Be warned. What follows is a sentimental, partially incoherent love fest on my favorite games from the last year, long pondered over and hastily written. Happy New Year, everyone.
Every December, I find myself starting to get sentimental about the past year, almost without even trying. There is, of course, great excitement in the New Year and I, like a lot of people, start off with the belief that I’m going to completely reinvent myself and be far less lazy about my research (stop bookmarking everything! You bought Evernote for a reason!!). But we all know that this is sort of a joke.
Media usually helps to shape different periods in my history. Summer of 2010 was Red Dead Redemption. I was taking some credits online at the time and I remember spending my mornings studying biology and my evenings riding the plains of the dying west. December of that same year was Fable 3, which I maintain fond memories of even in spite of the flaws. With that said, I feel as if it’s worth it to turn back on 2013 in this retrospective–condensed from its original two parts–and think about some of the games that helped to shape this year for me.
The Last of Us
June – PlayStation 3
You know that I know, and I know that you know that I would be crazy NOT to put The Last of Us at the top of this list.
But let me back up a little bit.
I am a fairly new, if not fairly loyal, Naughty Dog fan. I played Uncharted 3 well after it came out, something for which I feel as if I have to apologize, and loved every second of it. I immediately (before I had even finished the third, even) purchased box sets, old special editions, handheld games–anything I could to get more Nathan Drake. I am sure that my fervor for The Last of Us was fueled, at least in part, by the excitement of a good friend of mine who had sort of introduced Uncharted to me and rode the hype train for The Last of Us for as long as I could remember.
Others may disagree, and many have, but I find it easy to say that The Last of Us far exceeded any expectation I could have had for it. Though the levels themselves may have been fairly closed (like, seriously people, does every game have to have an open world???), the majesty of the writing, with its highs and lows, showed us the horrors, tragedies, and even the hope of life long after humanity has fallen. There were moments of great triumph, of terror, of joy. I admired the choices made to reflect the humanity in people, to portray selfishness over humility when forced to choose between the good of many or the good of one. And maybe that meant that the ending didn’t sit well with everyone, but it is difficult to admit that it was the best way to end a game about survival. Because that’s what it is–surviving, in the way that only broken, imperfect people know how to. It also sports one of the best soundtracks I have yet had the pleasure to hear.
It is all but impossible for me to speak as eloquently as others can on the greatness of this game, and so it’s here that I direct to some writing done by the very friend who introduced me to Naughty Dog life.
March – Xbox 360
I wrote with the assumption that The Last of Us was controversial to put at the top of my ‘best’ list, though I imagine BioShock Infinite will quickly overtake that, for reasons that I admit, I don’t quite understand.
Perhaps it was because of the fact that I was a big fan of the BioShock series in general. I am one of a few, it seems, who play games for narratives and experiences, perhaps, over mechanics, so I was always able to look past clunky combat and unoriginal shooter sections. BioShock Infinite, then, seemed to give me just that. Columbia was a world of America exceptionalism, of racism, zealotry, and xenophobia. It played with a simple premise–go to this weird place as a beardy white dude to rescue a damsel in distress (because we’re still doing these plots) to fulfill some kind of contract. What I expected to turn into a love story between two previously stubborn people instead unraveled a great plot of abandonment and regret to the tune of science experiments gone so right and yet so wrong. The ending cinematic, which served to tie up all the loose ends (and maybe create a few more as it went) allowed Elizabeth, restored to her full power, to see across time and space and reveal unto us the horror that spun the story into being, Booker’s transgressions, and Elizabeth’s sorrows. A tragedy in a thousand parallel universes.
While BioShock might not have struck gold as a shooter, I found the beauty of the game lived in the details that brought a world of such fantasy near realism. I was struck–and remain so–by a simple audio log found late in the game recorded by Rosalind Lutece, in which she describes the struggles of her male counterpart, Robert, who, even after having received the ability to live ageless and across time, saw nothing but a ‘blank page.’ Living, even with the power they had received, brought no joy. But the game was rich in these moments, and is one of only a few where replaying the game is a necessary part of the experience. It’s easy to miss Columbia’s finer details the first time around.
November – PlayStation Vita
I haven’t yet finished Tearaway, so perhaps I’m cheating a little bit by putting it on this list, but I’m not ashamed of it. I’ve always been a big fan of Media Molecule, LittleBigPlanet first and foremost, and I like most was excited about a new IP. I was an early Vita adopter, and of course, was happy for something halfway decent to play on it.
