And now for my top five games of 2013. Remember that the order here is pretty loose, and in a different mood I might present them in some other order.
Note also that I’m not doing a “worst games of 2013” list. There’s not that much for me to hate, really. Batman: Arkham Origins was flawed, but not horrible. I avoided Aliens: Colonial Marines, SimCity, Ride to Hell: Retribution, and The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, which were the real stinkers this year.
5. Stanley Parable
Another game that people accused of not being a game. It’s an extended joke, an essay, a stand-up routine and yes – a parable. Sort of. But it’s a joke that could only be told in the context of a game. It doesn’t have one-liners you can repeat to get a laugh. The only way to get the joke is to participate in the joke, and in participating you find there’s nothing for you to do, because that’s the joke. Or whatever. It’s all very meta.
It was smart and amusing and very, very charming.
4. Gone Home
Most games want to be movies. Gone Home feels more like a book. And not because of the reading you do (although you do spend time reading) but because of the tone and subject matter. This is a story about a troubled kid, and in the process of finding out what happened to her we get to know her friends and family.
Laying aside the annoying “this is not a game” argument (please let’s not do that again) this was was a wonderful experience. It’s a smart title that does a lot with very little in the way of mechanics.
I also have to praise the game for the restrained and even-handed way it approached its subject matter. The big deal with Gone Home is that it deftly handles this subject where so many other games have either stumbled or aimed low. Sam is a a troubled teenager and a lesbian, growing up in a world that was still trying to figure out what that meant. She’s not really the victim of hate or maliciousness. She’s the victim of a community that doesn’t understand and doesn’t know how to deal with her. Her parents still love her, they just think this “gay thing” as some teenage aberration that she’s going to grow out of.
I grew up in that world. If Sam was a real person, then today she’d only be about five years younger than I am. I remember when everyone thought the way her parents and teachers do. Today it’s pretty much accepted that we can’t change our orientation and that perhaps one in ten people* don’t fit into the standard hetero assumptions. When I was Sam’s age, homosexuals were thought to be super-rare, and their orientation was viewed as a kind of kink. Opinions that people would call “homophobic” today were just conventional wisdom back then. And note that most people didn’t really have ill will towards alternative lifestyles. They just didn’t understand. If you’re under twenty-five now, it’s probably hard for you to grasp just how much things have changed. It’s been amazing to see an entire culture make such a drastic shift in such a short time.
* Or whatever, let’s not argue percentages.
I’ve seen the change happen in my lifetime, and I love how faithfully the writer of Gone Home has captured that world. Sam’s parents are the antagonists, but they’re not villains. They’re just people who literally don’t understand what their daughter is going through and don’t know what they’re supposed to do about it. This story could have been heavy-handed, sanctimonious, or patronizing. It could have raged at that old world and the people that lived in it. But it was instead gentle and introspective.
The rest of the worldbuilding is achieved with the same loving attention to detail. The appliances. The books. The school supplies. The clothing. The lingo. The music. The furniture. The decor. It’s not a caricature or an exaggeration of the times. Instead it’s perfectly, genuinely mid-90’s, right down to having leftover bits of the late 80’s hanging around.
It was a powerful game that yanked my thoughts back into my teenage years and kept them there long after I’d finished the playing.
3. Kerbal Space Program
Isn’t this game still in development? Why is it on my list?
Honestly, I don’t know what to do with these “public alpha” games. It was strange when Minecraft wasn’t really considered “finished” until a couple of years after it became a cultural phenomenon and a large portion of the audience had moved on. That’s like a movie not being eligible for an Academy Award until it appears on Netflix streaming. It’s not eligible until it’s irrelevant? That can’t be right.
So rather than try to hammer out some arbitrary rule regarding the ever-more fuzzy concept of “release dates”, I’ll just say that public alpha games are eligible on the year I play them. It’s my list, so that’s probably the only criteria that makes sense anyway.
Kerbal is notable for being the most educational game I’ve ever played. The mechanics are physics, and as you learn to play the game you’ll learn how the space program works. It’s one thing if Randal tells you that space is easy to reach and hard to STAY in, but nothing teaches like experience.
2. Tomb Raider
After all the “streamlining” and re-imagining of the 2000’s that turned games I loved into games that irritated me, here is a reboot that turned something I didn’t care about into something I liked. I suppose it sucks for fans of the classic Tomb Raider games, but I was glad to get this one.
