The top ten games of 2013

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This year, instead of just singling out games I like, I’m going to single out games that do best what I like most. Namely, games that tell a story through gameplay. A relevant story, unique to the way videogames tell stories. Games that really get the unique strength of the medium over and above books and movies. Games that are particularly great at being games and not just puzzles or tests of skill or dazzling virtual wonderlands.

This is partly a shame, because it’s going to exclude some of my favorite games this year. It’s going to exclude games I liked mostly for mechanical reasons. Don’t Starve is the game that finally got me hooked on procedurally generated survival-a-thons, partly because it’s got so much personality and mystery. Desktop Dungeons is the most amazingly intricate cerebral puzzle rogue-like I’ve ever played, neatly arrayed under a superlative meta-game of building up and unlocking. Tales of Maj’Eyal is a rogue-like with addictively intricate character development, honed over a decade of development. I never really cared for the goofy sloppiness of kart racers, but this year’s best driving game is a kart racing game called Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Monaco is a glorious playground full of interactive bits, lovingly realized in that often too-precious retro fat-pixel way, and some of the best multiplayer co-op you can play. Splinter Cell Blacklist takes stealth as far as I can imagine it will ever go by giving it varying levels of importance in a generous set of sandboxes, all interconnected by the economy of buying cool weapons and gadgets. Which brings me to Dead Space 3, which drank up far more time than a Dead Space should with its funky cool spaceweapon crafting. Assassin’s Creed IV’s gorgeous pirate ship shenanigans were just the breath of salty fresh air the Assassin’s Creed series needed. If there’s a platformer as good as Rayman Legends at the art of running, jumping, and variations thereof, I haven’t played it. I haven’t gotten very far into Wonderful 101, but I love the fighting system I’ve seen so far and I’m eager to explore the rest of it.

All those games would vie for a spot on a conventional top ten list. But none of those games really had an effective narrative hook, and that’s what my list is going to single out this year. As videogames grow up and increasingly earn their rightful place alongside movies and books and TV, these are the ten games I’m proudest of, the games I enjoyed the most, the games I’ll remember for reasons other than mere gameplay. These are the games that spoke the loudest, the clearest, the most poignantly, the most memorably. These are the games with voices that most deserve to be heard.

After the jump, the best games of 2013

(A brief note: I didn’t get to play Ni No Kuni, Guacamelee, Papers Please, the latest Ratchet & Clank, or anything next-gen, such as Forza 5, Dead Rising 3, Knack, Killzone, Ryse, Gran Turismo 6.)

10) Lego City Undercover

A well written Lego game isn’t a surprise. But a game this well written, this consistently funny, this consistently surprising and delightful? Lego City Undercover is a broad, generous, affectionate collection of memorable settings, characters, and situations that holds up far better than any of the licensed Lego properties.

Read the review here.

9) Wargame: Airland Battle

Real time strategy games are awful at telling stories. They almost always have terrible campaigns, consisting of bits of exposition crammed like caulk between missions. But the developers at Eugen have taken the Cold War toybox of Wargame and used it to make a uniquely dynamic campaign in which World War III marches across Scandinavia. By drawing from broad boardgaming concepts at a strategic level, and then letting their superlative RTS tell intricate stories of battles among persistent forces, they’ve managed the single best campaign I’ve ever seen in an RTS.

Read the review here.

8) Metro: Last Light

Artyom is a weird character for how he disappears into Metro’s somber mood during the actual game. When he talks during the loading screen, it’s kind of surprising. “Oh, right, there’s a protagonist here,” you recall. The real star of the Metro games is that somber mood, the inveterate grey of loss and regret, the oppressive glum tunnels, the inevitable poorly lit corridors, the weird sad little guns shooting weird sad little men. Interestingly enough, Last Light’s story is similar to The Last of Us, without as much emphasis on character, but with far more consistency and far better expressed in the context of a straight-up corridor shooter.

Read the review here.

