Every New Years I get swept up in the same retrospective fever as the rest of the internet. However, I never feel like I have enough to add to the conversation because most years I only have enough money to buy one triple A title a year (this year I haven’t even come to that, though I’ve gotten close to buying Tomb Raider on sale a few times and I’ve just rented Arkham Origins this past week) and most of the >2-A games I play are reviews or pawn-shop rescues. Videogames are expensive. Prohibitively expensive for many that want to keep up with them,1 especially for critics, who, you’ll remember, wreck everything.2
Like a lot of writers I sometimes feel left out in missing the initial conversation after a new release, but having to wait to play a game is no great injustice. Alan Williamson writes, “…I don’t need to play The Last of Us right now. If it’s great, it’ll be great in a year or two. And if it’s no longer great, that’s just as interesting”3 and that guy seems to know what he’s talking about. I really don’t know what the best game of 2013 is because, well, even if I didn’t like waiting for games (which I do), I don’t have enough money to keep up to date. For example, right now I’m playing 1992’s Final Fantasy V for the second time, which is awesome. So there. And in that spirit here are the only and therefore best games released in 2013 that I’ve played.
The Journey Down (Skygoblin)
I wish I understood adventure games more, especially when games like The Journey Down show up. What was supposed to be the first of a series has not yet paid off and signs of further chapters have more or less disappeared. Which is a bit of a shame because The Journey Downiis one of the most accessible adventure games I’ve ever played, simultaneously leaving the player alone long enough to solve problems by themselves while also letting a neophyte like me off the hook when identifying keys and locks got to be too tricky.
It’s also remarkable in that it was designed with a conscious effort to feature an all black cast, both in on-screen representation and in vocal performances. It’s quite short, but that’s certainly better than the alternative. It might be a little too simple for those experienced with the genre but I recommend it to those looking to explore adventure games a little further.
Expeditions Conquistador (Logic Artists)
For a while, Expeditions Conquistador was all that I wanted to write about*. Whether intentionally or not, it’s one of the rare videogames that approaches the structural colonialism of RPGs head-on. Most RPGs put several layers of fantasy over any imperialism4 that emerges from their premise; in these games the player takes on the role of the lvl 1 underdog rising to the righteous saviour of the world. Conquistador, however, is about a Spanish war band sent from overseas to collect gold for an offscreen king. The game’s version of Mexico is not without fantasy, it does annihilate much of the sexism and colour the racism of Spain’s first expedition, but it doesn’t whitewash history to alleviate colonial guilt.5
In fact, the game seems to be a critique of revisionism. It knows that its audience is playing several centuries after its setting and it seduces the kind of arrogance that comes with alternate history. The point of the game is to “fix” the mistakes made by Cortes’s first expedition to the South American mainland. But the longer the player spends in “The New World” the more complicated their decisions become. Sure, the player’s interactions with locals can be more diplomatic and ethical than history’s but inevitably they are inserting themselves into another nation’s politics, another people’s revolution, another ethnicity’s disputes. A third party’s sudden intervention in these kinds of situations is complicated and messy and the game doesn’t offer the player any clean solutions. Further complicating things, the player must keep their (well written and characterized) staff fed, medicated and equipped, leaving the ever-present temptation to steal and kill to take and protect resources.
It’s a hard game, and not just mechanically, and I think it’s the kind that deserves to be made more often. It’s frank and it’s meaningful and it’s never comfortable.
Alpaca Run (Samantha Allen, Joseph Culp, Guy Conn, Cameron Kunzelman)
Platformers don’t get the respect they deserve. As videogames “mature” (or, rather, as they do that thing that commonly gets mistaken for maturity) vestiges of the platformer are quietly glossed over. Mario is allowed to exist due to his tradition, but otherwise only the truly exceptional and/or genre-defying platformers tend to get any mention at all. But Alpaca Run illustrates the virtues of the of the genre without any of the irritations that typically come with it. Alpaca Run follows the uninterrupted adventure of Ingrid the alpaca through brightly coloured forests, plains, mountains and caves set to the energetic music of the game’s creators.
Alpaca Run is fun and experiencing it is pleasant. There are pits to avoid, platforms to jump to and fruits to collect. There are no lives to lose and no hiccups to interrupt play. It’s just the player and their alpaca friend trying to reach the far right of the world. Meanwhile the song in the background describes Ingrid’s successful adventure across the country, the world and then universe. It’s straightforward and gamey, but that’s what’s charming about it: I want Ingrid to succeed and I get to help her succeed. I enjoyed our time together. A couple of times. Alpaca Run is the form distilled to its core parts: jump to avoid pits and collect fruit. It’s a videogame sonnet or haiku: short, pleasant and tightly designed to one clear purpose.