Tearaway, in the best sum I can muster, is pure joy. The player assumes the role of the male Iota or female Atoi (pronounced Ah-twah, for those unsure), a messenger made from a paper letter. Atoi is sent on a mission to deliver a message to the player, “The You,” whose likeness is placed into the game’s paper sun using the front-end camera on the Vita system. The You has the ability to manipulate Atoi’s paper world using Vita’s touch capabilities, but can also take photos of objects to place into the game, and create papercraft items for characters to wear.
The game itself is as simple as it gets, with the player guiding Iota or Atoi through various stages on his or her way to deliver a message to The You. But its colorful landscapes, charming characters, cheerful narration and sound, among thousands of wonderful, delightful moments, make it easily one of the most creative games I’ve played in quite a long time, and one that is suitable for children and adults alike. As players progress they unlock papercraft models of all of the characters, which can be printed and assembled in real life
Lego Marvel Super Heroes
November – PlayStation 4
No, I’m not kidding.
I was a big fan of Lego games growing up. Seriously, Lego Racers? That shit was my JAM. I was also just as fond of Lego Racers 2, perhaps less so of Lego Harry Potter creator something or other and Lego Rock Raiders. I collected the Johnny Thunder series of sets. I hit a point where I stopped caring about Legos and games and apparently came around from the horrible tragedy of those years just recently. I played Lego Lord of the Rings not that long ago–which is, of course, lovely, and being a big Marvel fan, I of course snagged this title for my PS4.
The game itself, while of course meant for children, is one of the most endearing tributes to the Marvel Universe that I’ve ever seen. Comicverse fans might irk, depending on their perspective, at the fact that the majority of the minifigs are designed after the MCU film versions of their characters–something particularly noticeable with The Avengers, at least, the game, in its 155 Marvel heroes and villains offers various costume changes that add traditional looks back into play, if they’re not already use. Iron Man has one of the most costume counts, able to switch between four different suits and his Tony Stark persona with ease. The writing offers a comical, partly stereotypical look on many of the favored heroes (Spiderman, for example, often makes comments on his own whiny nature), throws in a ton of Stan Lee, and provides children and lighthearted adults an open world New York City with which to play. Content is almost endless; the main story, which is necessary to replay for completionists, is merely a part of the many side quests, Deadpool missions, races, collectibles, and neat easter eggs worth uncovering. From X-Mansion, to the Avenger’s Mansion, Stark Tower, and even the SHIELD Helicarrier–Lego Marvel Super Heroes is an adorable, loving, almost fannish take on the Marvel Universe that’s rife with things to find and hours to sink into.
Kentucky Route Zero
January – PC
When I originally started writing these posts, I had intended to write two separate ones: one for the Triple-A games that I’ve already discussed above, and another for indie games. This year was an amazing year for the indie scene, one that improves with each passing year. I had on my list all of the games that many hail for their creativity and innovation: Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Papers, Please, The Swapper, along with my personal favorites from the year: Cook, Serve, Delicious and Sir, You are Being Hunted.
Kentucky Route Zero was on that list, and, after some soul searching, I realized it was really the only thing on my list. While I too loved and admired innumerable indie releases this year, there was nothing that did it for me like KRZ.
Kentucky Route Zero tells the story of Conway, a delivery man for an antiques shop in Kentucky, and his dog. When he’s asked to make a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, he’s introduced to the mysterious Route Zero. With the help of Shannon Marquez, a local, Conway is confronted with the magic of the route and those who live within its boundaries.
While the plot is far more complex, it draws its majesty on the magical realist genre–one that is so hard to execute, but when executed well it can be amazing. KRZ does just that–players are able to explore the most fantastic, yet comically mundane places, such as the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces to the Museum of Inhabited Spaces, meet strangely supernatural people–the works.
To be completely honest, I cannot put into coherent words what this game means to me, what this game did for me, how this game changed the way I looked at writing, at art, at games themselves. Kentucky Route Zero tells one of the most fully realized magical realism stories I have ever read, its artwork and music just stunning. The levels of taste, of care, love, creativity, intelligence present in this piece are extraordinary and near superhuman. Its additions, Limits and Demonstrations and The Entertainment, bring whimsy and life to some of KRZ’s lore, much of which is tied to artist and Bureau employee Lula Chamberlain. KRZ’s best thing, I think, is that it’s not near over: two if its promised five acts have yet been released, and I look forward endlessly to what greater joy might be brought to this little project. It is a game I could purchase and repurchase endlessly, for I think it to be, perhaps, the greatest game I have ever played, one that I constantly wish I could forget and replay so that I might feel those chills again the way I did the first time.
2013, your games were incredible. The stories you told, the highs and lows, all of them were amazing. I have high hopes for you, 2014. Bring your very best.