THE GAMES OF 2013

I.

2013 was a year of great change and transition, and as you might expect it was both very good and incredibly surreal.  On a personal level, I became a father; I released a solo album; I moved into a new apartment; I got over my fear of brain pills and started taking anti-anxiety medications (and they appear to be working); and I became a contributing member to the New York Videogame Critics Circle, which is a pretty nice break for a nobody like me.  These are all significant and happy milestones.

As a gamer, well:

Let me say this right up front:  this right here is a videogame blog, so when I say things like “Being a new father means that I don’t have as much time to play games”, I am very much NOT wanting to sound like a callous, privileged asshole whose newborn child is an inconvenience.  Please understand that the non-gamer part of me literally cringes when I say stuff like that, and also understand that I hate that I’m not a good enough writer to find a better way of putting it.  I love my kid, and I love the time I spend with him more than anything else in the world.  He’s changed my life for the better in more ways that I’m probably even aware of.

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THAT BEING SAID, yes, of course, having a kid has completely changed my gaming habits.  How could it not?  I used to have all-day marathon gaming sessions, but I obviously can no longer binge the way I used to; more to the point, I don’t game at all when the kid is awake, and I’m very self-conscious about loud TV noises when he’s asleep in the next room.  (Which is why I still remain absolutely shocked that I was somehow able to find 50 hours in which to finish GTA V earlier this year.)   Because of all this, I ended up moving my gaming setup from the living room to the office, and so nearly everything I played of any significance was played on the PC, in my comfy office chair and my kick-ass headphones.

I know I’m prone to excessive hyperbole here, but it cannot be overstated enough: moving to the PC changed everything for me.   It’s why I’m not necessarily foaming at the mouth for a PS4 or an XBO, and why I’m instead contemplating a new graphics card or (more likely) a Steam Machine.  It’s why I’m no longer shackled to the crippling addiction of Achievement hunting.  It’s why I’m now a lot more excited about the indie game scene than the next AAA blockbuster.

[It’s also why I feel a little bit lonelier, I suppose.  I have a few good friends on Steam, but nothing compared to the dozens of people I’d see on Xbox Live every day.  Of course, I’ve never been all that big on multiplayer (and neither are most of those XBL friends, come to think of it), so it’s not like I was missing out on epic online battles (at least, not that I’m aware of).  Still, there’s just a large segment of friends that I’m now kinda cut off from, and it’s weird.]

The other big thing about having a kid and the resulting loss of free time is that, as you’ll soon see, my ratio of games finished to games played is so completely out of whack that I clearly have no business buying a next-gen console any time soon.

II.

Here’s the question that ended last year’s introduction:  “When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?”

It wasn’t necessarily a rhetorical question; at the time that I was working on that piece, I was still half-heartedly dicking around in Far Cry 3 (a game that tried (and failed) to be subversive about violence in videogames) while still reeling from the Newtown school shooting (which was actual violence, and which was actually horrifying).  I was in a sort of weird crisis, to be honest; I was starting to feel sickened from all the virtual killing I’d been doing, and it was making me feel disconnected from something I’d loved since my childhood.  I was genuinely interested in knowing if there was more to this medium than guns; if it was possible to achieve a win state without having to wallow in bloodlust; if one could go from point A to point B without having to kill anything.  I wanted to know if games could make me feel something beyond the simple satisfaction of killing enough things to get to the next checkpoint; hell, I just wanted to feel something.  I was seriously contemplating going through 2013 without playing any game that involved the pulling of a trigger, even if it meant missing out on games that I’d genuinely been looking forward to.

In the end, I bailed on that challenge.  But because I had to switch up my living room couch for my computer chair, I ended up playing a far wider variety of games this year than I ever expected, and I also ended up feeling some pretty powerful feels, when all is said and done.

III.

Speaking of feels, normally I avoid talking about game industry news in these year-end posts, but 2013 featured two game-related stories that I feel should be brought up, being that they affected me and people I know personally.

(1)  I couldn’t continue with this post without mentioning the passing of the late, great Ryan Davis.  It’s weird to talk about being a fan of a gaming journalist, but I was a Ryan Davis fan, ever since his early Gamespot days.  Even though we’d never met or corresponded in any way, I still felt like we would’ve hit it off if we’d somehow been introduced; his gregariousness would certainly have made me feel welcome.  It is still weird to not hear his voice introducing the Bombcast; indeed, the Bombcast has not been the same without him.

