The following is a list of video games; indeed, one could make the argument that they are the Five Best Games of 2013.
In fact, I will be making this argument. This is my year-end games list! Now, a note beforehand… my game budget is not large, which means that the games I buy I choose carefully, and most brand-new AAA titles are outside of my grasp. That is to say that the set of games I’ve played that actually came out in 2013 is small, and doesn’t include, say, GTA V or certain other industry notables. Whether that means they would make it onto my top 5 is something we can never know.
Shall we begin?
2: The Stanley Parable
1: Gone Home.
Very good. The decision has been made, and there can be no debate, these are the games of the year.
What’s that? You want more elaboration? Ugh. FINE.
Antichamber is an exercise in exploring non-Euclidian space. In some ways it’s like Portal, in that it is a puzzle game which is based on a rote defiance of physics and whose presentation relies on the fact that, in games, you can be moved from point A to point B without needing to cover the space in between. But where Portal is about presenting the player with one central mechanic and using it consistently and reliably, ultimately training the player in its use, Antichamber is the opposite. It’s a world where physics do not work the same from room to room, from moment to moment. It’s a world where your goals are never outlined and threats are never made clear, if indeed there are any threats at all! Some walls are invisible. Some walls are visible but intangible. Some doors only open when you’re not looking at them. Sometimes if you run, you fall through the floor. If you go through a door, then turn around, there’s no telling if that door will still be there, or if it will connect back to the room you just left. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.
What makes it work is that there ARE rules, ultimately, it’s just that they do not generalize in ways we are comfortable with. You can, in time, identify which doors work, which walls are real, which windows are secret portals, and so on and so forth. And while most rules have exceptions, somewhere in the sprawling mass of chambers, those exceptions are themselves reliable. Antichamber is, more than anything else, a “being confused” simulator, one which really captures both the discomfort with a world that doesn’t work right and the sense of discovery when we do come to understand what’s going on. It’s not incomprehensible, it’s not dada, it’s just fucking weird, and that’s great.
SUPERHOT is also fucking weird, but in a very different way. By far the most violent game on my list, it’s also the most incomplete… the game as it exists now is a unity-powered demo, essentially, but it’s a demo which I’ve played, ye gods, a hundred times maybe? I’m not making up that number, which is why it’s on this list at all. It, too, presents you with a world that defies physics… sort of. The speed of time itself is directly proportional to your own speed; run and the whole world runs with you, stop and everything slows to a crawl. There is no confusion here… there are red guys with guns, you have a gun too, make it work.
And it works. Oh, how it works. It’s elegant, it’s beautiful, it’s a little bit challenging while never losing that sense of “Oh man, I am some sort of berserker god-king, yes.” I have no idea why I’m killing all these dudes… while there is a touch more narrative than Antichamber (whose story amounted to, essentially, “Here’s a place… go!”), it’s hardly what you would call a story-driven game. But it is a driven game, and given that it’s free and short and online, I would consider it one of the few, rare “Must-Play” games out there; that isn’t to say that it’s the best of the year, just that the barrier to entry is so low there’s no excuse NOT to engage in it if you care even a jot about the medium.
Gunpoint is the only item on the list that’s not in first person, and I do want to suggest that this is a weird co-incidence. I mean, I don’t think I have a particular bias for first-person games… that’s just how the dice fell this year. 2D is still the presentation of choice for anything that involves seeing huge maps, demonstrating complete situational awareness, and making big-ass jumps. Gunpoint has all of that. Oh, does it ever. It’s another game that I consider elegant and beautiful, if only in the way it lets you make spectacular frog-jumps around the map, avoiding guards and walking across ceilings. The story is fun, the “hacking” mechanism is keen, but where it shines is the physicality of getting around the levels.
Jumping three stories and adhering to a wall, leaping off a roof and landing unharmed on the ground… these are abilities you start with. THAT’s a brave design decision! No earning the right to walk across the ceiling, no demanding that the player face two or three levels of using the stairs like a chump, no ticking off a health meter for jumping through a window. Gunpoint wants you to move, freely. Quickly. Everywhere. Anywhere! No surface is off-limits! You are the goddamn Spider-Man here, so walk on the ceiling above the heads of clueless coppers and chuckle to yourself because as soon as their backs are turned you know you’ll drop silently to the ground and then barrel at breakneck speed out the shattered window, dropping seven stories onto a subway platform, a friggin’ ghost. Ah, it’s a wonderful feeling. Gunpoint makes you feel awesome.
The Stanley Parable… does not make you feel awesome. Not. Not really, no. The Stanley Parable is about… hm. It’s… well. Uh. The Stanley Parable is complicated… you are Stanley, you do exactly what you are told, eventually you win, and there is no challenge whatsoever. You see, complicated! Okay, okay, I’m not selling it really well, but in part because it is to narrative what Antichamber is to physics; it’s a game about being in a game, at once an analysis of the medium and a parody thereof, a twisting, writing, wriggling mass of stories.
Also, it’s funny. I mean, it’s also a lot of things… at measures it can be unsettling or harrowing, tremendously sad or unnerving or even downright scare, but what it really is, really, is funny. The Narrator deserves a hug and a beer for his fantastic performance. The writing is gold across the board. It delights in the unexpected, and while there’s a thematic unity across all of your choices and through all your potential endings, it’s still a game which goes out of its way to surprise you at every turn. Are there secrets that haven’t been discovered yet? Have you made every choice there is to make? Have you seen it all? Maybe not. Better load it up again; after all, the end is never the end is never the end, is never…
Gone Home is almost the opposite of the Stanley Parable, in terms of narrative approach. Instead of a branching series of narratives in an expansive world with clearly marked points of crisis, you are given one small area (which is a huge-ass house, but still small for the medium of Game) with one small story uncovered in an epistolary fashion. I don’t mean a small story as an insult… the opposite! Gone Home isn’t about worlds exploding and days being saved, it’s about real people, with real relationships, which are at times really complicated. It’s a small story, but it’s multithreaded and powerful. The basic plot can be expressed in two sentences, and the credits can be reached in two minutes, but that’s not the same as “finishing the game,” now is it?
It’s a game which gets a ton of flack, and if I had infinite resources at my disposal, I’d love to track down the people who hate it and ask them why. The whole “It’s not a game” camp. The “I finished it in under an hour” camp. The “The story is crap and the only people who care do so because [and here I will post an alert for a truly mild spoiler, which is more than the game’s complainers are likely to do] it deals with a social issue which is tragically underrepresented in the medium” camp. I don’t get that. I don’t get any of it. It IS a game, but one where your goal isn’t to reach the end, but to understand the characters. If you finished it in an hour, you probably haven’t spent the attention and care the house deserves. And you know what? The story is very well written, all the different angles of it. I can understand not connecting with it… for me, I’ll readily admit that Sam’s story was less compelling to me than her father’s, which I wish could have gotten more attention. I thought some aspects were a bit too twee, and some were underdeveloped, and some weren’t quite clear.
No, Gone Home isn’t perfect, but with respect: duh. What is? Hell, wanting to know more and not having that information available is part of what Gone Home is all about. I suspect that most of the haters have been fed a diet of bombast and lore, which has desensitized them to story. But I also think, well, to hell with them. It’s my game of the year, no real contest, and I’d recommend it without reservation to everyone I know.