For console gamers, 2013 was a year in limbo. With new hardware finally on the horizon after almost a decade of waiting, major publishers either played it safe, or opted to wait until 2014. What resulted was a year in which inventive independent games for the PC had free reign over enthusiast attention and a Nintendo 3DS, of all things, became indispensable gaming hardware.
2013 is also the year in which we talked about feelings. So called “empathy games,” a genre that “began” in late 2012, came into the public eye this year, and showed that it is possible to make a fun game, and a statement, at the same time.
Favorite Game Released Before 2013, Played in 2013: Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward
Visual novels don’t always get the attention they deserve from the gaming community at large, but the Zero Escape series is capable of numbing heartbreak, enthralling mystery, and astonishing plot twists that compete directly with games in any other genre. Virtue’s Last Reward streamlines the process of experiencing the dozens of endings to the story, and was able to take a full detour into sci-fi crazytown without losing my attention - - a feat that almost deserves its own separate award.
While I still consider prequel 999 a better game (and required if you want to enjoy Virtue’s Last Reward), the latest entry in the Zero Escape series is required playing for anyone who loves a good mystery.
5. Fire Emblem: Awakening
Fire Emblem takes two core components of any Japanese Role-Playing game, a colorful cast of characters and deep tactical combat, and joins them in a way that makes arranging marriages as satisfying as defeating a powerful foe.
The relationships between the witty, relatable characters make an immediate difference in how the player experiences the bottomless tactical possibilities of Fire Emblem: Awakening’s combat. The permanent death of any characters lost during battle raises the stakes for every flanking maneuver on the battlefield. Released in January, and still on my top 5 list eleven months later, Fire Emblem: Awakening started the 3DS’ stellar 2013 with a bang.
4. Gone Home
Gone Home is a game I only played once this year, for ninety minutes, and it is still in my top 5 games of the year. It’s refreshing to see a game treat honest human drama with the same weight that other games give to terrorist attacks and alien invasions. The Fullbright Company’s debut fosters empathy to characters that feel authentic, and never tries to shove emotions in the player’s face.
Gone Home is a game I can universally recommend to veteran gamers and newcomers alike, and is a marvelous step toward making games a more accessible, versatile, and socially positive medium.
3. Papers, Please
Papers, Please proves that commitment to a singular gameplay mechanic doesn’t always mean a game is lacking. The pressure of keeping up with a neverending line of hopeful immigrants makes each hitch in the process much more memorable. Through his immigration line simulator, creator Lucas Pope requires players to constantly recalibrate their moral compass, and wonder whether the violent rebels or authority itself is the biggest threat.
2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Where most of my other favorite games this year pushed me to see new capabilities of the medium, Zelda: A Link Between Worlds brought me back to why I fell in love with games in the first place. While similar in structure, this is not the same Zelda you played in the 90s.
A Link Between Worlds brings “the unknown” back to Zelda, inspiring an appetite for exploration and adventure that led to many day-wasting marathon sessions. The only time I was frustrated with Zelda was when it had the audacity to suggest I take a break from playing.
1. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
To a cynical eye, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons continues the independent game tradition of making the player cry while fiddling with platforms. However, the genius of Brothers is not in concept, but in delivery. Eschewing endless monologues from characters that read as a list of reasons for the player to “feel things,” Brothers delivers not only the most remarkable emotional impact of the year, but it does so entirely through gameplay mechanics. The unique control scheme uses your two thumbs to mirror the relationship between the two brothers, which reaches many peaks and valleys over the four hour experience.
This all leads up to one of the most poignant trigger-pulls in my gaming career. Out of the hundreds of thousands of times I have pulled that trigger to thwart evil, outrun danger, or execute a wicked dance move, I will always remember the time I pulled it in Brothers.
Honorable Mention: The Swapper, Gunpoint, Bioshock Infinite, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies, Splinter Cell Blacklist