This year we decided to give our wonderful contributors a chance to step outside their roles as critics and just straight-up enthuse about their top five favourite games of 2013. Weighted averages were calculated and discarded, arguments were won and lost, and formal writing tossed aside in favour of anecdotes. We're hoping you'll offer your own lists and calm disagreements in the comments, so without further ado, here are our writers' Top Five Games of the Year.
Saints Row IV is incredibly stupid. But I say that as a compliment, because it's also the most purely enjoyable game of the year, and if it had pretensions of being smarter, it probably wouldn't be. It grants the player ridiculous superpowers that would all but break any game with a less anarchic sense of humour. Not every component clicks, but at its best it's up there with Just Cause 2 for over-the-top open-world mayhem. A game that successfully bottles the lightning known as "fun".
I'm not usually a fan of horror games. They rely on jump scares, lumbering controls, and over-the-top gore all too often to create their atmosphere. But Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs got under my skin, and did so via its writing, which gets creepier the more you think about it. The story it tells scrapes the very bottom edge of humanity and does so in a delightfully florid Victorian manner. Plus, it's got murdering pigs. A terrifying follow-up by a fearless studio.
I played a beta of Gunpoint at Fantastic Fest 2012 and was immediately taken by its clever level design and 2D stealth/hacking gameplay. Those mechanics remain in the final version, but where the release really sings is in the frequently hilarious branching conversations between missions.
Your little jumping spy gains a lot of sardonic character in those segments, which only make the frequent mid-mission deaths all the more bluntly amusing. I look forward to following Tom Francis' future creations, because Gunpoint is an imposing debut.
This game nearly snuck into #1. It's a gorgeous, magical journey through a fantasy landscape, full of unforgettable imagery and a true sense of wonder. It's also a powerful story of two brothers racing to save their father, and an exploration of the relationships brothers have. Playing both brothers simultaneously is an ingenious means of game control, and by the end merely pressing a button proves an emotionally resonant act. Brothers is the game with the most genuinely new concepts in gaming this year, and it pulls them off with staggering confidence.
1) Gone Home
I wasn't ready for Gone Home. I knew it was an exploration game set in a single, highly detailed house in 1995. I didn't know how profound an effect it would have on me emotionally. Its A-story of forbidden teen romance is told powerfully and emotively, while its subtler, more sinister B-stories are drip-fed and require active thought to put the pieces together. Plus, it all takes place in a thoughtfully recreated version of the mid-nineties, the final moment before everything went digital. Bold, simple, and astonishing, for those who believe games can be more than just shooty-blam.
5) Gone Home
Sick off work earlier this year, I booted up Monaco. After a couple of levels, someone joined me – an American woman I didn't know. We played several levels together, not really talking outside of moments when we were establishing shoddy strategies, because for a game with so many moving parts, co-operative Monaco is surprisingly intuitive. It may never be smooth, and the many moments of failure often devolve into frenzied panic. But Monaco's set-up – a game board that rejects turn-based mechanics – is the ideal model for co-op gameplay, and it achieves perfection in its complex, cartoonish multiplayer experience.
3) Papo & Yo
Made available to PC audiences this year, Papo & Yo is a rough diamond of a platformer. Simple puzzles and minor graphical bugs saw it marginalised by a number of outlets, a perennial 7.0. Give it a chance, though, and you'll discover a deeply affecting tale of an abusive father, his son, and the man that son became. With simple mechanics that speak to the innocent hope of childhood, and a vivid imagining of favelas in a magical realist tradition, Papo & Yo is a sensitive and stunning examination of victimhood.
When New Leaf dropped, social media went wild. Friend codes were shared, funny in-game screenshots (a first for the 3DS) were tweeted, people hopped on their little trains and travelled around the globe. All this ruckus about a game with no conflict, no competition, no real stakes at all. But New Leaf works precisely because it's a zen island in an industry of high-pressure setpieces. Its rudimentary economy never feels coercive; its emphasis on building relationships with adorable animals isn't perverted by the pressure of a 'friend meter'. Leisurely-paced and armed with a charming personality, New Leaf came very close to perfecting the art of genuine escape.
