Tag Archives: The Year in Review 2013

The Year in Review: #1 Gone Home

The Year in Review: #1 Gone Home

Gone Home is a beautiful game for many amazing, complex reasons. For all the things it does right, it needs to be praised for the things it doesn’t do. Its blend of an unrelenting drive, pushing you through walls and barriers like a bulldozer, and measured, deliberate restraint stands head and shoulders above its forest of giant sequoias, each towering figure already a testament to Gone Home‘s excellence.

First and foremost, it tells a story. If the original design doc started out with nothing more than “craft a story and give the player no choice to become invested in it,” then Steve Gaynor and the rest of his Portland-based fellows at The Fullbright Company succeeded. More than that, they succeeded where so many others have failed. Even games that weave great tales of betrayal, thievery, and deception often can be foiled by the simple act of not playing.

Gone Home doesn’t give you that choice. Or at least it didn’t give me that choice. I must have had bacon in my pocket because this tender, raw, violent, sweet dog wouldn’t let go once it sank its teeth in me. As soon as you step into that broken flickering porch light, it begins. A cup, a Christmas duck, a bag, and a note. Such a simple chemical equation for a bright, vivid reaction.

Gone Home

It’s a tempered catalyst. So much of what makes Gone Home is what doesn’t stick in your face and what it doesn’t allow you to do. Many games can be lumped into a zeitgeist; this one tells ancillary stories through audio logs, this one puts you behind cover with a gun, and this one throws XP at you like it’s confetti. But Gone Home doesn’t do that. It is wholly comfortable in being what it is and nothing else.

This is a game that doesn’t let you run. You can’t jump. At no point is there anything leading you into or throwing you at combat. All you do is walk and look at things. And yet it inspires moments of genuine horror. It gives you chills from the little sparks of “what if” it shoots into your mind. It gins up action through emotion, through will and desire, through an impossibly heartfelt love for someone that doesn’t even exist.

The game’s restraint enables you to more readily accept its spell, its charm. Rather than spread you thin like too little jam on too much toast, you seep slowly and steadily deeper and deeper into what it does give you. Like a gaseous form, humans will take the volume it’s given. Gone Home gives a taut little house of two hopeful heroines for you to fill with your heart, choosing to make your emotional journey a potent one instead of a broad one.

Gone Home

It focuses on feeling real rather than expansive like a Greek epic. What 90s family didn’t have a bunch of store-bought VHS tapes haphazardly labeled for their pirated content? What child didn’t have glow in the dark stars stuck to her ceiling? And who wouldn’t turn on the lights and turn them off again just to see them light up?

And who wouldn’t fall deeply, madly for Lonnie. Who wouldn’t be pleading—praying—no no no no no as they ran up to the attic. Few games make me emotional just at the mention of their name, but Gone Home does it. It goes deep and rattles the rusted cage of feelings, hardened after years of heartbreak and forlorn passing, and softens it with a rebel. It brushes off the cobwebs with a sister, a father treading water, a mother hearing a siren song, and a house hiding more than you’d ever know. It’s what makes Gone Home my absolutely unrivaled game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #2 Tomb Raider

The Year in Review: #2 Tomb Raider

I don’t know what to tell you. I liked Tomb Raider. A lot. But that’s the majesty of having a personal top ten list for game of the year; this isn’t a defense or accusation or anything of the sort. This is me sharing my experience with you, and that’s it.

Tomb Raider is an objectively good game, but it also contains its fair share of problems. For example, it builds up a vulnerable yet powerful hero in Lara, but also one that has yet to tap into the character we’re used to seeing fighting tigers and cartwheeling over crumbling structures. When she kills a person for the first time, it’s tense and meaningful in a way we didn’t think we would ever get from a Tomb Raider game.

And then she goes on to immediately kill a dozen more before racking up nearly a thousand corpses by the end of the game. It’s immensely squandered potential. We could have had an action-adventure game that held all of its action and adventure within our hearts and heads instead of shooting the shit out of dudes and animals.

Tomb Raider

However, judging a game for what it’s not is never a good idea, though ignoring it as part of the final product is similarly foolhardy when it jukes you like this. But the Tomb Raider we’ve gotten is still something special.

What sticks out the most to me is the simple act of actually playing the game. It feels just superb in so many ways. Lara handles in a way that hews closer to her days in short shorts and a crop top than the bumbling steps of Nathan Drake, but in the nuances of her animations, she still comes across as a green adventure, just one with huge potential. She dodges quickly and effectively but inelegantly; she strikes quick and reliably but never hard; she shoots fast and accurately but tentatively.

So while the narrative impetus to see Lara grow into someone more capable is tossed out the window, the character-player interactions mostly see them through to the end. This also includes, however, Lara’s use of the bow. This might be why I liked Tomb Raider so much more than most people (though everyone still does seem to like it a lot). I limited myself to use only the bow.

