Our favorite games of 2013, part one

Our favorite games of 2013, part one

One of the disadvantages of doing year-end staff selections for the “best” games of the year is that because video games are such a time-consuming pursuit, we all have significantly different rosters of games we’ve played in 2013. So instead of attempting to form a group consensus, in December we take stock with individual perspectives, which is where Gameological prefers to live anyway. It’s the Games We Liked.

As we did last year, staffers have picked a handful of games that stuck in their minds and endeavored to tell you why. These are the writers’ personal takes, not to be construed as an expression of the Gameological hive mind, which to my knowledge does not exist (but would surely conquer the world if it did).

Also like last year, you’re invited to write your own mini-retrospectives in the comments. Just follow the rubric we’ve laid out here—set up your rationale in the first sentence and go from there. (It’s fine if your picks overlap with ours, because you’ll probably have a different specific reason for digging a game.) We’ll collect some of our favorite Games You Liked in a special edition of Keyboard Geniuses at the end of the week.

In today’s installment of Games We Liked 2013—the first of two—Anthony John Agnello, Sam Barsanti, Matt Gerardi, Steve Heisler, and Joe Keiser share their picks. Also, don’t forget to vote for your favorite 2013 games in our readers’ poll.


Anthony John Agnello

Gone Home

I liked Gone Home because it made me ill with homesickness. Plenty of games have made me ill in the past, but that’s because they were tedious, frustrating, or ridiculously gory. None have ever affected me as personally as The Fullbright Company’s game did. The story of Kaitlin Greenbriar’s homecoming isn’t necessarily one I share—even though I was the younger sibling whose elder left home first, I didn’t go through the same sort of brutal coming of age that Kaitlin’s little sister, Samantha, goes through. I was, however, a teenager in 1995, and the physical reality of the Greenbriar home recalled my own (and that of my friends) so specifically that I was practically crippled every time I unlocked a new room in the house.

This is architectural storytelling at its best, creating an unreal world that is full of so much interactive detail that its mechanical tricks disappear in the process. Does it make any sense, for instance, that a bunch of interior doors in someone’s house are arbitrarily locked? No. But Fullbright’s environment uses detail to naturalist ends. The crumpled notes, the drawings shared with your first love, the Super NES games buried at the bottom of the closet, the zines—every little trapping of the era is used to pull you through the game. Gone Home’s world is so viciously, wonderfully true that slipping into Kaitlin’s life that night feels like remembering my own home.

The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

I liked The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds because it never stands in your way. The problem with Zelda games after 1998 isn’t that they insist on holding your hand. Ever since the fairy helper Navi first said, “Hey, listen!” in Ocarina Of Time, every game in the series has tended to interrupt you like a worried mother on the first day of school. Link, did you remember your boomerang? Did you remember your potions? Don’t forget to Z-target, honey!

To extend the metaphor, A Link Between Worlds is a more trusting parent‚ confident that you can find your own way in the big scary world, but still waiting in the wings to catch you when you trip. Barring a brief inciting incident where Link is led around by the nose by characters—come get your sword, meet Mister Badguy with a paintbrush—Hyrule and its murky twin kingdom, Lorule, are yours to explore. If you, say, saunter past a creepy-looking cave on your way to rescue some dude trapped in a painting, you can go ahead and explore it. You don’t have to wait for some pre-determined moment when A Link Between Worlds deems it okay to proceed. You advance on your own time, and the game won’t chirp at you to get back on task. Yet if you are at a loss, there is a pair of spectacles that will gently point you back in the right direction.

Nostalgists who romanticize ye olden days of video games tend to forget one important truth: People knew how to play The Legend Of Zelda on the NES because Nintendo also made magazines and books full of maps and hints, available for a nominal fee. Video game makers used to bank on you not knowing what the hell was going on as part of their business model. When the Internet made strategy guides a less coveted purchase, studios built directions right in the game, an invasive surgical procedure if there ever was one. A Link Between Worlds looks like a throwback, but in practice, it’s a remarkably progressive work.

Shin Megami Tensei IV

I liked Shin Megami Tensei IV because it has fantastic conversations. Dialogue is my favorite part of playing video games. I’m not talking about the pre-written chatter, although Shin Megami Tensei IV does have a good script. No, the type of dialogue I savor most is the conversation between player and game—the way the game tells you how it should be played through a series of changing conditions. SMT4 is a remarkable game, because it ties together its written dialogue with this broader interactive conversation. As a role-playing game in the Dungeons & Dragons mold—walk around a fantastical realm, fight monster, topple some divine entities along the way—it’s also excellent, every bit the equal of the many other games in the Shin Megami Tensei series that preceded it.

