By Mento 12 Comments
Hey all and welcome to the only Game of the Year Awards Show you'll ever need. Actually, I'm fairly sure you don't need any, but here's one for you regardless. No need for me to reiterate what sort of year 2013 has been: for one reason or another, it's been kind of crappy. This doesn't apply to its games though, which have been consistently quite excellent, has seen the continued slow creep of highly regarded Indie games and has introduced a couple of big players in the Xbox One and PS4 that'll be interesting to watch in 2014. Will their bitter rivalry force them to constantly out-better each other and create marvellous exclusive after exclusive, or will they fade into the background as everyone's re-acquired taste for the increasingly accessible world of PC Gaming continues on? Fuck if I know. I'm not Michael Pachter. Fuck if he knows, either.
What I do know is that some games came out this year and I played a lot of them. Not as much as I'd like, hence this year's award show being slightly shorter than last year's, but there's a fair mix of big retail blockbusters and subtle Indie critical darlings from which to draw my usual grab-bag of mainstay awards and one-off newcomers. Of course, I'll follow this all up with my personal top ten, which is hovering around the site somewhere as a list along with about a thousand others. Big shout outs to the community for putting together so many fun awards blogs to read.
I'm almost sorry that I'm about to trump them all.
BEST 2012 GAME OF 2013
I felt like I covered all the bases in 2012, since I was fortunate to still have a cheap means to play all the big AAA titles without shelling out $60 for as many minutes of game-time, but it turns out there were a few notable exceptions. Most of them were highly acclaimed Indie games that I was able to pick up in the Winter Steam Sale (and, spoilers for next year, that might just happen again this January). Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Analogue: A Hate Story, Unmechanical and Rochard were all excellent games that lived up to their reputations and then some, but the game that left the strongest impression was the final game in the Operation Rainfall trilogy: Pandora's Tower.
Pandora's Tower is an odd game to describe to people, even given the accepted level of inexplicability usually found in JRPG games. For one, it plays like a character action game, albeit one that is rather bereft of the standard combos and specials. It has a strict time limit, which is often a dealbreaker except it's so indelibly linked to the game's plot and mechanics that it becomes tolerable quickly. It's also a dating sim. It's also a bit Rogue-ish, since the treasure refills every visit and is always randomized to some extent, thus a few "farming runs" become advisable when you're attempting to craft a vital power-up accessory for the next boss fight. It's Castlevania, because you have an exceptionally versatile chain whip used for exploration as well as combat. It's Zelda, because you have a discrete number of immense dungeons filled with puzzles to solve and secrets to reveal. It's a little of everything, yet nothing like anything I've ever played. In retrospect, it might well be the most curious game in a trio of already very divergent JRPGs. And it probably won't be recognized in anyone's lists this year (its a 2013 for North America), save @video_game_king, @slag and a handful of others.
But you know what? I'm cool with that. It increases the chances that it'll be discovered by someone some day and become their favorite game, partly on the virtue of it being some obscure gem no-one else is talking about. That's how games become treasured, after all.
BEST 2013 GAME OF 2014?
It generally doesn't pay to prognosticate on the year ahead, largely because it makes you look foolish. Last year's Game of Next Year (which is now this year) was XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which enthralled me for several days until its UFO missions got way too repetitive and prolonged, thus just missing out on this year's Game of Last Year (all this temporal confusion might be another reason why this category is a bad idea).
Rather, I do this to acknowledge and honor the games I didn't get around to this year. There's a lot more this time, what with the local rental store going belly up, so I doubt I'll ever find the time to go back and play everything of note in 2013. But I have a sneaking suspicion that this new Mario just might be right up my alley: it's a 3D platformer with glowy nonsense to collect, and no-one seems to make those any more. It's all finely-crafted 2D platformers with wonderful art styles, great level design, some dynamic thrills and a lot of imagination. But where are the tchotchkes? The gewgaws?! Sigh.
As for the other four games mentioned, I feel like I could end up loving any one or all of them. I happen to own Bioshock: Infinite and Ni no Kuni, so I'll be getting to those post-haste as well.
