Our favorite games of 2013, part two

Our favorite games of 2013, part two

Each December, Gameological staffers take stock of the year by offering their perspective on games that intrigued and delighted them. We call them the Games We Liked, because that’s what they are. Today’s concluding installment features staff picks from Samantha Nelson, Derrick Sanskrit, John Teti, and Drew Toal. If you missed the first day of Games We Liked, you’ll be pleased to learn that it has been preserved on the Internet for you. Also, don’t forget to vote for your favorite 2013 games in our readers’ poll.

SAMANTHA NELSON

Grand Theft Auto V

I liked Grand Theft Auto V because it lets me unleash my inner deviant. Freud theorized that people are constantly struggling against the whims of their id, and that only their higher brain functions prevent them from acting out in selfish and violent ways. It’s the sort of conflict I face when I consider walking out of a store with my purchase to avoid a long line or yelling at diners lingering over their check while I’m stuck waiting for a table. I don’t do those things, because I know they’re wrong (or at least rude), but the impulse is there.

That’s why Grand Theft Auto V’s celebration of all sorts of bad behavior is so liberating. It provides relief for every time I’ve walked past a delivery truck with the keys in the ignition and considered going for a joyride, every time I wanted to smash up a car that was double-parked, or every time I daydreamed about driving off the side of a freeway to see what would happen. The sprawling game also has plenty of room for me to indulge vices I would never consider in the real world. I’d never wanted to get in a firefight on a blimp before, but it sure was fun.

This series has been liberating my darker impulses since I was a teenager, and I could never understand the flack it gets for being so violent. For me, it provides an outlet for my id that makes it a lot easier to be polite and restrained in the real world.

Pandora’s Tower

I liked Pandora’s Tower because it keeps you on the clock. I’ve had a problem with timers in video games since the first time I saw Mario inexplicably drop dead mid-stride. It smacked of lazy design, adding an arbitrary additional challenge to the game without providing any real depth. I like to experiment. I like to explore. I like to think about what I’m doing, and I’d rather avoid punishment for forgetting to press pause when I take a bathroom break.

Considering all that, it might have been masochism for me to pick up Pandora’s Tower, a dungeon crawler where the clock reigns supreme. But the timer is so well integrated that it enhances the experience rather than detracting from it. As you explore the rich dungeons, you have to constantly backtrack to home base to deliver monster meat to your girlfriend in order to prevent her from turning into something horrible. Rather than just affecting your score, how long you dawdle changes how desperate her plight is. It’s a constant reminder of what you’re fighting for.

The timer was never so tight that I felt constrained by it, but it did make me take a more deliberate approach to my exploration, always aware of the quickest way to get out and back to where I needed to be. It made me rethink my entire perception of in-game timers. Maybe they’re not so useless after all.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

I liked Fire Emblem: Awakening because it makes death matter as much as you want it to matter. Fire Emblem: Awakening lets you fail in lots of different ways, and that made it one of the more impactful games I played this year. It’s a game with permanent death, so even when you win a battle, it might feel like a defeat if you lost one of your favorite characters in the fight. (When they go down, your charges use their last breaths to apologize for failing you, which only adds to the pain.) Even if you wimp out and turn off the “permadeath” feature, there are still battles where you must defend hapless peasants from monsters and might have to watch them all die. If character deaths resulted in a “game over,” your failure would be frustrating, but you’d be forced to try again. In Fire Emblem, you just move along, comforted only by knowing you gave the fallen a decent burial. By allowing me to decide what true victory means in my hands, the game made me feel guilty about my failures: If I’d played better, I could have saved those poor farmers. Sometimes I’d start a level over to correct my failings. Sometimes, like any good hero, I’d just grit my teeth and hope to learn a lesson for the next fight.

Reus

I liked Reus because it made me cut God some slack. The question of why bad things happen to good people is one of religion’s great dilemmas. If running the world is anything like playing Reus, the answer might be that God simply makes mistakes.

