on Jan 3, 2014
The last few years have been dubbed “year of the indies” by various people. (Maybe even me. I don’t recall.) Minecraft was a smash hit, so it was year of the indies. Then The Walking Dead swept the GOTY lists, so it was year of the indies. Well I’m calling THIS year the year of the indies, and if next year is somehow even MORE indie then I don’t know what we’ll call it.
This year is significant because this is the first time my end-of-year list is mostly indie titles. It’s one thing to have a couple of exceptional indies elbow their way onto the stage, but it’s another when you can’t see most of the AAA games because there are too dang many indies in the way.
And it’s not that this was a dud year for AAA games, either. (Note that my last-gen consoles are dead and gone, so I didn’t get to play GTA V or Last of Us yet.) We had some solid titles. It’s just that the games I’m playing and thinking about are mostly indie this year. Is this the start of a trend? Is this just an odd year? Will indies stand out again? Will the industry continue to fracture into more niche markets? Will the freshly minted generation of console hardware herald new and exciting titles that will overshadow the indie market?
I have no idea. Ask me again in eleven months.
This is nominally my “game of the year” list, but don’t read too much into the order. I loved both Gone Home and Tomb Raider, but I have no idea how to sort them in a relative sense. It’s easier when you’re sorting the “worst of” lists, since you can rate games based on how angry they made you. But appraising greatness among disparate items is folly. Which is better: Kung-fu movies, ice cream, or Orbital? Depends on when you ask me.
My criteria for being on this list was that a game should either have lasting ideas of lasting gameplay. If I came back to a game again and again, it was list-worthy. If I was still thinking and talking about a game a month after I played it, it was list-worthy. If I played a game, finished it, and never went back to it, then it wasn’t considered for the list.
So here is what I thought was noteworthy or admirable in 2013, in a numbered list where the numbers aren’t really that important.
10. PAC-MAN Championship Edition DX+
It’s extremely rare for someone to improve an arcade classic. Those old games were designed around very elegant mechanics. Yes, they were minimalist because they had to be, but their gameplay worked because it was designed around those technological limitations. Most “modernizations” screw up this core gameplay with silly gimmicks. It’s like adding Mario-Kart style powerups to chess: It makes it more interesting to watch while making it much less interesting to study and play.
So I was really shocked when this game managed to improve on one of the most imitated and iconic games in the history of the medium. This isn’t really Pac-Man with a couple of new ideas grafted on. Instead, it alters the existing mechanics to make something new. The board refills with dots as you play, so the game is continuous. The ghosts increase in number as you play and most follow you instead of trying to surround you, giving you an incentive to round up as many as you can and then binge on them all at once.
This is not to say that adding new mechanics onto classic games is always a bad thing. In fact, a really good example of it done right is…
Perhaps this game and the previous one reveal my predilection for bright colors, electronic music, and elemental mechanics. This is a riff on the classic Robotron concept. My enjoyment of this game is one of the things that inspired me to launch my Good Robot project.
You shoot robots. They drop money. Between rounds you use the money to upgrade your systems so you can kill more robots.
8. Metro: Last Light
I’m conflicted about putting this game on my list. On one hand, it’s got a great story and solid mechanics that improve on the original groundwork done in the original Metro 2033. On the other hand, this game isn’t nearly as fulfilling if you didn’t play 2033 first. I hate to send you to play a lesser game in order to enjoy a greater one, but that’s how it works in this case.
I really disliked how they handled the female lead, and there were a few sections that got on my nerves in superficial ways, but this is a great example of world-building and mood-setting. The games aren’t quite as smart as the book they’re based on, but some of the ideas survive the translation – both linguistically and between mediums. It’s not as smart as the books, but for a shooter this is practically Shakespeare.
7. Don’t Starve
Like all good roguelikes, I loved the game slightly more than I hated it. It’s shocking just how many things in the game seem to exist just to create surprise deaths. Starvation I understand. Hypothermia I understand. Killed by ravenous wolves I understand. Burning to death I understand. But having a giant tree creature with massive hitpoints? And it can appear completely at random? And it chases you forever? And it has a good reach and does massive damage? Really? Would the game have felt somehow incomplete without that?
What makes Don’t Starve stand out is the art. It doesn’t go for the pixelated retro look like many indies, but instead it has a wonderfully creepy cutesy gothic vibe. If Tim Burton made a game, it’d look like Don’t Starve.
I have a love hate relationship with it. I’d have a really good run, then die abruptly because of some previously unknown threat. I’d get mad at the game, storm off, then come back the next day and give it another go.
6. Saints Row IV
There’s a lot wrong with the game. It began development as DLC and graduated to full release after the original publisher went out of business, and it shows. It’s buggy as hell. It’s unbalanced. Parts of it are tedious. It’s full of lore fanservice that greatly overestimates how much the audience remembers or cares about the original Saints Row game. It’s made almost entirely of art assets recycled from Saints Row The Third. It’s uneven, disjointed, not nearly as funny as it pretends to be, and the superhero stuff basically renders the core driving and shooting mechanics irrelevant.
But I loved it anyway. As I’ve said elsewhere, this game is the worst Saints Row game and the best superhero game. It’s a natural end point of the ridiculous escalation of empowerment the series has been doing. It turns the Boss into a madcap hero-villain who destroys a virtual city in order to save humanity from alien invasion. You’ve got the powers of Neo and the mandate of The Joker, and the result is gleeful, silly fun.
It’s entirely possible that this game is only on my list because it has the DUBSTEP GUN. So yeah. Another game that charmed me with bright colors and music. Apparently I’m easy to please.