2013 was an interesting year for games for me. It was the year I fatigued on a number of AAA titles, and just never bothered to get around to others; but also the year I took more chances with games I wouldn’t normally play (and doing so I found some real gems).
This was also the year for some real groundbreaking games. The best I can put it into words, I think the common theme for games I loved in 2013 was challenge from innovation. Games that pushed the medium forward by bringing unique gameplay and story mechanics that allowed for choice, problem-solving and experimentation… rather than simply reacting through tired shooters or relying on over-tutorialization and hand-holding.
To that end,
my personal favorite game of the year:
The Stanley Parable (Steam PC/Mac)
If you haven’t played this yet, you owe it to yourself. This game should be mandatory for each and every studio that’s making games today and to me it’s one of the most important games to come out in years.
The Stanley Parable is a short game originally developed as a Half-Life 2 mod and released this year as a standalone game. It features you, Stanley, investigating the disappearance of your coworkers, and your narrator, voiced by Kevan Brighting. Where things get extremely interesting is if and when you realize you do not have to listen to the narration.
It’s a brilliant gimmick that starts innocently enough, yet what unravels is a thesis on the nature of choice and narrative gameplay. In execution it is subversively subtle – it’s damn fun, darkly hilarious (in the same witty style as Portal) and the payoff is the reward for your creativity and cleverness. It’s also relatively short (maybe 20 minutes a play through) but compulsively replayable to explore the different permutations of choice (and to find all the ‘endings’).
The Stanley Parable was the first game in a long time that brought me back to that feeling of exploration and curiosity that got me into gaming playing Myst 20 years ago – it’s a world that’s presented to you, no rules and no explanations and you choose how you interact with it.
The ‘Best’ Game of the year
I thought it important to choose a game and I tried to approach this as objectively as possible. So, I went through what I saw as the top games of the year: AC4, GTAV, Bioshock and Last of Us, and from there tried to narrow things down.
Assassins Creed 4: Black Flag
First, I withdrew AC4 because while I loved the pirate-y stuff, I personally found the story levels around the 2/3rds mark boring and repetitive. While it is a swashbucklingly fun game, I find it overall worsened by the Assassins’ Creediness of the meaningless collectibles and some of the lingering game mechanics (see our vidcast for discussion!).
On to GTA V: as a single-player game it was one of my standouts – I loved the story, the characters and the detailed living world. I also loved how they pushed the concept of “open-world” beyond a collectible-filled sandbox into a living narrative tool. However, in fairness as a complete package, I do not consider it a complete game (as advertised) from my experiences with multiplayer. Had it been released as a single player game only, for sure top game, but the multiplayer is a broken failed promise. This is one of 2013’s most unacceptable trends: games released partially finished for which we’re paying full price (see Battlefield 4).
So that leaves us with Bioshock and Last of Us…
Bioshock had my personal favorite story: unapologetically intelligent, cohesive and totally caught me off guard after a ho-hum first act.
In terms of gameplay I enjoyed the fighting sequences, but found them extremely telegraphed and less organic in their development than Bioshock 1 (they dramatically improved this in the DLC by the way). In terms of the fight and power mechanics, I did find it less about natural discovery and rewarding the player for experimenting (like original bioshock), and moreso that I found a hat/combo I liked and stuck with it the whole game.
Last of Us…?
I found the fight sequences were telegraphed in much the same way – but I personally found more room to experiment with Last of us. Where, given the option I would normally perfect-stealth MGS my way through a game, this game forced me out of my comfort zone. It forced me into panic situations when my stealth invariably failed – and instead of stop/restart checkpoint, you salvage as best you can, change tactics and guns-blazing plow ahead.
For this reason, I believe this is a far superior gameplay mechanic that modern stealth games (Splinter Cell) should learn from i.e. decreasing the reliance on checkpoint restarts as a gameplay mechanic to decrease the focus on ‘perfection’ and to increase the focus on experience, immersiveness and variety.
I also found the story engrossing, surprising and nuanced in its performances and loved that the characters behaved like real human beings. It should also be noted that Naughty Dog took a mature step in the right direction by introducing a complex gay character.
I personally enjoyed the sci-fi of Bioshock’s story better, but given that the Last of Us had an equally engrossing narrative and what I see as superior gameplay, I award: