2013 was an interesting year in gaming. It saw the launch of two new consoles – three if you count the Ouya1. More and more independent titles came onto the market, many of them achieving a great deal of both critical and commercial success. There were more options than ever before for gamers, and there was no possible way I could play every single release I wanted to.
But I did manage to play enough games to compile a list of my 10 favourite games of 2013, along with some honourable and dishonourable mentions. Also, since I don’t currently own a console, all games on this list are PC games. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
10. Remember Me
I think that the bottom half of this list is going to be fairly controversial, since most of the games in it were divisive in some way. Remember Me was released in June to mediocre reviews, and a few months later, it was all but forgotten. But those who remembered the game – pardon the pun – have thought of it as a flawed gem, whose clumsy voice acting and repetitive platforming were overshadowed by its stunning art direction and stirring soundtrack. Remember Me presented us with a fascinating future, neither dystopian nor utopian, and asked us to ponder the fickle nature of memory, emotion, and the roles they play in shaping our sociopolitical landscape. For that, the game is worth remembering.
Plus, I don’t care what anyone says: the combat system was awesome.
You can read my review of Remember Me here.
9. Tomb Raider
Reboots are usually ripe for controversy. Fans of the original works tend to be averse to the changes that are inevitably made, which leads to a backlash. Surprisingly, Tomb Raider suffered very little from that kind of backlash and instead was subject to another kind: one that centred around a producer’s comments that the story would contain an attempted rape. (FYI, it didn’t.) Suddenly, critics were seeing sex everywhere in the game: Lara’s outfit was “sexy”; her groans and yells sounded like “sex noises”; even her death sequences were considered “darkly sexual.” There’s a whole lot of implicit sexism in that backlash, but now is not the time to unpack it; I plan to revisit that backlash later in an upcoming blog post.
Instead, I’d like to talk about the gameplay, because, man, it was great. Tomb Raider put almost every other action-adventure on the market to shame with its slick, butter-smooth controls and combat. Jumping around and traversing the landscape were a joy, as was searching for hidden collectibles. Combat was tense, thrilling, and flexible, with each weapon conferring different advantages and mêlée combat often being a viable option. The bow and arrow in particular were a blast to use. The game’s auto-cover system could have been a disaster, but it was so well-implemented that now I find myself disappointed that more third-person action games don’t have it. The finely-honed traversal and combat mechanics stood out in a gaming world where many games struggle to get just one of those right.2 I may not have been impressed with Tomb Raider’s story, but as a pure gameplay experience, it was one of the best of the year.
You can read my review of Tomb Raider here.
8. BioShock Infinite
Even before BioShock Infinite was released, it was clear that it would spark some controversy, as any creative work that deals with complicated political issues is wont to do. What wasn’t clear was just how vicious and strange the backlash would become, with one writer declaring it the worst game of the year. (Good thing he didn’t play the DLC.)
I’d harped about the vacuity of some of this backlash before,3 but I never really got to the heart of what really bothered me about it: its implicit racism. I posted a lengthy tirade about it as a comment on the AV Club, and I plan to write a (more coherent) blog post about it in the coming weeks.
Realizing that the backlash’s subtle racism was what was bothering me helped crystallize my feelings on the game and made me realize that its story was more layered and coherent than I had originally given it credit for. I still think that the plot becomes too convoluted in its final few hours, and I still think that having the entire underclass follow Fitzroy’s violent lead could be construed as offensive, but I’m now more aware of the parallels between so-called “redemption” and the whitewashing of history.
Plot, themes, and wider sociopolitical issues aside, though, what really enthralled me about BioShock Infinite was how it told its story: the beautifully realized, gorgeously detailed setting; Elizabeth, who was so much more than just another companion character; the sights and sounds; the exciting, chaotic firefights. (Yes, I liked the game’s combat. Deal with it.) BioShock Infinite was one of the most divisive games of the year. It was also one of the best.
You can read my review of BioShock Infinite here.
7. Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall / The Brigmore Witches
Whaaaaa? DLC? And 2 pieces of DLC together? THIS IS MADNESS.
Well, Dishonored’s two Daud-centric expansions were awesome, so they deserve a berth on this list. They took Dishonored’s satisfying sneak-and-stab gameplay and augmented it with improved level design and more versatile powers. (It’s going to be hard for me to imagine Dishonored without Chokedust and Daud’s special pause-blink now.) Moreover, Daud was a far more compelling character than Corvo, the blank slate. Though the plot surrounding him was often silly and nonsensical, I played Daud as a non-lethal former assassin in search of redemption. And that’s exactly what he found.
Contrast is yet another game on this list that debuted to mediocre reviews. But it managed to hit my sweet spot in a way that didn’t resonate with the game-playing public at large. Oh well.
Why did Contrast appeal to me so much? For starters, it’s a well-designed puzzle-platformer, and I’m a sucker for puzzle-platformers. Secondly, it featured lovely art direction, an appealing, jazzy soundtrack, and an overriding sense of wonder and mystery. Well done, Compulsion Games.
You can read my review of Contrast here.
5. The Wolf Among Us, Episode 1
In just one episode of Telltale’s newest franchise, The Wolf Among Us, I’ve already been sucked into Fabletown’s sleazy, neon-drenched environment. While Telltale’s other major project at the moment, The Walking Dead, jumped right into the action, the first episode of The Wolf Among Us played more like the pilot of a TV series, setting the stage for events to come. There’s no way of knowing exactly how the story will unfold, but I know that the choices I’ve made as Bigby Wolf will inevitably come back to haunt me.
4. The Walking Dead: 400 Days
Two Telltale games on this list? You betcha. I haven’t had a chance to start season 2 of The Walking Dead yet, but I did want to include some praise for 400 Days, which was released much earlier in 2013. Telltale managed to streamline their formula of tense scenes and moral quandaries into an intricate collection of brief, intertwining tales. The fact that they were able to pull this off is incredible.
You can read my review of 400 Days here.
3. Gone Home
Gone Home took me by surprise. It was not a game that I was expecting to like, but this walk-around-an-empty-house-and-discover-things simulator is wonderfully constructed. Its plot is a simple teenage love story, but the way it’s related to the player is worth admiring. Gone Home succeeds masterfully at putting the player in the role of archaeologist, making him or her pick up and examine artifacts to piece together clues about the story. Who would have thought that walking around a house and making a huge mess could be so compelling?
2. The Stanley Parable
I’m fairly certain that you can’t really play The Stanley Parable. You can experience it. You can follow it down the prescribed path. But any attempt to play The Stanley Parable will be anticipated. You can’t beat The Stanley Parable. You can’t outsmart it. You can’t make it give you what you want it to give you. The Stanley Parable is always one step ahead of you. After I ran through the game once, I wanted to run through it again and again. I wanted to see what the game would throw at me each time. I wanted to pull it apart to see the seams. I wanted to explore every nook and cranny. This was something weird, wacky, wonderful, and different. Heck, I’m not even really sure it’s a “game.” It’s more of an experience, and one that you should definitely have.
Plus, Kevan Brighting is absolutely phenomenal as the narrator.
1. Kentucky Route Zero, Acts I & II
I’ve spent quite a bit of digital ink on Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer’s rural magical realist adventure. Seriously, what more is there to say? Sometimes, a game is just so finely crafted that trying to pick it apart seems like an exercise in futility. The first two acts of this game were slow and meandering, but somehow, they felt juuuust right. In fact, everything about this game, from the minimalist art direction to the evocative dialogue to the sense of supernatural wonder feels juuuust right.
- Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. This neon-soaked paean to cheesy ’80s action flicks was just pure joy from start to finish. Plus, the synthrock soundtrack was killer.
- Kairo. I think I liked the idea of Kairo better than the rough, unpolished product we actually got. Still, it’s a pretty fascinating first-person puzzler with a keen sense of mystery. (You can read my review of Kairo here.)
