Saturday, 21 December 2013

Best Games of 2013

It's that time of year again, where the games cease to release and the game publicists and YouTubers flood to give their opinions backlashing in a fiery rage of idiots complaining about how their favourite game wasn't on someone else's list, instead of, ya know, making their own list. So just like last year, I will make a list of the best games of the year, this year being equally as hard as last year but for different reasons. 2012 was hard to formulate a 'best of' list because it was probably one of the best years in gaming since 2007, which is saying something, because I stand by my opinion that 2007 was the best ever year in Gaming. This year it's hard to formulate a list because there weren't any bloody games worth a mention. Where last year was a year for innovative and delightfully surprising games in which you wouldn't expect, like the unexpectedly fantastic Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 3, this year was a breeding ground for mediocre, over-hyped crap.

I am willing to crown 2013 as 'The year of the iterative sequel'. We had retreads of previous instalments like Batman: Arkham Origins, Battlefield 4, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, COD: Ghosts, Lost Planet 3, and the abysmal, depressing bile that was Dead Space 3, being the last nail in the action-survival-horror (whatever that's supposed to mean) genre. Whilst I do apreciate complete reduxes of old series' like with Tomb Raider and that new Mario thing, they weren't very good games in their own right to be included on the list. There was also self-indulgence and pretension this year, more than most other years, with Beyond: Two Souls, The Last of Us and surprisingly GTA5, trying to be this deep, philosophical satire of modern America, but was too heavy-handed and obvious that it reduced the main characters to caricatures stating the obvious at every turn (notwithstanding the painfully unfunny LifeHacker thing on top of that).

Although the bad vastly out-weighed the good in terms of triple-A releases, the indie sector still remains the last bastion of creative and original content. Although there are plenty games to fill the list, I won't lie when I say there aren't enough great, or even good, games that I feel comfortable calling 'one of the best games of 2013', so let's reduce the top 10 to a top 5 list this year.

Oh, I forgot, honorable mentions to games that aren't on the list that everyone will complain about, games that would be on the list if it weren't for a few disqualifications, and games that aren't on the list that would be if I didn't shrink it to a top 5. The Wolf Among Us would be on here if all 5 episodes (A.K.A. the full game) was released, but it wasn't. The same goes for The Walking Dead: Season 2, only one episode came out and I need to judge the game as a whole. Maybe next year. GTA5 isn't on here because I didn't think it was very good, and The Last of Us isn't on here because, whilst decent, isn't good enough to reach my top 5. If this was a top 10, Dota 2 would be No. 6. Okay? Let's start:

5. Saints Row 4
As much as I love thought-provoking, narrative-focused experiences like Spec Ops: The Line, games that try to have that level of impact (Tomb Raider, Beyond: Two Souls) often fail because they don't understand that you can balance serious, gritty realism and light humour. GTA4 did it, L.A. Noire did it, and Max Payne did it. Games that are all serious and all gritty realism blood-fests are the most immature of the lot because they can't embrace simple immaturities that only give more weight to the seriousness they're presenting. So with the dead-serious, gritty authenticity that's been going on this year and last year, it's refreshing to see a game that completely embraces all the immaturities and stupidity of this medium without being shy about it. We know you love killing innocent bystanders on GTA5, but even GTA5 is shy about its stupidity. It still tries to be realistic and serious, but fails because the balance wasn't right. It goes from 'blowing off a guys head with a phone lol' to 'gritty torture sequence' with no justification or meaning for either. It's silly in a bad way. Saints Row 4 doesn't care about trying to balance levity and gravity, nor does it want to have any gravity of any kind (literally), it just goes all out stupid and crazy. You can jump 30 stories high. You can hit a bystander to the other side of the map with a tentacle. You can kick people in the balls so hard that they fly into the air at jet-pack velocity. It's crazy, immature and unrealistic, but so what? It's fun, the soundtrack is awesome, and being a superhero dressed as either The President, a Heisenberg lookalike or Total Biscuit is hilarious. It's the most inclusive game I've played this year; you can enjoy it even if you consider yourself a high-brow gamer, if you're completely new to video games or if you're just a casual gamer, it is filled with so much fun and humour that it's so fantastically appealing you can't not like it.  It's simple; if you don't like Saints Row 4, you don't like fun.

