Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
For this week’s Q&A, we’re taking a cue from our compatriots at The A.V. Club and looking back on the first half of 2013. The question is simple:
What is your favorite game of 2013 so far?
I’ve fallen madly in love with The Last Of Us. It’s a zombie (ahem, “infected”)-survival game about a grizzled smuggler, Joel, who lost his daughter 20 years ago when the outbreak started and now must shuttle another young girl, Ellie, out of harm’s way. There are lots of sweet moments between them, and there are a whole lot of dark rooms full of zombies you have to get through, forced to move at a snail’s pace. The game sets mood with the subtlest shifts in lighting and sound—and with minimal dialogue. But The Last Of Us really sticks with me because of the ending, which I will write around for the sake of not revealing too much. (Still, if you’re touchy about these things, consider moving on to Anthony’s answer.) There is a climactic scene near the end in which Joel does something very much fueled by emotion—this from a guy who barely ever breaks his tougher-than-you veneer. To me, The Last Of Us is a story about a delusional guy allowed to exist in a delusional world, with others actively acknowledging that humanity can be ugly and beautiful at the same time, so you might as well embrace both.
Anthony John Agnello
Like Steve, I’m pretty enamored with The Last Of Us, but I don’t love it quite as much as I love Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Every Animal Crossing prior to this 3DS entry feels like a rough draft by comparison. New Leaf breaks down many of the barriers that made it difficult to inhabit your village, streamlining the way you visit friends online and even how you use your various tools. It somehow makes the most mundane activities thick with emotion. Because of work, I tend to only play late at night, when the game’s music gets melancholic. I always take a second to just sit on the park bench I built in front of my house looking out at the beach. Writing about the meaning behind moments like that is my job, but I have to admit, I have trouble verbalizing precisely what makes Animal Crossing so powerful.
I’ve been waiting for a game like State Of Decay, for a long time—probably ever since I first saw Dawn Of The Dead and definitely at least since I read The Zombie Survival Guide. Every time I’d play a zombie game, I’d wonder, “Why doesn’t this stupid game just let me live out my own zombie apocalypse survival fantasy?” and that’s exactly what State Of Decay does. I also love that the first two characters you get to play with are a black man and a woman, which is not only a rarity in gaming but also true to the zombie genre’s egalitarian roots. It’s kind of a buggy, ugly mess with clunky controls and a punishing learning curve, but damn it, there’s simply never been a finer zombie apocalypse survival simulator, and until there is, I’ll be spending a disproportionate amount of my gaming time with State Of Decay.
With all apologies to The Last Of Us and Don’t Starve, my favorite game so far this year is Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. I have never laughed so hard at a game as much as I have with Sgt. Rex Power Colt, latest in a line of Mark IV Cyber Commandos, as he attempts to avenge his buddy Spider and stop the deranged Col. Sloan from finishing off what remains of the world with his blood dragon-tipped missiles. The one liners, the bad puns, the montages, the loving nods to terrible ’80s actions movies—this is a game tailor-made for kids who, like me, grew up religiously watching iconic terrible movies like Escape From New York and Commando. The game itself is not spectacular—it uses salvaged and stripped down bits of Far Cry 3—but the formula works perfectly for the batshit insane, neon-flecked dystopian world of post-Vietnam II 2007. And again, with all apologies to The Last Of Us and its great ending, the final leg of Blood Dragon is the most satisfying endgame sequence I have ever experienced.
I really enjoyed BioShock Infinite and was blown away by the ending, but my actual favorite is a little more, well, let’s say stupid. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance shows its hand right there in the title. This isn’t a game for high-minded literary discussions or smarty-pantsing, this is a game about revenge with a vengeance. It’s a gleeful celebration of absurdity, and it shows that the infamously long-winded Metal Gear series might be a little bit more self-aware than it gets credit for. You play as Raiden, a cyborg ninja who lives in a world where “cyborg ninja” is a realistic job description, and your mission is to prevent a private military company from inciting a world war by using your electrified katana to slice the shit out of everything on Earth. This includes: buses, helicopters, missiles, bridges, giant robots, small robots, Ferris wheels, and an evil United States senator. Also, a major part of the game involves cutting enemies in half and ripping out their spines. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds and about 100 times more ridiculous, which is really saying something.
