And the winners are:
1. GTA V
2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
3. The Last of Us
4. Bioshock Infinite
5. Super Mario 3D World
6. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
7. Dota 2
8. Okay, I’m kidding. But you can be certain that we’ll witness some combination of the above list at many major publications. The list may even be close to your own games of the year. And that’s fine. Although in 2013 a promising phenomenon occurred: An even greater level of representation across the nominations, including games that in the past, the shiniest, newest, and biggest game would smother away like the memory of a JRPG protagonist. There’s even been a greater disparity among the winners this year. This has to be a good sign. Right? This list isn’t meant to be a self-affirming compilation that will validate the popular choices for GOTY. Well, it is self-affirming for me, but shhh that’s beside the point. This list is not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of pushing away tired notions of what designates a game worthy of being considered great, and the “best” the medium has to offer in 2013 year. The primary question being asked here is what does game of the year actually represent? Is it the game that was the most fun or had impeccable design? Or is it something more than glossy systems and mechanics, games that aspired to something beyond profit and loss sheets and did something of interest with game design, narrative, ideology, representation, or interactivity? While not popular among the boys who don’t want to think about their play, at Dialog Wheel we’re inclined to lean towards the latter. Fun here, for the most part, is unimportant. While valuable, fun has been done and a narrow way to assess a game’s worth. After all, fun isn’t the only form of human experience. Don’t fret though. Let’s talk instead. Tell me what you think in the comments.
In the end, these GOTY lists mean little and only time will designate what will be of cultural value to the future. Especially considering that it’s impossible for any human being to play all the games that come out in a year. But that shouldn’t stop us from attempting to make sense of and evaluate the year in gaming as we move forward. This list, of course, does not represent the opinions of all the editors, but hopefully captures the Dialog Wheel spirit. Our hope is that the best games the year has to offer are more about expanding the boundaries of the medium and gaming culture, than polishing them. Think true sequel, not HD remix. Now that the somewhat apologetic manifesto is out of the way, here’s the “top 10 games of the year,” a hierarchization the pseudo-socialist in me is against, but hey sometimes it’s easier to bend over to convention for accessibility.
10) Rogue Legacy
I’m going to cheat and use some of what I written before on the game here. Really what Rogue Legacy brought to games was reworking death and difficulty in this rouglelike renaissance that yearns so desperately for the good ol’ days. Rogue Legacy shows we can loot our cake and eat it too.
Rogue Legacy transcends death, eschewing the attitude its 16 bit ancestors and roguelike siblings established for end game conditions. Rouge Legacy is about the metroidvania adventure in itself. The journey is certainly more important than the end here. If you play well, meaning more gold, the end of each gold farming run is full of rewards, rewards that will allow you to start the process all over again. The process is the real reward. Teleology is sold for the in-between. It’s an addicting hamster wheel of a game and has a grind with self-awareness that has us learn, not just earn (through buying), our skill up its muddy mountain slope. Difficulty is high, yet welcoming and not of the alienating 1337 tradition. Death isn’t used as way to punish you for your mistakes, but as an obstacle to avoid, your driving desire, so that you may get more gold to run through the dungeon again and make another percentage of progress in order to make another percentage of progress. And so it goes.
9) Bioshock Infinite
I hate this game. It took me out to dinner, we laugh and bonded, had many things in common, became lovers, but then years passed and the love faded. It was different. Infinite was no longer the Bioshock I, we, fell in love with. “So what the hell is doing here?” you wonder. Infinite’s worth isn’t from its beautifully designed Disneyland Dystopia or its humanist underpinnings mixed with muddled, shallow, and irresponsibly lazy politics. No, it’s not the swashbuckling skylines or the spammy combat. Infinite is important because it showed us how the gaming journalist and criticism communities function and more importantly how susceptible we all are to a sales narratives. We saw a see-sawing of opinion with this game that shouldn’t be forgotten. A game that was first loved, then hated. That’s how one creates a prolonged critical discourse about a video game. In this sense, Bioshock Infinite’s blind authorial ambition (*cough* Ken Levine *cough*) gone awry provoked many important conversations about games, a talk involving ideological stance, race, violence, story-telling cohesion, in-game shields, and time travel. These talks are the game’s greatest accomplishment. But besides all those tidbits, Infinite revealed how easily sales narratives manipulate players (myself included): The trailers, the demos I showed to all my friends, Ken Levine’s interviews that attempted to resituate the medium and himself according to Hollywood conventions of relevance, i.e., the director and his “artistic” vision. Irrational Games’ marketing team had as much to do with our experience as the game itself. No wonder there was such a posthumous backlash against the game. Ultimately, Bioshock Infinite is a cautionary tale about our own unchecked desires and expectations, marketing manufactured dreams, the dangers of authorial control in game development, and the insecurities surrounding video game’s cultural standing.
