5-1 GotY 2013.67
And finally my favorite games of 2013. From here, I plan to write until someone wants to steal me away from this website to write for something else. Until then, I’ll be posting regularly on here so I hope you’ll come back. Maybe I’ll even do a 2014 game of the year list before next spring!
Gone Home – For months I thought about ghosts any time Gone Home would come up. Mostly my own, but booting up the game still makes me uneasy. After hours of exploring the Greenbriars’ new home even with all the lights on, it still feels haunted. The storm raging outside & the floorboards creaking underfoot don’t help, but I find the house at its creepiest with nothing left to do in it. I wandered around again before writing this and found it more like a museum than a mystery. The rooms and hidden paths feel uncanny now; how I remember them, but not how I found them. Lisa Frank folders lay open, the Christmas Duck still guards the entry from an end table, each cassette tape tucked safely inside its respective player. As I walk around, I remember pieces of the Greenbriars’ tales and feel hopeful and empty. It’s an emptiness haunted by what I did there months ago, hopeful things are okay for everyone now. It’s the feeling I get when I think about my family. This is Gone Home’s greatest gift to me. It thoughtfully coaxed out an understanding of my family that I – selfishly – didn’t have before.
Now when I think of Gone Home, I remember to call someone I love.
BioShock Infinite – Irrational Games has forever changed the first person shooter and video games, in general. BioShock is an awesome monster of a game. With all this taken into account along with the two and a half year gap between announcement and release, Infinite had to hit or risk being the punchline of a generation-long joke about delays and senseless violence. Shooters have thrived for years, but 2007 (CoD 4, Halo 3, BioShock, The Orange Box) was when the gauntlet was thrown and, arguably, we haven’t seen as much innovation in the genre since. BioShock Infinite doesn’t surpass these games, but it settles right in with the best FPS has ever made. The immediate reaction I had to the opening was admiration. Columbia is gorgeous, rich, and layered. Bursting forth from the clouds shrouding a lighthouse, the color palette contrasts violently with Rapture deep sea tones. The people of Columbia feel privileged in a way that doesn’t come through in Andrew Ryan’s world. Infinite separates itself from its predecessors immediately and keeps that distance fathoms wide.
Structurally, it plays a lot like you’d expect without the horror elements of prior games, but I loved and needed that. It felt familiar and exciting. The Vigors aren’t a drastic departure from BioShock and its Plasmids, but Elizabeth is. Having a partner throughout the 15 hours journey was something I don’t think would’ve added anything to BioShock. Here, though, it fits despite the repeated, hokey coin/ammo/health tossing. After being utterly, appropriately alone for all of BioShock, Elizabeth adds layers to combat, story, atmosphere, and emotion. Infinite’s narrative makes an attempt at commenting on the savagery occurring within it, which is admirable even if it falls short. It definitely could have made a statement, but the game’s atmosphere and plot are its actual focus. These succeed through weaving spectacle, twists, and character into not just one memorable reveal, but an exploration of reality, choice, and consequence settled into that deep chasm in my mind where only “Would You Kindly” has resided. BiosShock Infinite knows its strengths and weaknesses, displays them, and makes it worth your time to examine everything it is and isn’t.
Grand Theft Auto V – Nine months before I even played it, I was ready to name GTA V my game of the year. Even the dullest stuff in GTA is worth doing to me because Rockstar makes the best worlds to be in. V doesn’t disappoint in that regard and even allows players to change their world perspective with the press of a button. Okay, maybe the addition of two more playable characters isn’t *that* impactful, but it did cause me to play differently depending on who I was controlling. This made me hyper-aware of how I consume Rockstar’s open world games. With what little actual choice is offered, I roleplay. In Vice City, I ran my operations out of the used car store because I was really into Fastlane at the time. I ended up making direct connections to play styles from PS2-era games between each of the three protagonist in those and this game. This introspective approach couldn’t be helped, both elevating and hindering my enjoyment of GTA V.
Much has been written on the game and I had to tune it out for fear of tainting my enjoyment/informing my own opinion. If this seems like a non-issue, it was for me and GTA IV. At that point I wasn’t writing about games. Reconciling both enjoyment and analysis was what GTA V became about for me, which feels fitting for the most ambitious and complex entry into one of my favorite series. I realized I enjoy GTA best when I’m not picking it apart, so at some point I gave myself over to that mentality, turned on Radio Los Santos, and focused on progression.
What I found was I really loved the driving, which I always have in these games, but it’s so noticeably improved from IV (think Midnight Club LA), I no longer want to spend time in Liberty City (’08). The variety in weaponry, easy access wheel, and the improved Max Payne-esque shooting is a significant improvement as well. Even the character specific abilities seem to borrow from Red Dead Redemption’s Dead Eye mechanic. What I found, then, was all the best parts of Rockstar’s previous efforts in one game. Whether I’m diving for submarine parts or unloading clips into rival gun runners from a dirt bike along the spine of Mt. Chiliad, GTA V feels simultaneously sharp and classic.