7) Tearaway

Media Molecule wisely tucked all the “put goofy faces on your avatar and try other people’s levels” stuff from Little Big Planet into a supporting role for their charming and inventive world-building. The point of Tearaway reminds me a bit of the point of the Patapon games, where the denizens of a tiny world have their minds blown by a glimpse of you. Like any divine revelation, this glimpse sparks a religious quest that explores your relationship to a virtual world. There’s nothing quite so weird as finding pictures of myself scattered around inside the world as I guide this little envoy on her quest to find me. Meden would be proud.

6) Saints Row IV

Volition understands the playground nature of sandbox games. The concept behind Saints Row IV is its most perfect expression. By sweeping the real world away — “we won’t really need this anymore,” Volition assures us, even sweeping away a couple of beloved characters in the process — they focus smartly on a handful of characters, including your own personal power fantasy avatar, power tripping their way through a virtual playground videogame. For over ten years, the videogame realization of the Wachowski’s Matrix has mainly consisted of ingame bullet time. Finally, someone gets it.

Read the review here.

5) State of Decay

Post-apocalyptic games are almost never about survival. They’re about transplanting fantasy or shooter tropes into worlds where no one has bothered to clean up the rubble. But State of Decay finally gets the concept of a post-apocalypse, and specifically the concept of a zombie apocalypse. A dead world, overrun with ambulatory dying, where anyone can die. It gets the importance of finding food and a few bullets more and sticking together so those things out there don’t get you. It gets that the zombies are out there, but the most pressing matters are in here, in the relationships between the survivors and how they help each other. Sarah Northway’s strategy game Rebuild is another rare post-apocalypse that also gets these things, but a strategy game can’t tell a story the same way as a “you are there” open-world.

Read the review here. Read the review of the Breakdown DLC here.

4) Little Inferno

This is a trifle, but a powerful trifle. It’s about many things, but it’s mostly about how you interpret it. For me, it was about growing up. For you…well, you’ll have to figure it out on your own. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or so, but you’ll think about for far longer than you played it.

Read the review here.

3) Gone Home

A horror game about an empty house that turns into a love story, with exactly the ending you’d never expect. Gone Home understand that if there’s one thing more powerful than tension in a story, it’s release. This keenly observed portrait, told from older sister third person, captures with breathtaking clarity the thrill of being young and in love, which is almost the same as being young and confused, which is almost the same as being young.

Read the review here.

2) Tomb Raider

Batman, James Bond, and Lara Croft had become jokes, or at least one-note caricatures. Now, each of them has been rebooted, re-imagined with grit and fallibility and desperation, heroes from an earlier time reworked by a zeitgeist where no one saves us from 9-11, from Katrina, from the economic bust, where the best a hero can do is hang on and prevail. Lara Croft, inquisitive, naive, bookish, trusting, left for dead in a cauldron of blood, transformed into a videogame killer. There can be no sequel to this Lara Croft, because she has run her course. And I can think of no better praise for a hero from a franchise than being entirely self-contained, complete, a story told to its grim and satisfying natural conclusion. Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider is a grand work that belongs alongside The Dark Knight and Skyfall as an example of what happens when you let creative insightful people take a turn at played-out characters.

The game diary starts here.

1) Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto V is as much a state of mind as a story or a set of gameplay systems. It’s a grand psychoanalysis and canny indictment of open-worlds, of videogame characters, of slaughter without consequence, of the entertainment industry, of race, of gender, of men, of cars and guns, of enchanced interrogation, of music and TV stations, of Southern California, of America. The iconoclasts at Rockstar have finally found a voice — indeed, a set of voices — to give clarity, structure, and operatic scale to the disaffected “fuck you’s” they’ve been muttering since they first envisioned a world where you could just take whatever car you want. Mean, petty, grand, sublime, ongoing, stunning, unforgettable, relevant, epic, intimate, and something that you could only do in a videogame. Instead of asking “where is the Citizen Kane of videogames?”, we should ask “where is the Grand Theft Auto V of movies?”

Read the review here.

Most overrated of 2013
Most disappointing of 2013
Most surprising of 2013