Dénouement 2013: Part 1

  By Shamus   Jan 3, 2014   48 comments

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+

2013_pacman.jpg

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…

9. Ultratron

2013_ultratron.jpg

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

2013_metrolastlight.jpg

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

2013_dontstarve.jpg

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

2013_saintsrowiv.jpg

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.

20208Feeling chatty? There are 48 comments.


  1. Ian says:

    I found that my enjoyment of PAC-MAN CE DX was amplified considerably when I picked up the PC version during the end of the year shindig. I had a ton of fun with the Xbox Live Arcade release despite the d-pad on the Xbox 360 controller being downright awful and the analog stick just not feeling right to me.

    My biggest hurdle now is relearning Championship II. I haven’t played the XBLA version in quite a while. ;)

  2. DaMunky89 says:

    Oh hey, am I really the first post? That never happens! (Watch a ninja beat me to it while I’m typing lol.)

    10: I loved this game, though mostly I’ve only played the iOS version. Might be a slightly different edition because I’ve yet to see the ghosts multiply / clump up like in that screenshot. Still though, the continous Pacman rampage with a realigned focuse on chomping ghosts is great.

    7: Don’t Starve can seem really unfair at times, but for the most part it’s just a matter of getting a handle on back up plans and accounting for edge cases. Large solo enemies like the treeclops can actually be cheesed pretty easy by mastering a small back-step when they swing at you from maximum melee range. (And you make sure they never swing from closer than that by backpedaling a bit after each time.) Then you just run in and hit them a 1-3 times depending on the enemy. What used to always get me was the huge hound packs, but I found if you build a little bunker out of walls to bottleneck them that gets a lot easier. (I’ve gotten somewhere up into day 130+ as of last I played, so it seems to be working anyway!)

    • DaMunky89 says:

      Treeclops? WTF is a treeclops? Lol. I somehow combined “treeguard” and “deerclops” into one entity without thinking about it. God, that would be horrifying to behold.

  3. MrGuy says:

    Maybe I’m a cold, bitter old man, but I’ve never quite gotten all the fascination with the dubstep gun.

    I like Saints’ Row. I occasionally enjoy the silliness of dubstep. I get that the dubstep vibe fits well with Saints’ Row’s aesthetic and such.

    I just don’t get everyone being shocked at “how awesome the dubstep gun” is. To me, it’s a pretty run-of-the-mill energy weapon that happens to play a sound effect when you shoot it. There’s no real reason to play that sound effect except that it sounds cool.

    What would impress me is a dubstep gun that actually behaved like a dubstep song or video. Have it tear up the pavement between you and the target. Have random groupies appear out of nowhere when you use it and start grooving (with hilarious effects when used in mid-air). Have the target start grooving in strange ways with new animations for all foes when ‘stepped. Have it start lightning up windows on building at night in crazy colors. Have any enemy hit with the dubstep gun’s weapon change into some alternate dubstepped version of it that shoots laser beams or strobe lights. It’s a friggin’ dubstep gun. Go crazy with it.

    Sure the cars rock up and down a bit when you shoot them, but that’s really as close as the gun gets to having any kind of “dubstep mechanic” associated to it. It’s a zany off-the-wall idea that Saints’ Row somehow manages not to be crazy enough with (and that’s saying something for that crowd).

    • Paul Spooner says:

      I think the core appeal is that the behavior of the Dubstep Gun is linked to elements and timing of a set piece of music. Instead of being available to fire at a set rate, it fires at an inconsistent rate. While this would normally be annoying (imagine a machine gun that stuttered randomly when you held down the trigger) it is turned into a feature by being linked to a looping music track. This provides a challenge to the player to maneuver and choose targets based on the known pattern. The human propensity for finding and recalling patterns (especially auditory and visual ones) is fully linked to this core mechanic by displaying the pattern both audially and visually.
      In other words, it’s basically a music rhythm game in an FPS.

      That said, I totally agree that more could be done with it. As was said on a previous Diecast, this gun could be an entire game in itself.

      • MrGuy says:

        I’ll be honest – if that’s the behavior (the gun does more damage at some times than others), I never noticed it – it just seemed like it did a reasonable amount of damage to whatever I kept it pointed at for awhile. It was also never explained (that I recall) in game.

