This week, Gameological contributors wrote about some of our favorite games of 2013. And we asked you to tell us about yours. We chose a bunch of mini-essay from the comments on our Games We Liked articles and compiled them here. (Comments have been edited for length and clarity.) So now our readers get a chance to share their varied tastes and make a case for their favorites of 2013. It’s the Games You Liked.
doyourealize — Tomb Raider
I liked Tomb Raider because it told a real story about a woman. Say what you will about the clothes she wears or the torture porn-like nature of some of her deaths scenes, Lara herself was fully drawn and dynamic. More importantly, her story didn’t have any romance to muck it up. While there was a brief interlude of a co-worker with a crush, it did more to color the crew member’s actions than Lara’s. It’s a story that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and while I guess there is a “woman in a refrigerator,” that woman spurs another woman into action, not a man. And you can see true growth in her character, as well. She comes into her own as an explorer, friend, and crew member in a realistic manner—realistic in that I could see someone in her situation reacting that way, not in the situation itself.
The game had problems. Lara’s voiceover during puzzles could provide unwanted hints too early. The first kill carried weight, but then you slaughter thousands of other baddies without a second thought. The final boss fight was lacking. Lara’s character, though, was enough to make me forget all that. It’s rare that a woman gets to be more than window dressing. While Lara doesn’t break free from every issue plaguing females in games—her outfit is a little gratuitous, and she is an impossible-looking woman—she is a real female lead character in a mainstream game. That’s a nice progression.
Merve — Kentucky Route Zero
I liked Kentucky Route Zero because it made me think about places and spaces. There’s a scene early on in Act 2, where the player adopts the role of a bureaucrat at the Bureau Of Reclaimed Spaces, approving permits to, for example, turn an old mill into a chapel. There’s a cold practicality to this work, and on paper, it all makes sense. Later on, the player visits one of these reclaimed spaces: an old warehouse that has been repurposed as a church. Suddenly, what made sense on paper seems odd and ill-fitting. The warehouse feels like it should be a warehouse, not a church. It’s a space imbued with the atmosphere and history of a warehouse, not just a place marked by a dot on a map or a label in a filing cabinet. The second act of Kentucky Route Zero plays around with the distinction between place and space, and it made me reflect on the memories and meanings I attach to the spaces I inhabit.
Destroy Him My Robots — Monster Hunter 4 (Japanese import)
I like Monster Hunter 4 because it asks you to do as it does, not just do as it says. Few games offer the breadth of Monster Hunter—the variety in monster encounters, gear, play styles, loot, customization options. You name it, it’s there and in abundance. And you can disregard most of it—until you can’t. Monster Hunter demands that you know your weapon and your enemy and never act thoughtlessly. What makes it great is that it holds itself to the same standard and provides purpose for every nuance. Seemingly worthless loot you picked up 20 hours ago might turn out to be an ingredient for an item that is now a keystone of your strategy. Proper preparation and character crafting become essential, and every quest is a lesson rather than an end in itself.
Girard — Shelter
I liked Shelter because it let me be a mother. I work with kids a lot. I think they’re great and love them to pieces. But I don’t have any kids of my own, and I recognize that the relationship I have with the little people I teach is markedly different from the relationship, say, my mom had with me. I’m responsible for the safety and care of my charges, but I’m not the main thing standing between them and death by starvation or exposure. (As Louis CK put it: “I know how to look after you! I’m good at it! You’re not dead yet!”) Shelter, in some small way, allowed me to experience that added level of responsibility and anxiety over one’s progeny and their safety.
StagefrightBaby — Gunpoint
I liked Gunpoint because it was simultaneously deep and flippant. All it took was a short demo of this game to get me hooked. It’s a puzzle game that doesn’t force you to solve the puzzle in one particular way. It was a noir game that told a story full of intrigue and murder between rival weapons industrialists, and then it gave you a protagonist that, if you converse with others the way I did, was too cool to give a shit about any of it. The game was equally satisfying whether you were playing like a violent madman or stealthy pacifist. It was equally satisfying to disassemble a complex puzzle one tiny piece at a time or to pull the thing apart with brute force in a few seconds. Also, I can’t say I would have ever imagined seeing trouser-assisted super-jumping as a core part of a detective story, but it gave the whole thing an extra level of weirdness and tremendously expanded the possible solutions to each puzzle.
Anthony D. — The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
I liked The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds because it defied my expectations and took me out of my comfort zone. I had heard all about Nintendo’s decision to rework the Zelda formula for its sequel to the classic A Link To The Past. In the weeks leading up to the game’s release, many sources reported on the new item rental system and the ability to travel through the dungeons in almost any order the player chose. I was repulsed. I felt like the game would lack the satisfaction of progression and excitement of finding a new item in each dungeon. I was worried that the series’ often episodic structure would be jumbled up if I could complete its dungeons in any order. But once I finally played (and beat) the game, I realized my fears mostly unfounded.
