My Top 10 Games of 2013

10. Year Walk

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Year Walk is creepy, cold, and quiet. All descriptors I avoid when I pick games to play, but somehow I ended up playing it. Everything’s weird and unintelligible, and I think that’s fitting for a game that’s more a thematic piece than a game. Its puzzles are simple and often clever. They’re really a means to uncover the next piece of disturbing imagery. That I actually finished it is shocking, considering I usually avoid horror games. Nevertheless, I was lost in its bleak little forest and I have no regrets.

9. Ridiculous Fishing

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Ridiculous Fishing caught me for a six hour marathon. I almost never play a game for that long unless I’ve got a deadline to hit. The art style is simple, the goals are simple, and the narrative is simple, but the design builds to an amazing crescendo, mirroring its titular, three-step process. It has a satisfying combination of depth and frenzied, reflex-based design. It’s also just damn fun.

8. The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1: Faith

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I loved almost all of Telltale’s The Walking Dead season 1. The writing in particular. But I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely ways to make something as rote as zombies interesting, but it’s something I’ve been exposed to a lot in my life. I don’t read a lot of comics, so I had no idea what the Fables comics were about going into The Wolf Among Us. Now, I’m working my way through them to get my fix while I wait for episode 2.

The first episode blends Telltale’s penchant for writing and a group of surprising characters in an almost noire, detective story. That made the dialogue/interrogations do what L.A. Noire could never do for me. They made me theorize and analyze like all good detectives do. It’s perfect for Telltale’s structure and it’s clear they can pull off a good, plodding mystery. I’m eager to see what’s next.

7. Gunpoint

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I admire how clean, smart, and simple Gunpoint is, and I’m jealous it’s only Tom Francis’ first game. Of course the writing is witty and punchy, but what I wasn’t expecting how kinetic the pacing feels. It reminds me of Mark of the Ninja, a game I herald as having incredibly fluid design. Like Mark of the Ninja, Gunpoint rewards you having a plan before attacking, and that’s just how I like to play games.

6. The Stanley Parable

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It’s difficult to describe why I think The Stanley Parable is so brilliant. For me, it was the subversive way it approached free will. As I played I started to connect the dots, I started to question a lot of things about the game, and all of it felt intentional, carefully crafted to dig into my head. And at some point, it froze me in deep, almost philosophical thought. I’ve never had that happen to me in a game. If that was the goal, then it worked.

5. Antichamber

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The way Antichamber undoes everything I thought I knew about video games seduced me. It didn’t just feel fresh, it tickled my brain, and made me adjust my thinking to its own logic. Some games let us explore beautiful worlds that suck us in. Its puzzles had the same effect. Nothing this year replicated the euphoria of finally understanding it. Nothing taught me so well.

4. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

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It’s like Dark Souls, need I say more? The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the first Zelda game I’ve ever finished. I finished it because the open structure, the emphasis on exploration, and the superb level design. There’s something so clean and intricate about it. It’s that elegance that quickly made it one of my favorite games this year.

3. BioShock Infinite

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I’ve had a weird relationship with BioShock Infinite. When it came out, I basically left reality for 2 days. I was completely wrapped up in Booker and Elizabeth’s story. I kept thinking I heard the music of Columbia in my head. It was a week I’ll remember for a long time. A few months later, the spell wore off and I realize many of the problems I had with the game. None of them were huge, most of them were with the combat. But I think great games can have problems too, and I can’t take back my first, incredible experience with it. I wouldn’t even do it if I could. Irrational Games’ fictional world, characters, and themes stuck with me, and I think that it’s worthy enough for this list.

2. The Last of Us

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The Last of Us sticks to a specific mood and nails it. Every part works in tandem to achieve a goal. It has something to say, and it’s not afraid of getting there on its own time. I admire Naughty Dog’s ability to combine a story with design that’s both interesting and touching. Sometimes I forget big-budget games can do that. Most importantly for me, it’s a game that understands its own limitations and the easy mistakes other games often make. It trusts itself and the player in ways that I’m still baffled by. It’s a stunning work.

