Push to Smart’s Top 10 Games of 2013

As promised, we’re finally ready to reveal our games of the year. We each selected the five games we felt were the creme de la creme of releases last year. You can see a quick and dirty list of our top picks and watch the video to see why we chose them. Transcript after the jump.

Transcript

2013 has come and gone, and while we were holding out for our surprise Beyonce game in December, we’re finally ready to reveal our Games of the Year.

We’ve each selected five games we thought rose above the pack last year–either because they were exceptionally fun, or had something unique to say that stuck with us after we put our controllers down.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

It’s easy to praise Fire Emblem’s graphical prowess, the absorbing strategy gameplay, or its moving soundtrack, but it all comes down to the characters for me. There is, of course the friendship between the main three characters, Chrom, Lyssa, and the avatar, that propels the narrative forward, but I spent the most amount of time investing in the relationships between the members of the Ylisse Army. Your soldiers undergo many narrative arcs; from seeing a shy character come out of their shell, to a hot-headed aristocrats brought down to Earth. I found myself playing levels over and over with new character combinations to see the different interactions and witness their relationships unfold. Luckily, there were plenty of opportunities for post-battle fraternization, as more maps unlock when characters get married and their children join the hero’s army. And while the lack of homosexual and homosocial relationships left a bad taste in my mouth, it’s only a matter of time as the Fire Emblem series builds on what is established in Awakening.

Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut

In truth, Deadly Premonition’s new “Director’s Cut” content doesn’t significantly improve on the original—if anything, the extended epilogue detracts from the original release’s punch-to-the-gut of an ending–but it’s hard to fault a game that brings the quirky, fully realized world of Greenvale to a wider audience.

The original Deadly Premonition was wonderfully ambitious, even if strained at the edges. It was a mishmash of dated inspirations—pulling a combat scheme from the five-year-old Resident Evil 4 and an open-world, time-sensitive mission system more akin to Shenmue than the more topical Grand Theft Auto. Even stranger, it borrowed many of its plot dressings wholesale from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Further dating the game, when not emulating Agent Cooper’s every mannerism, Deadly Premonition’s protagonist, Agent York, was dictating his thoughts on old movies and 80s punk to a man named Zach we neither saw nor heard. But the controls were just off enough and Greenvale was just weird enough, that it almost felt like maybe, just maybe it was all intentional–especially when one of the biggest jokes of the game turned into a genuinely fascinating meditation on the relationship between player and text. Intentions or no, the weirdly dated pastiche paired with excellent writing and casting came together for an experience that was both more than the sum of its parts and unlike anything else. This is still true of Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut. It may seem silly to name the “Director’s Cut” of a three-year-old game one of my games of 2013, but, really, Deadly Premonition is a game for every year. The more people who get to experience it, the better.

Ni No Kuni

Ni no Kuni gave the gaming world something they’ve been craving for years, A living, breathing, interactive Ghibli experience. The top notch cell shading work in tandem with Joe Hisaishi’s brilliant score to make the game an instantly recognizable Ghibli product. And in keeping with Ghibli’s sterling track record the game excels in nearly every area. Ni no Kuni proves that a game can have a compelling story and complex characterizations while still appealing to an all-ages audience. It shows that games don’t need to be set in the grim, zombie-alien apocalypse to tell a gripping story–they can employ a child’s perspective, as well. Oliver’s adventure takes the player on a journey through the other world where he teams up with a colorful cast of characters as he attempts to reunite with his mother. The story doesn’t rely on twists or shock to keep the player invested, instead utilizing the sincere emotional connection between Oliver, his companions, and the world(s) they live in to drive the story forward. I was so invested in these worlds and characters that long after finishing the game I found myself missing the adventure and whimsy of Oliver, Esther, and Swaine.

DmC: Devil May Cry

In his review for The Gameological Society, Anthony John Agnello called DmC: Devil May Cry “Catcher In The Rye by way of God of War,” a succinct summary of what Ninja Theory’s reimagining of Capcom’s aging classic brings to the table. Ninja Theory doesn’t just update the hack-and-slash game with a more polished combo and upgrade system for a new generation, but it dresses it in a story about growing up to which a generation raised on God of War–and maybe even the original Devil May Cry–can relate.
Dante’s world is one in which the contemporary vices of our world—the deceitful marketing of unhealthy foods, a certain commercial, conservative news conglomerate—are literally the work of demons. While some of these allusions are a little too on the nose, it’s undeniably satisfying to punch DmC’s answer to Bill O’Reilly in the face. The monsters of DmC are formidable foes, each susceptible to a different weapon–or combination of weapons–in Dante’s arsenal. Discovering the perfect combination is a gratifying challenge, and facing off against bosses in their beautifully designed arenas is an especially memorable experience.

