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.

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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.