Tomb Raider

It felt personal that way, and the entire game hinges on connecting to the personal strife of Lara on this island. The bow shoots much like any other firearm: hold the left trigger to aim, press the right trigger to fire. But its actual controls are inherently imbued with agency. You have to hold the right trigger to draw the arrow back and release it to fire. That alone sets it apart from a gun’s “press to kill” modus operadi.

This means that every arrow you let fly is one you send out with conviction. You set the arrow, drew the string, and released. It forces you to consider the implications of your actions. It even enables the sensation of regret in the midst of killing, allowing you to re-quiver your arrow.

But to do that, you have to release your left trigger before your right one, disengaging from the same side you began it with. The reversal itself is worth consideration. Its movements are opposite those of the kill, reflecting the desires to see an arrow penetrate some thug’s head and the desires to remain hidden and let a life go untouched.

Tomb Raider

Unfortunately, you only reach this point of contemplation once you’ve reached the end, still relying on the bow, recovering arrows and cursing its speed when all you need is rapid fire power. This personal choice in effort and challenge colored my time with Tomb Raider.

Many of you will otherwise find competency where I found excellence. Its objective qualities are straightforward: amazing art design, Camilla Luddington’s stellar voice acting, and so on. But for the ruminations of life, death, stoicism, and conviction caused by the drawing of a bow, Tomb Raider is my number two game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #3 Papers, Please

The Year in Review: #3 Papers, Please

Denied. Denied. Approved. Denied. What the fuck is this bootleg identification? Hella denied. Denied. Denied. Approved. Papers, Please.

All day. Every day. Denial and approval, rejection and acceptance. The implications of my actions are massive. I am one of the vigilant gatekeepers to the homeland, told that what I do keeps my fellow countrymen safe. And I must do it quickly and accurately because my family is depending on the money I make. The grand scope and the intimate necessity of my job are impossible to ignore.

Except I do. I’ve seen people die, I’ve shot people, betrayed others, and I’m slowly killing my family. But it’s all fading away from a roar to a hum to eventually pure silence. Everyone—from me to my wife to the happy-go-lucky guy who tries to sneak in—is just a number, a figure to check facts against.

Papers, Please

It didn’t start out this way. I used to care. I was so concerned about making good money, and not just good in a decent amount but good in that I listened to these people. Some had family on the other side of this border check. Some were trying to flee bad situations. Even if I got demerits, I wanted to still be a good person.

Then it begins. I first reduce you to a picture. And then I make you nothing more than a country and a city. Then a single date. And before long, you are an obstacle between me and my stamps. It’s a slow degradation, moving you from column to column, from one labeled Humans to one labeled Animals. It’s despicable.

But I don’t care. And that’s the beauty of Papers, Please. Through the mundanity of repeatedly—ceaselessly—checking passports and visas and pictures and listening to sob stories, you become numb. I know I did. I stopped being the person I was when I started this terrible job and became a machine that only churned out stamped documents and meager money for my family.

Papers, Please

It’s a game that manages to do what so few others do, and that’s tell a story through its mechanics. I don’t mean that it expresses narrative intent through interactions like when you are forced to do that thing at the end of The Last of Us or something, but an entire empathetic framework is constructed with the things you are doing to relate this character to you.

The only other game this year that really did that was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which grafts a relationship onto the two sticks of your controller before putting you under for emotional amputation. Papers, Please does it by transforming you the same way it does this poor immigration inspector. The first time you get docked for pay is hurtful. The next time it stings a little less. And then, well, there isn’t much left to hurt.

Then it shocks you awake. A hooded figure or someone with esoteric intentions shows up. A bomb goes off. You open the gun cage and you take aim. You are reminded of what you were before when you could actually feel and you weren’t just a whirring bit of gears and smoke that pumped out satisfactory accomplishments.

Papers, Please

But you quickly slot back into it. It tells you how easily it is to give up what you hold most dear without vigilance. It tells you so much about the faults of being a person by forcing you to be just a tool. It does all this so smoothly and impressively that Papers, Please has to be my number three game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #4 Grand Theft Auto V

The Year in Review: #4 Grand Theft Auto V

There’s a lot to be said for Grand Theft Auto V, and it’s nearly all in the superlative. It’d been aging in the Rockstar North smoky oak barrels for over five years, so it’s no surprise it was both highly anticipated and then supremely fulfilling once it came out. I mean, god damn, it had $1 billion in sales in its first three days.

That’s thanks in no small part to its immense and top notch infrastructure. First off, the voice acting and motion capture combine to tell entire life stories of Franklin, Michael, and Trevor in each cutscene. For as long as they may seem relative to industry averages, they actually are rather short for how much we gather of each of their life stories. The way they hold themselves and the way they command or move about a certain space is just as important as the way they deliver their lines.

