Mar 172014
 

Status: I have an okay high score.

Most Intriguing Idea: Exponential scoring

Best Design Decision: The tile preview

Worst Design Decision: The scoring period.

Summary:

Threes is a sharply-made puzzle game, where tiles marked with 1, 2 or some number of the form 3*2N come into a 4×4 playing field from a direction determined by the player’s previous move, and the game provides an indication as to what tile is coming. 1&2 tiles can be combined to make a 3; otherwise only like tiles can be combined. The game ends when the board is full and no further combinations can be made. At the end, 1&2 tiles give no points, while tiles with a 3*2N value give 3N points. This reflects the fact that in principle the effort involved in producing each higher tile is also exponential, i.e. it takes 1 combination step to make a 3 (1+2), 3 combination steps to make a 6 (1+2,1+2,3+3), 7 to make a 12 (1+2,1+2,1+2,1+2,3+3,3+3,6+6), and so on (obviously we are going 2(N+1)-1). In reality the number of combinations needed is lower because tiles of 3 and higher value stream onto the board frequently, but the scoring is broadly fair. There’s also some light music and dopey voices to help give the game a bit of personality.

As is standard for the genre the game is one where skill is stymied by randomization. Even an optimal strategy will sometimes not be resilient to getting a string of 5 2 tiles or the untimely arrival of a 96 tile at the top of a sea of 3′s and 6′s. The tile preview helps ward off the feel of being completely at the mercy of the RNG, and the low re-entry barrier makes it easy to lose a lot of time to this little app. The only hiccup here is the slow default speed of the scoring period and the weird idea of “signing” a high score (admittedly for families playing on an iPad this makes more sense). It’s not a revolution in any way, but Threes is a pretty good time-waster.

Verdict: Recommended

Jan 282014
 

Status: Completed

Most Intriguing Idea: Streaming the whole world as a single megatexture rather than texturing individual objects in it.

Best Design Decision: Compelling enemy animations.

Worst Design Decision: Making the game open-world.

Summary:

Well, Rage sure is a mess, and it stands as a good example of the truth that if you have an idea and you have talent you still might not have the right talent for the idea. Rage could have been an above-average to excellent corridor shooter, despite its puny and weightless weapons, but as an open-world game it’s poor. The world is a standard post-apocalyptic wasteland devoid of interesting scenery or almost any kind of life aside from screaming (all-male) bandits and screaming (all-male) mutants. It’s traversed using ridiculously floaty muscle cars that get in silly car fights, of which there seem to be an inexhaustible supply despite the absence of anything resembling a car factory or indeed an industrial base of any kind. There’s a lot of space to drive around the open world, but there’s not a lot to actually do except go to the places where missions are.

The levels themselves are decent shooting galleries, although universally infected by a compulsion (associated with the open world) to make a short one-way route available between the objective and the entrance so you can easily get back to where you left your car. It’s curious to me that the game never even went so far as to shake things up by having an easy-in/hard-out mission where the objective was achieved immediately and the goal became to escape. The enemies are beautifully animated, but whatever benefit this grants the game is nullified by their poor AI – overly given to charging – and the de-immersing effect of shooting a half-naked guy with a shotgun at point blank range without killing him (to say nothing of dumping half a clip into an enemy’s unprotected face before he goes down). The late game is also given over to monster closets – especially noticeable in the final level (and final battle!).

In places Rage looks very good for what it is, and the technical skill underlying its construction is undeniable. Unfortunately, the core design is archaic, the open world is a bore, and the post-apocalyptic aesthetic is fairly tired.

Verdict: Not recommended

Dec 192013
 

The simple fact is that picking the best game released in a given year is impossible. Even if someone managed to come up with some way to soundly measure an experimental 7-day FPS made by a small team against an open-world AAA game, nobody has the time in their lives to really give every possible candidate a chance. It’s certainly a task that’s beyond me, so I asked Mattie Brice, Michael A. Cunningham, Denis Farr, Darren Forman, Brad Gallaway, Brendan Keogh, Cameron Kunzelman, Kris Ligman, Gene Park, Lana Polansky, Eric Swain, Zolani Stewart, John Vanderhoef, and Dan Weissenberger to lend a hand. Here, without further adieu, are the games of the year.

10 Seconds in Hell is the game of the year.

In Amy Dentata’s 10 Seconds in Hell, we have the player-character standing in a small apartment room above a few floors. We look outside the window, and a figure stands in the parking lot with the word “EVIL” tagged to his head, and he yells to you: “If you don’t come down here in 10 seconds, I’ll fucking kill you!”

It seems to be an attempt to construct a visceral scene, yet it lies firmly in abstraction. Textures are muddy and objects are unrepresentative, obscure signs of blurry recollections. Movement is sluggish, and the only sounds you hear are your footsteps and your character’s text-to-speech inner monologue. 10 Seconds is cold and nightmarish in its sense of static and disconnection. And Dentata succeeds because she truly constructs a ‘hell’: a cycle of endless trauma that repeats itself, without possibility for escape or proper resolve.