(2)  I also couldn’t talk about 2013 without mentioning the internet; specifically, how awful it is, and how, despite my desire to become a professional gaming journalist, I kinda sorta want nothing to do with it.  This craziness has been around for a long while, of course, but this was the first time that I started to take it personally, even if none of it was ever directed my way.  This was the year in which noted game developer and notorious troll-feeder Phil Fish not only ragequit Twitter entirely, but took Fez 2 with him.  This was the year in which a Call of Duty engineer made a small mathematical adjustment to the damage of a gun and received death threats in return.  This was the year in which a Gamespot review that gave GTA V a 9 out of 10 resulted in over 20,000 vile, hateful, evil comments.  (That the review was written by a good friend of mine only made it feel worse.)  This was the year in which there were so many instances of rape and death threats directed at female journalists and game developers for no reason other than their gender that it eventually somehow became a non-story, which is unbelievably distressing.  I don’t have an answer for this, and I don’t know how the victims of this incessant abuse are able to deal with it.  It makes me unbearably sad.  It reflects poorly on us all.

*sigh*

And that’s why I don’t talk about news in these posts!  Let’s get on with the show.

THE YEAR IN ACHIEVEMENTS:  As of 1/1/2013, my score was 86295, when I finished the Leviathan DLC for ME3.  As of 12/23/13, it’s 87915, and it’s highly unlikely that number will change any time soon, considering that I’m barely playing my 360 these days and that I’m all but certain I’m getting a PS4 first.  In any event, this is by far the lowest yearly increase since I bought the 360 in the first place, and this is probably the last year that I pay attention to it or include it in these posts.

BEST MECHANIC:  There’s no runaway winner in this category like there was last year with Dishonored and “Blink”.  But I suppose it should be noted that the control scheme in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is perhaps the only control scheme I’ve ever played that, because of narrative events, caused me to cry (in a good way).

GAMES FINISHED:  I said in the introduction that this year’s ratio of games finished to games played was absurd.  According to my Google spreadsheet, I played 71 games this year, but only finished 15.  This is embarrassing, but there are several reasons for this.  Firstly, the baby’s arrival meant that my game time was limited, and so I wasn’t going to waste my time with stuff that wasn’t grabbing me right off the bat – there were lots of Gamefly titles that came and went often on the same day.  Secondly, quite a few of the games on my spreadsheet are 3DS games, but I’m starting to realize that I never have a good time to play them; I don’t like bringing the 3DS out on the subway, and playing it at work is a terrible idea for obvious reasons, and if I play it at bedtime my hands cramp up and my eyes start freaking out, and so I’m not sure I ended up making any significant progress on any of the 3DS games in my library this year.  But if I’m being totally honest, I’m going to assign most of the blame on Steam Sales, which make games on my wishlist appear far more appetizing than they should, and which is an affliction that obviously affects us all.  I’m already prone to poor impulse control anyway; Steam Sales mean that I’m continually biting off far more than I can be expected to chew.

  • The Cave (one playthrough, at least – you need to play 3 times to see everything, and even though the game is pretty short, I didn’t like it enough to play it that much)

  • Devil May Cry

  • Tomb Raider (twice)

  • Bioshock Infinite

  • Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

  • The Last of Us

  • Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

  • Gone Home

  • Saints Row 4

  • GTA V

  • Rain

  • Beyond: Two Souls

  • Assassin’s Creed 4

  • The Stanley Parable (I think I finished it, at least)

Did Not Finish, Would Like to Finish Someday:

  • Antichamber (came pretty close, I think, but my hard drive crashed and I lost that save forever)

  • BIT TRIP Runner 2 (which I’d like to go back to, definitely – it’s certainly my favorite soundtrack of 2013)

  • Etrian Odyssey 4 (currently stuck in a weird spot and I don’t know how to advance; it’s been months since I picked it up, though, and I’m not sure I’d know where to go if I started again)

  • Ni No Kuni (which I recall enjoying, but then the baby came and I got a bit distracted)

  • The Swapper (to be finished in 2014)

  • Shadowrun Returns (to be finished in 2014)

  • Fire Emblem: Awakening

  • Dishonored DLC

  • Shadow Warrior (to be finished in 2014)

  • Rayman Legends (to be finished in 2014)

  • LEGO Marvel (to be finished in 2014)

  • Zelda: Link Between Worlds (to be finished in 2014?)

  • Papers Please (to be finished in 2014)

  • Mario & Luigi Dream Team

Barely Started:

  • Amnesia: Home for Pigs

  • Civ V: Brave New World DLC

  • Kentucky Route Zero

  • XCOM: Enemy Within

  • Fire Emblem Awakening

  • Gunpoint

  • Eldritch

  • The Wolf Among Us

Did Not Finish, Couldn’t Get Into (But Still Respect):

  • Remember Me

  • Animal Crossing: A New Leaf

Did Not Finish, Do Not Want to Finish:

  • Splinter Cell Blacklist (pretty sure this franchise is dead to me now, too)

  • Castlevania 3DS (I’d spend more time typing out the full title than I did playing the game)

  • Metro Last Light (meh, personified)

  • Batman Arkham Origins Blackgate (the 3DS game is tedious, confusing, and kinda ugly)