BUCKET LIST TICK-OFF OF THE YEAR
Because I didn't play a lot of new games this year, or least new in the chronological sense, I had a rare opportunity to catch up with some games that have been on my backlog for a long time, some for over a decade. I'm still slowly catching up on my beloved Yakuzas, Vampire: The Masquerade is another feather in my Troika cap (catching up with you, @arbitrarywater) and I finally got to experience the incomprehensibly bizarre adventures of Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. It came down to Planescape: Torment and The Longest Journey for my two choice picks from the Pile of Shame, and Planescape's subversion of the Infinity Engine series just clinched it for me. While I love a game with a strong plot and characters, and both these games had them in spades, I especially love a game that appeals to my game designer sensibilities.
Without going into a huge tirade about the brilliance of Black Isle/Chris Avellone's Planescape: Torment writing and structure, since I've done that once already, I'll just say that a game where you're best served by increasing your Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma to maximize your diplomatic and conversational potential, and where the biggest boosts don't come from slapping bosses and fetching knick-knacks but by actually seeking out the game's lore and your own forgotten backstory is a goddamn masterstroke of ludonarrative genius. I've really got to track down Obsidian's output, since that's where all the best minds behind Torment ended up. It's not like I don't have a few spaces on my newly svelte List of Shame to fill in, after all.
WORST BOSS FIGHT
This is a category that probably requires some explanation, and more than a bit of venting. I've always been in two minds about boss fights in general: I appreciate that a lot of people see them as holdovers from a simpler time, like extra lives and health packs, and something modern game designers should be trying to avoid in order to create games that feel less by-the-numbers, creating incredibly strong opponents for little other reason than because they're expected. Likewise, I appreciate that boss fights can often be the dramatic culmination of one's adventure, or a pivotal story moment in which a major nemesis must be overcome, or even the best way to ensure you've mastered all the tools at your disposal thus far into the game.
But even though I tend to lean towards the latter, there are still some really crappy bosses that make me wonder why the designers even bothered. I could probably balance this with "best bosses", but I honestly can't think of too many that really subverted my expectations or stood out in a meaningful way. Not like, say, the cleverness of Scarecrow from Batman: Arkham Asylum or the sheer one-on-one tension of Artorias the Abysswalker from Dark Souls.
Anyway, here's a brief rundown of this list. There might be a few spoilers. Actually, there's definitely a few, which is why I've left all but Javier Jaguar's name out of the nominations list:
Javier Jaguar is a late-game Guacamelee boss, and sort of a pointless insertion: he appears right before the final dungeon and isn't someone you really have beef with. Not like the flame guy, or the voodoo ghost lady, who make several important appearances to mock or belittle you or in some way draw your wrath. Javier just knocks a bridge out from under your feet in one of the earliest levels and then vanishes for most of the game. In addition, the boss fight itself is extremely arbitrary and unfair, with the boss having far too many attacks with invincibility frames which come too quickly to dodge. It's a slow, aggravating battle of attrition against an opponent that can decide to murder you at any moment with the right combination of unavoidable attacks. Not fun.
Gone Home's end boss, the restless spirit of Kaitlin and Samantha's ancestor Oscar Masan, just kind of pops out of nowhere. One moment you're attempting to find the key to the attic behind one of the house's secret panels, the next you're having to throw 90s girl band badges and X-Files VHS tapes at a swirling spectre while trying to paralyze it with loud Riot Grrl music. Though rescuing Sam and her lover Lonnie from their soul crystal is a touching conclusion to their story, and even though the game had been hinting at a horror element for its entire run, it just felt entirely incongruous to the game's down-to-earth core. Still not sure why all the glowing reviews overlooked it, frankly.
Shadowrun Returns's conclusion with an alien bug queen, her progeny and the cult protecting it would be ridiculous if it wasn't also so trite and Dead Space-y. Project X Zone had a handful of fun cameos as bosses that it ended up using over and over and over... in a game that wasn't spoiling for sources to draw additional antagonists from, no less. As for Rogue Legacy's bosses, they were just bigger versions of regular enemies - sometimes they had a few extra tricks, but mostly the big eyeball just spits fireballs, the big slime split into smaller slimes and the big skull just floated around menacingly like all the little skulls. Really disappointing, but then I hear they've added a few new bosses in perhaps as an apology, so I might have to check that out. All right, I'm done. Phew, that's a weight off my chest. A mostly censored weight.