Here, I see the door is locked and I look at the open window, and realize it may be my only way out to escape from the person who has walked into the building and could possibly hurt or kill me—so I jump. As I fall, I fall slowly, without energy. I look out at the awkward, jagged skybox that appears to be some kind of painting. I hit the ground, I hear the sounds of crushing bones, and the frame goes to black. The voice of our player-character starts to speak: “The fall didn’t kill me. I wish it had.” On the black screen are prompts in white text, telling me to press 2 to start again.

Zolani Stewart

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the game of the year.

“But you don’t even do anything!” is the refrain often repeated around the Animal Crossing games. Sometimes it is a slight by those that don’t play or enjoy the games, but more often than not it is those most committed fans to the series that utter this sentence with such confusion. I am enjoying this game, but I’m not doing anything; how is that possible? It’s strange, when you think about it: this notion that a game must have a ‘goal’ or a ‘point’, this idea that play should be useful in some way, that it should serve some purpose. It’s the neoliberal collapse of work and play into videogames: if you’re not achieving something, if you are not getting ahead, if you’re not doing something then you are wasting your time.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf doesn’t have a point. You’re not working towards anything. Sure, you might get a slightly bigger house or all the furniture of a certain collection, but that’s not, I don’t think, why most people play this game. They play it for the comfortable routine of watering your flowers, saying hello to your neighbours, standing on the beach by the railway bridge and just watching the waves. New Leaf doesn’t have a point; it doesn’t need a point. It’s play for play’s sake, and there’s something refreshing about that.

Of course, Animal Crossing has been doing this for years, but I can’t imagine engaging with this style of play on any device other than a 3DS. I go fishing while I wait for my train; I duck into the shops while I’m sitting in front of the TV; I have a date with the elephant next door halfway through dinner. This isn’t the game I want to go turn on a console and settle down on the couch to play for a committed session. This is a mobile, social game. This is the kind of game I want to pull out of my pocket and play for five minutes, hardly even paying attention to it, then put away again. It’s the videogame equivalent of carrying a sheet of bubblewrap around in your pocket, pulling it out every now and then to idly pop a few more bubbles just because it feels good.

Some might think that an insult, comparing a videogame to popping bubblewrap. But why should it be? Are we so impatient for the medium’s cultural legitimization that we can’t appreciate the pure pleasure of just doing something for its own sake? Of just going through the motions? After about 40 or 50 hours, I got bored of New Leaf and didn’t play it again. But for that time, the simple, mundane, and unabashedly meaningless pleasures of New Leaf felt incredibly special.

Brendan Keogh

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is the game of the year.

We all know the rhythm of videogame storytelling: the long ellipses of gameplay between cutscenes that don’t really relate to anything the player has been doing with her hands. In the typical formula, seeing the protagonist’s tearful farewell to his sweetheart is just the reward you get for killing 50 mooks or matching 30 blocks. You killed the boss, so now watch this cinematic of a joyful reunion and maybe press X to hug your soulmate.

Brothers apes this pattern, but its cutscenes are just context and disguise for what’s really going on. As the player wraps her mind around controlling two individual characters simultaneously using only sticks and triggers, the game is telling a story about the benefits and difficulties of cooperation. As the player figures out how to keep the brothers close enough to move through the levels it is conveying a sense of attachment between its characters. The traditional narrative is there in cutscenes, but more than almost any other game I have played, Brothers recognizes that the real story of a game is communicated by what the player is doing. And it pays that story off not in a cinematic, but in a moment that uses and recasts the same mechanics the player has been using all along. Can a game inspire emotion by getting the player to press a button? Brothers shows that it can, and provides an example I hope to see emulated in the years to come.

Sparky Clarkson

scr_brosCall of Juarez: Gunslinger is the game of the year.

It all takes place inside a Saloon. An ageing bounty hunter drops by for a drink and begins recounting his life story to the assembled patrons at a nearby table. It’s a tale about how a thirst for revenge against the men who killed his brothers led to Silas Greaves rubbing shoulders with – and occasionally taking down – some of the most famous and notorious figures in the Wild West.

As his mind is gently warped by the touch of alcohol his tales become more outlandish, improbable and unreliable to the point where it’s no longer clear if Silas is simply making it all up or not, and missions are constantly rewound, reworked and reworded within his head even as the player blasts their way through them, with an amusing and interesting narrative propelling the experience along.

Where Gunslinger really shines through as something special, however, is in the gameplay itself. There’s a lot to be said for focusing on good old fashioned gameplay in a shooter. Perhaps most importantly of all the guns themselves are incredible implements of destruction, loud, violent and gratifying in the extreme to wield.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger may not have set out to change the landscape of videogames forever, but for a downloadable title with presumably modest production values it somehow punches well above its weight to deliver a first person experience with a ton of impact. In fact, I’d argue that it’s easily one of the best arcade style shooters to appear this entire generation.

Just forget The Cartel ever happened and rest assured that Gunslinger is undoubtedly the real deal when it comes to delivering exceptional Wild West action.

Darren Forman

Candy Box is the game of the year.

Eat all the candies.

They drop into my lap, one by one. If I just wait, I’d have a kingdom of candy. No one ever lets you eat all the candies. I wait.

A man shows up with a lollipop, smiling. He creeps me out. Why would he do anything for candy? I look to my friends, rushing to buy his wares without knowing why. The lollies are shiny but could be poison for all we care. Everyone buys because what else do you do in life but buy?