Notable Games I Did Not Play:

  • Dead Space 3

  • Metal Gear Revengeance

  • SimCity

  • God of War: Ascension

  • Starcraft 2: HoS

  • Gears of War: Judgment

  • Crysis 3

  • Grid 2

  • Spelunky (PC)

  • Pokemon X/Y

  • The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

  • Battlefield 4

  • Call of Duty: Ghosts 2

  • Tearaway (though it makes me think about getting a Vita)

  • any of the PS4/XONE exclusives

Best voice performance

  • Gone Home – Sarah Grayson as “Sam”.  There is no game here without Sam’s story, and Ms. Grayson’s performance is true and genuine and heartbreaking.  She’s given a great script, to be sure, but without an effective actor the game would never hit the same emotional peaks.  (As I said in my review for the NYVCC, “Indeed, the success of Sam as a character is making me rethink my position on the tired trope of audio diaries as exposition.”)

Best soundtrack:

  • BitTrip Runner 2, and I say this even though I haven’t finished the game – the soundtrack is on Spotify and it’s excellent.  It’d clearly make for a great exercise soundtrack, I think, and if I ever get around to exercising on a regular basis I might have to try that out.  And as far as runner-ups are concerned, there was a Disasterpeace remix album of Fez songs that was quite nice, although it’s not exactly a 2013 game.

Most Disappointing:

  • I didn’t play it, but it sounds like Dead Space 3 was pretty terrible; it also seems to have killed the franchise, which is a real shame.

  • As for games I did play, The Cave was charming and quirky, but not nearly as awesome as I’d hoped, and the idea that I’d have to play it three times to see everything was very quickly tossed out before I’d finished it once.  On the flip side, Bioshock Infinite and GTA V were both incredible experiences and staggering technological achievements, and I finished them both and don’t regret the time I spent with them, but they also had some very significant and glaring flaws, and I haven’t felt compelled to revisit them the way I thought I would.  (Side note:  I quite liked the Burial at Sea DLC for Bioshock Infinite, even if it was similarly flawed.)

A Once-Favorite Franchise I’m More or Less Ready to Give Up On:

  • It’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that the last Splinter Cell game that I genuinely enjoyed was Chaos Theory, on the original Xbox.  I did my best to give this year’s edition a fair shake, but I was completely disengaged with it halfway through the 2nd mission.

Best Gaming Podcast:

  • Bombin’ the AM with Scoops and The Wolf.  Two smart, funny dudes (and the occasional terrific guest) who actually talk about shit I care about, twice a week, in a reasonable amount of time.  (If I can get real here for a second, I’m finding the regular Giant Bombcast to be damn-near impossible to listen to these days.  It’s rare that I have 3 hours in a given week to listen to it, and I don’t find myself ever needing to hear Jeff and Vinny riff for 45 minutes about sandwiches or plumbing supplies or go-bags or wrestling or early 90s hip-hop.  Indeed, the cult of personality that has lately enveloped Giant Bomb has made it a site that I’m just not spending that much time with anymore, with the notable exception of PK’s “Worth Reading” columns.)

Favorite Articles:

What I’m Hoping to See Announced in 2014 (even if it doesn’t come out in 2014) (and even though this list can only be based on existing IP because I can’t get excited for brand-new IP that I don’t yet know about):

  • Fallout 4, built with the Rage engine (the game’s been confirmed, even if the engine hasn’t)

  • Uncharted 4  (confirmed by a teaser trailer)

  • new Batman game built by Rocksteady (rumored)

  • or something else built by Rocksteady, I’ll buy it anyway

  • a new, next-gen Criterion-built Burnout game

  • Portal 3

  • Red Dead Redemption 2

  • a new Crash Bandicoot game (and maybe there’s hope for this yet:  http://www.polygon.com/2013/11/25/5142830/activision-wants-to-resurrect-crash-bandicoot-series)

  • Mark of the Ninja 2

  • Shadow Complex 2

  • Tomb Raider 2 (in this new rebooted series)

  • new Deus Ex

iOS GAMES OF THE YEAR:  I really ought to just make a separate category for PikPok and Adult Swim, as pretty much everything they put out is terrific; there were a ton of great games for iOS this year, and here are the best of the best:

  • XCOM

  • The Room Two

  • Flick Kick Football Legends

  • Giant Boulder of Death

  • Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol

  • Infinity Blade III

  • Angry Birds Star Wars 2

  • Puzzle and Dragon

  • Spirit Stones

  • Device 6

  • Year Walk

  • Ridiculous Fishing

  • Rayman Fiesta Run

  • Colassatron

TOP 10 (with profound apologies everything in my “Did Not Finish But Would Like To Someday” list, and especially to The Last of Us, which is certainly a good game but not an experience I can claim that I enjoyed, and also The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, which everyone else acknowledges is amazing and which I’ve already acknowledged I can’t quite get into):

10.  Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.  The Call of Juarez name does not inspire much confidence, and I certainly didn’t expect very much (even if I’d heard some good things).  An absurdly low Steam Sale price got me to pick this up, though, and I’m really glad I did; it’s a fun little Western with great shooting mechanics and which has a lot of fun with narrative structure and the idea of the “tall tale.”  And the boss duels were pretty terrific, too.  My pick for most underrated / overlooked game of the year.

