Games came a long way this year. As the end of a console generation approaches, established studios are crackling on all cylinders. The narrative tricks of film are being alloyed into increasingly varied and impressive set pieces. This year though, games began to move past the taut thrillers they had been perfecting and offered something more personal. After a long wait, including last year’s largely technical efforts and iterative sequels like Diablo 3, games have finally become interested in what their characters are feeling. Along the way, indie game developers have sprung up like wild fire. The most hotly anticipated games are now Kickstarters and new efforts from developers with one game under their belts. Now that pentaflops and a jillion polygon models have diminished the technical race, interactivity is finally maturing. 2013 was a banner year for this media, with some of the best games ever made emerging into the daylight.
1. The Last of Us
Constructed from one part “Juno” and two parts “The Road,” The Last of Us is a somber journey through a post-apocalyptic infested America. This setting has been used so much it’s about as remarkable as a Taco Bell, but The Last of Us does something special with it; it treats it seriously. Never have I played a game so well written, or a game that uses gameplay so adroitly to emphasize the writing. The opening alone is a marvel, a rollercoaster ride that lets you interact in all the right ways during the final moments of modern America and the beginning of a long struggle. This doesn’t mean the usual set piece fair, which these days entails recreating the final action scene of Jaws over and over. Instead it means small touches, like the ability to scoot around in a moving car to try to see what’s happening. These details adorn the story throughout, whether it’s creeping through the snow in quiet winter moments or shattering the pensive silence with a sudden blood bath. It’s shocking enough to play a game that even has a point, but this story examines the cost of survival so thoroughly that by the end of Joel and Ellie’s considerable journey you’ll also be shouldering their burden. The Last of Us is great, but it’s also one of the few games I’ve played that feels important. Despite its dower subject matter, it promises a bright future.
2. Bioshock Infinite
If The Last of Us resembles Cormac McCarthy’s style, then Bioshock Infinite recalls Phillip K Dick. An alternate history leap back to a jingoist and isolationist America at the turn of the 19 century, Bioshock Infinite also finds pathos in an unlikely relationship. The player’s hardened killer (Booker) must try to navigate the mysterious forces and designs surrounding his charge, a naïve girl imprisoned since birth (Elizabeth). What’s immediately clear is that Elizabeth is a version of Disney’s Belle, a likeable and vulnerable stranger in her own home who provides the narrative impetus. What’s not immediately clear, however, is that Bioshock Infinite is exploring the nature of choice from the first moment you step off the boat and begin your journey to the floating marvel of Columbia, city in the sky. As the mystery which brought you to Rapt-, sorry –Columbia, slowly unravels Booker will experience curious, unexpected consequences. Infinite’s climax is oblique, believing that the player has the intelligence to ask “what was the purpose of all this bloodshed?” Really, what does Booker actually accomplish? It’s not an easy answer, but Infinite is one of the first games sophisticated enough to pose the question. Bioshock Infinite retains many classical gaming conventions but it is also a new high water mark for mind bending experiences.
3. Metal Gear Rising
After talking up the writing of two standouts this year, perhaps it’s time to remind you that gameplay is still king. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Platinum’s balls to the wall power fantasy Metal Gear Rising : Revengeance. Blocking is done by attacking, the subtitle is an attack on grammar dodging is a form of attacking, and healing is accomplished by eviscerating. Seconds after taking control of Raiden, now a fan fiction cyborg zenith fully realized, you will angrily violate the laws of physics. Much like Bayonetta, this approach works very well, resulting in larger than life events that you take part in. The writing, done by Kojima, is actually on point although the traditional Metal Gear stoicism is subtly mocked when delivered to and by a human blender. The game itself addresses the human cost of the carnage, and although impressive for being one of the first games to contextualize the player’s murder spree, it fails to come up with a philosophical justification. Let’s not kid ourselves, even Rising acknowledges that slicing up people for a “good cause” is repugnant. Fortunately it also happens to be really fucking fun. Rising is the perfection of the formula, a blistering button masher full of options and variety marred only by the just too slight length. Forget all your worries, forget all your cares and go downtown. There’s a building that you need to run directly up the side of and about a thousand cyborgs up top waiting for you.
4. Hotline Miami
The sunset drenches the neon signs and tiger skin rugs in an orange hue as trance thrums in the background. This is the essence of Hotline Miami, an old retro GTA style pugilism simulator that holds violence sacrosanct. Your confused hitman will sneak and lure his way through buildings teaming with thugs that are as dangerous as you are. The red stuff comes with a single hit but restarts are nearly instantaneous (ala Super Meat Boy), so each top down level plays out like a dance that you must practice over and over till you feel the rhythm, rounding corners and throwing knives at the exact right moment. Like most of the games on this year’s list, Hotline also thinks about its own behavior. Immediately the nameless character is afflicted with delusions and sickness in response to his violence. The whole world is degraded by your actions, slipping off its axis a few degrees more with every mob boss exterminated. Hotline Miami is probably the most metatextual game this year. It asks why your brain, fried by the neon pallet and endless splatter, keeps obeying those phone calls. The cohesiveness and acid fried aesthetic is made all the more impressive because it was accomplished by an indie dev team. Hotline Miami is proof that independent games have finally moved past recreating NES platformers and onto intellectually challenging and unique experiences.
5. Rayman Legends
Gosh there’s a lot of murder going around these days. Even though the art form is changing quickly, games have found it difficult to tell interesting stories and create fun scenarios without the artificial crutch of life threatening violence. So it’s refreshing to find one AAA game that is more concerned with style and speed than decapitation simulation. Rayman Legends continues where the surprise debut of Origins left off – crafting fluid platforming challenges that are varied, colorful, and just this side of challenging. Legends tweaks the formula just slightly, removing some dead weight from the levels (including remade Origins levels) and adding a plethora of extras such as new daily challenges and a gigantic roster of pallet swapped characters to earn. Even beaten levels will grow challenges that beg your attention. The end result is a busier game that isn’t just about charging through the levels to the end, but instead is about perfecting your speed and jumps through each unique arrangement. It’s fitting that the climactic section endings are all musical levels, because Rayman Legends takes the platforming genre one step closer to performance art.
Originally published on Synthetic Error February 5, 2014