I throw all my candy to the ground. My friends are horrified. They are telling me journeys and whales and all sorts of things their candies get them. By now, their eyes are sunken in, necks craned, looking to the sky for every bit of candy. They live to tell each other the next thing they bought, which will help them find more things to buy.

I throw all my candy to the ground. I stomp on them. They howl. The man in the cowboy hat continues to smile and offer me lollipops. My friend, their skin hardens and turn pink. They live for the candy they need the candy. They all shriek “I need candiiies!”

We scorn the cows, but worship the candy.

Mattie Brice

A Cosmic Forest is the game of the year.

A Cosmic Forest lives up to the implications of its title. It does in fact feel ‘cosmic’, in the sense that we enter a space that feels complex, alien, and beyond comprehension. There’s a careful layering of the familiar with the unfamiliar, as we hear bells and alarms among flicking strands of grayscale that surround us, hums and flickers on top of string instruments as we drown in color and watch the creatures that silently follow their paths. The forest is a place that’s equally wondrous and terrifying, expansive and claustrophobic, exciting and softening. How can a game exist on such contradictions?

And yet, this question is what makes A Cosmic Forest a masterwork. It’s awe-inspiring in so many forms, it presents a world whose internal elements feel connected and independent, and so the experience of existing within the space is powerful and resonant. Millet’s use of sound is beautiful; it demonstrates a superb understanding of the 3D space. And the aesthetic he creates is diverse and provokes the need for inquiry. It’s just plain interesting.

So yes, A Cosmic Forest is a game that absolutely warrants recognition this year. It inspires a sense of wonder and awe that’s unlike many games I’ve played.

Zolani Stewart

Dead Rising 3 is the game of the year

Rare is the sequel that fixes every single one of its predecessor’s problems – even rarer when it’s the third game in a series, and the previous two showed little interest in fixing what was broken. Massively opening up the world of zombie outbreaks, Dead Rising 3 is the ultimate playground of zombie slaughter that the series had always promised but never been able to deliver. With dozens of weapons and custom vehicles, players are spoiled for choice when it comes to how they’ll deal with the undead hordes. A satisfying plot that wraps up all of the series’ loose ends only serves as icing on on the already delicious cake. Dead Rising 3 truly lives up to every bit of potential the series possesses.

Dan Weissenberger

Depression Quest is the game of the year.

Depression Quest, an award-winning “text adventure” about managing depression by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Shankler, should easily be ranked among the most important games of the year. Or, possibly, the decade. There are many reasons for this, but in the spirit of listing things, let’s name three: 1. Depression Quest is a genuinely heartfelt, compassionate and thorough depiction of dealing with depression made by people who fully understand what it’s like. 2. Depression Quest demonstrates that games can be insightful, evocative and human with panache, not through photorealistic graphics and expansive worlds but through solid writing and meaningful choices. 3. Depression Quest is a game that has helped so many, including myself, confront a difficult truth and dismantle the taboo that keeps us from talking about it.

Lana Polansky

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Device 6 is the game of the year.

Much of the conversation about the pad-driven future of gaming hinges on whether tablets can take over the genres that are already living room favorites. No doubt, if tablets are to win the console wars, full-featured first-person shooters in the vein of Deus Ex: The Fall and strategy games like XCOM Enemy Unknown, both released this year, will play a major role. But if pads and phones are to usher in an era of more interesting games then they will have to forge experiences that are uniquely their own.

Device 6 falls into that category. On the surface, it belongs to the most venerable genre of games for the home computer – the text adventure. Device 6 takes that formula and turns it on its ear, then upside down, then whips it around a corner and reshapes its words into a staircase. Developers Simogo add images and music, but go beyond that to make the player’s interaction with the tablet part of their creepy story about techological control. It’s clever, it’s absorbing, and it could only be done with a pad. That’s more encouraging than a dozen shooters.

Sparky Clarkson

DmC: Devil May Cry is the game of the year.

When it was revealed that Capcom would be outsourcing their beloved Devil May Cry franchise to Cambridge based developer Ninja Theory the reception amongst the fanbase was somewhat derisive. Many loudly questioned the studio’s skills in regard to competent combat design. ‘Ha ha!’ they laughed. ‘It’ll be rubbish!’

These mocking jibes turned to howls of inarticulate fury as the new and improved Dante design was revealed to the general public, prompting one of the most unhinged hate campaigns directed at a videogame ever seen – with some of them even going so far as to sign a petition demanding that Barack Obama himself personally pull it from store shelves since its mere existence evidently deeply hurt their feelings.

Did The President of the United States of America give in to their tearful pleas, however? No? Such arrogance!

Turns out that such blatant disregard for the wellbeing of his people may not have been a bad thing however. Ninja Theory pulled through admirably against such unrestrained hostility and delivered an excellent Devil May Cry experience in spades, one absent much of the irritating busywork seen in previous instalments such as the detestable Dice minigame from 4.

Smooth, responsive gameplay, great enemy design, superb visuals and a killer soundtrack all melded together perfectly to deliver one hell of an impressive action title. The Bob Barbas fight in particular is rightfully regarded as one of the most impressive boss battles seen in a videogame.