A Game of the Year candidate should be the perfect marriage of mechanic and aesthetic, the two intermingling in such a way so as to be entirely co-dependent on the other to achieve the game's intended emotional effect. Papers, Please is very good at this, perhaps even the best at it this year. You are a downtrodden border guard, and it is your job to keep out those with incorrect documentation. The increasingly complex spot-the-difference gameplay and bleak pseudo-Soviet design are striking on their own, but together they draw you into a world of institutionalised self-interest, eroding your empathy by pitting you and your family against everyone who steps in front of your desk.
The highest compliment that I can give this game is probably to say that at times, it made me not want to play it. In fact, at times, it made me want head to some brightly-lit area of the house, and snuggle up with a nice cup of tea under a warm blanket. But I didn't do that, because like the horror movie protagonist that I surely was, I was compelled to keep pushing forward. And then, inevitably, I would be even more compelled to suddenly sit bolt upright in my chair and pay very close attention to the job of making poor Miles the journalist run for his life. Run, Miles! Jump, Miles! And whatever you do, don't look over your shoulder to see what's – GAH, WHY DID THEY EVEN MAKE THAT AN OPTION??
4) Payday 2
The cops have already got Dallas, and now Chains is down. You've got to get to him, but the drill's just jammed, and SWAT is freeing the hostages at the back of the bank. You're running low on ammo. Quickly now, restart the drill – 20 more seconds. Plug that uniform wandering in the front door. Now, get to Chains, help him up – look out, taser cop! Take that guy out before he does damage. That's it for ammo – down to pistol. Back to the vault... drill's through, get ready to grab the cash and run! Swing that door open, and – wait, there's a second door to drill through?! And now here come the riot shields... In Payday 2, it is always, always going to hell in a handbasket. Gloriously.
3) Tomb Raider
2) Don't Starve
Charming, deep, and humorously twisted little indie hit Don't Starve puts your survival skills to the test. Time is a crucial factor like in few other games as the hunger of gentleman scientist Wilson grows and the terror-filled nighttime of this vast and somewhat disturbing land approaches him. With the ticking clock combined with the permanent death that hangs over Wilson's head, the game causes genuine feelings of desperation. There's no easy explanations in the world of Don't Starve – just hard scrabble, trial and error, and being cold, hungry, tired and insane, followed by death, death, and more death. But each death arms you with knowledge that will help to keep you alive that much longer next time. It's majorly addictive.
BioShock is a tough act to follow – just ask Bioshock 2 – but a more worthy successor showed up this year in Bioshock Infinite. The actual gameplay felt familiar, sure, but that's easy to overlook when there's this amount of visual and philosophical imagination on offer. And call me a sucker for a good twist ending, but this one certainly delivered for me. Heck, even the flaws the game has make for more interesting talking points than what you get from most releases. Infinite suffered from something of a critical backlash post-release period, but people complaining that it wasn't as good as the first BioShock should recall the author Josephs Heller's answer to the question of why he'd never gone on to write anything as good as his debut novel, Catch 22: "Who has?"
The first chapter in Telltale Games' Fables series hits all the marks from the very first scene. It builds on the comic-esque aesthetic of The Walking Dead games and turns it on its head with the most evocative use of colour I’ve experienced in a game. It perfectly captures the comic's roots and its noir tone, and proves you don’t need bleeding-edge graphics to make a beautiful game. Add to that mature writing and exceptional voice work, and Wolf is in every way as good as, if not better than The Walking Dead, and has in my book elevated Telltale to King of the interactive storytelling genre.
Path of Exile is everything that Diablo III should have been. Exceptional character progression, pitch perfect escalation, and itemisation second to none in the genre. POE is exactly what fans of Diablo II were looking for. With a levelling system that offers the single most satisfying character building experience I have had in years, its dynamic active skills system and truly epic passive skill tree work in tandem to offer both build permanence and flexibility. The combat is crunchy and satisfying, and the grim dark tone perfectly evokes a game world both foreboding and compelling. Grinding Gear Games has made THE aRPG of the decade, one supported by the single best free-to-play model of any game out there. It's great to see a NZ developer showing the world how it’s done.