Screwing up is easy to do in this world-simulation game, in which you control a set of giants who are capable of building mountains, bringing water to deserts, and annihilating any upstart humans who don’t stick to your grand plan. But figuring out how your actions will affect the world is far from simple. While trying to build hospitable land for some nomads, for instance, I unintentionally transformed the landscape where my existing societies had prospered for ages. Another time, I gifted my people with lovely animals only to find that the new beasts didn’t mesh with the existing agriculture. In my haste to help one group find a home, I put them too close to one another and set them on a path to war. Once, I accidentally destroyed a thriving settlement with a simple slip of the finger. Creating a harmonious world takes a lot of work—and a lot of almighty Wite-Out—but the process made me want to give God a break the next time there’s a lapse in cosmological justice.


DERRICK SANSKRIT

Proteus

I liked Proteus because it presents photographs as frozen memories. In-game cameras are nothing new. Dead Rising had paparazzi side missions. This year’s re-release of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker has embraced the selfie, Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. It makes sense that we’d want to keep a memento of a game’s surreal artistry. Proteus practically begs for snapshots, with its randomly generated pristine landscapes in all their peaceful glory.

Something magical happens with the photographs in Proteus, a contemplative game in which you explore wondrous landscapes. When looking back at your captured adventures, the frayed border drifts away until it is gone completely. The stars twinkle and the leaves rustle. Staring into the photograph brings you back to the time and place it was taken. Everything is the way it was, and you can interact with the world just like you did before—or make different decisions and see what might have been. Equal parts reminiscence and wish-fulfillment, these photographs allow the player to relive the past in a tangible way.

So much of Proteus is mysterious, pleasant, and picturesque. Devoid of conflict or a scripted narrative, it is up to the player to explore and define the island as they see fit. So the world exists just as much in your mind as it does in the game’s code. More than just nice images to use as desktop wallpaper, the photographs in Proteus are experiences that you can literally revisit. The same way we mentally relive birthday parties and weddings when we page through our photo albums, these living pictures reaffirm the moments in Proteus that we truly made our own.

Divekick

I liked Divekick because it levels the playing field for newcomers and veterans. Fighting games have gotten too complicated. The uninitiated mash buttons wildly, while well-versed players memorize dozens, if not hundreds, of unique button combinations per character. It’s too much for many players to take in, especially when it’s a prerequisite for the momentary thrill of kicking some fool in the face. But Divekick sidesteps the button-combo arms race: You play with only two buttons, the easy-to-remember “dive” and “kick.”

The game started as a joke—a shallow bit of commentary on how the downward-angled jump-kick is the cheapest move in any fighting game. But then the team at One True Game Studios created a thoroughly postmodern game. There are no quarter-circle joystick moves and no block-and-parry system. Hell, you can’t even walk. There’s a life bar, but that too is a joke, because it’s all one-hit knockouts. You jump, and then you kick. That’s it. If you kick the other person, you win. This is no longer a game of finesse and muscle memory, it’s a game about flinching.

Before long, it’s evident that the best strategy is to avoid being kicked first and foremost, and so the dance begins. Who will be bold enough to make the first move? It doesn’t matter whether a player has sunk weeks into mastering the game, learning the ins and outs of every character. There is precious little an “expert” can do to prevent a toddler from tapping the button that kicks them square in the face. That said, there’s plenty of strategy to be found in Divekick, but it’s mostly mental, and almost none of it involves how well you can press buttons.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

I liked Animal Crossing: New Leaf because it inspires a powerful urge to “collect them all.” It starts so simply: You gather odds and ends and sell them to pay off the loan you used to buy your home in New Leaf’s quaint village. Everything’s so cute here, and the villagers are such interesting characters. The only problem is there’s not a lot to do in this bucolic agrarian compound, so to pass the time you might start digging up fossils and delivering them to the town museum. Hey, those look rather nice on display—now let’s fill the whole museum’s collection of fossils, fish, insects, and fine art.

