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Gamasutra's Best of 2013: Kris Graft's Top 5 Video Games
Gamasutra's Best of 2013: Kris Graft's Top 5 Video Games Exclusive
December 16, 2013 | By Kris Graft

Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft (@krisgraft) kicks off our new games of the year series for 2013.

If you haven't scrolled down to the list already, allow me to reflect a bit: 2013 was my personal favorite year for video games, ever (2013: Best Year of the Ever?).

I've thought about it, and I've figured out why I liked 2013 so much, and it's not just about some arbitrary level of "quality" that games surpassed during the past 12 months: Video games are truly feeling like they're maturing as a mainstream form of art and entertainment.

When I say "maturing," I don't necessarily mean "becoming more serious." What I mean is that the variety of games out there, and the variety of people making them, reached a critical point in 2013, and we saw divisions along cultural, social, political and commercial lines. This was already happening in recent years, but in 2013 it was just more pronounced, and completely undeniable.

This is a good thing. Some people might prefer that everyone just "get along," to have fun and make games together, no matter what. But that encourages a complacency that would doom any art form. I don't want to see fistfights between formalists and zinesters at GDC or anything like that, but varying viewpoints and impassioned arguments can be a good thing, as long as in the end we're all learning, and developers are continuing these discussions by making great video games.

With that growth and variety mind, in 2013 we're handling our "Game of the Year" list quite differently. Instead of publishing a single top 10, Gamasutra writers will simply pick five games that they loved most in 2013, and we'll run these individual lists of staff picks over the course of this week, beginning with this one. There were so many notable games released this year, I think it'd be a bit disingenuous for us to pretend to agree on an "official" top 10, or to make believe that our small staff thoroughly played every game that should have been taken into consideration for 2013. We've got backlogs, just like everyone else.

That said, combined, we did play a lot of video games from all kinds of developers, and have strong opinions on the ones we loved this year. We're not worrying about repeats -- maybe someone on staff has the exact same list as I do. But I saw this as an opportunity for our readers to get to know our writers' tastes a bit more as the year wraps up. So here are my personal Top Games of 2013, in no particular order:

868-HACK by Michael Brough

I see 868-HACK as a perfect combination of game design artistry and rigid mathematical exactitude. The result is a game that has a distinct complexity, wrapped in a simple elegance that is concise, and uniquely Michael Brough.

868-HACK.jpgIn 868-HACK, the premise is clear: If you make too many errors, your smiley-faced Hacker will disintegrate into a brief flurry of pixel static. You understand that Viruses move two steps and electrocute; Daemons are tough ones, they take three hits; Glitches are just total jerks and I hate them; and so on.

There was such obvious, careful consideration in how this game presents the risk/reward dilemma. The amount of risk one is willing to take on is left up to the player: "Should I deploy my data siphon here for big points, even though it'll bring on a dozen new enemies? Maybe I'll just go for low points to guarantee I won't die a quick death." Play the game and you'll see your choices are all spelled out right there in numbers; the wild card is what kind of enemies show up, and where.

You get to understand these enemies, how to interact with them, and how to navigate the pixilated board. They kind of become your annoying little bastard digital friends. 868-HACK feels authored, like someone's hands were on this game, caring for its creation -- put simply, it has personality woven into its logical rigidness. Every design choice has a purpose, and every choice that you make as a player does, too.

Papers, Please by Lucas Pope

Reflecting back on the best games this year, it was Papers, Please from Lucas Pope that managed to elicit the widest range of sincere emotions than any game I played in 2013. The emotions I experienced weren't exactly deep, they didn't lead me to hours of self-reflection, but if you've played the game (you should), think about how you felt joy, stress, confusion, apathy, frustration, surprise, accomplishment. All of these can be experienced during one playthrough of Papers, Please, and frankly you start to feel a bit schizophrenic.

papers please.jpgThe variance of emotion is notable because it's a reflection of the way the game is designed. Fully-scripted aspects of the game interweave seamlessly with gameplay that is driven by randomized data, all dovetailing nicely to support a narrative framework. No two playthroughs are exactly the same.

Papers, Please is also interesting to play because it's almost as if you're playing a game whose rules are being iterated right in front of your face. I loved how plainly Papers, Please tells you every day: 'Ok, you learned the rules and you've got the hang of it. Now try to adjust to this and see if your family gets fed tonight.' The game is bleak, the implied social commentary gives you pause. But there's also something classically "game-y" about it. That's a great combination.

Guacamelee! by Drinkbox Studios

This year, Guacamelee! managed to rise above the template of the "Metroidvania" genre as something that is unique, memorable and just plain fun. It's the best example this year of an original spin on a classic formula.

Guacamelee.jpgThe team at Drinkbox quite consciously homed in on what people love about these kinds of games -- exploration, gradual accumulation of power, a good challenge and big 2D boss fights, to name a few traits. The studio incorporated all of these with an original premise revolving around a (kind of) dead luchador, a solid, combo-heavy brawler combat system, a mechanic that lets players change dimensions, and last but not least, big, bold art that was varied and interesting, coaxing you to find out what lies ahead.

Guacamelee! isn't about pure innovation, necessarily, but about execution and sticking to a clear vision of what a team of developers wants a game to be. Getting to that point of clarity wasn't easy for Drinkbox, but once the studio got there, the team was ready to execute, and the results were fantastic.

The Stanley Parable by Galactic Cafe

The Stanley Parable seems to say so much about so many things. At times, it feels like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the way Stanley drifts in and out of reality, and the way we as players lose track of what Stanley's reality really is. Is Stanley still at his desk, pushing buttons, daydreaming -- wanting more from the drudgery of his existence, yet not courageous enough break routine to set his path for a guaranteed happiness that's just a step away?