The new Tomb Raider wasn’t perfect. It had problems with tone. It downplayed its strongest aspects (the tomb puzzles) and focused too much on the shooting. The Sam character was awful. But the platforming was great, the puzzles were just right, and the shooting avoided the bullet-sponge feel of typical popup shooters in favor of something more fast and visceral.
It’s a good start to the “new” franchise.
1. Papers, Please
Warning! Politics! Not much, but a little.
If you read my Autoblography then you know that among the things I hate in this world, two of the big ones are people being treated like cattle and paperwork. So I’m sure you can imagine how much antipathy I have for stuff like current airport security measures and DUI checkpoints. As far as I can tell, I was born with a predisposition to hate this sort of thing, since I can never remember a time when I didn’t find it offensive or creepy. This is why I refuse to have anything to do with airline travel. I love flying, but I refuse to subject myself to that dehumanizing and grotesque circus they’re running in airports these days.
You think I’ve had an axe to grind over DRM? That’s peanuts. Sure, it’s a system that is unjust, unreasonable, doesn’t solve the original problem of piracy, and creates many new problems in the process, but at the end of the day it’s just videogames. Imagine how pissed off I get when the stakes aren’t disposable entertainment, but human life and liberty. It’s one of the reasons I don’t allow politics here. I get too upset about this. I still can’t believe people stand in that line and let those agents do those things to them. The fact that in a few years we’ll have a whole fresh generation of people that think of this as “normal” fills me with dread. I refuse to “get used to” this.
The point is, you’d think that I’d love a game like Papers, Please. It’s a game that shows how awful people can be to each other as long as the awfulness is all written down nice and neat in the rulebooks. A game that shows that the system harms both the people holding the papers and the people checking the papers. A game that shows how corruptive it can be to wield sweeping police power, even if the powers were designed with good intentions and given to basically decent people. In a system like this, you’re either the butcher, or the cow. And you don’t want to be the cow.
I dunno. Maybe I was seeing more than was there. Understand that if I hold this game up to more praise than seems reasonable, it’s because the thing really pushes my buttons. Don’t ask me to be objective about Papers, Please. That’s like asking me to be objective about appraising a boot that’s stomping on my face.
The rule in movies is “Show, don’t tell”. The rule in games is “Do, don’t show”. Papers, Please has almost nothing to say directly about its subject matter, but instead lets you participate in the utterly mundane horror of bureaucratic oppression. The mechanics perfectly show concepts that are hard to convincingly explain, such as how even a short list of seemingly reasonable regulations can make for chaos and confusion. You can see on one side some policy-maker concluding that issuing work permits would “simplify and streamline” the processing of visitors, and you can experience first-hand just how hilariously wrong this idea is. It’s a game with mechanics that work perfectly with the message, with art that wraps you in the desperation and smothering indifference of the Eastern bloc.
When we complain about ludonarrative dissonance, we’re usually complaining about games that have some kind of conflict between their mechanics and their tone, theme, story, or message: The main character is supposedly a fumbling aged alcoholic loser, but in gameplay he’s an unstoppable killing machine both before and after giving up the booze. You’re supposedly haunted by the deaths of twelve soldiers, but in gameplay you’ll kill a hundred guys and a couple dozen innocents in the process of doing some side-job for a modest paycheck at the behest of some idiot you barely know. But in Papers, Please the mechanics are the message, and the result is a wonderful of example of communicating through play.
In my case, the game is literally too good. It achieves its goals so perfectly that I can’t bear to play the damn thing. A lot of people make a big deal about the cruel hell of Dark Souls, but for my money there is no worse hell in videogames than Papers, Please. Sure, Desert Bus might be boring, but after an hour of Papers, Please I found myself longing for something as soothing as mere boredom. Silent Hill is scary, but it’s nothing compared to the realization that the events of this videogame aren’t that far from actual things actual people do in the actual real world.
I find myself in a strange position of wanting to make this my GAME OF THE YEAR while also never wanting to play it ever again. It’s a perfect game. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. And for that I admire it. From a distance.
Glory to Arstotzka!
So that’s my list for this year. Go ahead and complain about the ones I left out. I know how you are, internet.