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Jan 12 / Great Apes

The Best Games I Played In The Year 2013 Of Our Lord

Bit of an intro here because, you know, I can’t pass up an opportunity to drone on about things.  Back in October of 2013 a man named Tevis Thompson wrote a piece called “On Videogame Reviews” that was highly critical of Bioshock Infinite and of the lavish praise it received in the gaming press.  The article makes a lot of good points, but one thing that I’ve been thinking about since then is his argument that a serious review system on a 10 point scale ought to have games fall everywhere along that spectrum, meaning it shouldn’t be uncommon to see 2s or 3s and average games should be 5s.  It occurred to me that many movie reviewers do follow a system like this.  Roger Ebert, for example, gave lots of 1 and 2 star reviews (his scale went to four).  So I thought that as an experiment I would try rating all of the games that I played in 2013 in this manner.

I’ve started by treating an average game – that is, one that I enjoyed but didn’t stand out in any way – as a 5 out of 10.  Good games would be 6s.  Very good would be 7s.  9s would be rare and 10s would be reserved for only the greatest of experiences.  Conversely, 4s would be games that were OK, 3s would be games I disliked, 2s would have major flaws, and 1s or zeroes would be virtually unplayable.  Using this system, I came up with 6 games that seemed to fit in a list of “best of the year”, and I describe those games below.  After discussing those 6 games I’ll post a list of all of the games I played in 2013 and how I would rate them.  Assuming that I’ve been honest, the average should come out pretty close to 5 (possibly a bit higher since I tend to play games I know I’m more likely to enjoy).

6. GeoGuessr


It feels pretty strange to include a browser-based web game in my list, but GeoGuessr is so good I couldn’t leave it off.  In case you somehow missed it when this game was all the rage on social media, here’s how it works: you get dropped into an image which is a single frame of Google Maps street view.  You can use the navigation buttons to move up and down streets.  From there, using nothing but the information you can find in the street view images, you’re supposed to determine where the spot you were originally dropped off is.  Once you think you know, you zoom in on the map in the corner of the screen and drop a pin where you think you are.  Then GeoGuessr shows you how physically close you were.  This repeats 5 times, and you get a score based on how close you come to the correct locations.

The premise is simple and the technology is basic but the actual game is a ton of fun to play.  I’m a big fan of puzzles and games that use real world skills (like map reading) as opposed to seeing who can react the quickest, and GeoGuessr does that.  It combines the basic skill of map reading with our love of discovering new places to provide an experience that’s both challenging and simple.  This probably won’t appear on (m)any other Best Of lists because it’s not a product sold in a store, but I can’t see any good reason not to call it a video game, and it’s a ton of fun.

5. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

At risk of sounding like I’m opening with hyperbole, I don’t know if I’ve ever played another game that made me shift so violently from “This is amazing!” to “Ugh why am I even playing?”  Let’s start with what made me feel like Ni No Kuni was amazing.  The art, by Studio Ghibli, is gorgeous.  That picture above is an in-game screenshot.  The whole game looks like that (a lot of it looks even better, to be honest).  I don’t think it is a stretch to say that Ni No Kuni could be the best looking game that’s ever been made.  The story and characters are incredibly charming.  And it’s is a genuine old school JRPG of the kind that isn’t made anymore, with towns to visit, dungeons to trudge through, and a world map that you can explore on an air ship!

On the other hand there are things about the game that were really frustrating.  At the top of the list is the AI.  Like far too many RPGs these days, Ni No Kuni only allows you to control one character at a time, and the AI for your partners is dreadful.  The combat in general gets to be kind of a drag the further into the game you go, and the poor partner AI is a major reason for this.  Indeed, in general the game often seems to be dragging on for too long (I haven’t actually finished it, despite loving a lot of it).  There’s also the needless addition of a Pokemon-esque monster catching and raising minigame that takes up far too much time for too little reward, and the catching mechanic is too random to be any fun.

So I’m really torn on this game.  Sometimes it’s a lovely, charming experience that I can’t get enough of.  Other times it’s a frustrating slog that I don’t want to bother with.  Which is why the game sits further back on my list than I thought it might when I first bought it.

4. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

 Let me describe one of the battles in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance to you.  You are standing on the roof of a building that’s on fire, engaged in battle with a giant fire-breathing robot.  You slash it a bunch of times with your sword.  It switches to its next attack mode where it launches a volley of missiles from a compartment in its arm.  You go into slo-mo blade slicing mode where you use the right analog stick to aim the arc of each individual swing of your sword.  You use this mode to slice apart the volley of rockets flying at you, one at a time, then leap into the air to use the slo-mo blade mode to slash apart the giant robot’s arm.  The robot then fires rocket mines into the ground that you have to run around slicing before they explode.  Once you’ve finished dealing damage to the robot it backs off and fires another volley of missiles.  This time you jump in slow motion from rocket to rocket, across the sky, before finally landing on the robot to destroy its other arm.  The robot then throws you into a building.  You proceed to run vertically down the building while dodging missiles, before leaping onto the robot to finally deliver the felling blow.  This battle happens about 20 minutes into the game.  I’ve probably now told you everything you need to know to decide whether you would have fun playing Metal Gear Rising or not.