P.S. My previous post on the Infinite DLC is an accurate representation of how I felt and still feel about the game proper.
8) Castles In The Sky
So I’ve written a very personal thing on developer The Tall Tree’s beautiful little game. Go read that, if you haven’t. Or don’t. Besides my personal bias and teary playthrough, the game manages to resist many gameisms and honors reflective play above all else. Castles doesn’t have skill trees, inventories, characters classes, or procedurally generated levels. And it doesn’t need them. Its gentle mix of context, poetry, art, and barebone mechanics remind us that simple unadulterated play has the power to provide emotionally effective experiences.
State of Decay is the best single player “zombie game” of all time. Yes, zombies to video games might be what hamburgers are to America, but State of Decay brings together such a range of emotions through mechanics and systems that it outdoes them all. The stamina meter being one of the most inspired, however, retrospectively obvious. It’s rougelike like, uh, feature of character specific permadeath reminds you that death shadows every moment, making your decisions matter. If you die, it’s most likely your fault, unless one of those walk-though-walls zeds get you. That’s just bad coding, but makes for a great story if you escape. It’s State of Decay’s ability to give you something akin to a book with a premise and characters, but then allow you to write many of the scenes that make up the chapters that elevates the games worth. Emergent storytelling is at its best here, allowing players to discuss the game like a personal memory. You actually grow attached to the characters you grow with and yell as they scream for their life when you make a single mistake.
I still remember my first death.
I, Marcus, send out a scout to grab some medicine for the group. While he makes his run, I clear out an infestation that has somehow sprouted right across the street from our home. Sneak in. Take out as many undead silently as I can, then use a doorway as a choke point to clear out the rest. Pretty routine. I use the machine cutting blade I found a few miles out in some wharehouse to slash through zombie flesh and bone. The scout is almost back to base. He gets attacked. He screams for help. I run to him. A horde appears. I kick some zeds away and dash towards his direction. A trap that I had placed goes off a house over. The zombies are sucked to the sound. I pull out my gun and shoot the zombie off my comrade, more zombies come, replying to the bangs like an echo. I throw a molotov for crowd control. It slows me down. A few zeds gurgle as they burn to death. I try to jump a fence. I’m not fast enough. The zombies pull me to the ground and rip at my flesh as I scream in horror. They tear my body at the torso, intestines tumbling out.
I’m now Maya Torres. I equip a shotgun and with anger, remorse, and regret launch bullets through groaning undead meat. I grab the rest of Marcus’s equipment from his dead body, stopping a moment to look down at him, before running back to restock and re-fortify our home. There’s little time to mourn.
Lucas Pope’s Papers Please should have made all GOTY of the years lists for being a game that surfaced into the public sphere and seriously dealt with politics and immigration. And not with politics in a CSPAN way or a Fox vs CNN way either, but in a smart and empathetic manner that has us perform these problems. Papers Please is the only game with some popular recognition to have ever engaged with immigration let alone create gameplay around the notion. Maybe ever. Pope has done us, the community and medium, a favor. What Papers Please does best though is let the player delve into how social structures and totalitarianism in this case, can lead to an objectification of human beings and essentially crimes against humanity. The game’s mechanics and design force us to knowingly be complicit in the state’s crimes (you’re literally working for the system, the state and game code, diegetically and as a video game player), either against strangers or your loved ones. Morally, you can’t really win. It’s the classic “trolley problem.” But Lucas Pope shows, or rather lets us experience, that the systems that underlie our relationships and our participation in them produce these conflicts. Just as Pope could have designed the game to be more lenient or offer alternative paths to its moral conundrums, so can we redesign political paradigms and social constructs.
5) GTA V
Technically, if Metacritic’s infometrics and player praise are accurate and infallible indicators of gaming greatness, then GTA V is undoubtedly game of the year. The sheer amount of time, money, energy, certainly a few ruined marriages that were translated into the biggest production of the year should have guaranteed GTA V its throne. But a few major publications chose to opt out on that predictable win in favor of games that did not look at the world and even the player with hatred and cynicism. I’m sure these publications will be charged with bias because of this reasoning, like defending and honoring the game doesn’t have its own ideological bias.