The Last of Us – I don’t believe there is a more well-made or affective third person action/adventure game than The Last of Us. I expect the polish from Naughty Dog at this point, but the range of emotions TLoU drags players through has never been represented so genuinely as it is here. Aside from the first hour, my first six hours with Joel and Ellie felt mechanical. Adapting the well worn Uncharted mechanics to emphasize survival is no great stretch, but little adjustments like cover design and thrown items proved in that time that this game was aiming somewhere else. There are two types of death in games: active and passive (or killing and loss). It’s hard to contextualize killing in games where you are prolific at murder. TLoU tries to work this gameplay into the narrative of survival. With a substantial amount of setting and detail, the game is thick with an atmosphere of “them or me”. Naughty Dog makes eliminating threats tactical, tense, and visceral. I certainly didn’t care about each enemy I killed, but it gave the act of killing a little more meaning; to endure and survive.
Then there’s loss. These are the deaths that can’t be avoided by stealth. They’re created to get a reaction and, as such, tend to miss the mark more often for me. Since it’s often an experience rather than an interaction, how I react comes down to a few factors the game can’t control. Did I pick up on everything leading to this moment? Am I distracted? Am I feeling emotions today? The Last of Us grabbed me and held tight in this regard. There were several opportunities for death to wash over me, but as Fall came to a close, I was too engaged. Joel and Ellie mattered to me. Their well-being mattered to me. I felt their loss, or was reminded of losses in my life. There’s a scene where Ellie confronts Joel before going to Colorado. I saw it coming and I knew it would be a blow up about Joel’s daughter and how he treated Ellie. This is when I realized, The Last of Us was operating on a similar frequency as many of my favorite games, but on an entirely different level of sincerity.
The production and acting floored me the rest of the way through the game, which was comprised of a single 8-9 hour sitting from Colorado through the end. It was a devastating night that I will never forget. From hunting a deer to sneaking through a blizzard to the giraffes. The Last of Us conveyed to me an immense respect and celebration of life, even if it deals heavily in death. During the Summer section of the game, you come to a sunken in office building. It feels like the first real encounter with a Clicker, and it also taught me how to die in The Last of Us. I attempted the room a dozen times before I figured out how to add bricks and cover and detection to make a tough, but satisfying gameplay cocktail.
I came away from the experience with a new perspective on life and the world around me.
Dota 2 – On a whim, the Hey! Listen! crew decided to play some Dota 2 together in March of 2013. I’d never really played a game like it before; a little StarCraft/Brood War, an even smaller amount of Diablo II, and about an hour total of WoW. I went in with an open mind expecting tower defense elements, heroes with cool-downs, and little else. 825+ hours have passed in game or watching on Twitch since I started and it’s more imperceptible to me than ever that I’ve amassed this wealth of knowledge about a highly competitive, skill/reaction/decision-making intensive cooperative game; also that I still have so far to go. I’ve watched the game evolve, releasing out of beta into a full-fledged product with a $2.5M, then $10M tournament. That stuff is absolutely fascinating, as is each character, patch, and store item release, but that’s not why I’ve stuck with Dota 2 for the last year and a half.
Story has long been the aspect of gaming I most look forward to. As long as the gameplay held up its end of the deal, I was content with the mechanics and systems. Since diving into Dota, however, I thrive on mechanics driven experiences to a point that most triple-A games I play now are chores until I force myself through their intros. I could be spending those precious hours playing Dota with my friends. Even the best gaming experiences (see the last few games as examples) are missing an element of depth present in a game like Dota where every action can drastically alter the outcome of a match if followed by a series of other actions. Feeding enemies kills because you’re positioned wrong a few times can impact a game of Dota immensely. I’ve learned this is pretty common with competitive games; it makes everything high stakes. Come-from-behind victories are the damn near life-affirming; lengthy losses are soul-crushing in ways that embarrass me to describe. Occasionally, I’ve had to uninstall Dota. It’s grip has been too strong to keep me from the alluring line between victory and defeat that is a single match of Dota.
Spending an hour of your time only to lose because you were out-picked or out-played is the purest form of upset, and Dota’s balance strives to achieve a 50% win-loss ratio for all players. It’s easily the most boggling thing about the time I’ve spent with the game. A great game can play out like a riveting narrative filled with 2AM screams of joy as your team finally survives a fight and extended sighs from all players as mistakes get made to everyone’s detriment. Why keep playing a game where you are practically guaranteed to lose 46-54% of you games? My answer, with everything I’ve learned across hundreds of hours, is complex, but I’ll try.
Every match feels like a story. You meet and devise strategies with four others: how to outpick another team, who will play what position, what skills people will have early, what items will be bought and built. All of this plays into the “best laid plans” idiom. Once the horn sounds the beginning of a match, the other team could be waiting, invisible right outside one of the three lanes for an early kill. Or maybe your team decides to take Roshan (a monstrous neutral entity that grants reincarnation for one player) early. Or maybe you walk down your lane and meet your opponents and start killing the enemy’s lane creeps. All of this is possible and requires decision-making and reaction. This is only the first phase of a game of Dota. From there, heroes can roam the map to pick off straggling enemy heroes, farm each side’s jungle for lesser neutral creeps, or through sheer force of will and skill, win their lane by taking the first of three towers in each lane. Every aspect of these scenarios is affected by who players choose to play, how they build their characters, and what items they have. All this is to say every single game is the most mentally (and often emotionally) challenging thing I’ve done in a game. Every single game is different, and as I learn more, strategies become viable; the game opens up to show me more of itself. It’s the only game I can think of where I truly feel like I’m improving as time passes.
Every match of Dota 2 is an utter struggle, but when friends, choice, action, and reaction all click it’s the most rewarding investment in effort and time of any game I’ve ever played.