1. Gone Home

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I thought real hard about it and I can’t think of one single thing that damaged my experience of Gone Home. All I can think of is how much I adore The Fullbright Company’s first game, and how important I think it is for games as a medium. It’s a game about exploring a house. It’s mundane and personal and moving, all at the same time. I love everything about it. The characters, the soundtrack, the art style, and the design. A lot of that is because I grew up very close to where the game is set, so it easy for me to connect to, but combined with the writing and the score, the rest of it found a way to my heart too. It made me appreciate games in a new way. It’s rare and it’s special. It’s my favorite game of the year.

Notes on: BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea Part 1

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I wrote down some scattered thoughts about the Burial At Sea Part 1 DLC for BioShock Infinite while I played through it. I’ve cleaned them up and put them below in the same style as freelance writer Brendan Keogh does on his blog.

1. The idea of seeing what Rapture was like before it collapsed is compelling, even if most of it was easy to guess from the many little stories packed into the original BioShock. The playful divide between the people who support Andrew Ryan’s growing objectivism and those who do not is fun to listen to, only because you know what is coming. I feel like it’s too binary, though, maybe even a bit artificial since, at times, it feels like an excuse to develop Fontaine, which leads to the game’s excuse for combat.

2. BioShock Infinite’s ending makes it easy for them to bring back a lot of the systems you use in Columbia to Rapture. Everything from the guns, plasmids, tears, and equipment are at your disposal. Anything goes, really. It’s hard to tell if it’s lazy or acceptable.

3. The combat is poor. There are like five large arenas that have fights that don’t make use of them at all. Almost every fight gives you the upper hand on how you’d like to approach it. On normal difficulty I could kill all of the enemies before they had time to spread out. And because of the easiness, there was little reason for me to use plasmids. I imagine they wanted the one-on-one fight with the Big Daddy to be dramatic. You fight him in a huge room that’s only made for him! But it wasn’t. When he doesn’t stand still, he has the saddest looking move that shoots a drill at you and pulls you in. The Big Daddy fight is robbed of all the ruthlessness they had in the first game. It was incredibly anti-climactic.

4. There’s a new weapon. You hold down the trigger at close range and it explodes enemies. Since I didn’t realize I had the code to unlock the door to it early enough, I barely got to use it. My combat style is to shoot enemies from far away and then whack them like mad when they get close, so I don’t know if I would have used it much anyway.

5. Speaking of codes for doors, the majority of the scenarios have to do with you having to get what is essentially a key to open a door, whether it’s a plasmid or a code. Because of that, the pacing was slow and the combat had no stakes.

6. I feel bad for the people who rushed through it in 2 hours. I dragged it out for twice that (still forgot one damn audio diary) and I thought it was okay. The whole thing would have probably felt a lot more hollow had I just pushed through it. I bought the season pass when it was on sale for like $5. Understand that, so, when I say, purely in terms of the amount of and value of the content, it’s not worth $15.

7. The art design is still stunning. It’s still very grand and awesome. The more I think about what I actually liked about BioShock Infinite, it’s the art. Hearing that Irrational Games built it from scratch makes that $15 price tag make a little more sense, but there’s got to be meat to the all the pretty dressing.

8. There was one really good moment where I was lured by an Infusion, the things that let you upgrade health, shield, or salts—haha, upgrade your salts—, in a room with a bunch of mannequins. You probably see where this is going, but I still jumped when a female mannequin yelled at me and jumped down from the display case with a gun.

9. Believe me, I tried to figure out what happened in the context of BioShock Infinite’s crazy story and I still have no idea. I’m starting to wonder if it really matters. Someone will make a visual guide, right?

10. I can’t tell if the severely limited ammo was not a new thing for BioShock Infinite, a way to make it survival horror-y, or because I am a bad shot. Either way, it was more annoying than tense.