Richly designed and deeply satisfying, DmC delivers an incredible experience for both casual and hardcore gamers alike – even without the white hair.

Darren Forman

Dragon’s Crown is the game of the year.

Dragon’s Crown is the ultimate example of taking an older genre that’s been lying fallow and revving it back up for modern sensibilities. The side-scrolling beat-‘em-up hasn’t been deserving of attention for years, but Vanillaware not only brought it back with a bang, they created what could very well be the finest iteration that’s ever existed.  The hand-drawn art is fluidly fantastic and dripping with distinctive style, the depth in game design and character abilities is superb, and the replay value (traditionally a weakness of the genre) far outlasts its predecessors thanks to the diversity of character classes, numerous side quests, and online cooperative questing.

Brad Gallaway

Europa Universalis IV is the game of the year.

The main allure of grand strategy titles is the opportunity to rewrite history. The fantasy, of course, is to do better than our forebears, whatever the particulars of that may be.

Maybe it means winning a war that was a lost cause. Maybe it is not being an evil empire that slaughtered and enslaved millions for centuries. Maybe it means taking over the world. Of course, in the right game curiosity overtakes ambition.

The player makes plans and Paradox laughs. No other video game has anything on the emergent storytelling to emerge from their grand strategy titles. Europa Universalis IV, the latest in a long line of historical map sandboxes, gives the player control of any of the emerging nation states to see what happens in almost 400 years of human history. The complex tools and directives can turn events in your nation’s favor or cause a chain reaction of unexpected and wide array of consequences.

Consequences matter in Europa Universalis IV. They matter like in few other video games. The only end state is the constant march of time. You could lose land, become bankrupt, be overrun by invaders, but so long as you control a single province the game will continue forward. And even if you should lose that final piece of land, the game instills within you the notion that the rest of the world will get along just fine in some new form with some new map.

Eric Swain

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is the game of the year.

What’s this, a downloadable expansion contending for game of the year? Well, yes. By replacing Far Cry 3‘s pretentious story and stealth-encouraging systems with laser dinosaurs, Michael Biehn, and a badass laser arm, Blood Dragon removed much of the parent game’s tedium and transformed it into the roller-coaster ride it was always meant to be. Blood Dragon evoked sci-fi flicks of the ’80s with art design that reflected the era’s neon aesthetic and practical effects, and drew on the decade’s sensibilities for its scenario and plot. Is it a deep, emotional experience? Only by the standards of the films it emulates. Still, it’s a great riff on cheesy Cold War sci-fi and easily the most fun I had with a shooter all year.

Sparky Clarkson

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is the game of the year.

It’s rare to see a game go through development hell and come out stronger. Typically games like this flounder for years before finally being rushed out the door in an unfinished state. This unfortunate standard is what makes Final Fantasy XIV‘s story all the more amazing. Despite its disastrous launch in 2010, the company took the criticisms seriously and within three months announced a complete reboot of the game. Three years later we’ve seen a complete turn around, as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a well-rounded MMORPG with fantastic social hooks and plenty of content even for those who long for a single-player RPG experience.
What makes A Realm Reborn a fantastic experience is that it is more than just an MMO. Players have the option to team up, but rarely is it required outside of a few story dungeons and battles. As someone not usually interested in multiplayer experiences, I worried that Final Fantasy XIV would not be for me, but I dove into the PlayStation 3 release and fell in love. The game’s flexible job system meant I could be a warrior protecting a party one minute and then a healer the next. The incorporation of classic Final Fantasy jobs with an engaging, real-time battle system, great nostalgic throwbacks, and a fantastic soundtrack helped make this a fantastic RPG. Director and producer Naoki Yoshida had a mountain to climb when he was put in charge of reviving this game, and he proved he was more than capable. Final Fantasy is still alive and kicking; it’s merely taking a new shape.

Michael A. Cunningham

Gone Home is the game of the year.

My family moved back to Germany when I started college, meaning the central conceit of Gone Home (you are a daughter who returns to a house you never lived in and snoop through your family members’ lives) struck me in particular. Perhaps other families are more close-knit, but it struck me how deeply this resonated with my own love and estrangement from my family. This is equal parts growing up to realize your parents are people – gloriously flawed people – and that you have your own story separate from them. It also feeds that impulse for voyeurism social networks have cultivated.

Denis Farr

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Grand Theft Auto V is the game of the year.

In the most hackneyed way possible, I’ve chosen Grand Theft Auto V not to praise it, but to proclaim it dead. By most metrics that videogames are measured by outside of our small critical community — units sold, market saturation, general press uptake – Grand Theft Auto V is empirically the game of the year. Operating on the same model that those games always have, GTAV presents us with a massive open world where the possibilities of what you can do are only delimited by how much time you have on your hands. An old French philosopher of many sorts might call it hyperreal — more real than the real world, shinier, with more access to more possibilities. My reason for proclaiming this game the game of the year, however, is based on the flip side of that hyperreality. As any omnipotent deity knows, creating a world requires a framework of systems, and Grand Theft Auto V‘s have not changed significantly in a decade. The wonderful more-real-than-real world of the game is based in misogyny, vapid violence, racism, and a general misanthropy that makes the mind reel. The easy way out of this criticism is that GTAV is a symptom and a critique of our own world, but that argument requires a deep cynicism — to look at our world and only see everything awful and then to expand that awful up to take up an entire universe is, well, its depressing to say the least. Grand Theft Auto V is the game of the year because it is a rotting corpse. It is the game of the year because I want us to look at it and realize we can do better.