WEIRDEST F'N GAME
My favorite award, given to games that just confuse the heck out of me either due to their peculiar presentation or odd design choices they may have made. I've been gaming for way too damn long to not appreciate a shock to the system now and again, even if that surprise ends up being detrimental to the overall experience.
That's not the case for our winner Antichamber, whose non-Euclidean antics utterly perplexed me more than a few times, but never in a way that I couldn't adjust and keep progressing. Discovering how to duplicate more cubes, or how to hitch a ride on a moving row of cubes, felt like I had somehow cheated the game - even though the experimental revelations of such "game-breakers" were not only anticipated by the game but required to progress past several of its puzzles. More so than its sheer weirdness, I appreciated Antichamber for approaching me on my level and not talking down to me like a lost, little child, which would've been entirely forgivable given its complexity.
As for the others,: NES Remix would be utterly bizarre if people weren't already familiar with Retro Game Challenge (by the same developers) or the meta-game achievements of that semi-recent Genesis collection for the Xbox 360 and PS3 - a clear case of a game's achievements breathing new life into some older games. NES Remix is still remarkable in its strangeness simply because Nintendo signed off on it, allowing several of its most revered trailblazers to undergo some odd experimentation. Project X Zone is just inherently daft due to its nature as a crossover between far too many Sega, Namco and Capcom characters to count. Video HeroeS was a wonderful Indie title I reviewed as part of the LA Game Space introspective where you're simply tasked with perusing a collection of high-res VHS movies (and other miscellaneous videos) to suit customer requests, and perhaps the oddest part of that experience was having the uncommon honor of having my blog quoted on the site running the project. And Saints Row IV? Well... Saints Row probably speaks for itself at this point. If you aren't on board with its imminent time-travelling sequel, it probably wouldn't care for your company anyway and, frankly, neither would I. Pfeh.
BEST LOOKING GAME
I was in two minds about this one. Tomb Raider and Saints Row IV were graphically incredible, but in a way that's almost anticipated at this point. I know, unreasonable gamer entitlement and everything, and I'm sure a whole squad of artists took months to put all of those graphical wonders together. These days, though, I find myself appreciating strong artistic design than stunning realistic graphics.
While I liked Guacamelee's angular Mexican elements and many goofy meme/game background in-jokes, I had to give it to Rayman Legends for once again creating a storybook visual feast that really has no peer. Well, besides Rayman Origins. Hence being in two minds about this decision. Gone Home's high-res paraphernalia and Antichamber's stark minimalism were visually interesting too, and perhaps diametrically opposite in how their art design fed directly into their respective games' personalities. Since I won't be buying either of the new consoles any time soon, I suspect I'll be on the lookout for the "visually interesting" over the "holy shit that looks amazing" next year as well.
THE "MIDWAY THROUGH THE SHOW" ODE TO FEMALE PROTAGONISTS
I don't mean to be condescending. Really. I also don't mean to defeat any arguments regarding this ongoing problem with all the sexism and misogyny in this industry by attempting to direct people's attention away from all the rape tweets to how gender-diverse modern game protagonists have been recently. That stuff's become a little too apparent to be easily ignored, and isn't something I'm cool with. Patrick's doing a fine job of drawing these idiots out of the woodwork so I know which nutcases to ignore. In an off-chance that you're one of those people, could you maybe knock it off? I'd prefer us all to focus on the games again. Take it to Fedora Monthly, and let my Twitter feed return to innocuous jokes about Waluigi farts (thanks in advance to @mattbodega, @babylonian and @glentennis for those) and Steam sale announcements.
So rather than anything political, I'm just stating - purely as fact, no subversive connotations implied - that in the 2013 games I've played this year, I've played twice as many women as men. I didn't believe it either until I checked the numbers. Of the twenty one games from 2013 I played this year, seven had distinctly female protagonists, five had distinctly male protagonists and the remaining nine either provided a choice (through create-a-character, or multiple playable characters) or had an ambiguous main character (like the unnamed and unseen protagonist of Antichamber).