4. Gone Home
When was the last time you played a game about a love story? Told by notes scattered throughout the house? About a character that you're not playing as? In the same household? You haven't, that's when. This is an incredibly original game that even trying to talk about it will lead to plot spoilers. It's a story told in such an immersive and original way that it's worth playing simply for that. It's even possible to complete the game in a matter of minutes without looking through the notes. You can play at your own pace, discovering letters and items and notes left around the house meticulously, or you can speed run it and miss the bulk of the game. I thought I was taking my time but it turns out I missed about half of the main story. You can choose your own layer of immersion, and it's fantastic. Ok, a game this original that is actually good is at least worth a mention, but this manages to be one of the years best games because it can pull off the high-wire act of being original, innovative, immersive, twisty, surprising, intricate and good. My advice is to play it knowing as little as possible about the story, which I did. There are no guns, no explosions, no foreigners to shoot, just you, an E button and a big ol' house to explore.

3. Bioshock Infinite
People complain that Binfinite becomes too sprawling and ridiculous that it starts to stop making sense around two thirds of the way through, but it can be credited on its sprawling narrative that encompasses so many themes and it's up to the player to care about what they want. Is it a game about infinite parallel universes? A tale of redemption and self-destruction? A story about a sheltered girl facing the reality of Columbia? Or is it just an excuse to kill racists with a buzzsaw? It's a violent game about a violent subject matter that includes graphic violence, and whilst many people complain about how violent it is, its violence is integral to the story it's telling. See, it isn't really about the multi-universes, nor is it really about politics, racism and philosophy, it's a story about a guy, about Booker, and his conflicting personality Comstock. The barrage of politics and racism and philosophy is all a smoke-screen to cover up what's really at the heart of Binfinite, which is a story about one, lonely, miserable jerk struggling to come to terms with his own failure, guilt and inability to accept responsibility for anything he's done. Stop complaining about the ham-fisted way in which it handled its themes of racism and religion, stop complaining about how the multi-verses don't make sense, it's not about that stuff, it's about this one guy and all of his flaws and consequences. It's not as good as the first one, but it's damn, damn good.

2: The Stanley Parable
What is a game? What defines a game? Is it something with objectives and challenges? Something with agency and choice? Or just something with guns and blood? In The Stanley Parable, there is little challenge or a clear objective. You walk around an office block with a narrator commenting on the directions you take and the things you do, which can lead to an array of different endings. That's just about it. There are no difficulty curves to climb, no dragons to kill or foreigners to shoot, yet it's easily one of my favourite games of the year. It's funny, it's original, it has some deeper themes, ideas and messages, and it has an old, British guy narrating it. Oh, the narrator is also hilarious. With all of the hilarity aside, it does have some pretty good commentary on the state of video game choice-mechanics and 'emoshuns' (coined by Jim Sterling, in reference to a game that tries to pull at your heartstrings but fails horribly). Games like this don't come around often.

1. Papers, Please
You could argue that Papers, Please mirrors the soul-crushing tedium of working as a border patrol guard, which only renders the game soul-crushingly tedious. You could argue that looking for discrepancies in other peoples paperwork doesn't make for a video game. And you would be right, but it's not really about the mundane deskjob that you take on in Papers, Please, it's everything surrounding it. It's the bleak and eerie atmosphere, it's putting your families well-being on the line because you want to let a poor mother see her son despite having the wrong paperwork, it's when you're forced to make a decision between the morally right option and the lawful option. Papers, Please is about off-screen conflict, about the conflicting ideologies of surrounding nations and how you're stuck in the middle of it. I've really never played a game like it. A game that original is at least worth a mention if we're talking about Games of the year. A game that can take a seemingly dull job and turn it to something so engaging is even more worthy of a mention. And a game that can include non-binary moral choices (no paragon or renegade bollocks) that truly affects you is even more worthy of a mention. And with all that, it manages to explore subtextual themes like freedom, collateral damage, terrorism, fear, poverty, and xenophobia without being preachy or pretentious, well, that's game of the year material.