Mass Effect 3: Citadel (Bioware)
Despite popular opinion, Mass Effect is not really a very good game in the push-buttons, make-action sense. The first is choppy and inelegant, the second is derivative and unbalanced and the third—the apex of its design—is still just a slower, stiffer Gears of War. And for all the credit it gets for its story, it’s an ad hoc written space opera riddled with clichés and dangling plot threads. But I’ll always have a spot in my heart for Mass Effect because it’s so personal.
There’s little variability to Shepard’s personality and most of the player’s decisions don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but Bioware’s creation nonetheless feels tailor-made for every individual player. There’s no dissonance quite like that created by hearing Shepard’s voice out of a different player’s stranger. Compared with the dialogue trees in Baldur’s Gate, Fallout and even Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect’s is limited, but over the hundreds of conversation choices across three long games, Shepard gradually shifts from a player-character into an independent being all her own.
That’s why Mass Effect is the only triple A title that can get away with concluding its story by having the character’s friends all come over for a party. Mass Effect is best when lumped together, and when lumped together it marks one of the most interesting things to come out of mainstream videogames in the last decade.6 Citadel’s love letter to the series was legitimately touching. It was the finale to a beloved series, the end to a cultural phenomenon spanning years. Sure, the added mission was just more sci-fi shooty fun, but like Mass Effect it was the culmination that mattered.
Franchise Hockey Manager (Out of the Park)
Franchise Hockey Manager is a really complicated hockey management simulator. Go Sens Go.
Hate Plus (Love Conquers All)
I hadn’t experienced any of Christine Love’s work before Hate Plus. I had heard how good Analogue: A Hate Story was, but I just needed that last push before I put it higher on my priority list. Hate Plus was that push. Hate Plus is wonderfully written. It’s characters, its concept, its setting are all profound and endearing. The politics and the interpersonal relationships on board The Mugunghwa are beautifully interwoven.7 But for me Hate Plus really crystallised what makes games work.
Hate Plus could not work as a novel, even though it’s mostly text; it wouldn’t work as a graphic novel, even though there are—well—graphics. Hate Plus is special because of its relationship to the player. It unravels as the player explores it. Whether it’s charming the AI companion(s) with dialogue wheels or unravelling The Mugunghwa’s story in whatever order the player chooses, the characters, plot and world only come together at player’s pace; it is designed to accommodate a player’s experience.
Hate Plus helped me understand how I approach games and what it is about them that I value. Which very well may come across as trite It’s high concept fiction with a purpose. There’s also the bit with the cake. Classic!
Depression Quest (Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankle)
I put off playing Depression Quest for a long time. I completely believe in what it’s trying to do and when I finally did get around to it I thought it was as important as everybody had said that it was, for the reasons they said it was. Not to state the obvious, but there’s a cultural habit of not taking mental health problems seriously. Those that suffer from them—or even suspect that they might suffer from them—are browbeaten into suffering silently or negotiating their own coping strategies (which are often as unhealthy as the disorders their trying to self-medicate).
Depression Quest, however, shows the structure and self-perpetuating cycles of depression. And as sad and upsetting as it could sometimes be, I walked away from it feeling very optimistic. The biggest obstacle to managing the condition is silence, and the condition is most manageable when people are vocal, understanding and willing to listen. Depression Quest itself is a part of the conversation. It’s powerful and it does show what games can do when a designer resists the tyranny of “fun”.8
Batman: Arkham Origins (Warner Bros. Games)
Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were terrific games for different reasons. I think I stand apart from the crowd in preferring the second but they’re both excellent games in large part because they can stand on their own without the feeling that one is trying to outdo the other.9 I suspect, though, my problems with Origins are the same problems that many had with City: it’s too big, too dull, too lifeless. There are too many dudes to punch, too many sidequests to—um—sidequest. After finishing with Origins I popped in City just to see if I was just too curmudgeonly to accept change. The first frame I saw of Arkmam City put that fear to rest. City is so alive with its over-the-top comic book aesthetic. It’s sharp, it’s colourful, it’s despairing and dystopian.
