am addicted to them. I am so used to playing them, that I'm serious, I didn't think after Dark Descent that a game could scare me that much again. I was wrong, twice. This is the first game that did it.

It's more about a rush of adrenaline than anything else. Horrible things would happen and it wouldn't let up or give you a chance to recover. It would take that moment to hit you with a jumpscare and send you sprinting from some other horrible thing.

The best scene in the game goes to the surgeon/doctor character halfway through the game. Absolutely mortifying character that made me actually yell in fear, at this game, alone in my own empty house. I enjoyed the whole experience more as a haunted house than as a story, but it delivers on the former. Hard.

5. Gone Home

It is very clear that some of the folks that worked on Minerva's Den worked on this game. It hits the two same highs that I get the most excited about: storytelling and atmosphere building. It creates some of the most interesting, well thought out characters of the whole year, and it does it without you ever even seeing a single one of them. And the house itself feels so big, yawning and empty, that it makes you afraid to open the next door or feel around the walls for the next light switch, even though you know there's nothing waiting for you in there. (Probably.)

I think I was always going to love this game. It is a nice short experience, but do yourself a favour and take your time exploring the house. You'll discover so many more things about those people and their lives than you thought possible with a few scraps of paper and well placed VO.

4. Knock-Knock!

And here's the other horror game I never saw coming. What's so scary about it?

Well, OK.

It might be the polar opposite of Outlast in how it tries to scare you. Instead of running on your adrenaline and ruining your sanity by screaming at you every few minutes, it quietly taps away at some very common anxieties, and waits for your imagination to fill in the rest.

It's not the sort of trick that works on everyone, but boy, did it ever work on me.

It blended the idea of being awake and asleep together, so you constantly question what's real and what's not. It forced you to go out and explore the house while keeping your eyes closed. But mostly, it feeds you spine-chilling text that permeates the actual game and starts weaving its way into your own brain, and the room you're playing in. Every time I put it down I couldn't sleep. I lost hours just lying awake in bed.

I have no idea why I enjoy doing these things to myself. But, here we are.

3. The Stanley Parable

Speaking of playing on someone's anxieties.

I didn't even love this game for the video game trope commentary (though that was funny too). I could put people in front of the game that never play any video games, and they took away just as much from it, from its commentary on narrative structure.

But it scared me too. Big time.

Think about the countdown ending. It's a three minute scene that mocks game design concepts like environmental cues and player expectations. While it's very cute in how it does this, it's for that very reason that I can't stand playing it, and also why it's probably the most resonant thing I've played this year. It's given me nightmares and stuck with me in times I'm not even thinking about games. The reason it does all those things is that it's playing on a really strong anxiety of mine, one of control (or a lack of). It leaves you helpless to a horrible fate and laughs at you the entire time it's doing it, making you feel pretty helpless. I hit a point of resignation at about 30 seconds to go the first time I played it and, thinking about it later, had no idea how it even managed to do that.

Any game that can trigger that kind of an emotional response is worth recognizing, I think.

2. The Last of Us

I wish there was more recognition for game actors/voice actors at times like this.

Don't get me wrong, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson get no shortage of press and praise. But, every member of the cast had an absolutely solid performance, from the host of voice acting they had to do, to the entire motion capture setup required for every single shot. They work their butts off just as much as any film star does, and they all knocked it out of the park.

It's easy to make a game filled with bullets and explosions and lose the actual characters in the midst of it all. Last of Us makes them into real, tangible people, that you care about and root for. It doesn't even just kill them off as often as it could to tug at the heartstrings (usually it comes up with something even worse).

I only played this game once, but only out of pure stress. I can't wait to pick it up again (after a good long break). (A very long break.)

1. Bioshock Infinite

I don't want to go on and on about infinite because that's all been done before. I just didn't get rocked any harder by any other game this year, that's all there is to it.

Bioshock was one of my favourite games of all time. I always need a pretty good reason to put a sequel on a list like this, but Infinite earned its place in spades. It was just fun. I just didn't have more fun with any other title all year.

No matter what other games were out or not out during 2013, or if I was feeling blue, or down, I could always just go play Infinite again. Starting from the beginning. And I would have just as much fun every time, trying new weapons, finding new audio logs, combining every vigor. Clash in the Clouds let me do that even faster, and that's not even to speak of the DLC, one of the best short-story followups I've ever seen to a big budget game like this.

I don't usually pick big-budget A-list games for these lists, but. This time I just had to.

That's it! There were so many more I wanted to talk about. These were the most heartbreaking to cut:

See you again next year when I'll probably be talking about these 2014 releases:

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Adam's Top 10 Games of 2012

During one of our weekly phone conversations this year, upon me mentioning how moving I found Telltale's The Walking Dead, my mother scoffed at me for suggesting that games could have any kind of emotionally engaging narrative. They're just games.

My mother has never at all taken well to my hobby, but I like to think that I have enumerated the benefits of the medium, and showed her many examples of how great it can be. So I took a moment when she said what she said to reflect on my own failure as a son.