Because Hotline Miami, which I only just played, came out in 2012, I’ll go with Press [X] To Give Up, a similarly disturbing game that forces its players to experience its violence on a deeply personal level. The brief game places you in a matador’s leather shoes and has you face off against a monstrous bull. The fight itself isn’t so bad—bait it toward you, avoid getting gored, slip a sword in its neck, repeat—but it’s the outcome of the violence that gets me every time. Every hit you take pollutes the screen with more glitches and digital hisses, and every successful stab transforms the bull into a more grotesque and desperate version of itself. To beat the bull, you have to become an equally desperate beast, killing your opponent in a primal rage. This all happens in the course of a few minutes, and it’s astounding how well it works, especially for a game made in just two days for the Nordic Game Jam. It might not have the edge-of-your-seat tension of Hotline, but for what it is, it’s fantastic.
My first instinct is to agree with Agnello and say Animal Crossing—it is by far the game I’ve sunk the most hours into this year—but I know I’d be lying to myself. Only one game made me giddy every time I pressed “start.” Only one game made me say “one more time” upon failing the same stage six times in a row. Only one game featured a tap-dancing rabbit and a monkey with a pair of cymbals. That game was HarmoKnight, the ineffably charming musical-platformer from Game Freak, home of Pokémon and Drill Dozer, among others. Every bit of dialogue, from the tutorial to the unnecessary plot exposition, was delightful, due in no small part to the cartoon cut-out art style that looked wonderful with the Nintendo 3DS’ 3D slider dialed up. The cutesy visuals and fantasy setting belied a sometimes-infuriating difficulty, with music that would change tempo at a whim and a camera that would crop in tight or slide off at an angle to obscure upcoming obstacles. It may have been a good bit shorter than this year’s other rhythm-platformer, BIT.TRIP Presents Runner 2: Future Legend Of Rhythm Alien, but it offered more variety, wider smiles, and one of the most colorful and diverse casts of all-ages characters I’ve seen in years.
Sometimes you come across a work that resonates with a special vividness because of where you are in your life. Rogue Legacy was that kind of game for me. The castle-storming adventure takes an idea that has been enjoying a renaissance—semi-randomly generated worlds—and experiments with it by allowing the spoils of one playthrough to carry on to the next one. The more I play Rogue Legacy (and I’ve played it a lot), the more I’m struck by how the developers at Cellar Door Games must have deeply considered the implications of a multi-generational legacy. The upshot of their creative process is a fun, challenging game with a subtle but powerful humanity. It’s an early frontrunner for my personal “Yup, I’m going to keep playing the shit out of this” award that The Binding Of Isaac won last year.
If I were pressed to come up with the best games of the year, Remember Me wouldn’t even crack the top 10 when shoulder-to-shoulder to the BioShock Infinites and The Last of Us-es of the gaming world. Much of it is just too rough-hewn, especially the frequent sections that involve leaping from one clearly demarcated exposed pipe to the next. There are times when the game’s star, Nilin, responds sluggishly to button presses like she’s not quite up to the task. Even the science-fiction story, fixating on a corporation that commodifies memories, feels like a Philip K. Dick B-side. Yet I love Remember Me for its unique puzzle-like approach to fistfights and its sense of place. The game’s cyberpunky Paris of 2084 is wonderfully realized. The memory remix sections, where you alter small elements of someone’s recollection of an event to change their entire perspective, are worth the price of admission alone. Like The Fifth Element, another work of bold French science-fiction starring a pixie-coiffed female hero, it’s better to have a piece of art that swings for the fences and sometimes misses than another bland mediocrity. It may not be the best game of the year, but Remember Me is one that I won’t soon, well, forget.
If BioShock Infinite had been no longer than its first hour, it would have easily taken this spot. I’ve never experienced anything like wandering around the streets of Columbia, bathed in golden light with their fascinating melange of turn-of-the-20th-century culture. There is one other game this year that was able to capture that feeling of discovery and wonder you get when walking into a weird new place for the first time—and that feeling stretched across its entirety. That’s Kentucky Route Zero, the episodic southern-fried, Lynchian adventure game from the two-man outfit Cardboard Computer. Its world is so strange and lovingly defined—a surreal blast of the mundane punctuated with the fantastic in always unexpected ways. You might wander into a bait and tackle shop and end up plummeting down a trippy text adventure rabbit hole. The gorgeous environments are similarly surprising, appearing flat and cramped, but slowly opening up into massive three-dimensional structures as their scenes progress and the player’s perspective shifts. Kentucky Route Zero might only be two episodes into its five-episode run (with a total runtime of around four hours), but it’s responsible for most of my favorite gaming moments of the year (the mine, the bear floor, Julian). Its only flaw is that there isn’t yet more of it.