Cameron Kunzelman

Kentucky Route Zero is the game of the year.

Perhaps it’s too early to call this one, with only two of its planned five chapters seeing release in the last year. Still, Kentucky Route Zero has proved a critical sensation, and for good reason: it’s creatively and atmospherically rich in a way few games manage, and it does so with a unique sort of audiovisual minimalism few can even aspire to.

Aesthetically, Kentucky Route Zero falls into a tradition of American Southern Gothic literature, to which we might add a touch of magical realism and Reagan-era dystopianism. What appears at first to be playing fast and loose with causality is actually a carefully crafted negotiation of the uncanny through Cardboard Computer’s characteristic dreamlike sense of curiosity. What other game nudges its player into writing poetry under the pretense of guessing a password? Or reveals by degrees that its own ‘world’ map was based on some terribly non-Euclidean geometry all along? Even as indie games gain a greater presence in the minds of playing communities, Kentucky Route Zero remains seductively idiosyncratic and worth talking about – the Twin Peaks of the Steam age.

Kris Ligman

Knock-Knock is the game of the year.

The Lodger is an insomniac or maybe he is asleep. There are unseen horrors, “guests” in the woods creeping into the house or maybe they are delusions. There is an unnameable beast coming to get him or maybe it’s a young girl coming to free him. Nothing in Knock-Knock is truly explained, leaving the game to be as creepy and unnerving to the player as it wants to be. Right away the atmosphere is thick and encompassing as it revels in the rules it does not explain and you work towards a goal you do not understand.

I don’t see how Knock-Knock could have been created by anywhere else but the Russian steppes. The fingerprints of the cultural ethos is all over it. I don’t fully comprehend everything about the game, but in a horror game that isn’t really necessary. Not understanding enhances the emotional resonance of the piece. And from what I could piece together there is a psychological element causing The Lodger’s torment.

Horror games can be as formulaic as any other genre of game, but they also leave themselves more easily open to artistic liberties as reflections of inner meaning. Knock-Knock‘s non-rational spaces, “guest” forms and time centric play are a non-explicit text to the game’s thematic depth, while also maintaining its horror roots.

Eric Swain

The Last of Us is the game of the year.

Turns out you can teach a Naughty Dog new tricks. Even in light of the mammoth Grand Theft Auto V, Joel and Ellie’s journey remains the apex of triple-AAA gaming in 2013.

It wasn’t a game with new, or even great ideas. Its mix of stealth, survivor horror and third-person action gameplay elements never meshed into something glorious. However, its mechanics felt unique, thanks to the weight of each gun and the improvisatory nature of its melee combat. And most of its characters go through some tremendous character arc through the journey.

Yes, The Last of Us hits familiar zombie cliches and Hollywood beats. Most of the people you expected to die are dead. There’s a viral outbreak out somewhere, along with a cure. Then in its final acts, writer Neil Druckmann steers his father-child characters to places darker than even Cormack McCarthy did in The Road. In its final, sudden hours, Druckmann makes all other attempts at morality plays this year – particularly Bioshock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V – seem amateurish by comparison.

Without the ending, The Last of Us would be just a notably good game with solid writing, surely still a game of the year contender. But when the game ended not with a bang, but with a whimpering “OK,” it became a modern classic.

– Gene Park

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Lost Planet 3 is the game of the year.

I’m an absolute sucker for strong writing and characterization, and Lost Planet 3 has it in spades. While some were surprised or put off by the series’ sudden shift away from fast action into something more narrative-driven, I adored it. It was a rare, mellow pleasure to join space-faring long-haul trucker Jim Peyton on his day-to-day duties, experiencing what it must feel like to be so far from home and missing your family while trying your best to support them. Playing the role of someone who wasn’t an invincible lone soldier or lethal space marine was a great new twist, and the writers did a fantastic job in taking the mundane and making it shine.

Brad Gallaway

Luxuria Superba is the game of the year.

Five fingers on the screen, always feeling like you should pinch them all together. Perched, elegant. I try to remember the last time I held my my hand like that. On a lover’s face, down the right side, my right, past his cheekbones and jaw, after we fought and made up. Down my childhood dog’s back with tense muscles, listening to his short, blocked, gasping breaths. It’s both intimate and analytical. Sometimes they went up and down, or around in unison. Every once in a while, a little wave for variance.

Singing like a choir. By now, you’ve heard it before, but you keep going because it sounds better outside of your head. I soon start to mouth the same sounds, my widening, then lip condensing to a pink o. You know need to wait, ride out until the flower able to swim, squirm through the experience before making the voice sing louder. Perfect bells chime like the beginning of a religious rite on your journey towards the light.

Cakes, flags, heavy-lidded eyes, I want them all. Color swells beneath my fingers, upward through the screen, painfully, gloriously. I have to be patient, even though I know exactly what we both want. It hurts. We ache.

Mattie Brice

Memoria is the game of the year.