11. There’s still a lot of the weird narrative things where you find ammo and guns in shoe boxes and trash cans. Also, Booker has to have a mask to get into a party and Elizabeth, for some reason, does not. Maybe I missed something.

12. Booker is a bad police investigator. I drank and gambled my way through the whole thing. Meaningful choices in games working as intended.

Image credit: Flickr user Deaf Spacker

A Fair Colp: BioShock Infinite’s Violence Has Something to Say

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This column was originally posted on SideQuesting.com.

Credit goes to Steven Strom (who also has his own column here on SideQuesting every week) for coming up with the title for my new column. I don’t have a mission statement for A Fair Colp, it’s simply a way for me to publish what I’ve been thinking about every week, whether it’s like today’s critique of BioShock Infinite’s violence, a rant, or something else. The goal isn’t to be definitive, but to add to the general discourse about games.

BioShock Infinite is one of those games that makes you feel like you should write something about it. I feel that way about a lot of games. I’m always sifting through my experience, looking for ideas to pluck out and form into a topic. Usually, I wait too long and my opinion becomes expressed across several different reviews and critiques. I often take the easy way out and point to them instead of writing my own. But games like BioShock Infinite feel like they could be discussed for a long time, just as the first BioShock has been. BioShock Infinite is a game I’m still thinking about, still distracting me while I’m playing other games. This is rare. The last game to have this effect on me was Spec Ops: The Line.

Leigh Alexander wrote the first piece that nails what I think many people are criticizing BioShock Infinite for. She says it all with this: “It has something to say, certainly. It just says more about its own self than about the ideas it wanted to explore.” She’s talking about the game’s use of violence as a core mechanic, and how despite all the strong themes it seems to want to discuss, all of them are muted under the sound of gunfire and growling.

She’s right. BioShock Infinite has so much nuance in its narrative that when you find yourself shooting rockets at ghosts and twisting heads off in the middle of combat, you wonder what the game could have been without all the action. My typical routine was to kill all the enemies in a level as fast as possible, as mindlessly as possible, and then to walk around the environment, piecing together its story. My favorite parts of the game were not the shooting bits, but moments where Columbia stood still and I got to run around and gawk at all the detail.

At the same time, I don’t support the argument that BioShock Infinite should have been a four- to six-hour-long narrative trip like Dear Esther. Yes, the first 45 minutes or so are wonderful. It’s a brave introduction for a triple-A action game, but I can’t see where the game’s drama would come from in what would essentially be a theme park. Now, set this fictional game after Columbia has fallen and I might be interested. In doing that, though, you would be creating something very similar to the first BioShock, which is where the no combat argument makes a lot more sense to me.

I don’t think that’s the story Irrational Games wanted to tell. I believe in some ways, or at least for a short time, the violence in BioShock Infinite communicates how brainwashed Columbia really is. The people of Columbia fight for their beliefs. They’re afraid of Booker, afraid of someone questioning everything their city is built on. In Rapture, you felt isolated by the thick glass and the miles of sea above you, here, it’s the people. The raffle scene with the couple is the first hint that Columbia isn’t all beauty and ambition. It was just as unsettling for me as the opening moments of the first BioShock, only it said everything I needed to know in the span of a few seconds, in broad daylight, surrounded by non-violent characters.

And when the first blood is shed, it’s shocking, then Columbia’s true colors start to show. Before the action begins to feel unnecessary, you’re explicitly shown what ignorance and fear can bring someone to do. It makes you think. It makes you realize how wrong everything is in Columbia.

I’m glad BioShock Infinite isn’t the indie game some wish it could be. When I briefly worked in retail last year, I tried my best to get people to play Spec Ops: The Line. I told the people looking for something like Call of Duty to give it a try, and when I told them the game actually had something to say about killing other people, it’s like I woke them up. A few of them were intrigued enough to take it home that day.

