The American holiday of Thanksgiving marks the start of shopping and gluttony, and also the Hollywood Oscar Season, when movies considered “Oscar-worthy” are released in theatres. The thinking is it keeps important films fresh in the minds of the nominating committee, whereas something that came out last spring is easily forgotten. The same happens with gaming, for different reasons, yet this year’s holiday was a very quiet time. Practically nothing of interest happened.
No, not even that.
All in all 2013 has been a strange, thin year, with only a few real standouts from the AAA crowd and an avalanche of worthy stuff in the independent realm. 2013 also saw consoles advance a generation – the first time this has happened in nearly a decade – and, of course, the re-eruption of the PC as a gaming platform. The strange dichotomy is that 2013 has been simultaneously one of the dullest and most interesting years in gaming history, and speaking personally I’ve struggled on that account. I have struggled both to fill this list at all, and to keep it to our traditional five(ish). This is a year of Honorable Mentions, missed boats, and general confusion. And I’ll hazard this prognostication: much of what we saw in 2013 is probably the norm from now on.
On to the games!
The One that Wasn’t There
The First Hour of Bioshock Infinite
One of the most anticipated games of 2013 is actually two games. There’s the first hour of Bioshock Infinite, for which this award is intended because it’s head-explodingly fantastic: a breathtaking opus of visual beauty and unforgiving intellectualism that decays like an unstable particle, unable to maintain itself. The other 22 hours are a pedestrian and forgettable shooter. Not bad, at least, not really bad, but hardly special and special was what we wanted, what we expected, what that first hour promised. Special’s exactly what we didn’t get, because of Bioshock Infinite’s tragic over-stuffedness.
In one of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, a writer is cursed with infinite ideas. They just spout out of him, relentlessly, without room to process. It drives him mad. Eventually he’s torn open his fingertips and is frantically writing, in blood, on pavement, trying to get just a few ideas down before they’re replaced with new ones. It’s the best allusion I can think of for Bioshock Infinite. There’s too much and never time to absorb. Did Ken Levine think he was dying or something, and had to get all his ideas into one last game or lose them forever?
There’s the first hour, and there’s cities and there’s ghosts and there’s racism and what’s this with the robot men and hey a carnival and whoa we’re in another world and why is that George Washington mannequin shooting at me and look Songbird I remember him from press packet and yowza it’s Custer’s last stand and bitch quit throwing books at me and run the statue’s collapsing and where’d they get an ocean in the sky and how did she learn to talk if she never had human contact and damn but that corset looks uncomfortable and what the fuck we’re in Rapture again and ROLL CREDITS. It was infinite, but a better title would have been Bioshock ad Nauseam. The first hour is diamond, and I can never enjoy it again, because I know what comes after.
The One I Didn’t Expect
On and off I’ve been working on a review of Tomb Raider, with a video and everything, and Dix covered the key points in his own Games of 2013 post, so there’s little I need to say here. The 2013 reboot’s promotional stuff glorified violence against a woman under the guise of making her tough and empowered, which seemed very blame-the-victim to me. And though the brutality of Lara Croft’s hellish ordeal is more front and center – and more gleeful – than strictly necessary, I admit it does function in context. Gender aside, the privileged, naïve young innocent must endure the unspeakable if we are to accept her transformation. Over the course of the game she awakens something in herself: a primitive, bloodthirsty, survival-driven creature that once loosed cannot be locked away again. By the end she’s come to terms with it, even embraced it. This is what Far Cry 3 failed to do, and part of the reason it doesn’t deliver while Tomb Raider does.
Visually astonishing, mechanically fluid, rip-roaringly fun to play and ending exactly when it’s time to end, Tomb Raider is the definition of a great game. When the worst anybody can say about it is “there aren’t enough tombs to raid” (this is true, it’s a very tomb-deficient game), you know you’ve got a winner. They crammed so much good into Tomb Raider that at times I feared I’d lose track – that the controls would get too much or what have you, as I juggled stealth, platforming, combat, exploration, and upgrades. But it never happened, and the game’s luscious open world never really fell short in offering challenges to face. Not an easy game to master, and maybe a bit too Uncharted for the purists, but it’s exactly what the franchise needed.
