If 2012 was a watershed year for independent games, 2013 will be looked back upon as a year of transition -- not simply of console generations, but of shifting mindsets and priorities among players.
There were quite a few "high minded" releases this year (Grand Theft Auto V, Beyond: Two Souls, Bioshock Infinite) which nevertheless fell flat for me, and I'm not alone in that respect. The debates and controversies of this year will be embarrassments soon enough, while the authentic trickles of sunlight we now find coming in at the margins will be teased out into something gorgeous within the next few years.
With all that in mind, here are my picks for the games that I personally hold closest to my heart as the shining moments of 2013.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf by Monolith Soft/Nintendo EAD2013 was an incredibly strong year for the Nintendo 3DS. With the revised StreetPass minigames, great first party titles like Fire Emblem: Awakening, third-party hits like the new Ace Attorney, and the reliable Pokemon cash cow, the 3DS is about as close as any platform has come to being the essential cross-market console of its generation.
That said, my favorite 3DS title for the year has to be Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I'm not alone here -- the game made Christian's list as well. Still, I want to pay it some particular attention for providing an experience at once extremely personal and incredibly social. I was a fan of the game long before I picked up a copy, thanks to the easy screenshot sharing feature and some enthusiastic Twitter friends, and it remains about the only game for which I have ever willingly engaged in its multiplayer features.
The long, frenetic summer nights spent showing friends around my character's haunted mansion (wait until you see the basement!) and bouncing around in KK Slider's dance club will remain some of my favorite game memories for years to come. They sit alongside ACNL's quieter moments, the meditative daily rituals of watering flowers, collecting fossils, and befriending neighbors... the same sort of pastoral nostalgia that lies within Pokemon and Zelda but without the urgency to advance, defeat, collect behind those games.
Typing of the Dead: Overkill by Modern Dream/Sega(Image source: Kill Screen.)
Some games stick out in one's memory not for what they are, but that they are, period. Modern Dream's Typing of the Dead: Overkill is one of these. A licensed mod of a remake taking off of 1999's original Typing of the Dead, this production by a small team based originally out of UK's Blitz Games Studios (now shuttered) is one of 2013's most remarkable releases for the fact of its mere existence.
I confess to some bias here. I was honored to have broken the original story on Typing of the Dead: Overkill's unlikely survival, in which we learned that the game's development team at Blitz, led by Ollie Clarke, re-formed under an independent label after the death of their studio and sought out a new contract with Sega to finish the game.
It's one of those occasions where, as a journalist, you step aside and just allow your subject to tell their story: Clarke and his team had done something that under ideal circumstances should not have been remarkable, but in this day and age very much was. No one would have begrudged the Blitz devs for allowing the project to be buried along with its studio, but instead the team rallied, and now there is a new campy zombie-themed typing game in our lives.
Typing of the Dead: Overkill's success is nothing if not emblematic of the kind of can-do spirit and love of the craft that is so very typical of game development, but that we habitually downplay. Part of it has to do with these current troubled economic times, when it's much easier to lament the demise of outgoing studio models than celebrate those hardworking ordinary folks who rise from the ashes.
But the other part of it, I suspect, is that folks like Ollie Clarke and his crew fall outside this vision of 'The Great Man' single game auteur, the Ken Levines and the Gabe Newells of the industry who are credited with striking out on their own with bold new visions. Typing of the Dead: Overkill is no one's bold new vision. What it is, is an assignment done well, carried out by a team going above and beyond its professional obligations not out of some studio's emotional manipulation about crunch or passion (as Clarke tells it, there was no crunch) but out of a belief in the work.
That there is some appropriate narrative symmetry with the game's classic tale of post-apocalyptic survival is, well, icing on the zombie cake.
Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard ComputerOnly two of Kentucky Route Zero's five planned acts came out in 2013, but what we have seen has been more than sufficient to get a glimpse of what makes Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy's collaboration so aesthetically and narratively compelling.