I think the use of violence in games needs to be questioned, both by players and the games themselves. I also think it’s something we have to ease into. People like me, who play a lot of games, often get stuck in the idea that every game needs to be wildly inventive and to say something profound about the medium, and it’s true, those are typically the games I like the most, but we need bigger games that are smart too. BioShock Infinite doesn’t have good excuses for most of its violence. But I’d rather have more games like BioShock Infinite, showing players that games can say something, to make them think about the violence, rather than another voiceless Call of Duty.

My Top 10 Games of 2012

10. Spec Ops: The Line

SpecOpsI respect Spec Ops: The Line for what it wants to say about modern, military shooters, despite the troubles it goes through to convey it. It takes a little effort to peel back its layers, but once you do, its intelligence really shines. I never want to play Spec Ops: The Line again. It’s not fun, and it makes you feel bad about yourself. It’s an overall unpleasant experience. But I think it can be all that, and still be just as meaningful, if not more, than most other games this year.

9. The Darkness 2

TheDarkness2I almost forgot The Darkness 2 existed, let alone came out this year. As much as I hate the term “quad-wielding,” it’s the best way to describe what it feels like to control two shadowy creatures along with two guns. You form a mechanical bond with the tools at your fingertips as you whip and tear dudes in half. There’s a distinct sense of speed as you lay waste to those who oppose you. It’s a controlled frenzy of blood and bullets. The quiet moments between Jackie and his girlfriend are good too. They’re intimate for the sake of being intimate. I kept expecting some weird twist or explosion to happen at the end of those scenes, but they didn’t, and I liked that.

8. Asura’s Wrath

AsurasWrathAsura’s Wrath is hard to explain without making it sound like the worst thing ever. It’s a Japanese, episodic, quick time event game. You’ll watch it like a television show, and press buttons to keep it going. The small amount of gameplay makes room for the gigantic, planet-sized action that unfolds. It’s absurd enough to make your forget you’re just following the game’s instructions the entire time. If it weren’t so self-aware, Asura’s Wrath could have been terrible. But it isn’t, and it’s one of the most surprisingly good games this year.

7. Far Cry 3

FarCry3Far Cry 3 is the first game I played on my newly-built PC. It was my entry into modern PC gaming, and proof that I could put together a bunch of electronics to make a working machine. After you get past how beautiful Far Cry 3 is, you realize how great it is to be dropped on an island, alone, with a gun. This all became clear to me after a few hours of playing. I was atop one of the games watch towers, overlooking what seemed like the entire island, lush foliage, flowing grass, and all, when the faint roar of a tiger in mid-leap rumbled through my headset. Looking down, I watched as a tiger mauled a group of bandits on patrol. One of them was not just any ordinary bandit. No, he was a armored, Molotov cocktail-throwing bandit. He wasn’t equipped with a gun. So what did he do? He resorted to his only weapon of choice, and set the a portion of the jungle on fire, killing both himself and the tiger in a fiery death. I zip-lined down into the charred remains and continued on my quest to save my girlfriend. You should play Far Cry 3.

6. Halo 4

Halo4I’m a sucker for Halo games. Always have been. Before playing Halo 4, I realized I had literally grown up with the Master Chief and Cortana, and the idea of seeing them again made me nervous. Would Halo still be the game I remembered so fondly, or had nostalgia clouded my memory? Turns out, Halo 4 is still the Halo I once loved. Sure, it’s more of the same. But that’s what I wanted. Halo remains an anomaly in the first-person shooter space, and it’s still an absolute blast to play.

5. Mass Effect 3

MassEffect3Mass Effect 3 is a testament to investment in video game fiction. Few games warrant the amount of criticism it received. You can’t end a trilogy that attempts to encompass millions of players’ choices without pissing off a few thousand people — and I think that’s great. Ultimately, Mass Effect 3 handles the expectations well, offering a solid playing game wrapped up in an impactful narrative.