Sure, the dungeons felt like they were missing a bit of the old excitement when I strolled into each one carrying every rentable piece of gear. The ability to use all those items from almost the beginning of the game, however, led to a number of times where I had to stop and think about the best strategy to use (especially during boss fights). I also didn’t mind the freedom to choose your own dungeon order. I just ended up treating it like an old Zelda title and focused on one dungeon at a time to the exclusion of others. I also really liked the new “become a drawing” idea. It created a number of fun moments I felt completely lost, only to remember that I could phase into the wall at will and use that to get ahead. The new refilling item meter was another positive change. I had to worry about rationing my supply of bombs and arrows for the moments “where I really need them” (which ends with me never using them at all).
Fluka — Saints Row IV
I liked Saints Row IV because it let me in on the joke. If in January you’d asked me what game I was looking forward to most this year, I would never have said this one. I knew that Saints Row: The Third was well-regarded in many circles for being over the top and silly, but also that it fit firmly within the Grand Theft Auto mold—lots of strippers and prostitutes, an ostensibly crime-related plot, lots of guns and cars (albeit silly ones), etc. Saints Row IV became something else entirely, as the developers looked at the tropes of its genre and said, “Fuck it! Let’s make a video game!” Why not add superpowers? Why not make part of the game a text-based adventure? And there should be Mass Effect romances and Keith David playing Keith David. Oh, and Jane Austen. As others have written, it’s also maybe the most inclusive game released this year. Male, female, black, white, blue, cis, trans, old, young, skinny, gay, straight, bi, robo-curious—your character always gets to be an ass-kicking President Of The United States Of America. Where Grand Theft Auto sneered, Saints Row welcomed you with open arms, handed you a lethal Dubstep Gun, and celebrated your amateur stripping abilities. It’s a game that loves games, and wants you to love them too.
The_Misanthrope — Papers, Please
I liked Papers Please because it is the perfect clutter simulator. Plenty of games try to nail the inane routine of a workday, but they often employ artsy touches—muted or monochrome color schemes, depressing music, etc.—to suggest it. Papers, Please does this, too, but it also drops the player right into that repetitive environment. Your sole method of interacting with the world is through your far-too-small desk and the booth window—a literal window that becomes your only portal to the game’s troubled ersatz Soviet Bloc. As it progresses and more rules are added to the customs process, my desk becomes a mess of reference materials—an ever-changing rulebook, wanted criminal notices—and the reams of paperwork the prospective immigrants were submitting to receive approval. I would often shuffle them around, checking and cross-checking while muttering about some incongruity I thought I saw. Before I knew it, I wasn’t just playing the game, I was living it.
caspiancomic — Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch
I liked Ni No Kuni because it was a love letter to my favorite game genre. The Japanese-style role-playing game has had a tough time in recent years. Its tropes and idiosyncrasies are being gutted and grafted onto games of all types, but a true blue JRPG is difficult to find. Some of the premier creators of these games have quietly relegated themselves to portable-console limbo, and several of Japan’s highest-caliber releases have struggled, or even failed, to garner a release overseas. Even the previously unchallenged titan of the genre, Final Fantasy, is suffering through mediocre releases, tiring sequels, and endless delays of the one game everybody actually wants to finally play. For several years now, it was looking these games might be going the way of the point-and-click adventure, a niche genre for aging fans increasingly sick with nostalgia.
That is one of the reasons why Level 5 and Studio Ghibli’s dyed-in-the-wool love letter to golden-era JRPGs is such an unlikely wonder. It’s a shamelessly “classic” JRPG getting a boxed release on the PlayStation 3, complete with a special edition filled with books and CDs and stuffed toys. The fact that the game is excellent is almost icing on the cake. The visuals are as inventive and gorgeous as you’d expect from a game with Studio Ghibli’s involvement, as is the music. The world is expansive and fun to explore. The combat is accessible and strategic all at once, and the story is engaging in its honesty and the clarity of its stakes and the goals of its characters. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I don’t think the game exactly sticks the landing. The final few hours are strictly unnecessary and feel a bit tacked on, but taken on the whole, it’s one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve had in ages—let alone this year.
ItsTheShadsy — Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits The James Turrell Retrospective
I liked Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits The James Turrell Retrospective because just as Lou Reed claimed that Metal Machine Music is the logical conclusion of the metal genre, so BVTJTR is the end-point of endless nostalgic retro-game revivals. There’s an unfortunate recent trend where people make games that ape classic titles but ham-fistedly graft on some sort of deep meaning or storytelling device, like an unreliable narrator, just for the sake of being “artistic.” (Perhaps my least-favorite game in this vein is the overwrought Loved.) Intentionally or otherwise, BVTJTR is a piss-take of every dark reimagining, every poorly executed “art game,” every misdirected nostalgic wish, and every attempt to force a meaningful BioShock-esque twist into a bog-standard Mario clone. Plus, the game is weird and totally hilarious in its own right.