Classic point-and-click adventure style games get a bad rap from their older, less polished brethren. The adventure games that get praised nowadays are those that challenge the traditional form and move into other areas of focus. Yet, Memoria shows there is still life left in the traditional model when the kinks are worked out and the form is done to suit to the story and not the other way around.

Memoria‘s story stands out the most. It’s Arabian Nights style of a story told within a story to reveal the power of storytelling to the extent that it can change the world. Even on a pure character level Sadja’s narrative is everything I could want from a fantasy adventure. She is a spitfire, no-nonsense princess who knows what she wants and will face anything to get it and change her fate. It’s understandable when Bryda, centuries later, wants to be a part of and recreate that past world of wonder and excitement in place of her dreary present.

And that’s what Memoria does best. It presents the feel of fantasy around the player. Other fantasy games might focus on the war with demons, explaining everything in minute detail. By shifting the focus to the characters we get to be inside their heads as we solve this historical mystery in tandem. Ultimately, it becomes about who they all are and the world they want to be apart of. The story itself injects magic back into the world.

Eric Swain

Metro: Last Light is the game of the year.

With its brilliant choice of setting, Metro proves that linearity isn’t merely something to complain about in Call of Duty titles. Trapping players in a series of claustrophobic environments, pursued by mutants and fascists alike, Metro embraces the oppressive bleakness of its post-apocalyptic setting in ways that few other games can manage. Depicting dwindling population of survivors existing in a state of perpetual war with other humans clinging to the edge, Metro presents itself as a world where hope is a forgotten concept, which makes the game’s story of redemption from the ashes of the previous game’s ending all the more satisfying. More than just a great stealth title with a touching story, Last Light is an entire experience that pulls players right into its beautiful shattered world.

Dan Weissenberger

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Rogue Legacy is the game of the year.

2013 was the year of “the dadification of games.” Bioshock:Infinite‘s paternal angst gave way to The Last of Us‘, well, paternal angst, and the critical community waffled back and forth over how much dad is too much dad in our games. October saw the release of Rogue Legacy, a game that, despite being about lineage, managed to avoid all of the pitfalls of dadification. On one hand, that was easy, since there are plenty of mothers in the game to play and die as. On the other hand, it smashed apart all of the angst that the dadified game needs to work with. The central question of those games is “what will occur when I no longer have the capability to act as well as I do now?” Rogue Legacy is based on an opposite principle: you will die over and over again and only failure after failure followed by a single bright spot will end the cycle. The videogame love of mastery is replaced by luck and slow, steady skill accumulation. When I beat the final boss, I didn’t feel like I had achieved some great feat of hand and eye. I felt like the stars had aligned. Rogue Legacy is a game of the year because it is an arrow in the heart of dadified logic.

Cameron Kunzelman

Saints Row IV is the game of the year.

In its unabashed embrace of simulation as simulation, daring the player to destabilize the system in as many ways as they can, Saints Row IV yanks back a very important curtain. It reveals to us just how alien these simulated environments really are, and questions why we would ever want this to begin with. That it couldn’t compete with GTA V‘s sales numbers is immaterial: it had something to say in a genre frequently devoid of messages, and that in itself is laudable.

But Saints Row IV is also incredibly human, and more than a little sentimental. It’s impossible not to fall just a little bit in love with this crew of misfits, the majority of whom are not white and (depending on player interpretation) not straight either. And this is also one of few games in which the player can be any race, gender or body type they want, with few to no restrictions on their personal expression. In short: while other games go about their merry business trying to convince consumers that the emotionally sterile, fine-grained sandbox is the creative high point of the medium, Saints Row IV has lifted up its rear leg and relieved itself on those games’ trousers. There is no better way to say it than this. Your shoes, GTA, are soaking wet and starting to smell. And Saints Row is still grinning.

Kris Ligman

Sluggish Morss is the game of the year.

Sluggish Morssis beautiful and garish and frightening and difficult. Difficult not because it challenges the player with unforgiving gameplay obstacles, but because this surreal excursion into space-time by Jack King-Spooner and Jake Clover demands of the player a different kind of literacy similar to watching a Samuel Beckett play or walking through a Max Ernst exhibition. While most games ask you to flex your cerebral, problem-solving muscles, Sluggish Morss is a game best perceived through feeling. It’s not something you understand so much as it’s something you sense and allow to happen, and the only unforgiving obstacle it asks you to overcome is your own pretension as a gamer to know, master and control the game.

Lana Polansky

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State of Decay is the game of the year.

With all the zombie games over the last few years, I’ve always been frustrated at the lack of true survival scenarios… until now. State of Decay does exactly that, and does it magnificently. By offering an open world and allowing the player to roam free within it, searching for resources, rescuing survivors, and establishing a bulwark against the undead is fantastically gripping. Details such as managing internal strife at home base, assigning the right survivors to the correct tasks, and being in constant fear of character permadeath put it over the top. Going out on a routine supply run is never routine — getting surprised by a mob of zombies and watching a character’s stamina run low as the undead close in is gut-churning. In this state, the stakes feel incredibly high at all times.

Brad Gallaway

Super Mario 3D World is the game of the year.