4. Dishonored

DishonoredI hate stealth games. It’s the demand for precision that ruins it for me. When I stumbled out of the darkness in Dishonored the fun didn’t stop. It gave me a chance to climb over its barriers, make mistakes, and adapt to its stealth system without punishment. Before long, I was completing missions as a ghost, and manipulating the world from the shadows. I’d also like to award Blink my Ability Of The Year Award, it’s sometimes hilarious, and endlessly useful. I could live without those damn acid-shooting plants, though.

3. The Walking Dead

TheWalkingDeadI love that The Walking Dead embraces its strengths and never looks back. I loved how deep it dug into my moral depths, and didn’t shy away from confronting me with my mistakes. There’s nothing clean about my playthrough, about how things ended. But I’d never change it, and that, I think, is the true power of The Walking Dead.

2. Journey

JourneyJourney is an exercise in video game puppetry. It pulls the strings on your emotions with a well-rehearsed grace no other game has performed. It’s dazzling to look at, and at times, you forget it’s a video game. Coupled with its study of anonymous interaction, Journey is an experience worth having.

1. Fez

FezAs part of the generation of players who missed the era before games had tutorials, I latched onto Fez’s alien world. Below its indie charm lies a glitchy, cryptic underside I couldn’t stop myself from slipping into. All the message boards and failed attempts to crack the game’s final puzzle made me feel like a part of some kind of secret society of video game hackers. If anything, the scribbled symbols and ciphers on this notebook paper are proof Fez is pretty rad.

The Backlog: Asura’s Wrath

Circle button broken, fist in air, and a smile on my face: I finished Asura’s Wrath. It’s devotion to itself, absurd and ridiculous as it is, warrants some kind of appreciation. Like Saints Row: The Third, I like a self-aware game, however subtle, or blatant, it may be. It’s a rare trait, and one that is difficult to pull off.

While Saints Row: The Third felt like it was one step away from sitting down and having a chat with me, Asura’s Wrath would take a very precise moment to turn toward me and wink. In the moments of steadily increasing chaos, it teased me as I wondered when we’d hit the cap of insanity. Flawlessly, it kept the answer to my question hidden away until I was ready for it.

It’s attitude toward giving me the unexpected was a taunt. Back and forth, I fought to see what it would toss at me next. We were butting heads to see which one of us would give, and by the end, we were holding hands. The final moments were a triumph in partnership. I knew what to expect, and it knew what to give.

Games have a choice to ignore the connection with a player, they can feel like routine. It’s not always a bad thing, sometimes I want to play solo. It’s why I can drone out to a podcast with World of Warcraft, or dig for hours in Minecraft.

Every so often a game comes around that wants to become buddies, that wants to play with me. Asura’s Wrath did it without excellent writing, a barrage of jokes, or a mute protagonist, but a relentless battle of exaggeration.

Fit to Print: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Review

What, you’ve already read this before? Well, first of all, thank you, and second, yeah, I know. I’m going back through my previous work and sprucing it up, making it a little more legible. It’s probably more self-indulgent than it is appealing to you, but I need to get better at editing, and I thought, hey, I have all this (sometimes embarrassing) work to use! Enjoy it or skip it, I won’t be offended!

This weekend I played a theatrical movie, and its name is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Moments in, you’ll feel the plethora of cinematic qualities tucked inside the game that are unlike thousands of others before it. Almost instantaneously after pressing the tradional “start” button you’re left in control of the most enjoyable fortune-hunter I’ve ever seen.

Nathan Drake has been betrayed, and now he sits in a derailed train car with a bloody wound above his hip. Unbeknownst to him, the abandoned car is a few feet away from sliding off a cliff somewhere in the Himalayas. When Drake quickly becomes aware of his imminent doom, he begins to assess his options. This is one of the many moments where the game flawlessly converts from cutscene to gameplay. Immediately the train lurches even further off of the cliff and causes Drake to descend closer to his ominous fall. Luckily, Drake still has enough in him to grab onto the door jutting out from the back of the car. From there you must lead him further up to the top of the cliff, and eventually make the final, life-saving jump. Once you arrive on safe ground, I guarantee you will breath a sigh of relief simultaneously with the game’s protagonist.

