Hey everyone, it’s a week after Matt’s GOTYOTY, so it’s time for my GOTTYOL. Ten games, with companion paragraphs, explaining why these games are the cool ones. And trust me, they are.
Preface time: It’s been an odd year for video games, with me. It’s been an odd year full stop, but that ain’t germane to this here list. I haven’t played as many as I’d have liked to, but that’s pretty much the case with all people, at all times, and some I’ve really liked but only played small amounts of (hence the exclusion of Cart Life, and Papers, Please). That said, out of the games I did play, here are ten of them.
The ten which I would consider my favourite. HERE WE GO.
Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons
For all video games are influenced by Folk Stories, that influence usually pours into the fantasy RPG genre, long, sprawling epic games without the needed immediacy. Brothers is the closest we’ve come to capturing their essence. It draws heavily on Norse mythology for its aesthetic, as two farmer brothers travel through mountains and caves, past trolls and giants, to reach the tree of life and save their father. But the true success of the game is that the emotional core of the story is told entirely through easy to understand gameplay mechanics.
Put simply: This is the game I’d give to a kid as an introduction to narrative games. It isn’t rich in subtext and thematic ambiguity, but instead a short story with a singular purpose, told through simple mechanics. A video game folk story.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
On the face of it, Fire Emblem: Awakening is just ridiculous. The game’s core gimmick revolves around you not wanting soldiers to die, around the troops on your battlefield being characters with personalities, lives and relationships – and yet the sheer amount of these characters means these relationships build in such a short time that it’s got no hope at being a serious, believably story based game. And yet, the translation pulls it off. It’s the right mix of self-serious and self-aware to make you buy into this ridiculous premise and care that these characters, who may have only had one or two lines of dialogue (and then got married just cause) make it through.
It helps that the gameplay is still great. There’s not much to say about it, it’s a Fire Emblem game, it’s like the previous Fire Emblem games, and shall lay the groundwork for Fire Emblem games to come. The way in which it turns battle into a puzzle is top notch, and the JRPG story craziness, the quirky relationship system, and the chibiesque graphical style all work together to nail the feel of this completely ridiculous game. It’s a testament to the power of aesthetic choices enhancing the mechanics, because the context to the battles is at least 50% of the reason this works at all.
The true genius of Gone Home is in how effortlessly sad it is. It oozes sadness from every pore, with every step, in every item. From the answers on an exam paper to the placement of a Christmas Duck, Gone Home captures the tragedy of thse mundane without for one second feeling overwrought. It’s a nostalgic story of the past in all senses, of lives lived, choices made and regretted, opportunities missed, and your character arrives after the dust has settled, tasked not with picking up the pieces, but merely putting them together.
That’s not to say Gone Home is depressing or cynical, far from it. The victories here aren’t saving the world, aren’t rescuing the princess, but instead small moments of kindness or ridiculous hope. And after digging through secrets and troubles of a “normal” family, those tiny victories, the emotional highs which they reach, are some of the most triumphant moments you will ever see in games.
This has all the hallmarks of a great debut. It’s exciting, it’s fresh, and all those other adjectives, but it’s super scattershot and lacking in coherency. The two central mechanics (Jumping and Crosslink) have nigh on nothing to do with each other, and certainly don’t fit neatly into the awesome noir aesthetic the game has going on. But that’s part of the game’s charm – it’s the messy debut of someone super talented making a game before they’ve learned the “right” way to do it. And that’s not a criticism, but part of the appeal. Its burst onto the scene with a ridiculous grin and yelled “I AM A VIDEO GAME, LET US DO THIS!”
Part self aware fake noir story, part totally self serious noir story, part jumping simulator, part hacking minigame, part stealth game, Gunpoint is a big pile of cool, disparate, elements that were thrown into one game with the energy, conviction and that little bit of ignorance needed to pull it off. Gunpoint is the Clerks of video games.
There is an achievement in this game for baking a cake at the behest of a character in the game, sending a picture of said cake (which, I shall reiterate, you have baked in real life) to the developer, to prove that you truly completed this request. This is just one of the many ways in which Hate Plus continues the work of Analogue: A Hate Story’s experimentation with what player interaction actually means, and the variety of ways you can connect with a story or characters in an interactive medium.
The main mechanic added in Hate Plus is the forced time gap between each “day,” of which the benefits are twofold. One: you are forced to think about the information you have unearthed, and consider your position on these characters before you have all the information, to look at them from different perspectives, rather than giving you the ability to get to the end and never have to make your mind up without the complete picture. It’s a super smart way to force you to confront the nuance in why people do awful things, to get to the very human, very difficult tragedy, rather than the wider, abstract, societal tragedy which you know is coming from minute one. And two: to make you miss your AI companion. This isn’t Gone Home’s lonely discovery, the game truly succeeds at making you feel you’re going on this historical quest *with* someone else. The game makes the period of time where you are not engaging with it a concious part of the experience; it is quite literally greater than the sum of its parts.
State Of Decay
Zombie Survival Game is pretty much the worst genre around, but the sheer quantity of games the genre contains means that surely one of them has something unique to offer. That’s not entirely true of State of Decay, which is essentially Far Cry 2 done as a Third Person Zombie Shooter, but that’s not a statement you should react to with derision. State of Decay’s greatest strength is in the character system. All the characters have different stats and when a character dies, they’re dead. It’s a Fire Emblem or XCOM scenario applied to a completely different genre.
The effect is there is legitimate tension, not in the horror game sense, but tension as to whether you’ll have enough resources and characters to survive to the next day. For all the times you’ll spend running through empty environments, for all the times you’ll have a super successful, threat free resource run, will come the time your axe breaks when you’ve attracted a horde, and you’ve got three pistol rounds and a fire-bomb whilst a stuck mile away from the safehouse, and you need to get these drugs for your friend or he ain’t gonna make it through the night.
The Stanley Parable
Linguistically, meta is a prefix. This has kind of been forgotten in the discussion of the thriving genre of “games about games,” that being meta is rarely a goal unto itself, it is usually, and in the best cases, a tool to get to the heart of something greater. The Stanley Parable understands that intrinsically, toying with the player’s expectations and possible history with video games, to attack specific concepts as specific as the relationship between player interactivity and narrative storytelling, and as wide as the quest for the meaning of life itself.
That may sound a little pretentious, and many have written it off as being so, but the writing is done with such a deft hand to keep everything funny, concise and fit within the warped world of The Stanley Parable. Far from being a series of “isn’t this odd” sequences focusing on the oddities of video games, it goes deeper, it doesn’t poke and prod at tropes, it is that annoying child who responds to every question with “why?” Except now it’s all grown up and never stopped asking. Why are games designed in X way? Why do we try to break the rules of a system? Why don’t we try to break the rules of a system? Why are we even playing this, right now? Couldn’t we be doing something else? Why would we do something else? Why would we do anything at all?
The Stanley Parable: This is why we video gaming.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but The Swapper is a 2D indie platformer with a puzzle mechanical hook and a crazy ending. I know, a revolutionary concept. But stick with me here – The Swapper’s examination of existential themes appeals to the thirteen year old taking philosophy 101 inside me, the questions raised may not be original or complex, but combined with the beautiful claymation look and outstanding sound design, the experience of going through the world elevates it above its 2D arty platformer contemporaries (of which there are many).
The true reason it’s on this list, however, is that the puzzle design is a finely tuned balance between too hard and just hard enough, you feel clever for solving them, not stupid for not being able to. It has the right amount of puzzles, the right amount of story, and the right amount of just walking and floating around the world to be an evening well spent, making the most out of its strength, and never overexposing its flaws.
You’ve played about seven levels so far. You’ve gone through the first world, and you’ve had a good time. You’ve run fast, collected lums, and freed a heckload of teenseies. You start the final level of the first set. The soundtrack is different. The enemies are moving in time. That’s pretty cute. Wait, you know this song. Hang on, do the jumps match up to the beat— are they doing this? Are they actually doing this? THEY ARE. THIS IS AWESOME.
That’s the standard reaction to the first musical level in Rayman Legends, and it’s my favourite gaming moment in 2013 in terms of just bringing a smile to my face. For all the steps forward this year, your Gone Homes, your Papers, Pleases, Rayman Legends is a game straight out of 1995, but with a new coat of paint. Literally, a new coat of paint, the Ubi-Art stuff is the most gorgeous, and I hope we only see more of it going forward. Rayman Legends is a video game ass video game, based around jumping over holes, running fast, collecting as many collectables, surviving, and excelling, wholly on the pitch perfect feel of its mechanics.
One of the most common complaints when playing a game is “I don’t know where to go!” Being lost is a rare thing, and never having an objective even implied is even rarer. In this way, Proteus is refreshing – you are dropped into the a world with not so much as a bloodstain shaped as an arrow on the wall to guide you. Proteus invites you to just exist in the world, to explore the space and soak it all in. It’s possible to play Proteus and never even realise the game has a story, and completely enjoy the experience. The sheer effectiveness of the audio visual world building is worth it alone, but the story that Proteus presents is something else entirely.
You spend a good chunk of time just prodding at the world, uncovering its secrets, recognising landmarks, bonding with it in a strange way, until you reach the “end” of the stage, and time passes, with all that entails. The landmarks have shifted, the colour of the sky is subtly off. The world has moved on, and there’s nothing you can do. Like Gone Home abstracted to the nth degree, Proteus is a game whose effectiveness comes from restraint, from the lack of interactivity. It’s all about the buttons you don’t press.