Brad Muir is a designer at Double Fine, previously responsible for the likes of Iron Brigade, and now hard at work on the Kickstarter-funded Massive Chalice. He is literally incapable of feeling sadness, and can often be found on Twitter throwing out alarming quantities of enthusiasm.
It’s been a crazy year.
Giant Bomb has always been a pretty silly place, but this year I was reminded how it’s also always been a community full of earnest people coming together to share something they love. Thanks for this opportunity for me to share some silly shit I love too! :D!
10. Dota 2
Yep. It’s that bad. Dota 2’s on my list again! The hooks have been planted deep.
When I was still pretty new to the game I got to see a couple of matches from The International 2 in 2012 at PAX. Even though I didn’t know enough about the game to really follow what the hell was going on, the experience was still amazing. Just like a live sport, the energy of the crowd is infectious and it made me want to understand the game at a deeper level.
I’ve been playing a lot since then, and my Dota fever really peaked when I got to go to The International 3 this year. Understanding more of the complexity and nuance of the game made watching the pros a rewarding experience. The level of skill and teamwork exhibited by these teams is awe-inspiring, and watching the games with several hundred screaming Dota fans was a blast. Spectating live Dota comes really close to the intensity of a live college football game. That’s something I never thought I’d say about an esport, but I think this stuff is real and will only pick up more steam in years to come. So yeah… you should play Dota. :D
I’ve always been a fan of the Hitman games, even though they’re not the most polished experiences out there. Their mission design and setups have always been solid, but the mechanics were never quite there to back it up for me.
But with Absolution I feel like IO Interactive crossed the threshold of gameplay feedback that made Hitman super playable for me. They also made some harder and simpler rules for the disguise system that made the wardrobe changes more satisfying (as well as occasionally hilarious).
There are plenty of problems with Absolution: the overall narrative is pretty weak, you have to do lots of loading if you want to stay stealthy, all of the enemies respawn when you load your game(?), and of course there was the whole punching-sexy-nuns-in-the-face debacle that made my stomach flip. But overall I really enjoyed the core mechanics and the variety of individual mission scenarios that were presented and I was hooked to play it all the way to completion.
Vlambeer is insanely adept at knowing the details that matter and then not giving a shit about anything else. Their latest, Nuclear Throne, is another sterling example of this. It’s got chunky pixel graphics and it’s presented in a crappy 4:3 window, but none of that matters when you start playing through this roguelike. Tight controls, great mechanical depth, weird character design, great replayability… it’s a blast.
This is the kind of game that really makes me question myself as a game dev--are we focusing on the most important thing? Will anyone really care if we do this small detail? Vlambeer’s got this stuff down to a science and I hope they keep cranking out games like Nuclear Throne! :D!
Another game that I put off playing until January, Mark of the Ninja is just an incredibly solid piece of game design. The level of constant feedback that you have while stealthing around these 2D levels is amazing and really helps build the power fantasy of being a sneaky, deadly ninja. It doesn’t hurt that Klei’s clean, readable aesthetic is really strong throughout the game. The overall story was forgettable, but when the gameplay is this tight I couldn’t care less! :D!
I haven’t played a ton of Papers, Please, but I don’t think that matters. It’s a unique experience that deserves to be on this list!
The brand of stress created by Papers, Please is the chief reason why I have a hard time coming back to it. But I also I feel like this stress is the game’s greatest achievement. The human choices that it presents you with are incredibly anxiety-inducing--do you let a man’s wife through your checkpoint even though she doesn’t have the proper paperwork or do you detain her? And when the whole experience is timed, with your family’s health on the line, it just becomes overwhelming at times. It’s amazing that Lucas Pope was able to create such emotional weight with such a low-fi experience.
It’s also worth noting that Papers, Please is the only game I can think of that does “nonsense voice acting” in a way that’s super endearing. I love the use of the weird old school digitized voices as the characters approach your booth. Awesome. :D
5. Rogue Legacy
Rogue Legacy builds on the Spelunky-style roguelike platformer by adding tons of great features, the foremost among them being persistence. I love that every character that I took into the castle had a chance at earning a new skill point or equipment upgrade even if I wasn’t able get them to accomplish a major goal. This feeling of permadeath mixed with a throughline of persistence was really addictive. It was also super clever to wrap it in a generational theme. This context helped me feel more connected to these characters, knowing that if I could just collect a little bit more gold before I died then my kid would have a slightly better life. :D
I also loved seeing screenshots of the teams’ old games randomly hidden in the castle. I learned that the team responsible for Rogue Legacy also made the Flash classic Don’t Shit Your Pants. Mad respect! :D!
For being such a mechanics-lover I was surprised at how interested I was in The Last of Us as it approached its release. Even though they’re beautiful and incredibly well-made I was never drawn to the Uncharted series. But something about the emotional upshot of The Last of Us was really grabbing me and I couldn’t wait to check it out.
I don’t think the game lived up to what I wanted. There was a bit too much mandatory combat, and unlike Hitman or Mark of the Ninja I felt like there wasn’t enough feedback in the stealth mechanics to allow me to really master them. I understand that this could be an intentional choice to disempower the player and lead to more chaotic combat scenarios, but overall I just found it frustrating and it led to some cheap deaths and reloading. Bummer!
As the game ramped up Joel was becoming Murder Man, which felt like it was against the tone of the game. But by the end I think that this mechanical shift really worked in the game’s favor. I really liked how they mapped Joel’s story arc to the increased mechanical competency that a player naturally gains as they play through the game. Interesting! :D!
Things went a little off the rails with the story near the end, but the final moments of The Last of Us left me speechless. I can’t think of a simpler, more powerful ending to a game narrative! Even with some of the rough parts of the game (how many floating crates did I have to manipulate?) The Last of Us still managed to be a very memorable experience.
3. Gone Home
Steve Gaynor and pals created something that’s really special. The writing and voice acting felt incredibly honest and emotional to me, and while I can’t really relate to an adolescent lesbian awakening I can certainly relate to being singled out, taunted, and bullied at school. It also helps that the game is a '90s period piece so I was able to appreciate all of the little environmental touches in the house!
I also really like what Gone Home represents at this point in the games industry. Having more mature examples of games to point to is certainly a bonus as gamers are getting older and potentially aging out of murder simulators.
All of the debate that’s circling Gone Home is also super valuable. Is it a game? Is it worthy of the praise? Is it worth your $20? I think the answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES, but in the end I hope that the discussion is just increasing the reach of the game, allowing more people to try out this cool empathic journey for themselves.
The follow-up to my favorite game last year, Enemy Within added a ton of strategic and tactical depth onto a really solid base. The new mech troopers and genetic modifications are cool additions that also play well into the thematics of the game--how far are you willing to go to win? I wish that they had driven home these thematics by giving the player some meaningful mechanical choice here. As it stands you kind of have to use the aliens’ weapons and technology against them in order to have a chance at fighting back.
But it’s a minor point! There are so many worthwhile additions to XCOM jammed into this expansion that it makes the game seem almost-brand-new. And as we watch the rise of Free to Play games it’s incredibly refreshing to still be able to buy a 30 dollar old school PC expansion that’s packed with value! :D!
1. Dota 2
Ok I felt like I needed to round it out to an even 10 games, so Dota 2 is is also my number one game of 2013. I’ve played so much of it that I think it’s justified. :D
So yeah… Dota 2. The lows are real low, but the highs are so extremely high that I have a full-blown Dota addiction at this point. I’m not sure how much longer it’ll last but it’s been a fun and frustrating ride! :D!
Brad Muir portrait by Michael Firman.