      • Guildenstern says:

        I did notice a certain degree of this “pulsating damage” for lack of a better term, only because Shamus pointed it out earlier, but I’m with MrGuy in thinking that it’s full potential wasn’t really realized. It’s kinda fun to mess around with but in a co-op game the troll potential of the abduction gun wins out with me. Before we realized that it actually physically lifted you in the game world, there were a few frenzied moments of “OH GOD WHY AM I A MILE IN THE AIR”. Priceless.

        And even though they’re just reskins of the plain old “boring” guns, I still managed to get excited about having access to Cap’n Mal’s souped-up Taurus revolver from Firefly. And the machine pistol from robocop. And the pulse rifle from Aliens.

        Saints Row IV is really just “Reference: The Game”. And like a sucker, I love every bit of it.

  4. Disc says:

    Talk about Metro worldbuidling, I’d play the heck out of a spin-off where you go exploring and discovering the mysteries of the Moscow metro with Khan in a post-apocalyptic Mythbusters style. There’s never a boring moment when that guy is around.

  5. MichaelG says:

    Hey, whatever happened to that hot new indie game Good Robot?

    • Bubble181 says:

      Prime GOTY2013 material, but the release got pushed to 2014, unfortunately. It’ll dominate next year’s list, though.

    • SecretSmoke says:

      I seem to recall Shamus saying he was at the “less interesting” stage of development. A lot of iteration and bug fixes/polish. Makes sense that it’s all a bit quiet on the eastern front as “Hey I’m wracking my brain on how to make the missiles more integral to play” is a lot more interesting and easy to write about than “I optimized the game to run 10% better on AMD videocards!”
      (Though I’m pretty confident he could make something as technical as that interesting to read too)
      [Also laughing at “Shamus” showing up as misspelt on the man’s own site.

      • Stuff like “I optimized the game to run 10% better on AMD videocards!” would be somewhat interesting to read about.
        No what is probably meant when Shamus said “less interesting” are things like:
        “Tray icon notification and a few other timed events could end up queued in multiples if triggered during window movement, this should now be fixed so they only trigger once even if queued.”

        Which is the actual text from the changes log of some software I’m the developer of.
        These things are mundane, and obscure for any coder, mundane in that they are neither awesome nor horrible, just bland and dry code, and obscure in that they only are things that might pop up in edge cases, the likelyhood of the user moving the window long enough to queue up more than one notification is rare after all.

        Then there are things like “Got rid of some redundant code.”
        That’s the entire changes log line.

        And sometimes things like fixing spelling mistakes aren’t even put in the changes log.

        (Note! The changes log as mentioned here is actually in the manual for the software, but as the software is small/simple enough it also doubles as my own changes log.)

        So “less interesting” must mean it’s pretty boring stuff, after all the audience on Twenty Sides are while not all coders they are pretty much all techies.

        It’s also not much to brag about changes that can’t be seen/notices except in a few rare cases.

        Although stuff like “Fixed a bug that only occurred when Josh was playing from the bathroom!” would be slightly interesting because I do not recall Josh having stated he owns a laptop at all…

  6. Cybron says:

    Treeguard doesn’t chase you forever, you just have to appease it by planting saplings. There are also some limitations on when it spawns (you have to attack the tree, and it can’t appear on the first few days). But you probably know that already, I imagine the point you’re making is why in the world did they decide to put something like that in?

    Personally, I like it. It adds an element of risk to the otherwise somewhat tedious and boring process of harvesting wood. Suddenly, you have to keep your wits about you when going for wood, you can’t just autopilot it, even in safer areas.

    • Retsam says:

      This is true. I do think the suspense added to the game by the treeguard outweighs the (considerable) annoyance. Though I do think they could have made it a touch more vulnerable. You’d really think having it stomp through fire ~15 times would probably be enough to take it down…

      And I think the unfairness of Don’t Starve is a little balanced by the ability to create Meat Effigies and finding resurrection stones; that gives you something of a buffer against random deaths.

    • ET says:

      Yeah, Treeguards don’t spawn unless you’re actually chopping trees.
      Well, OK, they sometimes spawn randomly, but that’s a special event/area thing, and they spawn not-hostile towards you, in a giant clump of like 10-12 of them.

