These are my games of 2013. They are in no particular order. There will be something like 20 of them, and so this first post has ten and the next post will have another ten. That’s all you need to know up front.
Angvik is, for the lack of better terminology, a 2D Dark Souls. You travel from left to right across a number of different venues attempting to collect weapons and armor to fight your way through the world. Each time you are hit, you lose an armor piece. When there are no more left, you turn into a pile of bones. The end comes softly. 2013 is the year of the roguelike or the roguelike-like, and Angvik is a clear signal of the strong design principles that can come out of insightful thinking about that style of game. Angvik is an intense meditative experience that can never be captured with whatever words I can throw together about it. You can buy it for $4 here.
As I’ve said before, I think that Tomb Raider might be the perfect videogame. There’s some complexity in what I’m trying to say with that phrase, but what it comes down to is that I think Tomb Raider is incredibly successful at deploying all of the design concepts of contemporary games. Some people have claimed that The Last of Us is the culmination of this generation of gaming, but it is Tomb Raider‘s gung-ho wading into totally irreconcilable violence and emotional connection. Beneath the running and gunning and bow shooting and mystical creatures, Tomb Raider points out the gulf between genuine connection with players and the design desires of the videogame creation community. It is complex. It is a knot.
I’ve already written the best thing I can about Castles in the Sky, so I can’t really match up to it or add anything here. The game is doing wonderful things with the medium of games that, despite not being particularly new, feel incredibly fresh in the way that they are packaged and presented to us. The poetry of it, the swing and sway, sticks with you.
State of Decay takes a roguelike view of the world: you can fail, and when you fail, you lose a character that you have spent a lot of time with. In a traditional roguelike, the loss of your character is more common than not losing it. You develop a fragile existence that is designed to shatter at every turn until once, with a bit of luck, it doesn’t. SoD works in an opposite manner. You will succeed at building a home for your team of survivors in a world going dark. You will save friends and family and feel as if you, the player, might be able to make it if push came to shove.
Then, with a bit of unluck, you turn a corner and a loved character dies. You don’t have enough food. A fight breaks out at home. The little perfect world you’ve made unravels, and while you know you can fix it, it is not less stressful for knowing that the fixing is possible. Work, often stressful work, stands in front of you always. There is nothing there but the labor. It begins to operate on you until the very act of starting the game after a break becomes a daunting task. Affect and anxiety plague your thoughts about the game.
Another roguelike-like, this time with the word in the title. I’ve already written about why I like this game over at the end of the year roundup for Gamecritics.
Gone Home has lit a thousand fires in a thousand hearts since its release in the fall of this year. I don’t have much more to say about it than other people have, but in the context of the games I’ve selected for this list, I can say that it is unique in that it privileges a single life over a multitude. Rogulikes and their kin are all about plenitude, but despite Gone Home‘s house filled with objects, it still feels singular and sparse. There is a reason that I haven’t gone back to play it even a second time — for me, it would feel impure, unclean, like I was peeking back in time and trying to maneuver through it in a way that wasn’t meant to be. [You can read what I wrote about the game when I played it first here.]
Remember Me was ironically forgotten as the year went on. Sometimes I see a mention here and there on twitter, but for the most part there’s a longform silence on the game. On one hand, I get it, because the game didn’t have the necessary huge wave of praise-then-backlash that seems to be the requisite ground for a critical discussion that stays around for more than a week. On the other, I can’t understand how a game with such rewarding setting, story, and innovative (although sometimes failing) gameplay can be so resolutely ignored.
The cyberpunk aesthetic was delivered and executed better than it ever has before in a videogame. The boss battles are mappable and predictable as any Mega Man level-ender, and the sheer joy I got from bobbing in and out of zones and charge paths outranked any other blockbuster game by miles. I live for the kinds of experiences Remember Me delivered.
The life of a monster isn’t singular or multiple. You can fail at any time, or spend hours trying to craft the perfect experience that solves all human/monster conflicts for good just to watch it burn around you. There’s no predictability, not really, but there are numbers that go up and down based on what you think you should be focusing on at any given time. Monster Loves You! rests solely in the realm of choice; it is a game that only cares about choice. It carries you quickly onward toward its resolution. There are few stops, and you can choose to take any of them, but it feels wrong to attempt to powergame the system. You’re a living, growing monster. You live your life, sometimes becoming more powerful, sometimes becoming weaker. It is realistic, not in the masturbatory Call of Duty way, but in the quotidian one. [You can read what I wrote about the game earlier this year here.]
I’m really sad that only two acts of this game came out this year, but what we have so far is so masterfully put together that I’m willing to wait until 2015 or so to get the whole thing. To be totally honest, I’ve not even played the second episode. Like a Terrence Malick film, KRZ demands not only your attention, but a certain kind of attention, and that hasn’t really been available for me for the past six months. Weirdly, I am just as happy with the first act of this game as I am with the full products of a lot of other games, which tells you both something about my proclivities and the shape of the world of videogames here at the end of 2013. [I wrote a bit about this game here.]
Here at the end of the list for this post, I’m sort of shocked at the kinds of games that I liked this year. While there are a couple longform, more traditional narratives games have made this list, for the most part these are either short single-serving games or roguelike[like]s. Smaller, episodic, skill-based or emotionally resonant experiences have dominated my life this year, and I think The Yawhg might be the pinnacle of that kind of game.
The concept of the game is very simple — the world is going to end…what will you do before it does? — but it taps into the roguelike tropes and narrative strengths that we saw develop at the end of 2012 and throughout 2013. The Yawgh revels in your ability to play it over and over again with slightly different results, and the simplicity of the game develops into a big set of beautiful alternate universes of collapse and ruin and sometimes hope.