Events like these are scattered throughout Uncharted 2, making the game thrilling and very intense at times. From dodging a pursuing helicopter in a office building that is exploding with you’re inside it, to nearly escaping death from a hulking tank following you through a village; Uncharted 2 doesn’t let you go until the very end. Naughty Dog implemented unique actions depending on Drake’s current situation that create a sense of realism that I have yet to see in a video game. The firefights make for visceral events etched into the game’s masterful tale. While the weapons are the general variety, each firearm felt distinct while running from cover-to-cover, trying to flank the oncoming swarm of enemies.

With that in mind, the game hurts itself in smaller areas. I found myself constantly sticking to a wall for cover while an oncoming RPG was hurdling my way. Trying to jump frantically off of a cliff caused some deaths because Drake felt the need to hold onto the ledge often too long. Even battling in train cars cause some unnecessary deaths due to the imaginary glue on the walls. Ocassional frustrating scenarios like these were annoying, but they couldn’t ruin a game of this value.

The men and women who contributed their voice talents for the game (notably: Nolan North) should be honored. Each cutscene was presented in the most amazing in-game graphics to date, along with superb voice-acting. Not o mention the story feels like it was stolen from a multi-million dollar movie script. It’s clear in the narrative, Naughty Dog developed the gameplay directly alongside it. You constantly feel as if you are the actor in a magnificent tale.

A video game cannot offer more that what is delivered in Uncharted 2. Every aspect of it left me astonished. Before purchasing a PlayStation 3 Uncharted 2 was one of the games I was looking forward to. All I can say is buy this game. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

What did I change? You can read the original review here.

The Backlog: Bioshock

Heralded for its atmosphere and twisted characters, Bioshock is a highly concentrated game. Every desk, every suitcase, and every trashcan holds small morsels of the underwater city’s tragic descent. Exploration and discovery are heavily contrasted by the frantic combat, thus making it very difficult to focus on both. Rapture is a dark place, so dark like the gritty, black games of that era in gaming; it’s almost becoming a period piece. The wonder of the initial experience is gone, now it’s routine.

Entering the world of Bioshock four years after its seat in the spotlight, it feels desolate and lonely. It’s as if the inhabitants of Rapture have been performing their patterns for nearly half a decade, exhausted and angry. They have to keep re-applying fresh blood, smearing drywall dust, and fastening those white masks to their faces. All in service of a curious guest seeking to hear the story once again.

The little sisters, they’re angry, forced to stay young and attached to those slow-moving monsters waiting for an excuse to pummel something. The helmeted monsters and the young girls don’t talk anymore. They’ve seen each other fail time and time again. “Big Daddy” no more, he wishes one day the sister won’t be there, freeing him to remove that metal can and lie down, maybe rest for awhile. She is aimless now, no father-figure to guide her. Both of them are now broken and without an appetite.

Even Andrew Ryan himself is tired. He’s growing old, he finds it harder to hold down the button on his intercom, he contemplated ending his life before his last moment of human contact. He’s fake, he doesn’t run Rapture anymore, nobody does. He has nothing to condemn or punish anymore, everything goes as planned.

The denizens of Rapture are distant, numbed by the job. Their actions show no confidence or exertion. They know the line is drawn without any forks, what was to change? An immense weight slowed their motivation, constantly wondering when their time would come. “Can we stop?” they would ask with their unwavering stares. But no one would answer.

Bioshock isn’t the world it used to be. All has been said, seeping every drop of significance out of it. It’s better to read about its glory days rather than to spend time with it. Without nostalgia for it, Bioshock is a dying machine on its last burst of electricity. One can only imagine what it was like, not what it is.

Image courtesy of Dead End Thrills