And of course there’s the fantastic writing (expected at this point from the Houser brothers), amazing sound design (and that killer original score), and the absolutely absurd production value. Rockstar produced more than a city; they produced a world. Every part of Los Angeles found its way into Los Santos. Every little neighborhood, every expansive working community, and every historical landmark. It feels more like Los Angeles than being in Los Angeles does. (It’s also a lot better for your health.)

Grand Theft Auto V

But that’s not the core of Grand Theft Auto V. That’s just blanket of cherries they threw on top of the sundae. No, the thing that makes Grand Theft Auto V is chaos. Abject, unfettered chaos. And I’m not talking about the heists, though they are emblematic of the concept. It’s about the three characters and how they almost always seem out of their depth but just manage to scrape by.

That could sum up the entire story: three dudes keep getting into deeper and deeper shit until they catch a break and dig their way out with explosions, guns, and blood. But that also sums up every amazingly set-up predicament the game puts down in the player’s path. Anytime you have those three controllable in a mission is when the game manages to elevate itself.

If Michael is up on a ridge providing sniper cover, Franklin will be coming up the left flank of a lumber yard while Trevor goes charging down the middle. It’s all good on paper, but then shit hits the fan. You snipe and snipe, trying to open up space for the others to make their move, but there’s a guy running up through stacks of crates towards Trevor, preventing you from getting a shot, and Trevor can’t see.

Grand Theft Auto V

So you switch to Trevor and you move to make the anticipatory shot. But you hear Franklin call in, so you switch to him and he is swarmed. It’s no good from here, so you go back to Michael and holy shit dudes are crawling up the hill to where you’re camped. Can Trevor turn back and pincer these thugs? But Franklin is still in deep shit. Michael can’t take a single shot with so many guns on him.

They are so fucked.

It’s that sort of chaos that I’m talking about. No matter what you do, it always feels like you’re just barely beneath the water, looking up at all the air you could be breathing, lusting over the free range you could be using to shoot all these bastards. In a back alley with a dump truck or in a military depot or in a helicopter buzzing around a skyscraper, you always feel like you’re in too deep.

Grand Theft Auto V

But then you are given free, reminded that there’s always a way out. With the special abilities of each character, you can always construct (or destruct, as it usually goes) a path to salvation. It’s a rapid contrasting of extremes that makes it so fun. One minute you’re thrown into the deep end with a brick around your feet and then you’re the one doing the dunking.

It’s an immediate and well-earned retribution. You suffer and then you succeed. It’s what makes every momentous trio-fueled mission so tense. It’s what makes me want to go back and play every battle again. It’s what makes Grand Theft Auto V my number four game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #5 BioShock Infinite

The Year in Review: #5 BioShock Infinite

There are just some absolutely classic spoilers in the world of entertainment. Even those born fresh, bearing mind availed of watching Star Wars, know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. They know what Rosebud really is and they know you probably shouldn’t eat Soylent Green. Hell, there’s even a shirt for it.

BioShock Infinite, however, is a rarity; it can’t be spoiled. I mean, sure, you can sum up what happens at the end, put into words the rational absurdity that happens, but it doesn’t take anything away from it. Having stumbled across bits and pieces of the immense conclusion to the game, my jaw was still on the floor by the time the credits rolled.

Knowing that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time and that Tyler Durden isn’t real robs you of half of the entire experience of watching both of those movies. Instead of witnessing the events unfold with virgin eyes, you skip right to the second stage of watching for the little touches that show you the truth: the flickering appearances, the people that talk to him, etc. You miss the “OH WHOA” moment because you already know.

BioShock Infinite

But the ending of BioShock Infinite has to be seen, has to be played. The culmination of your physical efforts land you square in a heated battle on the side of a giant mechanical monstrosity you thought you were going to have to fight. And then you almost do. And then something breaks.

And I don’t mean the little harmonica. I mean the world. I mean your brain. Even if someone told you that you ended up back in Rapture, the snap to the pane of a watery window is incredible. It’s a shock to the system, and as you step away, you realize you’ve been here. This room, in particular, was ingrained in your mind the moment you set foot in it in BioShock.

The lighthouses, though. Here’s the spoiler for that: “you see an infinite sea of infinite lighthouses under a sky of infinite stars.” Not quite the same, right? You need to see and walk through the piers of your own volition. You need to be able to gawk dumbfounded at your own pace. You need to make those choices because you need to slowly realize that they represent the fact that you aren’t making any choices at all.

BioShock Infinite

When you see more Bookers and Elizabeths walking around, doing the exact same thing, you understand that your actions, even under the epiphany of endless possibilities and universes, are always accounted for. The concepts of fate and free will are casually words in your head, but BioShock Infinite visualizes it for you in such a way that it makes the crushing sense of helplessness wholly inescapable.

That’s what makes BioShock Infinite so incredible. It envelops the past six years of ruminations on Rapture and stolen paradise. It folds in the stunning art direction and sound design. It stands upon the shoulders of unmatched voice acting and characterization. It is BioShock Infinite, my number five game of the year.

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