The series’ hook has always been its demons. The world is infested with demons, and you have to talk to them to get them to join up. SMT4 distinguishes itself from its peers by screwing with expectations. The game starts in a stuffy medieval setting, with samurai talking about honor and duty and tradition. Halfway through, though, when the game opens up to a whole new world, you’ll find yourself dressed like a medieval knight, standing outside of a 7-Eleven in Tokyo, trying to convince a thousand-year-old female porcupine that you’re a true ladies’ man so she’ll join your team. The game uses wild juxtapositions—in setting, in philosophy, in art, in tone—to draw you forward in the game. I never tired of talking with it.

Dragon’s Crown

I liked Dragon’s Crown because it transformed my all-time favorite arcade game into a monument to gluttony. Yes, Dragon’s Crown is the game with the boob witch. The witch with the boobs. It’s also the game where, in a brief side scene, you’ll find an injured warrior nun and you can use a small little icon of a hand to tweak her boobs. She’ll flinch and you will feel deeply uncomfortable. It is, objectively, a game that objectifies women.

This doesn’t excuse the game’s problematic elements, but it’s important to remember that Dragon’s Crown objectifies everything. Priests are hulking, warped old men that look like they’re melting into their own beards. A dastardly usurper to the thrown is a jowly, bulbous freak, like an R. Crumb oil painting of Henry The VIII. In between levels played online, you cook giant fish and massive haunches of meat dripping with fat, and then you feed them to your friends in iron bowls. Gold and swords and jewels and fruit literally erupt from the walls in shiny geysers on almost every screen of the game. Exaggeration and excess are fundamental laws of nature in Dragon’s Crown and in its distinct way it’s beautiful as a result. Even if it indulges in all seven deadly sins (with a crude lust looming large) gluttony is its specialty.

Dragon’s Crown is a sequel to Capcom’s 1996 arcade game Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara in everything but name, and the modern game’s gluttony is essential as the beat-’em-up format makes the transition from quarter-munching arcade machine to home consoles. Having abandoned the need to part players from their money on a regular basis, Crown keeps you playing by drowning you in loot and offering ever-stronger things to punch. The longer you play, the more you risk breaking your gear, but the greater the rewards you earn. Many things about Dragon’s Crown are wrong, yet the overall product feels right.


Sam Barsanti

Call Of Duty: Ghosts

I liked Call Of Duty: Ghosts because it knew exactly what it wanted to be. Look, we all know that the Museum Of The Future isn’t going to have a special exhibit on the cultural impact of Call Of Duty. While the technical achievements of the series are notable—it arguably perfected first-person shooter controls on consoles, and its system of leveling up has popped up in almost every multiplayer game for years—Call Of Duty rarely manages to push its art form forward in any meaningful way. But that’s all right. Sometimes I just want a hamburger, and Call Of Duty: Ghosts is a damn good hamburger.

Set in a near future where South America has banded together and bombed the crap out of the United States, you play as Some Guy Who Never Talks, a soldier whose dad is the leader of The Ghosts, a team of certified bad dudes. The Ghosts are America’s only hope and so on. All you really need to know about the plot is that it shuttles you along from one exciting set piece to the next. Ghosts, like every other Call Of Duty game, knows that you’re not there for the story, so it keeps the intrusions of plot to a bare minimum. That may sound like a bad thing, but Ghosts uses the hands-off nature of its plotting to focus on its core strength: cool explosions and thrilling shootouts.

Other than the usual never-ending gunfights through bombed-out cities that you’ve come to expect from a first-person shooter, Ghosts has Moonraker-style space battles and shark attacks. It has an aircraft carrier mission in which you dash between gun turrets and frantically cut the ropes of would-be boarders. In one level, you stalk enemies through a jungle, a sequence that reminded me of my days hunting down Russian guards in Metal Gear Solid 3. Sure, Call Of Duty: Ghosts doesn’t revolutionize games, but it’s not trying to. Not every meal needs to be gourmet, especially when the red meat is this hearty.

Device 6

I liked Device 6 because it terrified me with words. It’s a bit difficult to describe Device 6 without giving away some of its clever surprises, but playing the iOS game is like reading a weirdo mystery novel in which you have to stop every few minutes and solve a puzzle. To be a little cute about it, you could say that it’s like a text adventure in which the text is the adventure. Device 6 is, at its most basic level, the story of a woman, Anna, who wakes up in a creepy castle and has to figure out how she got there. As you follow her journey—which occurs almost entirely in text—the words act out what is happening. So if the game describes Anna turning back the way she came, the text might loop around and require you to turn your device upside-down to read it.

