2013 is the year most in need or a revisit. Every major release from this year plays different today than it did seven years ago.
2013 is the year most in need or a revisit. Every major release from this year plays different today than it did seven years ago.
Kentucky Route Zero is arguably the richest text of its time in video games, but it's a series bookended by episodes that I don't think wholeheartedly reflect the urgency and empathy of its magic realism. Case in point: episode 1 is a paired down, reflective, and languidly paced trek that primarily occurs via text boxes and a thin, monochrome grid of a map. The writing is DEFINITELY there, but it's lacking in context provided by later episodes, and the imagery the game uses at the outset just isn't as profound or as fascinating as other episodes.
Episode 1 is in itself a meaningful examination of America, sure, but it's almost certainly the least important part of Kentucky Route Zero. Considering the sheer potency of the writing and imagery in later episodes, I think the non-commital 'idk just go wherever' format was the series' most severe (only?) misstep. If episode 1 was as tightly designed, uniquely portrayed and as willing to occasionally surrender to the natural levity of magic realism as even episode 2, I think Kentucky Route Zero would've been a bit more widely appreciated.
Which brings me to...
Limits & Demonstrations:
Arguably *more* inscrutable than episode 1 somehow, but this time all the more fascinating for it. This short piece consists of three heretofore uninitroduced protagonists in Kentucky Route Zero as they observe and discuss the impossible art exhibitions in a gallery, all of which hint towards future events in the series. It's not the most fascinating expedition into KRZ's mythos, but it adds that essential flavor and flat humor that make the series what it is. For me, checking out this little mini-episode is what grabbed me after bouncing off of episode 1 twice.
Kentucky Route Zero clicked with me right away in a way Episode 1 did not. Episode 1 is about with the hollowing of rural America and the few scraps afforded to those trying to get by within it, and in practice played like sleepwalking through T.S. Elliot's The Wasteland with friendlier narrators; it's a game about people being left behind in time and withering from it.
Episode 2 is about the overstimulation and desecration of the life of the contemporary worker, and the inscrutable labyrinth of The New Workplace. If episode 1 passes by in a haze as you drift from shuttered business to shuttered business, episode 2 demands a kind of analytical laser focus. The simple act of traversing episode 2's landscape (let alone interpreting its thematic meaning) demands the memorization of a ruleset no one in the game's world can sufficiently explain, even if they've grown accustomed to it. It's an acute, viscerally evocative representation of the algorithmic nature of modern life.
This is the moment in which I realized Kentucky Route Zero was not only good, but that it could end up as one of the best written video games ever produced. This second mini episode is structured like a play about the internal monologue of a drunken barfly, longtime bar patrons with even longer tabs and an embittered bar owner who this time, after years of threats, is finally ready to give up the ghost. It's an affecting, Tennessee Williams-esque exploration of working class destitution, poverty tourism of the upper classes, loyalty, hope in spite of futility, and the steamroller that is big business. It's a jarring, incredible text that not only works as a piece of art in and of itself but that also further reinforces the core themes and mysteries intertwined within Kentucky Route Zero's primary episodes. The blurred lines between reality, art and unreality are never as bold as they are in this sequence, and the twist ending puts most of the work's perspective on its role as an 'empathy game' about people and capitalism into focus.
More than almost any other game in what has become a packed genre, Gone Home satisfies my addiction to explore spaces. Every single object, room, notebook and unpacked box has narrative significance to this game's unseen cast. As authentic a representation of what it is to be a teenager in America as you're likely to find.
A distillation of deconstructionist criticism, an analysis of the illusion that is player choice, and a deeply funny satire of game design, player expectation, and the corporate rat race.
Viewed through the lens of what we do and don't do consider possible within the AAA video game space, The Last of Us just kinda...has it all, really. We didn't need another apocalyptic zombie survival story, but The Last of Us demands that its tired genre tropes should reveal more about the human condition than the ever-retold 'people are the real monsters' twist. Neil Druckman's script allows us to spend hours in intimate conversation with its traumatized protagonists, and rarely indulges in pointless acts of cruelty or brutality. Its combat design is incredible, too. A zillion games promise that you'll have to really consider your ammo and supplies before opening fire on an enemy, but this game is the first time finding a single bullet gave me a wave of relief. On harder difficulties, surviving The Last of Us' fungal enemies is an intoxicating blend of problem-solving and quick reflexes.