It’s not all about museums. New Leaf is a game concerned with communities and schedules, so players soon find themselves fetching unusual fruits, fish, and furniture at their neighbors’ request. When Halloween’s coming up, a spooky costume and a stockpile of candy are in order. That troubadour dog comes to town and gives out a catchy new song every Saturday night, so I need to come back every Saturday to complete his discography.

These right-place-right-time setups never cease, and that’s the point. Every day in New Leaf, there’s just enough new stuff to keep players busy for an hour or so. Each month there are different fish to catch, pieces of furniture to buy, and town events to celebrate—which themselves offer unique prizes to collect. Villagers are always complimenting your fashion and design sense, encouraging you to keep it up because you’re so good at it. And then there’s a gopher dressed as a scout-troop leader who gives out merit badges for all the things you’ve acquired—a collectible for collectibles. “Wait—this is just a bronze badge? I’ve got to go collect more stuff!”

Attack Of The Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale

I liked Attack Of The Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale for its even-handed representation of a disappointing father figure. Growing up, everyone thinks their parents are the lamest (and, correspondingly, that everybody else’s parents are cooler). The advent of reality television has shown us that even rock stars’ kids think their parents are total bores. We grow up with our parents, live with them, and see them at their casual low points, spilling coffee on themselves at breakfast. They tell you that you have to finish your Brussels sprouts and do your homework. Meanwhile, your friend’s parents let you eat pizza and stay up when you go to visit. 

In Attack Of The Friday Monsters!, you play as Sohta, a 10-year-old boy who just moved to a rustic Japanese town with his family. From the outset, Sohta’s mother digs into her husband for being weak-willed and unambitious. Everyone in town seems to grumble that Sohta’s dad runs a lousy dry-cleaning business, as though their un-starched shirts were a bigger problem than the titular monsters that threaten the village on a weekly basis. At every turn, Sohta is reminded of what a pathetic failure his father is, and the sweet man just shrugs it off, having long since acquiesced to a lifetime of disappointment. To make matters worse, Sohta’s new neighbor and best friend has a relaxed, approachable father who writes for Sohta’s favorite superhero TV show. What a cool dad! 

It’s only in the game’s final act, after a couple hours of quaint childhood adventuring, that the mysterious origin of Sohta’s father is revealed. A display of cowardice in his younger years changed him forever, and only by accepting his responsibilities can he protect the people dear to him. A single act of bravery inspires the whole town and brings a family closer together. In the end, we are reminded that while parents are fallible and human, they’re usually doing the best they can. It’s also sweet to watch your father punch out a giant lizard. Way to go, dad!

Tearaway

I liked Tearaway because it encourages people to play in the real world. The message in this game is anything but vague. Tearaway wants you to put down the video games, pick up some paper and scissors, and make something. Just as Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet games gave players the tools to design their own in-game experiences, Tearaway offers printable templates for 60 characters and objects from its construction-paper game world to be cut, folded, and glued to Etsy-level perfection.

While not everyone who plays Tearaway will construct these models, doing so imparts a tactile understanding of objects in the game’s world and in our own. Assembling one neatly wrapped present shows us how easy it is to make a box out of paper, which can then be adapted to a cube-shaped design of any size. If you put together more complex models, like squirrels or merry-go-rounds, you gain a familiarity with the art of craft construction. With just a little creativity, you can tweak any of the provided plans or even design something new from scratch.

Tearaway’s repeated focus on quick-n-dirty decoration—swapping out the features of your hero and their companions, covering them with stickers to appeal to the varied characters of the world—drives home the importance of individual expression and how easy it is to stand out in a crowd with a little effort and flair. Tearaway gives its players everything they need to decorate the world of their dreams right in their own bedroom, office, or anywhere paper creatures won’t be trampled and torn. Most importantly, though, it aims to fill players with the confidence that they can build something real with their own hands.