Tomb Raider sold “poorly” because it was poorly budgeted and poorly managed. It was too expensive to make and though its numbers were pretty good, it never had a prayer of recouping its massive budget (something any analyst could have told them). After the fiasco of The Angel of Darkness, only world-blind publisher executives would look at Tomb Raider and see “blockbuster.” It needed what it got, a hard reset, but it could have been precisely the same game at half the price if they’d just focused the project made wiser technical decisions. But with all that evidently forgiven – the next game’s already in the works – this is a franchise that has been saved from oblivion not once but twice, and now has a newly promising future and at least one reinvigorated fan.
The One that Proved Me Wrong
Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut
Waaaay back in 2010 I wrote a typically Steerpikian (read: long) impressions piece about Deadly Premonition, which I’d intended to go back to and promptly forgot. I was ambivalent, yet I sensed it deserved my time. Later, revisiting Alan Wake, I mocked Deadly Premonition and AJ told me I was a stupid-head.
AJ, I have found, is generally right about stuff. Lord knows she’s right about Deadly Premonition. As she put it:
Deadly Premonition is not so bad it’s good. It’s really, really good.
SWERY65’s wacky disturbotopia combines survival horror and open world inelegantly, but if Deadly Premonition is guilty of anything, it’s assuming more brains and patience than people have. It manipulates players too well – the game itself is an unreliable narrator, as is its protagonist – but once you begin thinking the way it wants you to think, you’ll find yourself in tune with the indigo mixture of ominous and goofy, and the mystery of a ghastly small town murder will begin to consume you.
It’s really the characters, Twin Peaks-ian and beyond bizarre, that make Deadly Premonition work as a game. No one is normal, least of all the FBI agent Francis York Morgan. Typically the protagonist is the normal one injected into a dark carnival of oddities, but York’s actually the main attraction, and like many others his story – which may seem zany at first – is tragic in the extreme, and deeply unsettling.
The Director’s Cut version adds a few new scenes and greatly improves the controls but you’ll do fine with the older version if need be. Deadly Premonition was also released on Steam not long ago, but evidently it makes the Dark Souls port look competent by comparison, so you’d be well-advised to stick with the console versions or invest heavily in valium.
The One I’m Ashamed to Admit
Yeah. Look, what can I say? I gave it an honorable mention last year and now it’s clawed its way into the rankings. If story-driven co-op shooters weren’t so thin on the ground, maybe Borderlands 2 wouldn’t be on my list, but the fact is most of the games I played in 2013 were downers and Borderlands 2 was actual fun, like games are sometimes meant to be. You laugh. A lot. And you do it with friends, which means you laugh even more.
It’s silly and dumb and playing it makes me happy. I love my character. My group hates my character. Well, they hate me. They like my character fine, they hate me because I basically am my character. We all are, that’s the magic. Borderlands 2 is a personality mirror. Eric, as Axton the Commando, is a loopy and inappropriately hilarious pummeler of foes whose roaring Sabre Turrets generally mean everything’s going to be all right. Pete is calm and composed as our Siren, phaselocking with sniper precision and characteristically drawn to women with weird hairstyles. McShane is Salvatore the Gunzerker, similarly difficult to knock over and similarly given to rages (because we stop to look around while he cares for nothing but the next quest marker).
Then there’s me.
I’m Gaige, the Mechromancer, a seventeen year old schoolgirl on the run because her anti-bullying robot killed half the science fair. And if it weren’t for the plaid skirt and the deathbot, there’d be little difference between me and Gaige. We’re both self-centered, loot-obsessed, tech-hermit sociopaths. I’m content with that. Statistics will show that my lust for goodies exceeds that of the other three combined. Yes, it’s true that I materialize next to treasure as if by magic and often vacuum away loot right out from under the reaching hands of a teammate. This is wrong but I can’t help myself. Yes, I occasionally cackle maniacally as I unload a clip into something. Yes, I glean more pleasure from electrocuting human beings than is strictly healthy.
But with luck some of my good qualities are also noted. I’m quick to give nice things away. I almost never wander off when a fight is actually happening. I fling myself toward downed allies in a nigh-suicidal frenzy of altruism. But even if none of that is appreciated, it’s okay. My BFF Deathtrap still loves me, to the degree that a murderous robot with laser beam eyes can love. And I know for sure that Gaige will never be bullied again.
The One that Broke My Heart
The Last of Us
In their respective GOTY articles, AJ and Dix made powerful statements about a theme change witnessed in 2013 – the transition of the female from defenseless damsel to deadly daughter. Gaze, so long a staple of cinematic theory, has changed while we weren’t looking. Rescuing princesses is passé, and while it’s just a different form of objectification it is progress of sorts. I can’t think of a single time in a princess-rescuing game that I cared too much about the princess as a human being. The same cannot be said about my feelings for Ellie in The Last of Us, my Game of 2013.