Makes The Walking Dead - and by that I mean the comics, the television show and the games - look like a trifle by comparison.
(Citadel DLC) Mass Effect's final chapter is arguably the greatest instance of fan service in video games. It drops almost all pretense of plot importance to give players a dozen or so more hours with its incredible cast of characters. Playing this after moving home from college was like immediately reliving all the difficult goodbyes in video game form.
Saints Row IV escalated the comedy and mechanics of Saints Row: The Third SO HARD it broke the franchise and sent it straight to hell. This is a Crackdown-like, right down to the orbs, but a Crackdown-like in which the characters and their relationships with one another is the focus, alongside parodies of Mass Effect, The Matrix, Jane Austen, early 2010s American politics, and the Saints Row Franchise itself. It's a joyful, addicting rampage of a game. Where Saints Row: The Third doesn't quite hold up as well as it did in 2011, Saints Row IV is a great time by the sheer value that it plays so well as a sloppy, B-tier superhero game. I love the soundtrack, too, which puts me right back in that 2013 dubstep bubble (dubble?). It's unclear where the franchise could've possibly gone from here (considering Gat out of Hell and Agents of Mayhem, probably nowhere), but for my money this is still the best Saints Row game out there.
Grand Theft Auto V is one of the greatest technical achievements in the industry's history, and the tightest the franchise has felt EVER mechanically. Its infinitely memorable cast of sociopaths/vessels for American satire and its "is this actually about to happen?" mission design make for an incredible, immersive experience like little else out there. I've always wished it would've made good on the promise of its more down to Earth forebears, but I still can't help but love it.
There is a palpable joy in Nintendo games that no other AAA developer can match. Like Mario Land 3D, A Link Between Worlds is a remixed version of an old-school series classic, yet it's so bustling with life, so full of color and character, that any cynicism I had towards yet another Nintendo project tugging at the nostalgia center of my brain quickly melted away.
For a world that's as heavily referential to it's forebear, I'm surprised by how invested I was able to get in this game's take on Link to the Past's light/dark dichotomy. No element of this game is stock - everything has a personality, and a purpose. NPCs communicate their entire personalities in seconds thanks to some stellar, vibrant animation, each area, no mater how video game-y, buzzes with life - even tufts of grass are tussled by the breeze in such a way that recalls childhood adventure.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the first game in the franchise to insist the player should always have something to do. In that sense, it's more game-y than ever. This made the franchise's inherent repetition feel like more of a grind to me than past entries - I was no longer booting up the game every night just because I wanted to see what was going on in my tiny world, but instead because I had profits to generate. Oh well. What an adorable, deeply charming grind it was anyway.
Outlast can be sophomoric to the point of insult, but its commitment to forcing the player's vulnerablity makes it one of the scariest games I've ever played. The game can be mean - did that doctor NEED to be naked, and also cut my finger off, and *also* have shriveled inhuman skin? - but hoooo boy does it work for me as a dread engine. With some smarter artwork and storytelling, Outlast would be a genre classic.
Tomb Raider's attempt to portray a sensitive, barely durable Lara Croft is one of the least convincing narrative twists in AAA gaming history, but every other element of this gritty reboot is a huge success. Proof that the franchise can - and should - continue to thrive.
Like any good entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise, Black Flag has some excellent ideas that it either pummels into the ground via repetition or fails to commit to enough to do something truly new. The out of animus sequences, for example, I thought were brilliant conceptually, but the game only has the patience to build so much tension in its secret, sinister corporate big bad before the whole thing explodes in yet another bat-shit plot twist. On the other hand, as much as I loved the change of tone from 3, I just could not bring myself to like or care about Edward. His whole 'i'm a shithead with a redemptive arc' thing is so rote and predictable. You can see his exact trajectory as a character the second he appears onscreen.
The thing I'll carry away with me from Black Flag will be the open design. Sure, Black Flag is identical in function to the last five or so Ass Creed titles, but how you frame these games matters a great deal. Black Flag's open seas are beautiful and thrilling to explore, and while the meat of the gameplay could accurately be reduced to 'run to place to pick up thing,' 'play minigame,' 'smack guys' and 'point boat towards thing and wait,' the levels are gorgeous enough and interesting enough that I'm more than willing to re-engage with the otherwise mechanical nature of the series.