JOHN TETI

Papers, Please

I liked Papers, Please because it made me choose between two evils—or more. In this gloomy yet engrossing game, you’re an immigrations officer manning a border checkpoint in an oppressive, fictionalized Eastern Bloc country. It’s 1982, when Soviet geopolitical influence was only beginning to crumble. The apparatchiks give you a rulebook, you stamp the passports, and your job is straightforward enough, until it isn’t. It’s easy to whip out the “REJECTED” stamp when a shady-looking scofflaw pleads with you to accept his fake passport. It’s harder when you’re faced with a woman who just watched her husband cruise through the checkpoint, but whose papers are, alas, not in order. At that point, it’s no longer about following regulations—it’s about whether you’re willing to break up a family to avoid a black mark on your record.

Still, heartstring-tugging moral dilemmas like that are fairly common in today’s indie scene. What puts Papers, Please in the vanguard is the way it twists and extends the tendrils of the state to the point that clear-cut notions of “right” and “wrong” become far-off fantasies. A mess of conflicting motivations confronts you in tangible form as your tiny desk grows cluttered with forms, screening equipment, and unwanted souvenirs from hopeful immigrants. That all may sound dull, but Papers, Please is a gripping exercise that invites repeat plays—it might be the only game that could ever be classified in the “bureaucratic thriller” genre. The reason it crackles is because Papers, Please is part of a recent wave of games that force the player to make do with very little. Because you need every penny (ruble) of your meager government wage to support your family (a fact that is thrust upon you at the end of each level), all of the game’s conspiracies and political intrigue are weighed against a constant struggle to survive. It’s hard for a game to go wrong when it so deftly pits moral obligation against personal need.

Game & Wario

I liked Game & Wario because Nintendo let their freak flag fly. When you fire up one of the 16 mini-games that comprise Game & Wario—such as “Arrow,” a frantic archery challenge, or “Gamer,” an insomniac delusion with an evil demon mom—you may be greeted by a title screen that looks like it could be the poster for a Japanese B-movie from 1975. That’s an indication of the weirdness-for-weirdness’-sake that runs throughout Game & Wario. There has always been plenty of quirks in the WarioWare series of micro-game collections—which, like the Rhythm Heaven games, are a cousin of Game & Wario. But those are handheld affairs, and Nintendo has typically been less willing to showcase the bizarre on its TV consoles. Game & Wario is an exception.

It’s not just the art that’s strange. A few of the mini-game concepts are appealingly odd, too. The one that stuck with me the most was the photography game, “Shutter,” which gives off a Rear Window vibe as you extend your zoom lens toward the denizens of your local town. Sure, the game offers you a thin premise to enable your shutter-buggery. In one level, you’re supposedly tracking down people who skipped out on their restaurant bills. But let’s not kid ourselves: The game is infused with the thrill of the voyeur. And then there are the dozens of video toys you get from the Cluck-A-Pop vending machine, which might have you whispering into a forgetful dog’s ear or providing sound effects for an alien romance movie. There are plenty of less weird (and still fun) offerings in Game & Wario—the Pictionary knockoff, “Sketch,” was a party mainstay at my house for months—but it’s the unapologetic eccentricities that make the game stick in my mind.

DmC: Devil May Cry

I liked DmC: Devil May Cry because it’s a reboot with kick. An early slow-motion shot in DmC gained notoriety for introducing the game’s new-look hero, Dante, with creative use of props: As Dante twists through the air nude—caught off guard by a demon attack in his humble trailer—a baseball bat and later a piece of pizza drift across the picture at just the right moments to keep the game from an Adults Only rating. But while the demon hunter’s member may have been concealed, the scene was a big moment for another appendage, as the developers at Ninja Theory extended their collective middle finger to anyone who wanted the studio to treat the history of Devil May Cry with abject reverence. Instead of going the “your old favorite with a new coat of paint” route with this reboot, Ninja Theory created a countercultural Dante with flair, attitude, and humanity. Given that there was nothing particularly wrong with the original Dante—although the white hair and red leather look hadn’t aged well—going for the full-on reinvention here was a bold move. (And it could have gone even further: “Dante’s not gay, but I wish he was,” Ninja Theory’s chief designer told Eurogamer last year. “That would teach all the homophobes out there.”)

