In 2013, gaming hit its peak in so many ways. My favorite games of the year reflect both the peak for the consoles and the emergence of digital gaming as a vital part of the industry. As the final year for a long console generation, 2013 was fulfilling for game fans because we saw so many top-quality games debut after a long gestation. These turned into huge hits as they took advantage of the huge installed base already in gamers’ homes.
Mobile games also rose to new peaks for the game makers who figured out exactly what the audience wants. Indie hits like Minecraft and Clash of Clans generated millions of dollars a day for the makers of free-to-play titles on mobile and online platforms. That will help them justify bigger investments in future games that will raise the level of quality on emerging digital platforms.
But sales aren’t the only measure of what makes the best games of the year. A great game is something that brings out the critic in everyone. I do this list every year out of my own self-interest as a gamer. When I play a great game, I want everyone to know that it’s great, and I want to use my pulpit to encourage and inspire developers to do more of the same, or variations on a theme that show the same kind of leaps forward in the imagination.
This year revived my faith in the consoles. BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and Grand Theft Auto V convinced me that that consoles were far from a dying breed. I was happy that these games were both commercial and creative successes. But I also appreciated more obscure titles that contributed to the canon of video game creativity.
We had our disappointments, like the poor reception for Trion’s online shooter Defiance and the delay of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs until 2014. It’s worth noting that there are no exclusive next-generation games on this list. That will change for 2014, but I hope that we get more surprises from the major console platforms than we did this year. The Xbox One’s Ryse: Son of Rome came close, but the brawler had a few too many flaws with its repetitive combat and awkward controls.
Overall, I can’t complain. 2013 will go down as a chapter in the golden age of games.
For the sake of comparison, here’s my favorites from 2012 and 2011. And be sure to check out the GamesBeat staff’s own votes for Game of the Year and the best individual favorites of the staff, too, next week. The links for the games go to our full reviews or other significant related stories. Be sure to check out the runner-ups and our reader poll at the bottom where you can sound off on these choices.
1) The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform: PlayStation 3
The first 15 minutes of The Last of Us were the finest I’ve seen in a video game. You witness the beginning of a viral outbreak that turns people into zombie-like monsters, but with no global explanation of what has gone wrong. You just see the effect it has on two people in a small town — and their efforts to escape the pandemic before they realize it’s a pandemic. This dramatic focus on characters and how they react to crisis during the critical opening minutes hooked me. It was an example of skillful storytelling at its best, and the rest of the 22 hours of the epic game lived up to that beginning.
Naughty Dog’s team saw the potential for something better and more creative, even if it was set within a tired genre. The last thing that we wanted as gamers is to play another end-of-the-world zombie game. This could have been just another postapocalyptic killing spree, but it became a moving story about Joel and the teenage girl, Ellie, and their struggle in which the purpose of each day is simply to survive to see the end of the day. Joel is a gruff, unemotional survivor, while Ellie is a funny, humane, and surprisingly strong character with a sense of right and wrong. The interaction between this duo makes them among the most fully fleshed out characters in all of video games.
They start as opposites with no ties to bind them. During the course of events, they learn to be a little more like each other. While the gameplay get repetitive, the story and the landscapes keep changing. You cannot kill hordes of zombies like in other games. You have to have the situational awareness to assess multiple threats coming from different directions. Sometimes the best thing you can do is run away. In that way, The Last of Us breaks all of the rules of the genre and can best be compared to a cinematic experience. Its heroes aren’t video game heroes. They’re realistic.
The story sets you up for the ending and a choice that has to be made. The tension builds to the point where the player really cares about what happens to both characters. So many of its scenes are memorable. That’s why it’s a masterpiece. And I now consider it my favorite video game of all time.
One of the things that satisfied me the most about playing and then writing about this game was that I was able to interview its creative leaders at Naughty Dog. I was able to ask them about the design decisions that they made, and that felt a bit like being able to talk to Charles Dickens about creating Oliver Twist. I wish I was able to do that for each of these games.