As her child, I believe one of my duties is to share my life and my passions with her, so she can better understand the things I do and the things I like. I believe I owe her that (and many other things), as she is responsible for making me exist. But after twenty two years of living with me, I had not been able to show her why this medium can be so gripping, especially in a narrative sense. Now that she doesn't see me day-to-day anymore, I feel as though my opportunity to show her this has been missed. I understand that many sons and daughters the world over might throw up their hands in defeat upon reaching this level of resistance, but I refuse to. I will not give up yet.

So, this list will contain mostly games that don't just (or may not) give you something fun to do, but actually make you feel something, or mean something. I enjoyed Borderlands 2, XCOM, Diablo 3, Sleeping Dogs, Far Cry 3... and they were some of the best... but those won't be on this list, because they didn't really mean as much.

1. The Walking Dead

Writing this brilliant can't happen in the same way in other media. More than those, a game's protagonist has to be an appropriate vessel for the player. Lee was an amazing character, with just the right amount of malleability in the dialogue, allowing each player to take his relationships in the directions they would if they were him. Add Clementine to that, probably the best-written child character I've ever seen, and a full cast of believable survivors, all with absolutely impeccable voice acting every step of the way. I think for sure one of the more overlooked but biggest reasons for this story's success is the solid vocal performances put out by every single member of the cast. When it was over I wanted to go hug everyone I cared about. If journey made me appreciate my own life, this game made me appreciate the people that I care about, and to not take them for granted. None of the people I care about play games (I don't really have any gaming friends at all)... so most of them were very confused at my sudden, sharp increase in affection toward the end of the year. These games are why. These games are incredible.

2. Journey

This game is a direct personal parallel to my own year. I ended up completely switching careers; I used to work in advertising in Toronto, and I was on the brink of making a move into a bigger position in that industry. Instead, I moved out west to Vancouver BC to work for a university doing LMS dev/support work. It was a clutch decision, but I'd been looking for a career that offered more rewarding work than... just, making money for the sake of making money. At the school, the work I do makes people smarter, pursue knowledge for the good of all people. So the game had a hilarious coincidental parallel with an important time in my life, when I reached one of my own mountains (...literally, and metaphorically), and get to fly back across the sky, looking back on all that's happened to get me here and just being happy. I think that's it more than anything. This game makes me happy, and appreciate all the amazing things I've gotten to do in my own life, not in the game. Plus it's gorgeous and with any luck, the soundtrack could bring in a Grammy. So all that's pretty swell, also. But this game makes me appreciate life in a way I never thought possible. Making a pixar-esque film of this story might have had a similar effect, but actually going through the struggle yourself, with a stranger along with you to lean on, just hits home so much more.

3. I Am Alive

I think I'm the only one who liked this game. It controlled pretty horribly at times, and it ended badly. It was a poor victim of a game, cut short of its potential as something great. But, I found a lot worth spending time on here. It had a haunting world, with a great sort of dissonance in everything you did, saw, and heard. Like in the apartment building when I was attacked by, and had to kill, a group of squatters who were defending their territory and got violent; then went up a level to find a whole floor of friendly folks, containing one child who asked, "Have you seen my parents? They went downstairs a while ago." It was very unsettling at times, and I loved the idea of having to so tightly conserve the little provisions, bullets, and arrows you had. It wasn't about shooting people (except when it was, but that wasn't as often as other games). It was about thinking about whether to shoot people. Even if people were just defending their turf, for survival, maybe you need that health kit on the table behind them. Maybe you do put your second-last bullet in their head so you can make sure me in such a dog-eat-dog survival mode like that one did. I really hope Naughty Dog's "The Last of Us" will take ideas like these to a new height. In any case, I and those I played this with were really rocked by I Am Alive, despite everything.

4. Miasmata

That monster... it invokes something primal. It's just barely foreign enough to be a complete mystery to any person. When you lock eyes with it, what do you do? Hold your ground? Throw rocks to distract its attention (perhaps its eyes aren't very good, it uses its ears)? Just run like mad? In the moments when you're staring it down and it knows where you are... and you know it knows... and for a brief moment you're locked into inaction, staring each other down before one makes its play... those gave me a huge rush of adrenaline. Until the creature glitches out and runs in circles in front of you without attacking. While I'm at it, why can't I pick up more than one flower of the same type? Why can't I carry any more than one dose of medecine? Why do I, in the dead of night, hurl my torch away when I examine this object on the ground (oh, it's just a rock), and am incapable of relighting it despite having a lighter in my pocket that I pull out and use when I drop the torch again? Because it's an indie game made by a pair of dudes, that's why. So I learn to forgive all the crappy things for the stuff I liked. Maybe I'm better at it than most people (see #3 on this list)... but I think these games are more worth paying attention to as the ones that actually meant something to me this year, because they did.