The Stanley Parable.jpg…Ok, I'll stop there. See, this is why The Stanley Parable is significant -- as much as the narrator says "stuff," it's up to the player to interpret what it all means, from the choices you make to the places you end up to the weird, weird things that happen. You fill in the blanks.

You're actually having a conversation with the narrator, but you reply to and engage the narrator with your actions (i.e., choices), not with words. The Stanley Parable invites players to find their own unique answers, to follow along with or disobey the narrator and come to their own conclusions. It critiques the way games are designed, and the way players play them.

I'll be revisiting this game again and again, and when I've decided I've had enough, it'll continue to be something that I consider for a long time when thinking critically about the way games deal with choice and narrative. I hope game designers give it just as much weight.

Gone Home by Fullbright Company

One of my favorite things about small teams in game development is, because resources are so scarce, whether its time, money, or otherwise, they have little choice but to put a laser focus on one aspect of game design. In the case of Fullbright Company and its first game, Gone Home, that focus was on environmental storytelling.

Fullbright designer Steve Gaynor, who also designed BioShock 2's Minerva's Den, talked to us about environmental storytelling and Gone Home years before the game's release. It all sounded like a great idea, but you can't fully appreciate that vision until you play the game.

gone home.jpgWhat Gone Home does is strike a perfect balance between an authored story and one in which the player feels free to explore and unravel the story on her own. There are gateways designed into the eerie, abandoned house, which only unlock to allow for progression once you hit certain triggers, but this never feels forced by the designer. As a player, you are compelled to explore, because this empty house, which you learn represents so many things in your character's life, beckons you to solve its mystery.

With Gone Home, it's not the designer who's getting in the player's face yelling, "Stop what you're doing, I have a story to tell!" Leave that to movies and books -- they're really good at that. Instead, Gone Home told players, "Keep doing what you're doing -- there's a story to be discovered."

Check back for more of Gamasutra's staff picks over the course of the week!

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Wendelin Reich
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I agree with your point about video games finally "maturing". This is something that makes me very happy, because I think it bodes well for games - both as an artistic medium and as an industry.

The Stanley Parable (TSP) is, I think, the most obvious and important exhibit here. Intelligent self-reflexivity is one of the surest signs of a new artistic medium reaching maturity. I would go so far as to compare TSP to Sterne's Tristram Shandy or Fellini's 8 1/2 in that regard. TSP is full of reflections about player agency, video game conventions, story tropes, and so on. Furthermore - and this is important! - it uses the medium's own unique features to 'perform' or 'enact' these reflections. With its structure that combines short playthroughs with high replayability, it can really experiment with different kinds of video game conventions, and let the player participate actively in the experiment. That's not just cool, it's also something that highlights the unique possibilities of the medium and, I hope, will inspire others...

Ty Underwood
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I loved The Stanley Parable, but I don't think it's the most important exhibit. It's fairly navel-gazing into its cross-examination of games. That's just fine, but I think the big accomplishment of 2013 is that games are looking outside of games. The indie darlings of the previous two years have been the likes of Meat Boy and Fez, which are all nostalgia trips into the game designer's gamer youth (among other things). It seems like 2013 matured in how it's no longer about game nostalgia alone, we can see the heavy hitter independent titles dealing with issues like family and oppressive governments deftly and maturely like we've never seen before.

Ian Uniacke
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There is much more to the Stanley Parable than it's obvious references to the medium of gaming. It's also one of the most (imho) accurate portrayals of a person suffering mental illness that I have ever experienced, to the point where I was thinking (especially during the yellow line segment) that someone had recorded my daily thoughts and made a game about it.

There's even more than all of this but I don't want to give it all away. The depth of The Stanley Parable can not be over estimated.

Rob Wright
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Of these 5 games I've only played Gone Home, and it was fantastic. Deceptively simple but extremely rich and detailed. And like Kris wrote, the design was impeccable; every turn seemed to heighten the stakes and create an even more suspenseful and unpredictable atmosphere. Great, great stuff.

Dane MacMahon
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"When I say "maturing," I don't necessarily mean "becoming more serious." What I mean is that the variety of games out there, and the variety of people making them, reached a critical point in 2013, and we saw divisions along cultural, social, political and commercial lines. This was already happening in recent years, but in 2013 it was just more pronounced, and completely undeniable."

I agree strongly with this. The eclectic landscape of gaming right now, both in experience and message, is really cool to see. While I'm still much more excited about shooters and RPGs than you seem to be I can also very much appreciate a game like Gone Home, which might make my 2013 top 5 list as well. It's super nice to have such variety.

That said, are there any real conservative messages in gaming? Some bigger games like Mass Effect arguably have Bush-style cowboy politics options, and freedom above government restraint options. I feel like of the messaging games I have seen none of them are really conservative at all though. I am not a conservative looking for that message, I'm actually about as Euro-socialist as you can get in the United States, but I feel it's interesting and perhaps important to point out that we've gotten dangerously close to a Fox News style bubble in the gaming industry right now. You better have certain ideas about certain topics or prepare to be ostracized.

I hope maturing as an industry means room for all views as well.

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Jim Thompson
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Sorry this doesn't contribute at all to any discussion but wow that's a great list of games that entirely supports your statement about 2013 being the best year for games...

Hopefully some of these indie gameplay and narrative ideas we're seeing can transmute into AAA entertainment vehicles...the AAA stuff has become so derivative it's all nearly unplayable anymore.

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Leonardo Ferreira
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I love how this list merits could be pointed to people (the mentioned Brough, Pope, and Gaynor, and also Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden) rather than companies. This is probably instrumental, because the mentioned maturation happens not only because of the industry (or rather, the scene), but also the media perception of it.

Also, Gamasutra End-Year Top Lists never disappoint :)