By nature opinions are rarely universal. People define value according to internal gravities, the measure of which is private and often mercurial. One person’s masterpiece is another’s meh. Things as minimally divisive as The Last of Us are quite rare. Certainly some liked it more than others, but opinion is still all on one end of the scale. When was the last time that happened? Shadow of the Colossus?
The Last of Us is one of the most powerful, most subtle, most beautiful games I have ever played. It’s about endings, about the twilight of the human race and small stories that take place in the gloaming hours before humanity vanishes. While cognizant of the complaints about the game, I was never bothered by any of them; I found it to be masterfully designed, and I did not see the ludonarrative dissonance – the implied disconnect between story and game mechanics – that some did. Games are inherently repetitive and abstract and I think The Last of Us, while in no way “realistic,” showed extraordinary ludonarrative connectedness. I acted as Joel more often than I did as Steerpike, and I felt for Ellie as I was meant to by the experience, not by just the script.
The ending left me depressed for days. In the moment before it ended I spoke aloud to my television, something I rarely do: Oh no, I said, don’t end it this way. NO, DON’T END IT THIS WAY! But of course it did.
I still can’t get over Journey, which got the big trophy from me last year. What it did to my soul, The Last of Us did to my heart, and I doubt we’re done discussing it here. I strongly recommend Dix’s review for a more considered opinion of the game, but if you haven’t played The Last of Us, you’re missing out on what might go down in history as gaming’s answer to The English Patient.
Yes, I know those comparisons suck, deal with it.
Special Achievements in 2013
Not everything reaches the coveted Top Five, and sometimes the coveted Top Five are not as coveted as some of the Special Achievements. 2013 was weird in that – like Dix – I’d call it a pretty weak year for gaming, with few AAA standouts and less really memorable stuff than you’d expect. At the same time, though, I struggled with the length of my list this year. Turns out 2013 is really a year of Honorable Mentions. Here are a few that didn’t make the cut, but easily could have.
So Close Award
Metro: Last Light
Borderlands 2 beat this because it’s meant more to me personally, and over a longer chunk of the year. But don’t take that to mean 4A’s confident, competent shooter suffers any shortage of excellence. Vastly better than Metro 2033, Last Light is just the beginning of what they’re capable of. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Blind Terror Award
The denizens of Ice-Pick Lodge finally produce a solid, unbroken game, but will it be enough? Knock-Knock is like a Maurice Sendak nightmare, and a standout in a year with many notable entries in horror. Whether Ice-Pick Lodge survives to create again I don’t know; I hope they do, but this gem might be too little too late.
Next Year Award
I just haven’t gotten around to playing Hate Plus yet. I meant to, but I got frustrated because I couldn’t import my Hate Story save and then something distracted me. Given Christine Love’s 100% track record of making Steerpike’s Game of the Year List, we can safely assume that Hate Plus will find its way into the 2014 ranking.
I resemble Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore in only one respect: we’re both as predictable as we are difficult to shop for. People get Dumbledore books because he’s Dumbledore. People get me games because… I’m me. Usually when the holiday season rolls around it’s easy to provide folks with a list of games to choose from.
Not this year. This year there was fuck-all to choose from. Industry wonks, particularly journalists with review deadlines and analysts with predictions to make, refer to November and December as “the Holiday Massacre,” because they’re usually so swamped with new titles they can scarcely come up for air. In 2013… nothin’. That’s horrifying.
It may sound like I’m beating a dead horse (it may not – I’m writing this out of order so I have no clue how many times this point has been made), but new consoles came out this year and nobody gave a shit. It’s been ten years, and yet nowhere in the entire record of ho-hummery has a new console generation landed with such a kerplunk. It doesn’t even seem like Sony and Microsoft cared that much. A console generation as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl – not the melodramatic kind, the “whatevs” kind. NEW CONSOLES! #whatevs.
How can a generation year happen and the Big News of the Year NOT be the new consoles? But it’s so.
The new trend is Early Access, which is good for developers in the short term but will be bad for the medium in the long. I could go into detail, but 2014 stretches out before us, and there’s no need to cram every topic into one article. This isn’t Bioshock Infinite after all.
Happy New Year!
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