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Gamasutra's Best of 2013: Alex Wawro's Top 5 Video Games
Gamasutra's Best of 2013: Alex Wawro's Top 5 Video Games Exclusive
December 18, 2013 | By Alex Wawro

Gamasutra's newest member Alex Wawro (@awawro) contributes his personal picks to our continuing series on the best games of 2013.

Itís been a weird year for me. I made a lot of choices that, in retrospect, are probably warning signs for maturity: I got a cat. I took out a life insurance policy. I started really enjoying Dark Souls.

If you go back and read Gamasutra EIC Kris Graftís thoughts on the best games of the year, youíll get a solid argument for why video games are maturing as a medium of self-expression. I agree, for the most part; itís been a pretty good year for games that arenít meant to be fun. I didnít particularly enjoy playing Gone Home or Papers, Please, but both games helped me empathize with people whose lives and perspectives were nothing like my own, and thatís an artful thing.

But when I look back on the year that was, those games -- and the feelings they provoked -- donít stand out in my memory. Neither do Grand Theft Auto V, Beyond: Two Souls or The Last Of Us, all really excellent and technically impressive interactive showpieces that somehow failed to leave much of a lasting impression after I put down the controller and moved on with my life.

The games that stuck with me -- the games that I think you must not miss -- are by and large, mechanically complex roguelikes that have little to no explicit narrative. Theyíre the games that made me feel like disfiguring my controller in frustration as I failed, over and over again, until I buckled down and learned to play well.

Spelunky by Mossmouth

If I had to choose just one game to play for the rest of my life, Iíd choose the Vita version of Spelunky. Derek Yuís brainchild has made regular appearances in criticsí year-end roundups since its release in 2008, with good reason -- Spelunkyís devilishly challenging levels demand tenacious and skillful play, and their semi-randomized design ensures that no two lives are identical. Itís a significant bit of game design, and while I donít know that it will have the same staying power as, say, Tetris, I think Spelunky is a game that weíll be talking about for years to come.

spelunky1.jpgThis year Yu added something new to Spelunky, a Daily Challenge mode that generates a new adventure every day -- one thatís exactly the same for every player in the world -- and affords you one chance to play through it. Die, and you have to wait until the next dayís challenge to play again.

As an added twist, your score for the dayís challenge is posted to a leaderboard of everyone else who played the same challenge that day. Itís a venue for competition that, coupled with the one-life limit of the Daily Challenge, fosters opportunties for you to play Spelunky in a completely different way. The Daily Challenge is that rare kind of update that meaningfully changes and improves upon the base game.

It was enough to suck me back in this year -- I purchased the game on Steam and started tackling the Daily Challenge maps with the same caution and uncertainty that characterized my days as a Spelunky neophyte.

Guacamelee! by DrinkBox Studios

Guacamelee! was a game I expected to play, enjoy and promptly forget about -- like Shadow Complex, Cave Story, and every other "Metroidvania" Iíd picked up since Symphony of the Night.

But I was wrong, and throughout the year I couldnít help recommending this vibrant, challenging little platformer whenever someone came around asking after a great PSN downloadable. It draws inspiration from a body of Mexican folklore thatís sorely under-represented in contemporary games, drawing you in with a gentle sense of humor that belies some wickedly difficult platforming puzzles.

guacamelee3.jpgDrinkbox Studios did the right thing in making Guacamelee! a cross-buy title, but while the game plays perfectly well on Vita it shines on a big, beautiful screen. My girlfriend and I played through the lionís share of Guacamelee! together in couch co-op, and the moments when we worked together to clear rooms full of calacas-inspired enemies with perfectly-timed combos of supernatural suplexes and piledrivers were some of the happiest times I had with a game this year. DrinkBox Studios had a clear vision of what it wanted to accomplish when it set out to make this game, and I think that clarity of purpose shines through in the outstanding quality of the final product.