That trickery, along with Device 6’s sound design—if you play with headphones, you can hear Anna’s footsteps and the ambient noise of the room she’s in—go a long way toward immersing you in the game. Despite its lack of traditional visual, the game feels natural. The text not only describes but also embodies a tangible place. This also gives it the potential to be all the more terrifying. Device 6 can frighten the player just by changing the music or splashing a new color across the background. It’s a testament to the game’s clever use of its platform that it can do so much with so little.

BioShock Infinite

[NOTE: Major late-game plot details follow.] I liked BioShock Infinite because it reached beyond its means. First, let’s talk about plot twists. A good twist is one that doesn’t negate anything that happened before it. Finding out that, for example, a character was dead the whole time doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t add a greater understanding to the story that came before. BioShock Infinite is a game that works in service of its twisty ending, and because of that, any seemingly cheap fake-outs you encounter along the way feel bigger and more important once you’re finished.

BioShock Infinite has its share of flaws, and its imperfections probably don’t end up serving a larger narrative purpose. The combat is too dull and too frequent to be as exciting as it should be, and the majority of its side characters aren’t nearly as well fleshed-out as those in the original BioShock. However, those shortcomings became easy to ignore for me when—after one last overlong gunfight—the game reveals the true extent of your traveling partner Elizabeth’s reality-warping powers by dumping you into the underwater city of Rapture from the first game. Then Infinite tops that cool moment with a walk through an endless sea of lighthouses, each one opening up into an alternate BioShock universe that we’ll never see.

The adventure through Infinite’s flying city of Columbia wasn’t as spectacular as I would’ve liked from moment-to-moment, but very few game endings have had the same punch as this one. The game’s villain compares himself to a modern-day Icarus. That’s an apt metaphor for BioShock Infinite itself—it may end up falling short of its ambition, but it provides a hell of a story along the way.


Matt Gerardi

Kentucky Route Zero

I liked Kentucky Route Zero because of its quiet surreal quality. It’s a ghost story, as the tale of a deliveryman’s trek across a spectral Kentucky highway and the weirdos he meets along the way. It’s full of extraordinary and paranormal sights, but it rarely feels like much more than a road trip through a skewed version of the American South. Zero is smart enough to keep its strangeness in check, enticing players with nonchalant mentions of artificial limb factories and phantasmic board game enthusiasts. These hints create an impression of a larger, more fantastical world beyond Zero’s veneer of down-home, blue-collar grit.

Because Zero presents these quirks so matter-of-factly, they come off as subdued, natural parts of its setting, even when they poke through into full view. Early in the game’s second act (only two have been released so far) you stop at an office building to ask for directions. Its building directory seems pretty standard for a bureaucratic center. Clerks’ offices are on the first floor, conference rooms on the second, bears are on the third—wait, what? Indeed, the third floor is home to a bunch of bears who offer nothing but a blank stare if you decide to visit them and walk through their midst. The game never draws further attention to this peculiarity, and no characters ever mention it. It’s just a thing that exists in the world of Kentucky Route Zero. For the player, these imaginative moments retain their impact. (As I’ve said before, they’re among the most memorable things I’ve witnessed in a game this year.) Their prosaic presentation creates a sense of fantastical anticipation. After all, if a floor full of relaxed office bears is apparently nothing to get worked up about, just imagine what could be waiting at your next stop.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

I liked Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag because it was morally freeing. I’m tired of playing the role of the sneaky, merciful pacifist. I’ve spent years skulking in shadows and jumping through hoop after infuriating hoop to leave behind the fewest corpses a game will allow. But stepping into the boots of Edward Kenway, the fearsome pirate who stars in Black Flag, turned me into a bloodthirsty monster concerned only with coin and preserving his Caribbean pirate haven. Civilians were off-limits (as they always are in Assassin’s Creed games), but every imperial soldier, navy vessel, and killer whale was a potential target for Kenway’s scurvy fury.

The game begins with a naval battle gone wrong. Kenway is stranded on an uncharted island with a mysterious stranger who offers to pay him for passage to Havana. Instead of taking the offer or striking up some small talk with his new desert-island roomie, Kenway decides to simply take the money. He chases the scared man and, after the stranger fires a warning shot, sets out to kill him. Kenway then steals his identity and heads to Havana to claim the mysterious man’s prize. This contemptible act sets the tone for Kenway’s bloody rampage through the Caribbean, and despite my non-violent tendencies, I found myself embracing his nastiness. There’s no reason not to believe that Kenway would cut down hundreds of British soldiers and sink dozens of ships to get what he wanted, so I did. It felt good to leave my morals behind and slide into the role of the brute.