2) BioShock Infinite
Developer: Irrational Games/2K Australia
Publisher: 2K Games/Take-Two Interactive
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC, Mac OS X
BioShock Infinite is an artistic achievement on so many levels. It has the tight control of a mad genius, Ken Levine, who had something he wanted to say and a story he wanted to tell. But by telling his story in the medium of video games, he brings you in as a full participant in the message and gives you the illusion that you are in control of the story. When he yanks you back to reality to remind you that he is in charge, the effect is mind-boggling.
It has beautiful graphics, intriguing characters, a story with a mystery, a lively virtual world, and extreme violence. It is set in 1912 in the fictional floating city of Columbia, at a time when Americans were beset with an identity crisis. In Columbia, a battle breaks out between the ultranationalist, racist Founders and the commoner-focused Vox Populi. As the idyllic Columbia crumbles, the main character, Booker DeWitt, is sent into the city to retrieve Elizabeth, a unique girl with special powers who has been imprisoned her whole life. As DeWitt tries to extract her, the relationship between them takes many turns. It is a touching and evolving relationship, occasionally thrown into a state of terror as the monstrous Songbird pursues them both.
The ending is truly perplexing, and it’s so full of meanings and literary references that gamers discussed it for months, turning this ending explanation post by Michael Kyle into our most popular GamesBeat community post of all time. The puzzling details, like why Elizabeth hits Booker with a copy of The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, will leave you trying to pull the threads together. It takes you back to the beginning and will put you to work deciphering the earlier scenes in the context of the ending. I’ve still got a lot of questions about that ending — and no real answers.
I’m splitting hairs between No. 1 and No. 2 in this list, but I consider this to be my No. 2 favorite video game of all time. I consider myself lucky when I have a year like this.
3) Grand Theft Auto V
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Take-Two Interactive
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Grand Theft Auto games have always been too heavy on the open world, too light on the story for me. But that changed with this title and its three main characters, Franklin, Michael, and Trevor. Each of them came from a very different part of the imaginary open world of Los Santos, but their tales were interwoven in a way that exposed the full spectrum of adventures available to the player.
Trevor, for instance, was a seasoned pilot. Michael was a connected hood. And Franklin was a driving virtuoso. The side characters who supported them made it possible to pull off some truly legendary heists in the game. The satire and parodies on the car radio had me laughing too, as did the soundtracks that played when you were driving with different characters.
The designers were astute to include Trevor because he freed the player to do some really nasty acts without remorse. After all, if you were playing Trevor, you knew he was a crazy character and anything bad that you did while playing Trevor would be completely defensible as role-playing. That wasn’t me stomping on that guy’s face. That was Trevor, not me. That was liberating for the player. But Trevor’s presence was also quite disturbing, leading to controversial scenes like one where the player has no choice but to torture a hapless foe.
The dilemma for the player is how the game requires you to be irredeemably evil, or face that fact that you have to be a bloody bastard to be successful as a criminal in the city of Los Santos and complete the story as it unfolds toward its climax. GTA V convinced me that it is OK to lose yourself in a video game character, to perform heinous acts as that video game character, and still emerge as a human being.
This had some real dramatic moments, like when two key characters pull guns on each other in a stand-off. At the same time, the world was expansive enough for you to spend well over 100 hours exploring it in all of its dimensions. The balance of story, open world, and multiplayer combat gave something for everybody — except for the casual gamer who hates extreme violence.
I felt it went astray in the relatively routine ending (or the ending that I felt offered the clearest choice of three ending options) for the final mission of 69 available to the gamer. If you compare it to the endings of BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, it seems like it was just such an average way to close an epic story. It reminded me that this story could be viewed as a very pedestrian episode on a TV crime show. That’s why it’s not my No. 1 choice.