So to Tomb Raider's new and improved Lara Croft, to the eponymous and obstinate Ittle Dew, to Guacamelee's mysterious and way-more-interesting-than-Juan underworld guardian Tostada, to the stalwart female warrior who killed TWO Rogue Legacy bosses despite her debilitating fear of chickens, to Sly Cooper IV's Carmelita Fox who was once again sadly relegated to a handful of missions despite her immense firepower, to the Crimson Ninja, to Kaitlin Greenbriar, to The Boss of the Saints, to Ursula and Barbara, and to all the other heroines this year: thanks for getting me to the end to a lot of games in 2013. And I didn't feel like I needed to protect a single one of you.
(All right, I guess I am coming off as a little condescending now, huh? Sorry, moving on.)
BEST NEW CHARACTER
Gotta love Keith David. Saints Row already played the "real-life celebrity as unimaginable badass" in the SR3 with Burt Reynolds, but let it never be said that SR4 didn't take every little thing that worked in SR3 and tried it again. Huh, I guess that's not too complimentary. Keith David was an inspired choice, due to his voicing minor series antagonist Julius Little. If you walk around with both homies in your party, they'll talk to each other about how they sound nothing alike. Just the sort of goofy little touch that Saints Row adroitly pulls off between all the big, dumb dubstep gun and Aerosmith nuke set-pieces.
The others, then: I've already stated my appreciation of Tostada - rare is the game where the second player gets the objectively better character (though that gives me an idea for a future list...). Ravio is not only The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds' biggest question mark, but he also represents that game's most subversive (for Zelda) element in the introduction of rented equipment. Sam Greenbriar's delightfully narrated story in Gone Home is one of the most affecting of the year, for as little as I am able to relate to it. And I feel like @jeff would've immediately identified with the Grizz had he played Sly Cooper IV; a trash-talking, streetsmart grizzly bear in a purple tracksuit adorned with bling, with Marc Ecko aspirations and a secret yearning to be a professional ice-skater. Alas, he's probably one of a handful of new characters in Sly IV that didn't fall way short of the mark, chivalrous Nolan North raccoon knights excepted.
When playing ESJ originally, I found myself nodding along with the righteous beats of its techno soundtrack but didn't think much of it as anything more as yet another ostentatious element of a game where men and women exclaim orgasmically whenever you hit a checkpoint. It's a very silly game, as I'm sure anyone who played it (or saw the Quick Look) can attest to. Divorced from the madness of that game, the music is indescribably catchy and I've been listening to several of its tracks on loop as I write this. My favorite has to be Valiant, with FireFrost, Vee, RPM and This Sound also earworming their way into my head. Peep the soundtrack here, and then go buy it on Ryan Roth's Bandcamp if you're so inclined.
Rogue Legacy had an amazing soundtrack too, though Narwhal (a.k.a. the Tower / Maya theme) is a clear standout. Project X Zone pulled a Super Smash Bros. and included a lot of modern remixes from its many featured game series: tracks as diverse as Street Fighter IV's Volcanic Rim and Tekken Tag Tournament 2's intro, to revamps of the Ghost and Goblins Stage One BGM and Morrigan and Demitri's Darkstalkers stage themes. The game's a celebration of its sources and doesn't disappoint, if perhaps only musically. Rayman Legends continues the trend set by Origins and additionally uses several licensed tracks for its incredible "music levels", and Guacamelee has a whole lot of catchy mariachi (maricatchy?) tunes to pummel and piledrive undead beasties to. Me gusta!
FAVORITE DUMB MEME OF THE YEAR
Nominees: Luigi Kills Everyone, Ten Games Better Than Brothers, The Rorietort, Doge, The Wolf's Howl.
So, all right, I don't generally like memes. They all tend to have a very distinct lifespan, and I often despise myself for trying to get on the bandwagon with a few of my comics while a meme is still current, because they end up looking horribly dated less than a month later. Even so, I feel like we're turning a corner on ironic appreciation of some of these, and that's better than nothing.
The "Luigi Kills Everyone" was me trying to come to terms with how many people died this year. Obviously, there's a rather major figure in our neck of the woods who I'll talk about a little later, but then around December a lot of famous figures started dropping off left and right. The conspiracy that Luigi, mad with power, is murdering everyone helped me deal with a lot of bad news by putting a really silly green cap on top of it. You all know the rest of the nominees, so I don't need to reiterate. The Rorietort is, of course, "you're a ____", which has come to something of a head after its liberal application throughout the GOTY videos.