In the few hours it takes to complete the tale of the titular brothers, I was taken on an complete emotional journey that I was ill-prepared for. A Tale of Two Sons is a single player co-op game with an emotional core that is affecting without ever being trite, and it contains a final act that literally had me in tears. Intuitive and innovative game mechanics and a perfectly-paced learning curve work in harmony with the increasing tension and drama of the adventure to create an almost flawless gaming experience. The most surprising game of the year for sure.
Rockstar has taken everything they have learned over the past decade-and-a-half and melded it together into a perfect storm of violence, sex, comedy, and over-the-top insanity, but also infused it with a surprisingly melancholy humanity. As a PC gamer it saddens me that the obvious and only choice for the top spot is a game that has (for now at least) shunned the platform that could really make it shine. Regardless of poor frame rates, outdated graphics, and no Metal radio stations, GTA V is an amazing ride and a game everyone should own. It is wrong that I identified a little too much with Trevor though?
Bonus! Expansion/DLC of the Year: XCOM: Enemy Within
I wanted to include XCOM in my top five but it's not a full game, and as such had to be excluded. What it is, though, is a masterful example of how an expansion pack should be made. It builds on the core game and seamlessly adds new content, new mechanics, and new tactical and strategic options, all of which breathe new life into the game without altering what made the original so compelling. Playing Enemy Within on Impossible Ironman mode has been some of the most satisfying yet infuriating weeks of gaming I have ever had.
Bonus! Beta of the Year: Heathstone
I couldn’t make a list of my top gaming experiences of 2013 without mentioning Blizzard's collectable card game. After being dismissed by many when announced, it rightfully has become a bit of a juggernaut, boasting dozens of YouTube channels and even more Let's Plays on both on YouTube and Twitch. I’ve only had it for five days, and I have had a ball. It’s simple to learn, but as my alarming ability to consistently get bitched-slapped attests to, it takes a lot of skill to master. This is one game that will be around for many years to come, and has succeeded even before release where the the well-established Magic the Gathering has failed.
Kentucky Route Zero wasn't as widely played or acclaimed as another "non-game" this year, but its two available acts stuck with me for much longer than that grunge-era title did. An opaque and thoroughly surreal adventure title, KRZ plays out like a interactive David Lynch film set in the lonesome countryside of Kentucky. Full of weird micro-narratives that bump against each other like pixelated non-sequiturs it initially makes little narrative sense, yet is frequently funny and enchanting, and there is a strange yearning at its core. The perfect palette cleanser between triple-A angry shootyman titles.
DmC arrived early this year and set a high bar for all action games that followed. There were concerns about Dante’s makeover and a new developer tackling the series, but these were hastily air juggled until they disintegrated. New angel/demon modifiers and grapples expand an already deep and satisfying move set, and DmC’s platforming is the franchise’s best. Also top notch is the level design, and there are some incredibly imaginative and beautiful environments to wreak havoc within. Even the story and cutscenes are good, but those just after carnage can dip into Bloody Palace and tear up demonic hordes there. Highly recommended.
Ubisoft really nailed Rocksmith this time around. Almost every criticism I had of the first game has been addressed, and its now actually conceivable you could become a proficient guitarist (or bassist) simply by playing the game. The best part is that doing so never feels like work, and it's so satisfying finally axing that tricky phrase or solo. I hadn't picked up my guitar in months before I fired up Rocksmith 2014, but jamming in front of a virtual crowd singlehandedly got me interested in playing again.
2) Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider is the only game I’ve ever reviewed that I wish I’d rated higher. A stunning looking, well-written, and surprisingly nasty reboot of the iconic franchise, it's a blast from start to finish. The simple puzzles actually ended up suiting an idiot like me, and it actually used quick-time events in a way that made sense. Also, the bow is awesome. Having played through on Xbox 360, I cannot wait to have another go when it is released on the latest console hardware.
