If there’s a common thread that runs through my favorite games of 2013, it’s that the traditional “console gaming” experience just didn’t cut it for me in 2013: a full half of my list is made up of portable games and two of the others are, at this time, available only on a PC. There’s only one console exclusive, no next-gen games, and not a single Xbox or Wii U game to be found. Based on this, I’m left to conclude that my favorite releases of 2014 will only be playable on a Texas Instruments graphing calculator or, God forbid, the OUYA.
Without further ado, here’s my list:
10. Gone Home
My heart swells every time I think back upon my time with Gone Home: with zero on-screen characters, developers The Fullbright Company somehow managed to create an exploration-based game about music, family, youth, and perhaps most surprisingly, love. It all worked, too, in a way that these themes almost never work in video games. I was moved by how real the Greenbriar family felt to me as I wandered around their home; in a lot of ways, they reminded me of my family. Gone Home is, to me, an accomplishment simply because of how rare and intimate that kind of experience still is in gaming.
9. Splinter Cell: Blacklist
I know Sam Fisher and this is no Sam Fisher. What Blacklist is, though, is a big, bombastic, ridiculous joyride from start to finish. What it lacks in subtlety (and in threads to the previous games in the Splinter Cell series) it makes up for in gameplay galore with a save-the-world plot across dozens of solo and co-op missions, the endlessly addictive Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer mode, challenging daily objectives, and a massive arsenal of tech toys and weapons. In the modern Splinter Cell games, you’re not just hiding in the shadows while you wait for an unsuspecting guard to wander by; you’re stalking him like prey, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. You’re not underpowered, you’re dangerous. It’s a fine line, but Blacklist walks it almost perfectly.
As a LittleBigPlanet fan, it’s fair to say that I knew going in that Media Molecule’s newest game was going to be cute, quirky, and full of character. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was just how massive a leap it would be from what they had created in LBP. Tearaway is easily the greatest argument for owning a Vita at this point because it’s an experience that would otherwise be impossible on any other platform. It’s got a lot of heart, too, with thematic similarities to last year’s Journey and a final act that packs a surprisingly emotional impact.
7. SteamWorld Dig
Repetition and discovery. Dig for gems, sell them for cash to buy new tools and use those tools to dig deeper and deeper. Lather, rinse, repeat. These are gameplay hooks that could otherwise grow tedious in the wrong hands but developer Image and Form combined them with memorable characters and a constant sense of discovery that kept me engaged. There’s a lot of forgettable filler in the 3DS eShop but SteamWorld Dig is truly a hidden gem.
6. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
I tend to give Nintendo a lot of grief for leaning too heavily on the past when it comes to their first-party games. A Link Between Worlds, however, is the perfect culmination of nostalgia and innovation. It’s a new game that is essentially built over the skeleton of a 23-year-old Super Nintendo classic but it never feels antiquated or tired. Tackling dungeons in any order, renting tools before purchasing them, and most notably, Link’s ability to turn himself into piece of movable 2D wall art all opened up exciting new possibilities for puzzling and progression that made the game feel fresh and exciting. Whatever secret sauce made this accomplishment possible should immediately be poured over every product in the Nintendo pipeline.
5. The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is a short game that is designed to be experienced over and over, each time with the player making slightly different choices that yield slightly different, increasingly strange, and sometimes surprisingly menacing outcomes. It’s weird, funny, and completely unlike anything I’ve ever played.
4. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon
Luigi is possibly gaming’s most reluctant hero: he’d much rather be sleeping in front of his TV than investigating a neighborhood of haunted old buildings. Finally, a video game character that I can identify with! That laziness coupled with his quivering, mumbling fear of ghosts are just a few of the many traits that made Dark Moon such a delightful romp. At every turn, Luigi just seems thoroughly exhausted by everything that’s going on around him. As the player, though, I never lacked the motivation to look under one more bed, behind one more painting, and explore one more house in search of gems and ghosts.
3. Tomb Raider
As a gamer, reboots are often a scary prospect. In the process of making a beloved property more palatable to modern sensibilities you always run the risk of abandoning the very thing that made the game compelling in the first place. The new Tomb Raider bravely took Lara Croft back to her college days with stunning results: it’s a sweeping survival epic that made a dusty old series feel like a product of the 21st century. It was fascinating to see how Naughty Dog built on the Tomb Raider formula in the Uncharted games over the last generation; here, Lara reclaims her identity and carries the adventure game into the next gen.
2. The Last of Us
We’re accustomed to binaries in the games we play: the good guys kill the bad guys. The Last of Us depicts a world populated by those who fall somewhere in between all of that. Main protagonists Joel and Ellie are as complex as characters get in any form of entertainment. Smashing a zombie in the face with a brick is always fun but discovering where these deeply flawed, tragically broken characters go next is the most engaging part of the game. Like last year’s The Walking Dead, The Last of Us is a zombie game where killing zombies is the least interesting thing going on.
1. Animal Crossing: New Leaf
When someone describe a game as “relaxing”, I get a bit nervous. New Leaf succeeds in making things that would otherwise be mundane (chatting with neighbors, decorating your house, catching bugs) into events worthy of great obsession. It’s a living, breathing microcosm of a world where your neighbors just happen to be bears, cats, and a very fashionable giraffe. It’s ridiculous, and I know it’s ridiculous, but I can’t stop playing it. This is the dark, sinister charm of Animal Crossing: it’s endless. The Last of Us was amazing but it was finite; I could conceivably play Animal Crossing everyday for the next year (and I probably will) and still not experience all of its banal wonders. It’s not just my Game of the Year, it has the potential to be the Game of a Lifetime.