Ignoring the plot craters of the prequel (which is the most courteous thing one can do for the game), so much of it felt soulless. I found myself doing the same thing over and over and over, listening to the same lines, going through the same motions, never feeling like I’d gained anything or become more a part of something. Inhabiting Batman’s character I kept stopping a crime that I knew that I’d stopped three or four times already because, well, Batman’d do it, and I need the XP anyway (which is setup in a tree, which it shouldn’t be because what was great about the other two was that development and progress were up to the player and their chosen playstyle, not shoehorned into the developer’s vision of how to play). At its very worst I found myself the subject of Kat Chastain’s “gamer’s are junkies”10 essay. Most of the game’s content existed to keep the player playing, to improve the dollars : playtime ratio. Even at its best it still just reminded me of how much better Asylum and City were. I felt like Chastain’s junkie getting his fix, racking up arbitrary points to satisfy a chemical compulsion.
To the game’s credit, it’s the only in the series to make Batman seem close to what could be called an interesting character11 but that never compensates for the usual prequel problems and the fact that so much of it seems like empty calories. When it didn’t feel pointless if often felt lazy with the occasional bright spot in between. As the only AAA game I played this year, I suppose I could have done worse, but it was disappointing nonetheless.
If nothing else though, the series has a common appeal for my partner and I, so it was a bonding experience for the two of us.12 Even if we did spend a lot of our time complaining about how it didn’t make any sense.
Consensual Torture Simulator (Merritt Kopas)
Depictions of sex aren’t particularly good in any medium. There are lots and lots of ways to have sex and they all come with different levels of cultural acceptance. However, media only normalizes certain kinds of sex. Not surprising, videogames have not lead the charge in opening mature, nuanced discussions of sex.13 Consensual Torture Simulator is a response to Grand Theft Auto V, it shows violence as an erotic act, not an empowerment fantasy.
While it does explore an avenue of violence most games don’t, I was more interested in it as a love story. Again, most media doesn’t seem to get relationships. The fact that this game begins with a couple hanging out and drinking tea was actually pretty remarkable. I got more of a sense that the two people in CTS loved one another than I do from most films and games that spend hours trying to prove just that. I took more of the Consensual away than I did the Torture Simulator. Working within my player-character’s limits and my non-playable partner’s limits was far more intimate than any of the Nice Guy interactions most games mistake love for. Also striking (sorry) was how concise and efficient Kopas’ use of language; I can’t think of a writer in games who is as able to do so much with so few words.**
So there it is. My GOTY list.
*My writing on Expeditions Conquistador: Review. PopMatters. Feb 17 2012; “To Explore or Conquor: Colonialism in Expeditions Conquistador.” PopMatters. Feb 25 2013; “My Thoughts While Playing Expeditions Conquistador.” bigtallwords. Feb 26 2013; “The Universe Rolls 20’s.” bigtallwords. Jun 12 2013; “Expeditions Conquistador and Post-Imperial Arrogance.” The Border House. Jun 18 2013.
**Maddy Myers might be a contender, but as far as I know her writing has been more geared to criticism than creation.
1 Beirne, Stephen. “Poor Community Spirit.” Re/Action. Jul 12 2013.
2 Simmons, Elizabeth. It’s Just a Game.
3 Williamson, Alan. “Not Buying – The Results.” Split-Screen. Dec 17 2013.
4 Filipowich, Mark. “A Colonist’s Fantasy: The Problem with the Fair Fight.” PopMatters. Nov 12 2013.
5 “Historical Game Spotlight: Expeditions Conquistador Follow Up.” Northern Beholder. Dec 24 2013.
6 Hubbell, Gaines. “360 No Scope Corny Shoot: The 7th Generation of Games.” Higher Level Gamer. Oct 31 2013.
7 Filipowich, Mark. “An Impolite Conversation: The relationship between sex and politics in three games.” The Border House. Nov 3 2013.
8 Alexander, Leigh. “Playing Outside.” The New Inquiry. Jun 17 2013.
9 Filipowich, Mark. “The Secret to Sequels.” PopMatters. Dec 10 2013.
10 Chastain, Kay. ok reblogged version… Kat Lake. Nov 20 2012.
11 Dinicola, Nick. “Arkham Origins Constantly Rigs the Odds Against Batman.” PopMatters. Nov 18 2013.
12 Filipowich, Mark. “Oracle and the Non-Playing Character.” bigtallwords. Apr 28 2013.
13 Haines, Rob. “Gratifying Play.” Unwinnable. Apr 23 2013.
13 Moss, Kim. “You Know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guys™ In Games With Romance Options.” Nightmare Mode. Dec 3 2012.