3. The Last Of Us

 I liked The Last of Us quite a bit, but for very different reasons than most people seem to have.  I thought the story was pretty boring and not that inventive or emotionally resonant.  Other than Ellie, the characters were pretty unlikeable (relatedly, Ellie’s AI is superb).  But the actual mechanics underlying the game were really solid.  The push and pull between stealth and open combat created great tension, and the deadliness of the fighting in general really helped drive that tension home.  I also enjoyed the way that the game gives you a lot of time to just soak in the world.  Combat is the primary way that the player interacts with the world, but there was enough time and space between most of the fights to explore and take in the sights.  It also lent more of a punch to the combat because it was a stark contrast from the long sections of roaming.  I wasn’t as blown away by The Last of Us as a lot of people were (I prefer Naughty Dogs other primary series, Uncharted), but it was a very good game and one of the better ones I played in 2013.

[Trigger warning for sexual violence in this paragraph.  As a side-note, did anyone else playing this game feel like they were playing to keep Ellie from getting raped?  I can’t count the number of times I thought “Oh god, I can’t let them get near Ellie, I don’t want to think about what they might do!”  The fact that the game never confronts this issue was one thing that I actually found disappointing about it.  The film 28 Days Later deals with the issue in a way that is honest but not explicit, and I was a bit let down that Naughty Dog sidestepped it.  This is symptomatic of one of the things that bothered me most about the game’s story: it never really addresses any of the seemingly endless list of fascinating questions posed by a civilizational disaster.]

2. Shadowrun Returns

 This is the first game that I’ve backed on Kickstarter to deliver a final product (with The Banner Saga and Broken Age both due to release first installments this week), and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  Shadowrun often seems like a universe aimed directly at me: its mix of cyberpunk, noir, and fantasy checks off pretty much all of my nerdy interests (leaving out 19th century Russian literature).  Shadowrun Returns finally brought me something I’ve wanted for years: a turn-based RPG in the Shadowrun universe where you get to build a team of Shadowrunners to go on ‘runs.  The combat borrowed heavily from the recent XCom reboot (the interface even looks the same) and was a lot of fun (if a bit unbalanced toward certain character classes).  The story captured the feeling of Shadowrun perfectly (which makes sense, given that it was made by the same people who created the pen & paper RPG) and I thought the dialogue fit perfectly.  It wasn’t as open-ended as I would have liked, and the save system was truly awful, but on the whole the team at Harebrained Schemes delivered on something I’d been hoping for for a long time.

1. Papers, Please

 Papers, Please was not the most fun game I played in 2013 but it was the best.  The premise is simple: you’re a border guard in a fictional Soviet-ish country and you check travellers’ documents to make sure that they’re valid to enter the country.  There are lots of little wrinkles thrown in, but that’s basically the game.  The premise works so well for a couple of reasons.  One is that it’s a genuinely challenging puzzle game where the puzzles feel like they belong in the real human world and always make perfect logical sense.  The other main reason that the game works so well is because it’s constantly challenging you with interesting themes and dilemmas.  There are the surface level dilemmas, like whether or not to accept bribes, but there are deeper ones too, like how much extra screening to provide to people from a country believed to be behind recent terrorist attacks, or whether it’s reasonable to subject someone to a full-body scan when their appearance doesn’t match the gender listed on their passport.  The constantly shifting rules that the game employs might seem unfair in a lot of other contexts, but the mix of an authoritarian government and a war on terror makes the constantly shifting logic entirely appropriate for the setting.  This is a game that challenges you to solve puzzles, but also to ask questions about contemporary political issues like what kind of trade-offs are acceptable between security and liberty in the pursuit of safety.  Most impressively, the game poses those questions through your actions rather than through dialogue or surface level story.  Papers, Please is the best game I played in 2013.

Game Ratings

This list includes all of the games that I played in 2013 that were released in 2013 that I put enough time into to feel I could judge fairly.  I expected it to be longer than 20 games, but I also played a fair number of older games as well this year, so that may explain why the list is shorter than I thought it would be.  The results are sorted by score, but not within scores (ie. don’t assume a more highly placed 5 is better than a 5 lower on this list).

The Last Of Us 8
Shadowrun Returns 8
Papers, Please 8
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch 7
Metal Gear Rising 7
GeoGuessr 7
Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies 6
Rogue Legacy 6
Monaco 6
Fire Emblem: Awakenings 6
Bioshock Infinite 6
Pokemon X 5
Guacamelee 5
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons 5
The Swapper 4
Grand Theft Auto V 4
Gone Home 3
Rain 2
Beyond: Two Souls 1
Tomb Raider 1
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