Nintendo has flooded the market with Mario games lately, but Super Mario 3D World (SM3DW) stands out as one of the benchmarks in the series, alongside the likes of Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Galaxy, that push the franchise forward while delivering near-perfect video game experiences. In a year awash with notable titles, both indie and “AAA,” and punctuated with the launch of two powerhouse consoles in the Xbox One and PS4, SM3DW manages to remind players why Nintendo is still relevant and desperately needed in a marketplace dominated by Call of Duty, Madden, and Grand Theft Auto. Equal parts charming, intuitive, surprising, and gorgeous, SM3DW offers new and engaging gameplay ideas around every corner, and even allows up to four players to jump around the intelligently designed, cartoon worlds together, often with hilarious consequences. If you own a Wii U and don’t own this game, you’re missing out on one of the best games of 2013. If you don’t own a Wii U yet, Super Mario 3D World is the reason to buy one.

John Vanderhoef

Tearaway is the game of the year.

There’s something ‘flat’ about Media Molecule games. First with LittleBigPlanet and now with Tearaway, you don’t feel like there are layers of code and software hidden ‘beneath’ the virtual representation on the screen. Rather, playing their games feels like staring inside a grandfather clock: you can see all the moving parts. You can see how this polygon is connected to that rope and how that creates this seesaw. In LittleBigPlanet, this was especially clear due to the centrality of that game’s level editor: you needed to know that you could make this level if you wanted to. The spectacle of transparency existed to encourage you to make more of the game’s content. Tearaway’s flatness serves a different purpose. This papercraft world of literally flat paper folded and creased into beings and places has nothing behind it but your own fingers, occasionally tearing through the back of your Playstation Vita into this world. This world doesn’t exist ‘in’ the screen but on it. It’s not a world to be immersed in but a stage show to glide over, to rub against.

As Leigh Alexander has astutely pointed out, Tearaway feels like a showcase of its platform: look at all this stuff the Vita can do! But it feels like a cynical showcase. For all its flatness and cutesy delightfulness, there is a weirdness behind it—a glint in its eye that suggests something more intelligent. This is a game that is trying to say something, and it says it with a masterful level of subtlety. That ‘something’ is how videogames work, and how we use our fingers to engage with the pop-up worlds on their screen. The way we stick our bodies and our intentions into them without ever ‘really’ entering them—because how can one ‘truly’ enter a flat world?

Few games this year have been as delightful to experience as Tearaway. It has precious little challenge beyond the most simplest of platforming. But its worlds are so beautiful, so enchantingly put together, that they are a pleasure just to move through and between. Who needs tricky platforming when you can just stand here and watch the unique beauty of a paper waterfall perpetually uncoiling? But, again to riff off Leigh, this is more David Lynch than Pixar. As the game progresses, there is something unsettling about the game and its world and the plight of its iota/atoi protagonist as they progress from straightforward paper fantasy worlds to surreal postmodern deserts and dreamlike nowheres.

Tearaway is one of those few games—nay, few artworks—that feels intelligent enough to know exactly what it is about, and humble enough to never outright boast about this. It just exists; it just is. Is it one of the most delightful experiences I had with a videogame this year, and perhaps the first Vita game ever that perhaps justifies the purchase of a Vita. Indeed, just as Tearaway could not exist without the Vita, I can no longer imagine the Vita without Tearaway.

Brendan Keogh

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Your Swimsuit is the game of the year.

“your classmates for help, okay? Okay. The truth is… You see… The truth is… Well, you see, I belong to any clubs or anything? Uh, come”

I think Miko-chan is flirting with me. We aren’t even talking about clubs. She doesn’t make sense, but she has this smile and her hands clasped in front on her chest. Isn’t this how all cute people are though? Blubbering messes who blush more than they complete sentences. I try to speak to Miko-chan in her fumbling, unintelligible sentences that somehow lure me further into her. She cries.

“ll marry and get richer. Huh? I just played a little dip first, then we… we can split it up into three categories. Uh-huh. Then, s”

I don’t know what I said to her, but I admit, she’s cute when she cries. She runs away and follow her back to her home, I want to comfort her. She flashes her boobs at me and leads me up to her apartment. How does a highschooler have her own place? I’m sure she tried to explain, but I don’t understand. This is it, just one more step and I can see her naked. Do I tell her to make low buzzing noise in a library or give her advice in perfecting her Welsh accent? I go with Welsh, and she takes me to her nicely decorated bathroom.

There’s a censor block over her crotch.

Mattie Brice

So many games!

As we look forward to the start of a new console generation, and a new era for PC gaming with the Steambox, let’s not forget the scores of wonderful games we got to play this past year. This list has dozens of games, and it omits plenty of worthy candidates like Assassin’s Creed IV, Fire Emblem: Awakening, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Papers Please, Proteus, Remember Me, Rayman Legends, Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, The Stanley Parable, The Swapper, and Year Walk. There are a lot of things to lament about the current state of consoles and AAA games, but there are a lot of bright spots, too.

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Dec 032013
 

Assassin’s Creed IV has many problems, most of them inherited from Assassin’s Creed III. The free-running is sloppier than ever and actually trying to go to a particular place quickly (say, the top of a mast to take a flag) feels like a struggle against the game’s mechanics rather than a use of them. Combat, especially swordplay, is a mess plagued by a useless camera, and while stealth has improved slightly it’s not strong enough for the demands the game makes of it, especially in tailing and eavesdropping missions. The story is silly and inconsequential – in both the past and in the modern day the status quo is essentially unchanged by the events of the game – and is told very poorly. About the only thing that the game does right is the open-world pirating. Why do I want to fix it, and how?