The most interesting aspect of the game to me is the way in which DmC tweaks Devil May Cry’s thematic tone. The original Devil May Cry struck an interesting balance of celebrating 90s Hollywood-brand machismo with a uniquely Japanese twist. Dante was hyper masculine with his leather trench coat, love for pizza, and office adorned with pornography. He also had luxurious hair and an affinity for tango. Ninja Theory reinterprets these conflicting signifiers into a new game about finding oneself and growing up. Dante is still a self-decided connoisseur of sex and machismo, but with a slimmer, prettier design and a journey that involves learning to empathize with others as a member of a larger community–a lesson often reserved for feminine narratives. For instance, while I wish the game would devote more reflection to its weirdly persistent madonna/whore dichotomy, Dante’s relationship with Kat is one of the game’s narrative pillars. His evolution from his introduction as an archetype of machismo to someone who is able to respect and support Kat feels both sincere and earned. That sincerity marks DmC as a worthy successor to its predecessors, and I’m interested to see where Ninja Theory will take the series next.

Shin Megami Tensei IV

I wasn’t sure how much a priority a proper Shin Megami Tensei entry would be in a post-persona 3 world, but I’m happy Atlus was able to take a break from the popular side series to release a new game from the flagship series that started it all.

My favorite feature of this installment is the streamlined gameplay for a more modern audience. Never again do I have to worry about losing hours of grinding to a difficult random battle. By being able to pay off Death for a second chance, I never felt like my time was wasted, which is an extremely important feature for people who don’t have as much time to game as they used to. By giving the player this leeway the game is made more accessible while still retaining the difficulty the series is known for.
While SMT IV doesn’t start out overtly grim like its predecessor Nocturne, as you play through the first few hours, the fog begins to clear, and you can start to grasp the depth and gravitas of the narrative Atlus is setting out to tell. The first moral choices in the game are obvious black and white options that lead you down differing narrative paths, but as the game progresses, the distinctions begin to blur, and the moral ambiguity can take a toll on the player. Wherein most games it’s easy to see how to end up the “good guy,” there were several instances where I had to seriously think about the repercussions my actions and words would bring to Mikado and Tokyo.

Papers, Please

Papers, Please is an example of a stubbornly unfun game that uses the very nature of the medium to tell its story of oppression and despair. The monotony of learning a system is laid bare in your work as a border agent for a fictional, Soviet-inspired nation, but it is a system with dire stakes. Not only are you all that stands between desperate immigrants and a new life, but you only receive a base pay of $30 a day that goes towards paying for rent, food, and medication for your entire family. Accepting or denying the wrong people can lead to financial and legal consequences that endanger your family and yourself.

As more and more stipulations are added to your proceedings, the game becomes increasingly uncomfortable to play—made more so by the game’s seeming indifference to the horrific events. Stamping passports, terrorist attacks, xenophobic profiling, and turning away desperate mothers on a technicality are all treated with the same somber notes. Monotony is tyranny in Papers Please, which in turn becomes a persuasive power it will use against you.

Tomb Raider

I’ve always liked the idea behind Lara Croft: the gun-toting, swashbuckling archaeologist who deserved a spot beside Indiana Jones. But, until recently, the execution has been a mixed bag of problematic exploitation and cardboard character motivations. As time went on, one of gamings few female icons turned into little more than a sex symbol who was synonymous with glitchy, forgettable games.

When Square-Enix announced a re-imagining of Lara more akin to the everyman adventurer of games like Uncharted I could not withhold my excitement– that is, until the developers insisted on a desire to “protect” Lara bolstered by a trailer that suggested sexual assault. My fears were mostly put to rest when I started the game and found myself playing one of the most fully realized character I’ve come across last year. You can feel Lara’s emotional distress and thought process through her actions and the way she responds to the predicaments she’s put in. When she is cold or in pain, she will show it, and you will in turn be able to feel it. And while the game didn’t have nearly enough Tomb Raiding for my taste, I was instantly immersed in Lara’s fight for not only the survival of herself, but the well-being of her companions. This Lara doesn’t exist in a vacuum, she has very real motivations and connections to the people around her. She responds like a real person (other than her inability to pick up a coat in the snow) and was easily the character I empathized with the most in 2013. Tomb Raider gave me the Lara Croft I’ve always wanted and my top list for the year wouldn’t be complete without it.