- Save the Date. This free, downloadable title could be considered the dating-sim equivalent of The Stanley Parable. It’s fun, funny, fresh, and poignant. Go download it.
- Sleeping Dogs: Year of the Snake. Sleeping Dogs was one of my favourite games of last year, with its mix of high-octane driving, hand-to-hand combat, and urban exploration. More Sleeping Dogs is a good thing.
- Magrunner: Dark Pulse. Okay, this game is basically Portal + Cthulhu + magnets. But that’s not a bad thing. Take out the infuriatingly difficult final quarter of the game, and you’re left with a very clever, well-designed first-person puzzler.
- The Cave. This one didn’t resonate with gamers for some reason, but I thought The Cave was a suitably flexible puzzler with a goofily malevolent sense of humour. (You can read my review of The Cave here.)
- The Entertainment. This Kentucky Route Zero mini-episode not only upended the centrality of the player to interactive media, but also upended the very sacredness of art. The final moment of the experience stands as the most shocking part of any video game or piece of interactive fiction released in 2013.
- Cookie Clicker. CAN’T. STOP. BAKING. COOKIES. (link)
- Antichamber. A condescending game with rote puzzles and no insights to offer. Probably 2013’s most overpraised turkey. (You can read my review of Antichamber here.)
- Limits and Demonstrations. Some games are rotten at their very core. Others come from a well-meaning place, but fall flat on their face. This Kentucky Route Zero mini-episode is an example of the latter. Limits and Demonstrations tries to argue that the removal of an object from its context robs it of its history, but in doing so, it portrays museums as sterile, clinical spaces, which shows an alarming ignorance of curators’ knowledge and love of their craft, as well as of the power of the human imagination. (You can read my thoughts on Limits and Demonstrations here.)
- Shelter. I applaud Shelter for trying to replicate the emotional roller coaster of motherhood. I jeer at Shelter for botching it completely. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the game’s badger cubs were nothing more than simple systems that responded in predictable ways to given stimuli. With no emotional attachment to them, the game quickly turned into nothing more than a walk-around-until-you-reach-the-end-of-the-level simulator. Oh well, at least it looked pretty.
- But the biggest turd to be released in 2013 was BioShock Infinite’s DLC expansion, Burial at Sea, Episode 1. Forget about the story or the gameplay (they were terrible); this buggy, shambling piece of shit was barely even playable. Fuck Irrational and 2K for releasing such a careless, unfinished sack of warmed-over pig droppings. (You can read my very angry review of Burial at Sea, Episode 1 here.)
GAMES IN PROGRESS
- Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. It’s a pretty competent arcade-y shooter. I don’t have much to say about it yet.
- Rayman Legends. It’s basically more Rayman Origins, which is a good thing, but it doesn’t feel fresh, and Murfy is a terrible addition.
- The Bridge. The mechanics are nifty, but it’s a pretty boring, tedious puzzler on the whole.
So that was 2013 in gaming for me. Lots to look forward to in 2014, including the rest of Kentucky Route Zero, the rest of season 2 of The Walking Dead, the rest of season 1 of The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, Watch Dogs, the PC releases of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, A Hat in Time, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mudered: Soul Suspect, Transistor, Broken Age, and a whole whackload of other games I’m sure I’ve forgotten. It’s going to be a good year.
1 But seriously, who counts the Ouya? ^
2 Seriously, the number of third-person shooters without shoulder switching is alarming. ^
3 It should go without saying, but I’ll make it explicitly clear: I have no issue with people who just dislike BioShock Infinite. You’re allowed to dislike creative works for whatever reason you want. What I do have an issue with is the way the game has been discussed in some circles. Criticizing BioShock Infinite for being racist is not vacuous. Criticizing BioShock Infinite for not being “artful” or “important” is. That’s just pretentious, intellectually offensive wankery masquerading as intelligent discourse. ^