It was a very good year for video games, with zombies and dames, killing monsters with flames... oh the things we've seen... in 2013...
It was a very good year, wasn't it? I sure did play a lot of video games in 2013. More than I played in 2012, and I played a lot of video games in 2012.
Happily, I liked a lot of the games I played this year, though that made selecting this list awfully difficult. Last year I cheated and included 11 games in my top 10. This year I eventually just said "to hell with it" and went with 12.
In no particular order, my 12 favourite games of 2013:
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
I never finish Zelda games. Hell, I never even get all that far in them. I like them, but there almost always comes a point where they lose me; the initial thrill of exploration and discovery wears off, and I drift away to other things.
That has not happened with A Link Between Worlds. It's easily the most engrossing and enjoyable Zelda game I've played since, well, A Link to the Past, and I was a kid when I last played that. Every few minutes I make a new discovery, and every hour the game unfolds itself in a new, joyful way. I pray that A Link Between Worlds is an indication of the direction Nintendo will be heading with future Zelda games. And I can't seem to stop listening to the soundtrack.
One of many games on this list I don't think I have to spend too many more words describing; if you know it, you know it. If you played it, you hopefully liked it. If you're one of those people who didn't play it but review-bombed its Metacritic page anyway, well, that's a shame.
Gone Home demonstrates once and for all that a game can ditch combat for exploration and remain engaging in a uniquely video-gamey way. As much as it takes place in a physical space, a good percentage of the story's impact occurs in the spaces between the objects in the house, empty pages of a mysterious past that I filled in with my imagination. Only a well-crafted game-world can manage such a feat, and Gone Home pulled it off almost effortlessly. I've also come to value the conversation that's sprung up around the game, in particular Ian Bogost's sharply observed critique for the LA Review of Books. If ever a game deserved such a critique, it's Gone Home.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
At one point midway through last year, I was out at a bar in San Francisco with some friends. One or two of them also wrote about games, but most of them didn't. Somehow, conversation turned to Animal Crossing: New Leaf. It never turned back.
I'm not sure there was another game this year that grabbed as varied a crowd as New Leaf did — all throughout the summer, I regularly found myself griping about my neighbours and swapping bug-farming tips with friends I didn't even know owned 3DSes. New Leaf was my first Animal Crossing, and so it was special for me. I'd never experienced the series' quiet genius (as expertly summed up here by Gamasutra's Christian Nutt), the joy of subtly rearranging my schedule to be sure I lined up with the game's real-world clock, or the pleasure of showing off my (now awfully swank) house. I may have eventually moved on to other games, but New Leaf will stay on my 3DS for a long while to come. Hopefully Isabelle won't get too lonely.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us didn't fall short. It accomplished precisely what its creators set out to accomplish. It was about love and companionship in the face of a world-turned-nightmare. It was about the horror of survival, and about the gnawing fear that accompanies scarcity. It was about loss and coping, about why we choose to continue living when all hope is lost. It will remain a noteworthy accomplishment for years to come, not because any one of its accomplishments was all that remarkable on its own, but because together they made it seem possible that blockbuster games this good might one day become regular — though never ordinary — occurrences.
For more detail, read my review. The Last of Us was a very good game. I can't wait to see what Druckmann, Straley and co. do next.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
You know those jokes that take way longer to tell than a normal joke? Like, they go on for five minutes and eventually it becomes clear that the whole thing has been a finely tuned setup for one giant punchline? Starbreeze's Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is sort of like that, only instead of a joke it's a series of game mechanics and instead of a punchline it's the most affecting 10 minutes of gaming I had all year. Brothers is a remarkably confident execution of a new control-scheme, and the game really did seem to come straight out of left field. "Play this game, it's good," people told me. "Play it to the end." That's what I did. And I'm glad.
Style over substance? Perhaps a bit. But when you've got this much style, turns out that can be enough. As much as I dug Device 6's beautiful typography and visual design, it was the audio that made me fall in love with it. Thanks to Simogo's terrific sound design, the words on the page conjured actual, physical places. The protagonist Anna's footprints followed my scrolling finger, ambient audio growing louder and softer as she explored her strange island, with eerie, looping recordings shimmering into focus behind the rumble of the ocean and the shush of the breeze. As a bonus, the game also contained one of the earwormiest pop songs I heard all year. For all its evocative visuals, Device 6 was another great 2013 game that lived — and thrived — in my imagination.
The Stanley Parable
I feel a bit of a personal connection to The Stanley Parable — not great from the perspective of an unbiased critic, but enjoyable from the perspective of a person who likes watching cool things become cooler. I spoke with and wrote about young Davey Wreden back when he'd first released TSP as a Half-Life 2 mod, and have been following his work closely as he got ready to release the final, retail version.
What a kick it was to see just how far he blew out his original concept in the final game, and to watch the internet at large download the game, play it, and get it. Few games I've played could be read as both game and game-criticism, but The Stanley Parable accomplished its dual purpose with aplomb. Bonus: It led to my favourite of all of Leo's videos, in which two British narrators have an argument over whether one will be allowed to kill himself. (It was funnier than it sounds.)