Gone Home

Gone Home was the game we needed in 2013. After a year of uproar over the verbal abuse of a feminist critic, Gone Home is a glimmer of hope that there is room for alternative voices in the gaming community. An indie title with AAA pedigree and journalistic support, Gone Home takes the familiar trappings of many bigger games–the first person perspective, generic cues from horror games–and creates an experience that is intimate and emotionally affecting. Gone Home is a game that literally dumps you on the door step of strange house on a dark, stormy night. You are given minimal instructions and left to explore. The artifacts you uncover are of a specific time and place–the 90s when riot grrl ruled–and they all contribute to the portrait of a teenage girl, her new girlfriend, and their battle for acceptance. In the hour or two it takes the explore the home and uncover Sam’s story, it is clear that Gone Home is both confident in its storytelling and feminist.

Some of the exploration is contrived–specific doors are locked so as to ensure the story unravels in a particular order–but I found myself so engrossed in the mystery that I didn’t really mind. I was on edge through the entirety of my play through of Gone Home, constantly worried that I would uncover a horrible, fatal secret about my character’s sister or her girlfriend. By the time I finally entered the last room, I was overcome by so many conflicting emotions–residual horror, worry, and finally, relief–that I found myself crying in spite of everything. It is the game we need, and the game we deserve.

The Last of Us

Of all the games I played in 2013 The Last of Us is easily my favorite. After the highs of Uncharted 2 and the lows of Uncharted 3, I wasn’t sure where this game would fall on the quality spectrum. But I was blown away by the performances of the main cast and how their story unfolded. Ashley Johnson in particular gave one of the most impressive performances the medium has seen thus far. And while the game did have certain narrative and gameplay hiccups such as we discussed in previous episodes, it never came close to disparate plot points and set pieces that littered Uncharted 3. The game added a heavy dose of stealth to the run-and- gun, action from the Uncharted series, breaking up the monotony of set piece shootouts Naughty Dog is now known for. Now it was not only possible, but necessary to sneak past enemies without triggering a large-scale fight. The scarcity of ammo and crafting materials add another level of tension. The game juggled both horror and action gameplay mechanics to deliver a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience. The Last of Us is beautiful, unsettling, and challenging all at the same time and the final moments of the game will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.

Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

I’m sure some who are old enough to remember will say that playing A Link Between Worlds is like encountering the Dark World in A Link to the Past for the first time. For me, it reminded of of playing Portal for the first time. Portal is another game that took something familiar—the first person shooter—and turned it on its head; the seemingly simple change of making the gun into something that makes holes in walls completely changes the way in which the player thinks about a space; furthermore, Portal struck a perfect balance in easing players into its new challenges. It never coddled players, but its puzzles built upon each other in a way that felt organic and encouraged players to internalize what they had learned from each challenge. A Link Between Worlds similarly makes a deceptively simple adjustment by allowing players to move along walls, which in turn changes the way in which we think about the familiar dungeons of Hyrule. Perhaps more impressively, despite the fact that A Link Between Worlds does not lock players in challenge rooms like Portal, it miraculously achieves Portal’s perfect pacing. Players are implicitly encouraged to explore the land on their own, returning to discover new paths repeatedly as they became more literate in A Link Between World’s new perspective. I was stumped by some dungeons in A Link Between Worlds, but never frustrated; victory always felt satisfying and, more importantly, earned. This was all wrapped up in a story that was surprisingly compelling with a similarly satisfying twist. All considered, A Link Between Worlds is far and away the best game I played all year.

There you have it, the best of the best of 2013–according to us. Do you agree or are there any games you feel should have made the list? Let us know in the comment section below.

Quick and Dirty List

Jaylee’s Picks

  • Fire Emblem: Awakening
  • Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
  • Shin Megami Tensei IV
  • Tomb Raider
  • The Last of Us (best!)

Stacey’s Picks

  • Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut
  • DmC: Devil May Cry
  • Papers, Please
  • Gone Home
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (best!)

Agree? Disagree? Watch the video to see why we chose these games!

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2 thoughts on “Push to Smart’s Top 10 Games of 2013

  1. Pingback: Games of the Year for 2013 | thatstacey.com

  2. Pingback: Introducing Gaming’s Bechdel Test | thatstacey

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