Grand Theft Auto V reportedly cost $260 million to make over five years. Some would say that it is madness to spend so much time and money developing a game in this era. But with $1 billion in sales generated in three days, GTA V essentially made up for its costs in about 18 hours of sales. I would be quite sad to wait until 2018 to get another Grand Theft Auto game, but I can understand why Rockstar does what it does and takes nobody’s advice.
4) Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, Windows PC
Brothers is one of the most overlooked and moving titles of the year. It starts with a young brother, Naiee, paying his respects at the grave of his mother, whom he failed to save during a boating accident. His elder brother, Nyaa, calls him over to help their ill father. They take him to the village doctor, who tells them that the only way to save him is by bringing a remedy from a distant Tree of Life. The brothers take the doctor’s map and set out on their quest.
Brothers combines both simplicity and complexity. It is built with the Unreal Engine, so the 3D graphics can be quite beautiful, like when you see through the running water in a stream. But the brothers are animated in a way that makes them seem like they’re part of a cartoon-like 3D fairy tale. The visual effect is like you’re watching a Shrek film with simple animated characters, set in a world that can be visually stunning.
This reminds me of Thatgamecompany’s Journey in 2012 because it has no spoken words. The brothers communicate in their own language in a way that is understandable to the player, sort of like characters in The Sims. During the game, the brothers are inseparable, not only in their devotion to each other, but physically because you control them both at the same time.
Starbreeze ties its story to its game mechanics. You play with a console controller, with your left stick controlling Nyaa, and the right stick controlling Naiee. If you squeeze the left trigger to get Nyaa to perform an action, and you squeeze the right trigger to get Naiee to do something. This permits you to control both Naiee and Nyaa at the same time. At times, this will feel like the most natural thing in the world. But at others, you’ll get disoriented and confused over which character you’re controlling. You’ll see why the designers make this trade-off in the end.
The result is a real adventure. Along the way, the brothers can help reunite some loved ones, save a man attempting suicide, and rescue a wounded animal. They solve puzzles by pressing levers and doing things in tandem. The story takes you to an emotional crescendo. By the end, you understand why the designers created the game so that it has to be played with a console game controller. That hammers home the point of how the gameplay and the story are intertwined as one.
5) Beyond: Two Souls
Developer: Quantic Dream
Platform: PlayStation 3
From the mind of David Cage, head of the Quantic Dream studio that brought us the cinematic game Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls was a step forward in delivering a movie-like game experience. While Heavy Rain was a great cinematic interactive experience with a good story, it was bedeviled by control problems and strange dialogue choices. You could choose to do anything in the game, but you were never quite sure if the decision you were making was as consequential as turning on the hot water or the cold water — or choosing whether your son would live or die.
With Beyond: Two Souls, the experience was much better for me. I had little trouble with the now-familiar controls, and it’s a big step up from Heavy Rain in the quality of the 3D imagery. The characters look almost real. The environmental effects of rain, smoke, and fire looked great. Quantic Dream does a great job of telling the story of Jodie, a little girl who sees and feels an imaginary, ghost-like companion named Aiden. She grows up learning how to use Aiden’s special powers, and then falls into the hands of the CIA, which uses her as a secret weapon. As Jodie matures, she decides to take her power of choice back and break free.
Ellen Page, whose own game image was uncannily similar to that of Ellie in The Last of Us, gave a great voice-acting performance in the lead role as Jodie. The story of her life is revealed to us in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, giving us revelations and an emotional roller coaster that seems all too short as an experience. The choices with the most gravity come at the end. They give Jodie, and the player, the challenging of figuring out where their loyalties lie — with the living or the dead. With the internal world, or the external. And they give you a real shocker of a surprise when you think it’s all over.
Beyond didn’t get high ratings. But it depends on what you were willing to overlook. I didn’t mind the usual clunky button-mashing game controls, as I was so happy to have the visuals, the characters, and the deep story. More games ought to push out on this edge, now that we have next-generation consoles where the trade-offs between gameplay and a cinematic experience shouldn’t be as difficult. I can’t wait to see where Quantic Dream can take this kind of experience with the next generation of consoles.