Bit.Trip Presents Runner2: Future Legend Of Rhythm Alien

I liked Bit.Trip Runner2 because playing it is like performing in a symphony. When playing music in a big group, it’s important to listen to everything that’s going on around you, keeping your volume in check and blending in with your fellow musicians. But you can’t get too caught up in what everybody else is doing. It’s more important to keep your head down and play your part, lest you be distracted by all the opposing melodies (and possible errors). Runner2 works the same way. Each level is a slightly different song. Many of the background parts—drums, bass, simple melodies—remain the same throughout, but you make them unique by adding bleepy, bloopy flourishes when your hero, Commander Video, dodges enemies or collects gold on his way to the end of the level.

In that way, the obstacles act as sheet music. They’re prompts placed on Commander Video’s linear path—the same way written music is just a bunch of lines and circles that become significant within the music’s linear flow of time—telling you exactly when to jump or kick. It’s up to you to play your part and make musical contributions to the best of your abilities. Everything else—the rest of the symphony—is automatic.

It’s tough to get a sense for your musical contributions while you’re playing though. Runner2 is no joke, but there’s a state of mind to be achieved during a perfect run, where you reach a balance between concentrating on your own responsibilities and minding the rest of the performance around you. That’s when all of Runner2’s moving pieces come together, and a playful symphony emerges.

The Stanley Parable

I liked The Stanley Parable because the only predictable thing about it is its brutal honesty. The game starts the same way every time: You peer down a hall into a room of abandoned cubicles. You walk forward, and the narrator starts talking. Then you reach two open doors. The narrator tells you to go through the left one, and you could, or you could disobey and see what happens. From there The Stanley Parable’s personification of the eternal conflict between player and game designer spins in wild directions. It’s never clear where the narrator will take you. (Despite your intransigence, it’s still his game and he has final say.) The one thing that’s ensured, however, is that by the time you reach an ending, you’ll have been beaten about the head by the game’s take on the inherent inanity of video games.

That perspective might be reductive, but it’s not wrong. Struggle as players might to defy and exploit, in the end, games can’t give us free will within their confines. Someone had to craft the story and its branches. Players choose paths from predetermined forks, if they’re given that courtesy at all. The Stanley Parable openly mocks games like The Walking Dead that deny games’ determinist nature by attempting to make your choices feel weighty. During one of the story’s iterations, the narrator interprets Stanley’s disobedience as disdain for the game he has designed. How does he try to improve it? By adding a third door to Stanley’s big, important first decision. The doors are in different locations, and one even looks different, but no matter which you choose, you end up in the same place. It’s a room where the narrator asks you to rate this new and improved and even more choice-filled version of this game. I’d wager most people give it one star out of five—another futile rebellion against the machine.


Steve Heisler

Anodyne

I liked Anodyne because it views Zelda through a distorted lens. At first blush, it looks like Anodyne is setting up a straightforward retelling of The Legend Of Zelda. Then the differences emerge. Link, the iconic hero of the Legend Of Zelda series, swings a sword. Young, the hero of Anodyne, has a broom. Link’s name is praised by all citizens of Hyrule, the mythical kingdom he saves. The people of Anodyne’s trippy world—dark forests bordered by fiery underground pits on one side and a cheery lagoon on the other—can’t even spell Young’s name correctly. And those are the ones who speak to you. Some inhabitants of Anodyne, like a herd of tall, fuzzy creatures that look like giraffes with their neck lopped off, meander around and get in your way without a sound.

Moments with these leggy silent types, and other encounters with the oddities of Anodyne, feel like clips from a Terry Gilliam movie. Where so many other games might lay out their backstory with methodical care, backstory segments in Anodyne breeze by in favor of more time with Young flailing that broom around, beating up fantastical creatures. Anodyne fills in the details of its world by other means: The game often hands you a card when you defeat a monster, with a non-sequitur quote on the back that lends some personality to, say, the octopus tentacle you just battered to a pulp. Link himself even makes an appearance—some variation of Link, at least—only he’s an old man chopping down a tree convinced he’s the savior of Hyrule. Often in Zelda, Link is the last hope for sanity. In Anodyne’s world, he’s the crazy one.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

I liked Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon because it contains a weapon called the “KillStar.” It is, quite literally, a star that kills. Because Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a rich serving of neon ’80s cool, the KillStar takes the form of a “laser shuriken” grafted onto the cyborg arm of Sergeant Rex Power Colt—100 percent patriot—that burns through enemy robots with the red-hot fury of a bare-fisted Ronald Reagan. That KillStar is the stars and stripes, a bald eagle, and delicious apple pie, all in one weaponized package. USA! USA!