FAVORITE STREAM OF THE YEAR
Tough choice, except not really, but Vinny's foray into the last few areas of Dark Souls has been this year's clear highlight. So many unforgettable moments, so much laughter from Rorie and Ian at Vinny's disproportionately violent and accident-prone antics, so many senseless murders. So much Black Knight 2000.
Breaking Brad's Volgarr the Viking run had one particular moment that will live in infamy for the rest of time, but the whole thing's been the sort of "go get 'em" joy that any struggling playthrough strives to attain. Likewise, Jeff Green's painstaking journey through Lordran - complete with his old man complaints about the controls and an apparent lack of depth perception - has taken on something of a Shinya Arino feel-good factor to it whenever Jeff inevitably defeats one of the game's many challenging bosses. His recent defeat of Kellogg the Chaos Witch is just the most recent notch in his claymore +7, and the funhouse that is Sen's Fortress beckons to irritate Jeff to no end for another grueling hour or five. But, you know, grueling in a totally satisfying way.
Two Best Friends Play has been producing a hell of a lot of generally high-quality LPing action throughout the year, including the ridiculous Russlemania month of Wrestling games or their second annual Shitstorm of Scariness horror game-a-thon, but their highlight has to be the complete dressing down of David Cage's latest ludicrous odyssey Beyond: Two Souls. They are unapologetically brutal to its many strange design and plot decisions, which I won't go into in case you want to experience it for yourself (their run or the game itself). Good luck. As for Pathfinder, there's no disputing the happiness that V-Bomb brings from the 'bove to all the good boys and girls, and the various rules lawyerin' fights and newbie confusion are every bit the perfect archetypal table-top experience.
BEST GIANT BOMB MOMENT
Goddamnit, I miss Ryan. I know, we all do. Some a lot more than I possibly could, and I shouldn't keep bringing up his absence and bumming everyone out. But the best thing to happen in Giant Bomb this year wasn't one of many laugh-out-loud moments, but how the entire community banded together in a time of grief and created oodles of heartfelt blogs, incredible artwork and many other forms of homage and tribute to the most gregarious and jolly yet acerbic and outspoken gentlemen I've yet to discover in this industry of ours. Sadly, I didn't get the chance to meet him in person. Envious of those who did.
Anyway, this is kind of a dour note to end on, so we have one more award to bring us up to an even (?) thirteen.
GAME OF THE GENERATION & BEST ANY YEAR GAME OF 2013
Was there any doubt? Going back a few weeks, when I was thinking about the most important games of the generation, I initially rated Xenoblade Chronicles as the most vital with Dark Souls trailing in second place. But while Xenoblade built a bridge between western MMOs and eastern JRPGs, Dark Souls (well, Demon's Souls, but Dark Souls was really the realization of DeS's ideas) took that bridge and leaped off it to be carried away into uncharted waters. Dark Souls marries an exploration-heavy RPG to innovative multiplayer elements and one of the best timing-based combat systems, and on top of that created an unbelievably satisfying level of challenge that is not meant to punish, but to teach. Yet as well as being a fantastic game in its own right it also manages to pioneer so many ideas that modern game design will be depending on for years to come. If you want to argue that "a game of the generation" requires any rigid criteria, you should either be happy with "a game that plays incredibly and has a distinctive personality" or "a game that introduced a lot of important ideas that will be employed in generations to come", and Dark Souls aptly fits both definitions.
There's also the fact that Dark Souls makes for the best streams. Screw your visually incomprehensible StarCraft 2 or your mechanically incomprehensible DOTA 2, watching Vinny or Jeff Green stumble into yet another trap never gets old. Ever.
Because I promised, and then promptly forgot, here's my Top Ten Games of the Year. I'd embed it, but horrible things happen when you do that. Hey, give the guys a break, they just moved into the new office. Zelda won, but you probably knew that. Or... maybe you didn't? If so, what other mysteries lurk within that link? Let's go see!
Anyway, thanks for sticking with me through a whole lot of text and stickpeoples talking about the best (and worst) 2013 had to offer. I'm really going to have to pay more attention in 2014, it's shocking how few new games I managed to get through. VBomb willing, we'll all be back here in a year and I'll have one heck of a show to put on for you all. Have a Happy New Year everyone, and I'll see you again in 2014.
(Or maybe tomorrow or Tuesday, since I'm not done with this year juuuust yet...)