I have written extensively on GTA V (about 3000 words) and many of my thoughts on the game still remain the same. One major exception is my erroneous maneuver to absolve the game of some of its misogyny. I have to concede that the game is as misogynistic as it is open world. But, this in a backhanded way makes the game great. Is it misogynistic to reward a game from being misogynistic? Probably, but this culturally significant question is just one of many that game sparked throughout the gaming community and beyond. GTA V only really pushes forward technology and detail, which is nothing to scoff at. What GTA V really pushes is the conversation surrounding ideology and representation in games. Many critics have written wonderful, thoughtful, damning, and beautiful pieces on the game. I, for one, have never been so ambivalent about a game. Rockstar’s possibly irresponsible romp has birthed some of the year’s best criticism and for that it deserves to be considered one of the best games of the year.
Click here for a complete list of all the thought provoking criticism the game sparked. Here are a few of the best (most interesting):
4) The Last of Us
The Last of Us isn’t fun. And that’s one of the reasons it’s here. That’s not to say there isn’t something disturbingly alluring to running up and smashing a brick through the head of man who certainly would have done the same if given the opportunity. The game is unrelenting in its anxiety inducing playthrough, or more aptly stressthrough. Last of Us is the kind of game that has you holding your breath as you sneak to choke the life away from another human being trying to survive. You let out a sigh of relief, an exhale, with his dying breath. I don’t remember ever killing any women. This disturbing enjoyment or satisfaction taps into some primal mechanism of safety. Naughty Dog Manages to sift out the animalistic in the player, the need to survive, but then couples it with the very human need to make meaning. Even in a world where the primal drives most decisions, love, the desire for meaningful connection with others, still sprouts from the broken asphalt.
The relationship between Ellie and Joel, however problematic, created a third relationship: One with the player. To be redundant, Naughty Dog brought meaning to the action shooter. It offered up killing that has context, tone, and emotions that are more than a convenient setup to murder things. But besides this well executed tandem of gameplay and narrative, Naughty Dog and Neil Druckmann as craftsmen did something incredibly significant: Underwrite. What, subtlety in a video game? It must be the apocalypse. The “underwriting” isn’t only found in the terse and nuanced script, but guides the design philosophy. The environmental cues such as bright yellow road lines suggesting where to go next, the hidden autosaves, the tiny but revealing environmental storytelling, even those stupid pallet “puzzles” seem to be extensions of a less is more attitude. Naughty Dog has really grown since its prepubescent age (in game studio years) as the Crash Bandicoot developer, to its awkward teenage years as Jax and Daxter, followed by early adolescence with Uncharted, then finally now in its mid-20s (a demographic I’m assuming is huge on the game) with The Last of Us. Naughty Dog makes me feel like a proud parent and brother at the same time. We should all thank Naughty Dog for not writing like they’re on Broadway and for growing up.
“When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left.” This one sentence and the accompanying in-game decision, whichever one you make, encapsulate all of modern game design. For this reason, The Stanley Parable is the smartest game of the year. It’s gaming’s equivalent to Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism.” You have no idea what I’m talking about. Just trust me, as seems to be the primary rhetorical strategy used when discussing this game, The Stanley Parable is brilliant. It takes years of game design conventions and critiques them using, well, game design. And the best part is that the game is consistently hilarious (ostensibly a great challenge in the video game world) and makes its wonderful commentary on games in a way that’s never pretentious and still entertaining to anyone who plays it. And yes, you actually play it. Many have argued that “it’s not really game,” “it doesn’t have gameplay (cuz you don’t have a gun),” “all you do is walk,” but that’s all reactionary untruth. The most beautiful revelation that Stanley provides is the argument against the game: “All you’re doing is walking (an action) and pressing buttons.” Exactly. The real gameplay though is fighting the designer’s wishes and attempting to assert player agency, before discovering that’s only probably possible if you turn off the game. The rest of the gameplay exists in your head, figuring out the next possible path or what’s being said. Ultimately, Stanley is about paradox. You can make decisions, yet you can’t. The conventions are stupid, but they’re not. You aren’t Stanley, but you are.
When every path you can walk has been created for you in advance death becomes meaningless, making life the same….Stanley was already dead from the moment he hit start.