Blood Dragon fully immerses players in its Rambo fantasy with a celebration of 1980s film tropes. You, as a super soldier, are the good guy who always gets the girl. You pick up big guns to take out countless hordes of glow-in-the-dark dragons. Scientists are smart, and therefore nerds. It’s all here, packed into a first-person shooter, scored with Miami Vice-style music and nonsensical quips from Colt.

The game doesn’t take itself seriously—every bad guy is the baddest guy; every upgrade to your software is the best upgrade—so finally acquiring the KillStar feels, at first, anticlimactic. It’s just another weapon in a long line of weapons that kept you overpowered. But you do face mild struggles prior to getting the KillStar, and conversely, once you have it, you will struggle no more. It is the greatest weapon in all of the land, and Rex Power Colt deserves nothing less.

Rogue Legacy

I liked Rogue Legacy because it speaks to the power of family. Each generation in Rogue Legacy plays out in a haunted castle. A hero, chosen by his or her ancestors, takes a stab at clearing out baddies like knights and ghosts, or eyeballs the size of a small foyer. You’re armed with weapons both tangible and mystical, also passed down through the generations. The hack-and-slash platformer ends when you die, only to take you back to the menu screen so you can start the process over. Now there’s a new batch of offspring to choose from. Some are warriors, some mages, others walk on the ceiling or suffer from debilitating vision disorders. You aren’t able to choose the traits of your kin; you can only choose who will carry on your legacy.

While there are some skills that particular players will be looking for at any given time—the miner class, for example, collects more money to spend on future upgrades—each hero is equipped for the challenge at hand in some fashion or another. Rogue Legacy forces you to rely on the talents of the heir you choose, learning to love his or her idiosyncrasies as you venture forth to take care of the family business. Since the castle reconfigures itself each time you play (and is daunting in any form) it can take many generations to conquer it. But your family—your quirky and inbred, yet determined family—is the constant that carries you through it all.

Year Walk

I liked Year Walk because it enjoys watching me fail. As humans, we learn from our mistakes, unless we are playing Year Walk. The immersive iOS game beings by placing you at a remote cabin in the woods. You wake up at midnight to wander around the woods in a ritual that will supposedly allow you to see your future. And that sounds great, except that at first, it seems all you can do is visit an abandoned shed or fiddle with a tiny lockbox. Puzzles are slow to reveal themselves, and the game offers few clues to the deeper nature of its wilderness. The woods are deathly silent. You can only hear a distant stream.

Because there isn’t much to go on, the smallest of aural touches lend the eerie sensation of being shadowed. It seems impossible that the footsteps you hear, crunching below, are only your own, or that the stream can babble so predictably. As you press on, there are many surprises in Year Walk, but they are fleeting, and they inevitably leave you once again alone in the woods, searching for a shred of a lead on what to do next. When a horse shows up in that stream, wearing a suit jacket and asking you to find the souls of dead babies, it’s unsettling not just because of the freaky imagery, but also because now you have to continue wandering in silence, conducting your search, while fully aware that the game is watching you.


Joe Keiser

The Last Of Us

I liked The Last Of Us because it’s a blockbuster that dares to be suffocating, repulsive, and painful to play. Maybe it’s just me, but when a game is sold to me using the “cardboard standee in the mall” strategy, I cast certain preconceptions on the thing. I expect that it will be non-controversial, for instance, and that it will sand off the rough edges to reach the broadest possible audience. I also assume it will at least try to be fun.

The Last Of Us defied my assumptions. Its rough edges weren’t sanded. Instead, they were sharpened—playing it is painful. That doesn’t mean it’s difficult, although it can be. Rather, it’s a trial for the soul to endure. The Last Of Us is a story about humanity at the end of its tether, with happy moments, but no happy endings. And as it progresses, the hope leaks out of it from an increasing number of pinpricks.

[NOTE: Discussion of the game’s final act follows.] And then the broken bottom is pulled out, revealing that Joel and Ellie’s relationship, the game’s beating heart, is not one of a father figure and a daughter. Instead, it’s between a broken man and the bauble he has chosen to live for at any cost. That cost is his own humanity, and all the humanity that remains on Earth.