And, hey, that last hour or so of the Ubisoft dev studio sequence aside? What a fascinating and weird thing to do, framing your questionable re-framing of history video game as a propaganda piece *in the text*. I'm not gonna sit here and say that that's, like, a great thing for a developer to do, but what a fuckin' big weird choice that is to make.
Super Mario 3D World is a perfect fit for the WiiU, which is to say it's an experimental title in the franchise that innovates on classic ideas in new and exciting ways but in such a weird, small-scale way that it lags behind the other titles in its lineage by quite a bit.
Which is not to say Super Mario 3D World is bad! In fact, it's actually pretty great! It artfully meshes the original NES games, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, the dreadful New Super Mario Bros., the phenomenal Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3D Land and the general concept of house cats into a single cohesive package. It remixes singular concepts from one game and freely places them into the context of another, which is thrilling for a long-time Mario fan like myself.
However, 3D World is a game that looks backward at a time when Nintendo desperately needed a big new title that was looking forward. As a curiosity piece on the Nintendo Switch, 3D World is a big hit, but as a full-on AAA flagship title, it just doesn't compete in the same space as games like Uncharted, Gears of War, or The Last of Us.
Regardless of its 'tactical' value as a AAA title at the time of release, 3D World's irreverent mixing and matching of old Mario mechanics gives the game a timeless appeal that make it a phenomenal title to try out today. Case in point: its liberal use of New Super Mario Bros.' chaotic 'everyone slam into one another!' gameplay somehow redeems that specific Mario franchise's more abhorrent qualities in my eyes, and I cannot stress enough how much I dislike those titles. There's an artful quality to 3D World's level design, which packs an incredible number of revelatory moments in tiny spaces.
The fact that this is also one of the toughest Mario games out there is even more interesting - despite its simplicity in comparison to even the very oldest titles in the Mario lineage, this game gets tough quicker than you'd think. Especially that last round of levels, which are a small nightmare.
Mechanically, Origins is the worst of the Arkham games - there's a good reason Rocksteady limited the number of enemy types and large-scale combat encounters in the series' mainline games - but I found that Origins did a really admirable job with its script. Portraying Batman as younger, deadlier and with something to prove - and a genuinely new portrayal of the Joker, who we get to see develop a fixation on him - is really neat. On top of that, this one is packed with some unique boss fights and, despite being a prequel, creates more tension and a sense that there is a lot at stake than any other Arkham game save for the final entry.
Antichamber's use of its blinding, monochrome visuals to mix difficult philosophical and literal puzzles needs to be played to be understood.
In this game's first act, you kill the Pope with your butt. To play Electronic Super Joy is to exist in a dubstep visualizer playacting as a challenging platformer. How could I say no to that???
Quantic Dream's most overtly genre-d work; which is to say, they're most easily stomached game. Beyond: Two Souls is a CBS superhero drama in video game form. That's fine. And who wouldn't want to spend 8 hours as secret agent Ellen Page?
Didn't get to sink a ton of time into Pikmin 3, but I love the world it builds and all the little critters its filled with.
Does this even qualify? Or is it a teaching tool? Not sure. Maybe disregard it from the list, but Rocksmith is actually a really innovative, fun way to practice the guitar.
For me, Proteus's warm, calming blend of sharp pixel art and deep primary colors is relaxing. It doesn't have a tremendous amount to say, but that's okay. I'd rather take a walk around Ed Key/David Kanaga's Proteus and do my own self-reflection than be guided by the hand through Jenova Chen's hammier (though more ambitious) Flower.
One of the most over-exposed iOS titles in history, but it's also an admirable blend of addicting arcade mechanics and Call of Duty-esque progression systems. This was my podcast game for a while.
Really tough puzzler with a sharp aesthetic.
I love a strategy game with consequence, but Fire Emblem: Awakening is so precociously anime that all its character-building and potential for emergent storytelling failed to capture me. I appreciate its challenge, the depth of its combat and the slickness of its overall design, but the in between mission character vignettes feel too archetypal.
(400 Days) This relatively stand alone side-episode of Tell Tale's flagship series is arguably the last time it really made sense.
A Dark Room is essentially a really neat narrative metaphor delivered via game mechanics.
Your feeling on BioShock Infinite are determinant on your ability to get swept away by AAA 'prestige' games. More directly, if you feel that a AAA prestige presentation is in itself a marker of quality, you are more likely to feel that BioShock Infinite is of literary value. It isn't!