9.  Saints Row IV.  Considering what happened to THQ, and considering that this was originally supposed to be a DLC mission pack for Saints Row 3, it’s amazing that this turned out as well as it did.  If nothing else, it somehow managed to out-crazy the already crazy SR3, and frankly I have literally no idea how they’ll top it in the next one.

8.  The Stanley Parable.  Speaking of games having fun with narrative structure, this is also the funniest game since Portal 2, and also one that has moments of startling beauty and emotional resonance.  Perhaps this is more “art game” than “game”, but it’s still an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

7.  Bioshock Infinite.  Perhaps it’s my own fault; perhaps my expectations were too high, and so this game was never going to be good enough.  Or perhaps its just that the great and insightful critical responses to the first game made me hyper-aware of this game’s logical flaws and fallacies.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m tired of shooters, and there was so much shooting in this game.  Whatever the case, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I wanted to.  But I can’t deny that there’s a tremendous amount to love and appreciate in this game, too – the graphics, the sound design, the art direction, the world, the music, the characters, the ending…

6.  GTA V.  I’ve written far too many words about this game already.  The short version is that even though the game’s story is silly (to put it kindly), and the three main characters are morally and ethically reprehensible, and the game’s treatment of women is profoundly sad – despite all of that, the world that Rockstar has created here is truly remarkable, and it’s about goddamned time that the gameplay has finally caught up with the rest of the industry.   While I wonder if I’m getting too old for this series – which is a thought that feels thoroughly depressing – I still hold out hope that Rockstar will get the narrative stuff straightened out for GTA VI.

5.  Devil May Cry.  I’m not a fan of the earlier games in the franchise, but I am a fan of Ninja Theory, and what they’ve done with this reboot is pretty incredible.  This was a visually stunning game, and it felt great to play – this might be my 2nd favorite melee combat system behind Batman, frankly.  Can’t wait to see what they do next.

4.  Tomb Raider.  Apparently I wasn’t so keen on this the first time I played it, but for some reason I felt compelled to replay it later on and then I fell in love with it.  Sure, the grotesque death sequences are a little much (as are the constant grunts and howls of pain), and maybe the ending was a little hokey, but I thought this was a fantastic reboot of an important franchise; it made Lara a real person instead of a hyper-sexualized automaton, and it made the violence matter.  Killing a person (or even an animal) shouldn’t be easy, and you can feel how it chews her up as the game progresses, even as she learns to harden herself from it.  Speaking of which, the gameplay was quite good – this might’ve been the first Lara Croft game with genuinely fun combat, frankly.  I hope that for the next one, they put back some of the tombs and the puzzles – that’s what I really play these games for, and I’m hoping that now that they’ve better established who Lara is, they can now put her in some interesting situations.

3.  Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.  I’ve written too much about this (and too recently) to recap it effectively here, so I’ll keep it short – I was all but ready to give up on Assassin’s Creed, but then this came out and now I’m fully engaged again.  Hell, I still want to go back and finish all the stuff I hadn’t yet gotten to.  A very welcome return to a much beleaguered franchise.

2.  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.  This sorta came out of nowhere; I don’t recall hearing that much about it before I picked it up, although I must’ve heard something that compelled me to check it out.  In any event, I’m forever grateful that I did; I had an absolutely delightful time with it.  And then, of course, there’s that ending… Like I said earlier, I’m not sure that a control scheme has ever moved me to tears, but there you have it.

1.  Gone Home.  Here’s that question again, the one I asked at the beginning of last year’s GOTY post, and the one that I brought up again earlier in this one:  “When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?”  There are so many things to say about this game, and there are a lot of people who’ve said it a lot better than me – go back and read those links I posted earlier.  It’s rare to see a game affect people so deeply and profoundly; indeed, it’s rare that gamers let themselves be moved.  We generally play games knowing that, for the most part, we’re not playing it for the story – and games are, for better or worse, generally built with that philosophy in mind.  All I knew about this game going into it was that it was kind of spooky, and that it was a game of pure exploration – no combat, no enemies, no ticking clock.  And for the first third of it, I thought I was playing in a haunted house – there’s one particular jump scare that still spooks me when I think about it.  Of course, the game turned into a deep and moving love story, and my tears at the ending were genuine tears of joy.  A truly special experience and a game that I’ll always remember.

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