Funny and grim, stressful and enjoyably tedious, Lucas Pope's Papers, Please was easily one of the most distinctive games I played all year. But then, anything billed as a "Dystopian Document Thriller" is probably going to be one-of-a-kind. It remains remarkable to me that Papers, Please actually lived up to its billing: It was indeed dystopian, it was primarily about documents, and it was often thrilling, in its way.
Failure can be a great teaching tool, but few games incorporate that as organically as Papers, Please. Oh, how I've failed at this game, as my sad first attempts to provide for my family wound me up in prison, pushing my nose all the closer to each passport on my next go-round. Let anyone who would like to see the power of games to explain current events play Papers, Please; not only did it manage to paint a convincing portrait of a (fictional) cold war-era Eastern European nation, it did so almost entirely through gameplay.
Saints Row IV
For all of Saints Row IV's childish antics and boorish behaviour, the game is possessed of a generosity of spirit that I can get behind. An example: At one point around the middle of the game, my badass amazon protagonist went on a loyalty mission with her companion Matt Miller. Turns out before the Earth was destroyed by aliens, Miller was obsessed with a cheesy TV show starring a comic book character named Nyte Blayde. Over the course of the mission Miller laid his fandom bare, obsessively explaining the details of the fictional character's life and escapades with a cautious enthusiasm familiar to anyone who's tried to sell a newcomer on Firefly or Babylon 5.
Here's where Saints Row IV surprised me: Rather than mocking him for his nerdery, my character gradually got into the whole thing. She was actually listening, and came to understand why Miller loved the show so much. She ended the mission by bequeathing all future IP rights for the series to Miller (long story, just go with it), giving him complete creative control on one condition: He had to promise that no matter what, he would never give up his devotion to Nyte Blayde.
It was a lovely sentiment, and a small but significant show of respect from developer Volition both to Saints Row's many fans and to fandom in general. Saints Row IV came out mere weeks before the technically superior but often dispiritingly self-hating Grand Theft Auto V, which only made Volition's game look better in comparison. And of course it helps that it was awfully fun to play… I mean, you can sprint up the sides of skyscrapers while collecting Crackdown-style orbs to the tune of Paula Abdul's "Opposites Attract." Basically a ringing endorsement in and of itself.
Back when I reviewed Gunpoint, I wrote that "like the diminutive buildings you'll spend the game circumnavigating and infiltrating, Gunpoint itself is an intricate array of interlocking circuits and gears, finely tuned and waiting for you to bend it to your will." That about sums it up. One of the unexpected pleasures of 2013, Tom Francis' humble espionage odyssey contained more wit, style and sharp design than almost every big-budget AAA game released this year. It also managed to avoid overstaying its welcome, still a rare feat even among indie games. And of course, the Steam achievements are outstanding.
State of Decay
State of Decay is easily a top contender for the title of Best 2013 Game We Didn't Write About Enough. (Though Chris did make a good video about it.) MAN this game is good. I played a chunk of it after its initial Xbox 360 launch and liked it, but I was so busy — and the game was so technically rough — that as soon as I heard a PC version was coming, I held off. I'm glad I returned.
I have been and remain in State of Decay's thrall, and can't stop marveling at how Undead Labs managed to smush a sim of such depth into a console-ready framework. State of Decay has captured my imagination in a way that few games have since Far Cry 2, a game with which it has no small amount in common. (Anyone who knows me knows that's some of the highest praise I can give.) I'll be playing this game well into 2014.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
No game this year captured the imaginations of the Kotaku staff quite like Fire Emblem: Awakening. For what seemed like months on end, we simply could not shut up about this game. Tributes to Frederick. Tales of romance. That amazing musical milieu. Chrom's butt. The mystery of the missing feet. Along with countless text messages and so much more.
As much as I couldn't stop talking about it, I also couldn't stop playing it, so caught up was I in the rhythm of combat and progression. Awakening was one of the first games I played on a 3DS XL, and probably not coincidentally was the first 3DS game to regularly steal me away from the console games I had been playing for work. I'm midway through a second playthrough and I come back for a few missions every couple of weeks or so. While I could make an argument for several of the games on this list being my "top" game of the year, Fire Emblem: Awakening was the game that most defined 2013 for me.
And there you have 'em: My favourite games of the year. There are many others that I wanted to include but couldn't fit, so honorable mentions go to Civilisation V: Brave New World, Ni No Kuni, Super Mario 3D World, The Swapper, Tomb Raider, Tearaway, XCOM: Enemy Within, Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, Mass Effect: Citadel, Assassin's Creed IV and Ridiculous Fishing: A Tale of Redemption.
To all the no-doubt excellent games I didn't find time to play this year: Sorry, I'll try to play you before the end of 2014.
Here's to 2013. It really was a very good year.