Still, if DmC were nothing more than a rebuke to artistically and culturally conservative game fans—the vocal minority—it would be an empty gesture. But this game pulsates with style even beyond its hero. As you bounce between Limbo and the mortal sphere, you traverse one saturated dreamscape after another. It’s as if nobody told Ninja Theory that the Romantic era ended 150 years ago. DmC knows how to move, too, with a combo system whose learning curve is challenging, but not ridiculous. Button mashers will run into trouble beyond the first hour or two, but anyone willing to put a little care into their moves will find that Dante responds with loud, violent, ghoul-killing grace. So, yes, it’s nice that Ninja Theory is doing its part to slay the game community’s demons, but it’s even better when Dante is slaying his own.

Super Mario 3D World

I liked Super Mario 3D World because it cherry-picks the best elements of past Mario games and makes them into something new. In recent years, the design of so many Mario games—especially the New Super Mario Bros. series—became less about level design and more about layering gimmicks on top of a stale template. The low point was probably New Super Mario Bros. 2 on the Nintendo 3DS, whose most compelling idea was that you could get a shitload of coins in it. But Nintendo started fresh with 3D World on the Wii U, and it’s clear that the developers surveyed the vast Mario canon and extracted some essential insights.

Each level has its own distinct feel, acting as a sort of self-contained amusement park, an approach borrowed from the planetary motif of Super Mario Galaxy. You get to scamper around in a cat suit that changes the way you approach the terrain, an innovation that echoes the animal suits of Super Mario Bros. 3. (There have been plenty of novelty suits since then, but they’ve typically been more gimmicky, less well-considered things.) And the cast of four characters is borrowed straight from the American Super Mario Bros. 2, a U.S.-only affair that has always occupied an awkward place in the Mario canon.

That may make 3D World sound like a nostalgia trip, but it isn’t, thank heavens. Instead of fixating on the cult of Mario, this game restores focus to the true star of the best Mario games: the level design. The creativity on display in these stages is as remarkable for its imagination as it is for its sheer quantity. Every time I thought that 3D World had surely shown me everything it had to offer, I’d enter a new stage filled with new delights—a boisterous carnival, say, or a high-altitude “skyway” where you and a bunch of your clones have to run and jump to a toe-tapping beat. I had resigned myself to the reality that a Mario game would never again give me the giddiness that I experienced previously with Super Mario Bros 3. and Super Mario World. I’d been burned too many times since. But 3D World is, at long last, a welcome salve.


Drew Toal

Shadowrun Returns

I liked Shadowrun Returns because Shadowrun’s 1990s-tinted vision of the future still has relevance today. Shadowrun takes place in a dystopian cyberpunk world where corporate greed has run amok and technology intertwines with magic—futurist speculation of the Web 1.0 era. The series, originally a tabletop role-playing game and later adapted into two video games during the Super NES era, had withered in more recent years. But through crowd-funding sources like Kickstarter, the people who created Shadowrun were able to reclaim dominion of its universe, bringing their past vision of the future into the present.

Shadowrun Returns evokes those beloved console games on the Super NES and Sega Genesis, right down to the slightly skewed overhead perspective. Unlike the 2007 Xbox 360 installment (also called Shadowrun) that sullied the series’ good name, Returns focuses on a single-player story and a storytelling architecture that closes the circle between players and mission creators. It also doubles down on a future where a ragtag groups of mercenaries—hackers, mages, street samurai, and the like—engage in high-level corporate espionage among the ponderous private enterprises that have supplanted traditional nation-states as global powers. Shadowrun may not have gotten everything about the future right, but in our world of “too big to fail,” augmented commandos working for the highest bidder might just be the middle-class growth industry we’ve been looking for.