If you have heart, and are willing, Brothers and its redundant subtitle will make you cry. Brothers’ greatness shines in a comparatively small moment that reinvigorates the simple puzzle design leading up to it. Josef Fares, a renowned Swedish film director, headed this project and surprisingly it didn’t turn into a David Cage movi—I mean game (Heavy Rain). Fares and Starbreeze actually thought about the gaming materials, not merely deconstruct as Stanley did, but about how to mold them into something significant and emotionally effective. The thinking about game mechanics as a material worthy of eliciting feels leads to a moment that induces tears. It also didn’t turn to some contrived and regret filled binary choice, as could have easily been done. Most importantly, this wasn’t a cinematic (a technique not unique to games) cheap shot like Lasts of Us’s attempt to move the player. The somewhat forgettable puzzles that get us to this point take on new meaning afterwards, acting as gameplay infused character development. Yes, character development through mechanics and not the kind where you put points into stealth or magic. Like the kind that hasn’t really been done in video games, learning and experiencing them change as a person, not through some broody monologue in a cutscene, but through interactivity. After the game’s climax, the story is obviously different but it also affects the gameplay, you’re left longing mechanics and character simultaneously. A character transformation then occurs through, you guessed it, gameplay. This all was developed over the amount of time a film would pass and it left me sullen and ecstatic. Ecstatic because Starbreeze pulled off making the medium its own. Starbreeze you did it. No one should downplay your accomplishment. Brothers is a win for all of gaming.
1) Gone Home
It’s been done before. Yeah, right. I read on Reddit, the source for totally open minded, non-reflexive, and insightful criticism, that this game garnered such high scores simply because of its nostalgia factor. It brought nothing new to the table, they said. It received, not earned, such high scores because it pandered to the liberal and white, grew-up-in-the-90s journalists. Bullshit. This hollow and desperate critique is the clawing of a small child whose toy has been ripped from his hands. I, for one, have no significant memories from the 90s besides having an original Power Rangers Megazord being taken from me by my aunt and given to my envious cousin. The point of bringing up past traumas is to suggest that some of the arguments against the game’s praise are all but hasty generalizations, hasty generalizations this game is very much opposed to. Opposition is definitely what this game has produced. The man-child gripping his soft gaming fingers around the controller (or mouse) versus the person that asks them to play another way. What’s being willfully ignored is the precedent that The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home sets. This game expands video game boundaries, not polishes them. Gone Home says that games can be an effective storytelling vehicle and don’t have to have LMGs attached to the fenders to do so.
Gone Home is essentially a first-person looker. But looking is what’s so important here. Looking from a wholly new (to video games) perspective, through the eyes of women and into a family that may be like yours, or for me, mostly unfamiliar. Even if it primarily involves you opening every drawer in the house and staring at objects, which is no less ridiculous than getting health from chocolate bars or eating a hotdog you found in a Pneumo tube. The “gaze” is reappropriated in Gone Home. It offers the gaze from the feminine point of view and that alone is “doing something new.”
Gone Home is a long ways off from any shooter or popular notions of game design and this is a good thing. The story that’s told isn’t simply significant for dealing with a feminine perspective, sexuality, and the familial, but also for how it’s told. These human and somewhat relatable issues aren’t told through the guise of zombie apocalypse metaphor or dystopian Disneyland allegory, but through the very human act of observation. Gone Home is an interactive mis-en-scene. The gameplay is the assembling of narrative. Sure, there are the “audio log” type diaries, as one would expect from a Bioshock 2 developer. But the most interesting parts of Gone Home’s story are interactive, interactive in the sense that we must connect a series of clues, scraps of notes, the back of a novel, a punk rock tape, to build out these characters. Character psychology is created through your own ability to make associations and connections to uncover the subtextual mystery of this home. There are many games on this list that I “enjoyed” more than Gone Home, and a few that made me feel more, but no game this year took us away from the default setting of modern video games and said, “Hey, here’s another way of being.” It’s the first game of its scope to ask you to step out of the shoes of middle age white male militant or even the masculine fantasy of a heroine and step into the shoes of an ordinary girl and experience the quotidian pathologies that haunt every family. Gone Home isn’t escapism. Gone Home is understanding.
And with that our obligatory year-end review is complete. Thank the gods (this is much more difficult than it appears). If you agree, disagree, or have other games to list, please comment down below. This year I promise we will do a list tournament bracket style involving all the editors. Mostly because damn was this list hard to compile and write, and also because democracy/socialism. We, however, will be posting “Best Games of 2013” posts that will represent all of the editor’s highlights from the year. So keep an eye for that and if you haven’t played some of the games on this list, check them out. You will not be disappointed. Happy gaming.