Located somewhere between Arthur Miller and what Night in the Woods co-creator Scott Benson calls "Humanist Weird Fiction," the best way I have heard KRZ described is as "a David Lynch original" -- as much a Southern Gothic fever dream as an adventure game, what we've seen of Kentucky Route Zero has been expressive interactive narrative design at its finest, drenched with flavor and tension, and with so many secrets to spare.
Like Cardboard Computer's previous release, Ruins, the first task of playing Kentucky Route Zero is letting go. Understanding the game's dreamlike causality and meandering, its one-quarter turn away from mundane toward the uncanny, is essential to understanding the thing as a whole. Or rather, to the understanding that a complete explication of events is impossible, and that what we manage to perceive exists only within the range of our headlights as we hurtle down a dark highway.
To say the game is existentialist or surrealist is to give both those movements far less than their due, to say nothing of the sheer breadth of literary, visual and theatrical influences Kentucky Route Zero can count among its stable. To put it plainly, Kentucky Route Zero offers up such riches of creativity and thoughtful design that one year simply can't contain it.
Hate Plus by Love Conquers All GamesHate Plus didn't quite receive the critical attention enjoyed by its predecessor, Analogue: A Hate Story. This is a great shame because apart from the superior production values, it's also one of the richest examples of storytelling to have graced games in the past year.
More than anything, however, Hate Plus is an excellent example of author interference. There are two highly elusive Steam achievements for the game, one of which is completely impossible (a concept I find quite zen-like all on its own), while the other requires non-trivial real-world effort to unlock: you have to make a cake.
I don't mean the game requires the player to press a few buttons or swirl a mouse in order to simulate exaggerated spatula mixing. I mean that Hate Plus actually asks you to get up, go to your kitchen, and prepare an actual, honest-to-goodness cake.
It also times you, to ensure you aren't cheating just to get a 'good' ending. And in order to unlock the achievement itself, you have to go one step further, by taking a photo of the cake and sending it to the developer. Hundreds of players from around the world have done this! Here is mine, by the way:
The developer, Christine Love, is of course known for her idiosyncratic participatory design -- a previous game, don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story required players to Google a password that could only be found on her own blog, and her upcoming Interstellar Selfie Station already has a thriving hashtag (#ISSLOVE).
But to my mind nothing quite beats asking achievement hunters to get up from their desks and create something with their own hands at the behest of their anime girlfriend. I consider it the most underrated game design innovation of the year.
Saints Row IV by VolitionYes. The one Kris Ligman is physically unable to go a GOTY list without mentioning.
At its most basic level, the Saints Row franchise presents the player with sandbox sans pretense: here is your open world, go and see what absurd things you can get away with inside it. Then comes the layer of pop culture pastiche: the Scary Movie-esque low-brow mix-and-matching of tropes and cliches into a collage of references completely unintelligible except for the genre-savvy -- in this case, gangster movies, hip-hop, and other sandbox games.
Were that the extent of it, Saints Row couldn't really be considered funny. At best, we might call it cringeworthy. But the games go further than that, also inverting the racial status quo (the majority of Saints Row IV's cast is not white), gender norms (Saints Row 2 allowed players to generate transgender characters; Saints Row IV's romance options open up the entire cast as essentially pansexual), and attitudes toward sex (no one would ever call the dildo bat a mark of maturity, but its gleeful exploration of kink culture is still a rare find among mainstream games).
In their pursuit of satire, the games have found additional axes for transgression, the net result being a franchise we could say is smart alecking it up from the back of the classroom, delivering barbs about the state of the industry between penis jokes and Kanye West.
Saints Row IV, in many ways, stands as a culmination of this roiling pot of ideas, folding the free-wheeling experimentation of its predecessor in with space opera RPGs, gnostic cinema, 1950s television, The West Wing and -- yes -- an earnest parable about the magic of Christmas. It is everything that Grand Theft Auto V, in its desire to play the genre straight, is seemingly afraid to be: subversive, messy, and free-spirited.
Or, to sum it up in a gif:
Happy holidays, Gamasutra readers.
Check back for more of Gamasutra's staff picks over the course of the week! Read EIC Kris Graft's top 5 right here, and blog director Christian Nutt's list here.