      I think a lot of the stuff in the game needs to be balanced, and couple of exploit (or at least exploit-like) things need to be fixed.
      For example, once you have a farm(s) and a bird in a cage, it becomes trivial to farm/bake dragon pies, which restore a good chunk of health and hunger, and a small amount of sanity.
      Also, you can cheese wood-chopping, by lighting trees on fire before chopping them, since lit trees chop in one hit, making your axe last about 15X longer.
      Still a good game, which I’ve put many hours into.

  7. What I’m wondering is how the success of indie games will interact with the new SteamBox, which seems like it should be pretty friendly to them.

    • Thomas says:

      I don’t think it’s going to have a big impact on indie’s (unless it has enough of an impact that it otherthrows the rest of the game industry too).

      I would guess that most people who buy a steambox already buy indie games (and probably own a gamepad)

      On the other hand, if they capture a huge chunk of the console market, then they’re expanding Steam’s install base by 100%+ on an indie friendly machine, so that could have an effect. But both next-gen consoles are already trying to become more indie friendly and convert some of their install base (and Sony is trying to make it easier to port)

  8. Corpital says:

    Completely unrelated:

    Is the comment counter a bit buggy? The last few posts I saw showed the message for one comment on the front page, but the article itself displayed the 0comments message and had none. As soon as someone actually replies, the messages are both correct again.

    Just curious.

  9. Paul Spooner says:

    Of the above games, the only one I’ve played is Don’t Starve. It’s certainly engaging and intriguing, though I feel that it would benefit greatly from a save system (as would all “roguelikes” IMO). Have Permadeath be an optional game mode so that it’s easier to self-train to overcome different challenges. As it is, the player is made to fear experimentation and exploration, the very things that provide the challenge in the game.

    • ET says:

      I always thought that roguelikes encourage exploration, by making death (and life!) cheap.
      Sure, you’re likely to die a lot, but that means you should just go nuts, and quaff all the potions until you figure out what they do! :P

      • Paul Spooner says:

        I agree! Cheap death encourages experimentation. The problem occurs when there are novel threats that you can only face after substantial amounts (minutes, hours, days?) of play. In such cases (as with the Deerclops, or the Ice Dragon) death is much less cheap. Allowing quick saves (or even an auto-save when such a novel danger is encountered) would do much to make death cheaper, and play more profitable.

        • ET says:

          Wait, there’s an ice dragon?!?
          But yeah, I’d agree that those bigger monsters are basically a game over, unless you know how to deal with them.
          But, even if they were safer, the depth of interaction with them, is incredibly shallow.
          It basically boils down to:
          – run far enough away that their AI stops chasing you
          – note that this is temporary, since they’ll start chasing you again as soon as you get back into their AI range
          – kill them, using lots of traps, or cheesing the attack/kite pattern
          – be killed by them

          • Paul Spooner says:

            The Ice dragons were utter murder in Dungeon Crawl… it’s only a matter of time. :)

            Again, I totally agree. A save system would serve to highlight the fundamentally shallow nature of these challenges. The designers would be forced to create more interesting challenges instead of relying on the artificial scarcity imposed by the conventions of the genre they are operating in. Even better than a save system would be an arena, where players could train against whatever threat they chose. Then, when playing a “real” hardcore permadeath runthrough, they would be simply testing their skills instead of developing them.

      • Ithilanor says:

        Normally, they do. One of the problems, though, is when death wipes out a massive amount of progress. In Don’t Starve, it’s entirely possible to put 10+ hours into one game, and then die randomly…that’s a lot to lose.

        • ET says:

          Unfortunately, I think Don’t Starve’s target audience is people who want this very hard, death-at-any-time, kind of experience.
          Like, me and my friend from DnD in college.
          Other roguelike-likes are more forgiving and fun, like for example, Spelunky.

  10. aldowyn says:

    Hmm, not a single one of the games showcased in the opening screenshot are on the list.

    Yet.

    I haven’t actually played ANY of the games on this have of the list, interestingly enough. Don’t Starve is the only one even on my wishlist. It’s been a bit of a slow year – didn’t pick up any of the really great indies (like gone home and papers, please) until the christmas sale so I haven’t gotten a good look at them yet.

  11. broken says:

    how did you select these games – I don’t mean what criteria did you use, but where did you get the list from which to choose? Your steam library, the steam release list, a wiki page somewhere?

    • Benjamin Hilton says:

      Yeah, I would imagine that these are just taken from the list of games that he played this year.