All of this is rendered with a technical pizzazz that is usually reserved for million-selling military shooters, and the result is a beautiful, tactile nightmare. At the end, when Joel is unraveled by a pivotal choice he can’t fathom, I felt the force of his terrible dilemma. I’m still surprised that I was able to choose. But when I did somehow move forward, I witnessed a stunning portrait of a twisted character. The Last Of Us startled me with its bravery and honesty; I was happy to see my snap judgments overturned.

Guacamelee!

I liked Guacamelee! because I loved its chickens-and-wrestling subject matter—but not as much as Guacamelee! did. This one’s personal. I’m pretty far from my childhood at this point, but there are a few things in this world that still bring me pure, brainstem-based joy like a professional wrestling spot well executed, games of exploration, and 100 percent dedication to a ridiculous sense of humor.

So, perhaps I should have been more prepared for Guacamelee!, a 2D platformer where it’s possible to pile-drive an opponent into what feels like a mile deep pit, the bottom of which reveals a hallway that might only be accessible if you transform yourself into a chicken. But no, I was not prepared for this. I did not expect a game to ask me to think about the viability of the frog splash—the superlative finishing move of the late, great, wrestler Eddie Guerrero—in a confrontation with a skeleton army. I wasn’t ready for all of the old game references, some incredibly obscure. I wanted whoever made this impossible thing to get out of my brain—that is, as soon as I stopped grinning.

Even if it weren’t attuned to my own passions, I think the ebullience of Guacamelee!’s presentation would have taken me in. This is a brightly colored portrayal of a wrestler battling the underworld, painted in the rich palette of Mexican lucha libre and Día De Muertos iconography. This is a game that loves the things I already love fondly, yes, but it also wants others to love these things, so it takes the time to present them with an approachable sense of mirth. At least, I think it does. It had me at chickens and wrestling.

Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon

I liked Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon because it delivers on a promise Nintendo made more than a decade ago. Back in 2001, Nintendo launched its GameCube console. The marquee launch game was Luigi’s Mansion, in which Luigi explored a spooky house, teeth chattering, and sucked up ghosts with a vacuum cleaner. It was an excellent game, and everyone who played it was disappointed. It was unfairly derided for not being a Super Mario game—Super Mario had (unless you’re really splitting hairs about release dates) accompanied every new Nintendo machine up to this point, and Luigi’s Mansion felt like a pale replacement by comparison. It was also fairly derided for being criminally short. But Luigi’s Mansion had some great ideas, so its fans waited patiently for Nintendo to make a full-sized game out of those ideas. And then Nintendo never did, and everyone forgot about Luigi’s Mansion.

Then, 12 years later, Nintendo for some reason delivered what they should have released the first time with Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon. Whereas the original was a single carnival-inspired haunted house, Dark Moon was an entire spooky fair. The frantic tug-of-war of ghost vacuuming and the puzzles of light and shadow, so underused in the first game, here showed that they were able to hold up over a full 12-hour experience. And spending that time with Luigi, with his awkward humming and laughably overblown fear reactions, proved to be a delight the entire time. If this were the game Nintendo had put out in 2001, everybody would have still been disappointed it wasn’t Mario, but they would have had a harder time justifying their prejudices.

Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons

I liked Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons because it tells a moving story through its controls and level design. Brothers is a fairy tale, and a simple one: Two brothers are on a quest to find a cure for their ailing father, so they are not left orphaned. It’s about the relationship between those two siblings, but these characters aren’t just related because the game says they are. Brothers makes that relationship tangible by asking the player to control each sibling at the same time, one with your left hand and the other with your right.

It’s this curious method of control that makes Brothers one of this year’s most notable works. A single player making their way through the game will control both brothers as they work together to solve puzzles, talk or play with other villagers, or sit together in silence on a bench. When the brothers have to collaborate, there’s a sense of closeness and safety. When the brothers have to separate, a new tension emerges. It’s a relationship that you experience less on the screen than in the mind, in the pathways between the sides of your brain.

Brothers is tender and slow, and it’s possible not to notice the closeness of the fraternal bond that is being built. But there is a moment at the end of Brothers in which that bond is shown to be unbreakable. It’s a moment of startling emotional depth that cuts right to the bone, and one that could be delivered only through the game’s unique controls. I’m likely to forget everything else that happened in games this year before I forget how I felt in that moment.

Illustration by Luke Meeken.