Rogue Legacy by Cellar Door Games

Too few games use the transitive experience of death as anything other than punishment. Rogue Legacy employs death as a tool for player agency, and for that reason alone I think itís a game worth playing, especially for anyone who makes them for a living. The fact that itís a charming, deceptively difficult roguelike platformer in a randomly-generated castle with a goofy art style is just icing on the cake.

The brilliance of Cellar Door Games’ latest stems from its bloodline system: When you die, you get to choose your next protagonist from the three randomly-generated heirs of your previous one and spend their inheritance -- money you earned moments before -- on new upgrades and gear. You never have to retread old ground since the castle is randomly-generated every time you die (though you do eventually unlock the power to keep it from changing) so death feels less like a failure than an opportunity to reshuffle the deck in your favor.

roguelegacy1.jpgCouple that with the promise of being able to permanently upgrade your bloodline with new abilities, classes and equipment and you end up with a simple, seemingly endlessly replayable game that requires you to get better to progress but also rewards you for that progression with permanent character upgrades that make you feel powerful. Many people recommend Rogue Legacy as a great way to ease yourself into the harsh world of roguelikes, but I think its an achievement in game design worth playing on its own merits.

Westerado by Ostrich Banditos

Just as Rogue Legacy empowers death, so too does Westerado empower the hand that deals it. Of all the games on this list, Westerado is the one Iím most excited to recommend, if only because it seems like nobody played it when it was released as a free Flash game back in January. And thatís a damn shame, because itís an excellent -- and free -- example of how you can work within powerful creative limitations to build something great.

The premise is simple: At any point in the game you can pull out your revolver, point it at anyone in the game and pull the trigger, even in the middle of a conversation. You might close off a whole line of quests or deny yourself a juicy bit of gossip, sure, but you might also put your familyís murderer six feet under. The murdererís identity is randomized every time you start a new game, so the only way to ensure justice is served is to travel around the world searching for clues.

westerado1.jpgI love that the Ostrich Banditos managed to craft a compelling, free-ranging murder mystery with a remarkably circumscribed set of player verbs -- move, aim, shoot, reload. Making anything other than a first- or third-person shooter is a seemingly Herculean task when youíre shackled to those options, but in Westerado you use your trusty six-shooter to accomplish everything from opening gates to comforting the wounded or ferreting out information. Itís a brilliant little bit of game design, one made that much more impressive by the fact that it got its start as a college project.

Shadowrun Returns by Harebrained Schemes

This recommendation makes more sense once you understand that I played a ton of Shadowrun as a kid, both the 1994 Sega Genesis game and the tabletop pen and paper version. I love that with Shadowrun Returns Harebrained Schemes was able to capture so much of what endeared me to those games when I was a kid.

shadowrunreturns1.jpgItís not easy to tell a cogent, captivating story in a world where dragons troll forums and cyber-augmented street toughs regularly get into skirmishes with supernatural bug spirits, yet Harebrained Schemes managed to make a game chock-full of text that perfectly captures the endearingly cheesy tone of trashy '90s cyberpunk novels. Whatís more, they were able to do it while breathing life into the dusty old bones of the isometric turn-based RPGs many of us grew up playing. Shadowrun Returns is the first title I've played that was crowdfunded on the strength of its IP and studio talent, and the fact that Harebrained Schemes did such an excellent job gives me hope for similar projects like Pillars of Eternity, Star Citizen and Wasteland 2.

Sure, the story and systems in Shadowrun Returns are a bit simplistic: You can almost see where the designers chose to cut corners and close off opportunities for interesting side missions or branching narratives, presumably in the interests of shipping the game nearly on schedule and (hopefully) within budget. But itís a strong base to build from -- Harebrained Schemes has more downloadable content in the pipeline -- and now that the community has spent some time experimenting with the level editor I canít wait to dive back in and see whatís waiting for me in the new year.

Check back for more of Gamasutra's staff picks over the course of the week! Read EIC Kris Graft's top 5 right here, blog director Christian Nutt's list here, contributing editor Kris Ligman's list here, UK editor Mike Rose's here and contributing editor Leigh Alexander's here.

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