1) The Last of Us
It was obvious from the demo I played back in March that The Last of Us was going to be special. The game's emptiness, pacing, and atmosphere showed the confidence Naughty Dog had in the characters and story, and I was immediately drawn into the world. Little did I know how wrenching the story would be. It's been a long while since any pop culture product involving zombies managed to surprise me, but this one sure did. And that intro. Oh man. I cannot wait for the DLC.
Some people (myself included, shamefully), took a week off work for the launch of Diablo III. Add to the cost of not making any money for a week the $60-odd for the game and extra hundreds you'd need to spend in the RMAH to be any good, and suddenly the free-to-play Path of Exile (with it's incredible skill tree, relative good looks, and perfectly-honed dungeon slasher gameplay) looks like winning the Lotto.
The one game I wanted a 3DS for, despite not being announced at the time. I knew it was coming, and I knew I'd love it. X & Y has some new additions that don't gel too well (rollerblading? Come on), but the new way of levelling base stats, the 3D, and new Pokemon make this one easily slide into my year's top five.
1) Gone Home
It's pretty rare for me to play through an entire game in one sitting, but that's what I found happening as I played through Gone Home. Okay, so it's only three hours long, but the detailed and compelling story The Fullbright Company wove through this haunted house sim kept me locked in. Emotions are normally kept at the gate in videogames, but Gone Home forces you to come up close and personal with them all the way to the basement and back. Play it at night with headphones on and embrace the feeling of being a disenfranchised teenager in the midst of the grunge era.
5) Gone Home
My favourite indie in 2013. Gone Home is an extraordinary, haunting debut from Portland-based The Fullbright Company. More importantly, it's a game that roadmaps compelling new storytelling techniques for the media. It's also an excellent kind of period drama. Anyone who grew up in the '90s listening to the grunge music, whose spiritual home is also in the Pacific North-West, is in for a nostalgic treat. It'll only take you three hours, but you'll come back to it more than once.
We've been following Path of Exile at Gameplanet for many years now. I can still remember visiting Grinding Gear Games' Titirangi studio to go hands-on with a beta of Path of Exile in January 2011. It's exciting that the Kiwi-made game came out of beta this year, but it's even more exciting that it has taken the global ARPG community totally by storm, accumulating accolades and players in numbers far in excess of our greatest hopes. I especially love its sprawling skills constellation and its myriad nods to New Zealand.
If only all companions were as well written - both as AI and as a character - as Elizabeth. I still go cross-eyed unscrambling BioShock Infinite's continuum-bending conclusion and the possibilities it presents for the future of the series. Irrational really needs to do much more work on its basic shooting mechanics in order get some more substantial report back to the player, but it hardly seems to matter. Columbia is a perfect example of what games do best: create environments that are a joy to exist within and to explore.
The Last of Us is a perfect example of why I hate platform exclusives. This turned out to be what I consider one of the most important games of the last generation, and a title every gamer ought to play - only they can't. At times fragile, eager to please, competent and incompetent, Ellie triggered a kind of paternal reflex I was barely aware I had. Joel's character arc showed a kind of growth rarely found in 'gruff white guy' protagonists. The superb dynamic between the two is excellently framed by a truly potent and poignant prologue.
What a way to close out a generation. As an outsider looking in, Edinburgh based Rockstar North perfectly captures America's numerous neuroses, vanities and vices, and skewers them relentlessly. A soundtrack that is a perfect vertical slice through the musical zeitgeist. Most importantly, without its three-protagonist conceit, we'd never have met Trevor, and the world would be a far duller place for it.
I played The Last of Us with an audience. They cried and screamed, gasped and hid behind their hands, and were silent at all the right moments. We started the game intending to get Ellie and Joel from east to west together. In the end, it was entirely up to me. I was in a room full of gamers that only wanted to watch. Do you know how odd that is? It made for an unforgettable experience.