5. Slender: The Eight Pages

I know, I know. It's not even really a game. I hesitate to include it on this list, but it was very important. Indie horror got a complete shock to the system this year when Slender had its brief popularity spike. This was a game that got several things right that most scary games don't: pacing, atmosphere, a gradual escalation of tension. The ideas weren't new but they'd never been quite so successfully combined. Another part of what made it worth mentioning here was it sharability. It runs on mac and pc, and costs nothing. It was easy to download and show to friends, have them play on a dare, alone in the dark on a cold autumn night. It wasn't universal; not everyone finds it scary. But most people find it stressful to play, in a way that makes you queasy and constantly uncomfortable. Scared or not, most people I showed it to didn't want to finish the game. They just quit because it was just like that. It makes people uncomfortable, even when they aren't people that really get into games. Its atmosphere is just something else. As usual, sequels are in the works and many offshoots and imitations have appeared twice the world over, but none of these things will be able to do what this game did the first time. This game should instead be used as a lesson. Horror, and scary games in general, can learn so much from the way it ramps up.

6. Mark of the Ninja

Mark of the Ninja could have been higher up on the list, probably. I enjoyed it a lot from a gameplay standpoint, I love stealth and this hit all the right buttons. The game does a good job of making you feel horrible even when you do a decent job. If you kill even a single person, one end game bonus has a big, unsightly red line through it. OBJECTIVE FAILED. It's also easy to get spotted and if any more than one dude is in the room with you, you generally end up riddled with bullets. OBJECTIVE FAILED. What makes this awesome is that it wasn't annoying, it was a challenge. Do it better. Be quieter. And when you nail those stealth moments and completely nail a level, man does it feel good. When we talk about a game having flow, this game's got it; it brings you in like no other. In terms of narrative it didn't do a whole lot for me (it felt a bit boilerplate), but even the world's best ninja movie would never make me feel like a ninja. This game actually managed to do that. Oftentimes, a clumsy, reckless ninja, but a ninja nonetheless.

7. Spaceteam

"iPhone games don't count!" nah, I'm afraid they do on this list, my commutes are filled with phone games - who has time to lug a goddamn DS around? That thing is an airplane system - so several games on this list are gonna be phone games. This one was deployed at parties, not commutes. But it brought more life to it than most party games in our arsenal. This made even the quiet/strangers in the group shout at everyone else as if they'd known them for years. Everyone's equal when you're trying to get someone to engage the quadtunnelling converter or any other switch of whateverthefuck on your dashboards. Games that can bring that kind of fun out of people are something pretty special. Johann Sebastian Joust just funded its Kickstarter, so it's coming out next year, and you can bet it'll probably be on my list then, for the same reason. Like Slender, it was also easy to share; it's free and works seamlessly on all IOS stuff we tried it on. So any iPhone/iPod friends just downloaded a copy and we went to town on wifi.

8. Asura's Wrath

God, why is this game even here? On this planet? Usually I don't buy into Japanese ridiculousness in animated stories. Dragonball Z? Didn't do it for me. But this... I don't even know where to begin. For some reason, this game does it better than any I've seen. His anger is so well deployed, and the incredible, cosmic things going on on the screen accentuate how angry he is. When there are twenty onscreen prompts at the same time screaming at you to push the analog stick right, you push that motherfucker right. And twenty arms sprout from his back and punch a dude on the right. It is... better deployed craziness than most craziness I'm used to seeing. It's also a nice blend of narrative and action, and the whole thing is broken down episodically so it's easy to jump in and out of the game at frequent intervals (complete with "previously on..." recaps before you settle back in). It's a game that got me really, really pumped. It was fist-pumpingly good.

9. Trials Evolution

This, like super meat boy, is the game I really regret having to put on a year-end list, but I just have to despite myself. I play games for different reasons. Generally, I have one reason, and be damned with the others. If I'm playing a game to see the spectacle or the story, and to feel cool about it, I usually ratchet the difficulty down to normal or even easy. I don't want me failing over and over to mess up my experience. Then, when I'm in the mood for something soul-crushingly hard, I play Trials. It's a good difficulty curve upward with absolutely no end in sight. I'm never going to finish it or beat every challenge. There's just no way on earth. And there's a swarm of user-made levels to consider on top of all that. No, Trials will always be around when I need to kill some time and I want to improve my hand-eye coordination, pattern recognition, my ability to repeat small delicate commands frequently and my anger management issues, all at once. It doesn't hurt that the game is incredibly well made, either.

10. Puzzlejuice

iPhone games count, I already said it! This one especially. There's a lot of tetris knockoffs but this so, so isn't that. It's great because it combines multiple mindsets. It uses two different parts of your brain, and is enough of a dick to make you switch between them, gradually more and more quickly until you can't handle it anymore. It's great brain exercise; I liked using it in the mornings on the way in to the office. I don't drink coffee and never want to, but this has a pretty similar effect on me insofar as waking me up and getting me alert. It also has one of the best gradual learning/difficulty curves I've seen, and it's easy to stay at a level where you're comfy experimenting with the flow of the game until you're ready to take things to a more complicated level. I challenge you to be good at this game.

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