I think the single moment during my 2020 replay of Infinite that most encapsulated the way I feel about the game now is during the sequence in which Booker and Elizabeth meet. Booker has infiltrated her gilded cage of a prison and stalks her via a series of one-way mirrors as she moves from room to room. Next to each one-way mirror is a little machine that tracks where Elizabeth is in her prison. For some reason, you can use the action button to have Booker read the text on these machines aloud. You see her in the dressing room, the tracking machine to your right lights up 'Dressing Room,' and then Booker says out loud "dressing room." Helpful.
So you follow Elizabeth all the way to the library, where she's very much living up to her Disney Princess look, twirling around, singing, accessorizing with nearby works of literature. You end up sneaking to the roof of the library and then crashing into it. Terrified, Elizabeth grabs the nearest books she can find, smacking the player over the head with a copy of Homer's "The Odyssey" and an introductory textbook to quantum mechanics.
She HITS the player OVER THE HEAD with these obvious sign posts as to where the story is going. I had to pause the game, because I wanted to fall out of my chair. You can't be THIS brain-dead obvious, man, you just canNOT do that. Any other book would've been fine. "Everybody Poops" would've been fine. Do NOT bring the Odyseey into your Americans are Racist in the Sky game.
There's also Infinite's depiction of racism, which has been discussed quite a bit since the game's release. In a tunnel-vision sense, Infinite is anti-racist. There is no character that is both racist and redeemable, so if you stop there, maybe that's enough to convince you the game is going for meaningful social commentary. But Infinite is a game in which aged racist caricature is deployed ad-nauseum, often gleefully, only so Elizabeth, the classic Dinsey-fied well-meaning-white-woman, can say something like 'i just don't get why whites have separate bathrooms, it seems inefficient.' Infinite recreates the racist pablum of early 20th century America with vigor and finesse, and leaves anti-racism to one-off comments you're more likely to miss than to hear. Like any centrist text, it points to a lot of potential problems but never suggests solutions.
It only gets worse once we're confronted with Daisy Fitzroy, the black resistance leader who is coded as a woman of the people up until the game needs her to do a heel-turn so it can pretend at nuance. Infinite A-Clockwork-Oranges the audience with severe early-American racism and attempts to similarly subvert its 'let's disrupt that society' response by asking us to second-guess if violent protest isn't worse than violent oppression. It does all this by having Fitzroy point a gun at the child of a heartless mega-capitalist slumlord. So I guess the revolt is just as bad, then! This is not a well-rounded exploration of anti-racist politics. The fact that the writers and artists did such painstaking research into racist iconography and the oppression of daily American life, and then painted the opposition to that society in such a blunt and stupid way is shameful.
There are higher moments, but they're mainly meta-textual between Infinite and the original BioShock. There's a scene towards the end in which Elizabeth and her captor/protector Songbird are framed directly against a Little Sister and a Big Daddy that's weirdly moving. These are the parts that hold up, but they amount to little when the rest of the game is so hellbent on fucking up practically every real theme it seeks to explore.
(Episode 1) The Wolf Among Us greatly improves on Tell Tale's previous The Walking Dead in terms of art design, but it's also more fan-ficton-y than ever. Still, it's a fun space to exist in.
Better than its shit reputation, but still a low point in the series. It smartly integrates horde mode into its admittedly lackluster campaign, but it drops the ball completely compared to Epic Games' comparatively tight design and blockbuster storytelling.
Better fighting game fans than me have explained to me why Injustice is a good game, but I just could not get into it. It plays like a looser, more simplified version of MK, but without the same methodical play you'd expect from those games. Even the story mode, which I was initially thrilled to try out, seems so rote. The way most of the DC characters are written...it's like the game wants its cast to be darker and more brutal than ever before, but has them speak like they're in the old Hanna Barbara cartoons.
There were times in Last Light in which I was under the spell of its grim dirge; more often, however, I felt like I was choking on it like radioactive air. This is a narrative in which defending yourself against literal nazis as they shoot at you is considered either morally neutral or wrong - the game's concept of an ethical approach would be to instead never hurt anyone and forgive everything all the time. Sneak everywhere, hurt no one, listen to every conversation you aren't a part of, allow individuals who are *actively attempting to genocide the majority of the human race* to walk away freely and the game deems you a Good Person. Doing all of this is a lot of work. The reward is an ending in which aliens kill all your enemies for you, therefore saving you from having killed all your enemies already. I have no idea what to do with that.