Mass Effect 3: Citadel

I liked Mass Effect 3’s Citadel add-on because it gave me a chance to get wasted with my alien shipmates and say a proper goodbye. Two minutes into Mass Effect 3, you know things are going to be dark. The first two games weren’t lighthearted chuckle-fests by any means, but the final installment quickly goes from bad to worse to extinction of all sentient organic life in the known universe. Aside from occasional bits of gallows humor, there isn’t much to smile about. Citadel, Mass Effect 3’s final post-release add-on, offsets the gloom and gives players some much-needed closure. 

The extra chapter pokes fun at Mass Effect’s own sillier tropes and culminates in a sci-fi house party for the ages. Your surviving crew drinks and dances the night away, and in the morning, some species are more worse for wear than others. (Your standoffish 50,000-year-old Prothean friend can be found wrapped around the toilet, mumbling something about galactic domination.) As everyone gathers around the couch for a group photo, it becomes clear that this is the ending the trilogy needed—which makes the actual ending easier to bear.

Don’t Starve

I liked Don’t Starve because the only help it offers is hideous pig-men. Don’t Starve is unforgiving. You’re on your own in a hostile wilderness with nothing to protect you except your wits. And those wits tend to erode just as quickly as your weight if you don’t learn how to survive right away. At best, the other creatures you encounter are indifferent toward your continued existence and will only attack if provoked. At worst, you chop down one too many trees, and a giant, angry Colorado blue spruce hunts you down to avenge its barky brethren. Your list of allies in the game is short, but there is help to be found in some quarters. There are the aforementioned pig-men, for instance. Although they will attack you if you’re in their area of influence, you can feed them random meat and they’ll then help you out in a variety of ways. You can even kill pig-men and feed them to other pig-men. That’s the strange healing power of meat.

Saints Row IV

I liked Saints Row IV because of four words: Vice President Keith David. Saints Row IV is a game that traffics in the absurd. After saving the world from a nuclear missile by jumping on it, disarming it in mid-air, jumping off, and falling directly into the Oval Office, your character becomes President Of The United States by acclamation. But you need someone with gravitas to lend weight to the administration, and Saints Row IV makes it clear that there’s only one viable choice here: Hollywood film star Keith David.

An actor best known for his roles in Platoon and They Live, David has in recent years been ubiquitous as a narrator and voiceover talent. While he was in character when he provided the voice of the gruff Admiral Anderson in the Mass Effect trilogy, in Saints Row IV he gets to play himself—albeit an exaggerated version of himself. This unconventional White House needs a steady hand at the wheel, and David’s soothing baritone keeps the kids in line. His presence embodies the game’s ability to be lunatic without going off the rails altogether. When aliens attack Washington and beam David up to the spacecraft, your character vows to get the sons of bitches that took him. That’s the only appropriate response to this crime against humanity. Hang on, Keith David. Hang on.

Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger


I liked Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger because its world obeys the drunken whims of a grizzled old yarn-spinner. All of us are, at one time or another, guilty of stretching the truth. For instance, after a few whiskeys, there’s no telling what famous people I happen to know or great things I’ve invented. So it’s perhaps no surprise that when an old codger ambles into a saloon at the beginning of Gunslinger and claims to be a famous bounty hunter named Silas Greaves, no one believes him. 

Throughout the rest of the game, Greaves tells stories of how he ran down all of the Old West’s most famous outlaws. But he needs to wet his whistle between tales, and his rapt audience is happy to pick up his tab. They do, however, call him out mid-story—mid-level for you, the player—pointing out inconsistencies and inaccuracies in his telling. As Greaves changes his story, the level changes accordingly. At one point, Greaves apparently dozes off, leaving you to fight wave after wave of enemies until he wakes up. As the parameters of the game shift according to the whims and faulty memory of this leathery old coot, the result is an engaging and unpredictable experience from what could have been a standard-issue Wild West shooter.

Illustration by Effigy Power.