One of the problems with the sea combat, and one that goes to the core of the game, is that the expansive sea battles and plundering have nothing to do with the Assassins, or (by and large) their skills. Mechanically and thematically the various parts of ACIV almost never talk to one another. There is this pirate sim, and then there is this trading sim that shares almost no resources with the pirate sim, and then sometimes this character gets out of the boat and sneaking and stabbing and story things happen. The pirate sim also co-exists very uncomfortably with the Assassin storyline. In the latter, Edward Kenway grows disillusioned with his quest for wealth and power and the meaningless death he causes along the way, while in the former Edward is still gleefully swinging on a rope onto a man o’ war to kill 20 sailors, 2 officers, and a captain en route to claiming a hold full of rum.

I feel like the game would work together better, at least mechanically, if ACIV were a better pirate sim. Popular fiction would have you believe that pirates commanded mighty ships and went into battle against the full force of European navies, but this was hardly the case. Pirates generally commanded smaller ships – sloops and schooners – and mostly avoided ship-to-ship combat against proper naval vessels, which usually outgunned them. They would operate by ambush, striking from inlets and shallows they knew well to attack merchant vessels. If a military boat showed up they took it by stealth if possible but more frequently they fled into places where because of shallow water or complex obstacles the military boats could not follow.

This connects, at least conceptually, with the Assassin side of the gameplay, which is about approaching unseen, striking quickly, and fleeing to safety. What ACIV lacks are mechanics to create this pirate game. There are no non-military ships (the game absurdly insists its pirate lead does not kill civilians), for one thing. Depth is not modeled, wind direction and speed are much less significant factors than they were in ACIII, and currents may as well not exist. As such, the factors that would (properly) make piracy similar to assassination are missing from ACIV‘s simulation. Putting them in – generating “hiding zones” in the sea from which Edward Kenway might make a deadly strike – would make the game a more coherent whole.

The problem with this approach is that capturing a Spanish Man o’ War is so much fun. There is something really enjoyable about dancing the inferior Jackdaw around massive attacks to incapacitate  an enemy ship. I could do without most of the boarding stuff, honestly, but the hard-fought ship-to-ship combat is a blast.

So, a better way to improve the pirate game is to just lop the assassin game right off of it. Throw that away. Frankly, it sucks at this point, and there needs to be a serious rebuild of that core game before I’ll be interested in it again.

Instead, make a more complete pirate game. On a low level, put some of the sailing back into it. It’s not necessary to get super specific about how to tack, but make depth and wind more important considerations. Give that game seasonal weather so that danger zones shift. Add a layer of crew management (a la Skies of Arcadia) and fleet command – remember that many of the legendary pirates actually commanded small flotillas, not just a single ship. Make a game that’s not just about slugging it out with cannons, but about using the landscape and weather intelligently to defeat superior enemies.

And once those enemies are defeated, have something more compelling to do with the captured ships – namely, sailing them. A few historical pirates are identified with a single ship, but most of them upgraded or swapped regularly (Bart Roberts captained many ships, although most of them were named Fortune or Royal Fortune). Even the Queen Anne’s Revenge was an upgrade for Blackbeard – a merchant ship he captured and then loaded up with cannon. One of the strangest parts of ACIV is capturing a frigate or man o’ war and sending it off to schlep olive oil down to Africa. As a real pirate, Edward would almost certainly seize that ship for his own uses.

This would be a way to automatically build progression into the game. Starting out, your pirate may have nothing but a small sloop with a few guns that e can only use to pillage small merchant ships. Improving this starting vessel allows em to finally take on a decent-sized enemy, which e can then outfit for more piracy. Working eir way up allows em to take larger and larger prizes, but in order to gain enough money to sustain eir crew and repair the ship, e must work in waters that are more heavily trafficked and thus more frequently patrolled by strong military ships.

This is not to say that there can’t be a trade-based fleet sim in there, but it should feature resources that cross over between the trading level and the plundering level. If routes become dangerous (because of other pirates) then put the player in the position of pirate hunter for more ship-to-ship (or fleet-based) combat. Basically, make the trading sim an integral part of the game rather than a bare-bones element tucked into a closet.

Eliminating all these free-running zones would also allow for a larger and more spread out open world. Although its world is decent-sized, ACIV feels crowded – you’re never all alone on the open ocean. There are always a few ships or a half-dozen islands in view. Worse, those ships just sort of sail around in circles. A true pirate game where ships are going to and from somewhere along paths of least resistance, and there’s a lot of open ocean, is one where choices about where to sail and when have weight and consequence.

Really the problem I have with the pirating in Assassin’s Creed IV is that the shipboard mode feels too slight, and too disjoint from the rest of the game. It’s much more fun than the rest of ACIV, but it’s rarely more interesting. So, there’s nothing that wrong with it, but it can still be fixed by lopping off the part of the game that fits worst and making the pirate sim deeper and more integrated with the trade sim. The result would be a more coherent whole, and a pirate game I’d be very eager to play.