Even forgetting the *highly suspect* moral compass of a game entirely populated by straight, white, cis-gendered characters that rewards you for sympathizing with fascists, the incidental moral dilemmas are equally as bizarre. In one memorable sequence, the player can over-drink at a bar and then trash it in a drunken haze, ruining the bar owner's livelihood and creating an enormous mess in one of the precious few gathering spaces left in the Metro. Subsequently offering the bar owner a large sum of money to make up for your behavior grants the player with "moral points," an invisible currency rewarded to players who have acted in what the game considers to be the most ethical manner possible. Choosing not to drink - and, therefore, choosing not to destroy the bar in the first place - keeps you morally neutral.
This makes no sense. In simpler terms, I'm a better person if I borrow your car, smash it, then pay for it, vs if I just ask you for a ride. Being an asshole who redeems yourself is not nobler than not being an asshole.
Tekken Revolution is basically Tekken Tag Tournament 2 without the single player modes and a pay to play system for online. Difficult to rank, as it's essentially identical to another game I've played, but with fewer features. It's an interesting experiment, at least - Tekken Revolution mimicked the economy of a local arcade, where you essentially bought in to playing online until you were beaten, at which point you'd have to purchase another token. That's cool, but part of the reason why arcades can get away with charging a dollar or more per play is the same reason why bars can get away with charging $8 for a shot from a bottle that only totals $20 - atmosphere. You'd need to significantly alter the pay scale to make a model like this work, as the temptation for a Tekken diehard to spend a ton of money over a long period of time vs. spending $60 just once has gotta be really thin.
LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is a charming, colorful celebration of Marvel Comics - and it's slow as all hell! Each level is like 45 minutes long, and requires multiple playthroughs to fully complete. The open world is full of collectibles and little puzzles, but they're haphazardly placed and designed. There's nothing wrong with the game itself on a surface level, but actually diving into the larger metagame of unlocking everything is an unforgivable slog.
Slender: The Arrival has one neat mechanic I appreciated - the pause button fails to work as soon as Slender Man finds you - but its drab, uninspired art style and generic horror (re: creepypasta) plot put me off of it.
A fun time waster with some charming writing and a likable art style. Still, like other games in this style, it's entirely predicated around tempting you to purchase things.
I've said it before, but I will say it again: I do not like Deadpool. I do not like people who carve out their personality from Nu-School Hot Topic Deadpool memorabilia. I do not, as a matter of principle, like characters who quip at a sub-South Park level. Shadow Warrior is for someone who watched Starship Troopers and walked away with all the wrong conclusions. It is not a game for me.
That said, I have to at least give credit where it's due: the arcade-fast, snappy FPS gameplay - while far too loose and non-committal than the mathematical precision of a Doom (1993) or a Doom (2016) - makes it a stone's throw from mindless fun.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is essentially a really boring narrative metaphor delivered via game mechanics.
Crowd sourced quiz game with a great interface and so-so question accuracy. It's like bar trivia where a significant portion of the trivia questions are made up bullshit.
Takes all of the worst narrative/design instincts from Suda 51's other produced titles and outright ignores the utility of those games' aesthetic. Imagine if Shadows of the Damned didn't realize how flamboyantly stupid a gun called the 'Boner' is and you get Killer is Dead.
As a franchise built around "relaxing," 'don't think too hard about it, just hit the button and see what happens' mechanics but that also demands pixel perfect accuracy to the player looking for more, Peggle is already infinitely frustrating. Add in a series of EXTREMELY PUNCHABLE caricatures and some pretty shit writing, and you have a game that feels tailored made to break my brain.
Blood Dragon is maybe one of the ugliest games I've ever played. I can't believe they made Fry Cry 3, a game that, at the time, was a high watermark of console visuals, look this dark and messy. I'm the exact target demographic for '80s callbacks and cool neon shit, but when I try to remember anything in Blood Dragon all I can recall is muddy scenes in the middle of the night with janky-looking dinosaurs colliding with level geometry.
I'd forgive that if it were funny. It's not. Blood Dragon reminds me of when channels like Comedy Central and Fox and USA tried to catch up to Adult Swim's already mostly fucking stupid lineup of try-hard subversive animated shows with their own busted-ass offshoots. Remember that Daniel Tosh show about a campground? That's about where Blood Dragon's humor is at. The bad, fake Family Guy Daniel Tosh show.
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