    • Paul Spooner says:

      I believe the list was simply “games I played this year”. Likewise, that list arose from things that were given or bought, either for review purposes, curiosity, Spoiler Warning, or whatever. I recall that Shamus does get a few review copies, but I doubt any of the games on the list were donated to him for review purposes. At the end of the day, I think it’s going to be impossible to answer “where did you hear about these games?” For me, I heard of nearly all of these games here on this blog.

  12. Urs says:

    I will just say that, remembering previous statements about your listening-to-music habits, the mention of Orbital had me surprised.
    (When it started playing, the two other people in this room turned out to be philistines)

    (played none of those games)

  13. Tychoxi says:

    Just on the sheer number of crowdfunded and Early-Access games, 2014 will be even more year of indies still. You better start thinking of a cool way to call it!

    Also, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as “PAC-MAN Championship Edition DX+”!

  14. Michael Wilkerson says:

    …Dang it, why couldnt you have made this post during the steam sale? Now i have to wait and hope that Pacman goes on a normal sale :-(

  15. Taluien says:

    Well, if this year somehow gets very indie as well, just quit the fussing about and call it “Decade of Indie”. That way you can put off thinking about it for a bit.

  16. daemon23 says:

    Myself, I don’t think it’s so much that it’s the [insert time period] of Indie so much as the AAA industry stagnating while the indies are having a field day. I bought probably three dozen games last year, and of them I think three were AAA. In part, I think it’s that the indies can push out little five-to-ten dollar games that really have something interesting to show at a rapid pace, while the big studios churn slowly, then produce Wargame 15: The Shootening. Sure, they’re comparatively short, but when they’re cheap, plentiful, and fun, who cares?

  17. ACman says:

    The Ents in Don’t Starve can be placated by planting trees. Just have 20 pinecones on hand each time you go wood harvesting.

    Just remember to lead the Ent away from your winter plantation before you do so otherwise the next time you go cut down some firewood nearby it’ll wake again and resume his vengeful pursuit.

  18. I just got finished with “Saints Row IV” (for XBox) and I really feel it’s the sequel that “Crackdown” never got. And yes, I’m aware of “Crackdown 2”.

    This is the first Saints Row game I’ve played, and all the callbacks (story- and asset-wise) didn’t bother me. This game was so ludicrously fun that even when I had to grind, I was having a good time. I can see myself coming back to it between other games, just to spend a few hours running up the side of a building, replaying TK and mech suit mayhem minigames, and generally messing around with the various WackyTech™ guns.

    And yeah, I love subreferences, so this being (as Guildenstern put it) “Reference: The Game” totally worked for me.

  19. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “Then The Walking Dead swept the GOTY lists, so it was year of the indies.”

    Wait,telltale is considered indie now?Whats next,valve is indie?

    • Torsten says:

      That’s how the meaning of the term changes, now indie is a developer whose games does not have numbers in their names. Also the companies employ hipsters, people who wear hats inside.

    • Ozy says:

      Of course Valve is indie. They were funded by the personal savings of one guy! Does it matter that the guy in question is a Microsoft millionaire?

    • AndyL says:

      They’re an independently owned studio. The game was self-published.
      That’s pretty much the definition of a “indie” game. Always has been.

      What did you think the term meant?

  20. MelTorefas says:

    Well Shamus, thanks to your link to the Don’t Starve wiki, I got interested and bought the game. Then I played it for 9 straight hours, eating my entire Friday. I can’t remember the last time I have had that much fun in a single player game!

  21. syal says:

    Nice to see someone made a good Pacman sequel, though as a pretty avid Chess player I would love to see some Mario-Kart style powerups. (The London System is no match for the BLUE SHELL!)

    Looking forward to seeing what numbers 5 to 2 are (I think we all know number 1 is Surgeon Simulator 2013).

  22. 2014 will unquestionably be the year of the indies, why is this so? one might ask!
    Because Shamus’ game is being released in 2014. ;)

  23. Ozy says:

    Have you played the How the Saints Saved Christmas DLC? I’ve heard that Saint’s Row 4 could now ALSO be called the best Christmas game.

    Saint’s Row 4 is also the first Saint’s Row game I’ve played, but the continuity porn didn’t bother me. I didn’t have any trouble inferring the significance of what I was seeing and found those segments as enjoyable as the rest of the game.

  24. So… Chris decides to celebrate the traditional Festivus airing of grievances by airing grievances about Festivus.

    Well played!

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