How do you compare Grand Theft Auto V with Papers, Please? Or Assassin’s Creed IV with Gone Home? These are the kinds of questions that have defined 2013. In the year after small studio games dominated the conversation, we’ve not entered the Indie Promised Land. Instead, we found ourselves in a strange landscape, of new consoles no one cares about, of endless debates, of thoughtful AAA games and ephemeral indies. We spent several annoying months hearing people ask, “Is this even a game?”
This is all good news. The binaries – indie vs AAA, formalist vs zinester, LOL vs Dota 2 – are starting to break down and a spectrum is rising in its place. It is slow going, and frustrating at times, but that’s the nature of the road the true believers chose to walk when we declared that, someday, there’d be a game for everyone.
Unwinnable’s best of list reflects that emerging spectrum.
– Stu Horvath
Best Beard: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
I am an unabashed fan of the Assassin’s Creed series. From game one, I have loved Ubisoft’s willingness to develop big-budget games around oddball ideas and thoughtful themes. Are they perfect games? Hardly. Have they left me moved by their characters and intrigued by their portrayal of history? Definitely.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is about Edward Kenway’s quest for his own personal glory and gold. Like many modern folks, Edward believes the life of the pirate, one of battle and freedom on the high seas, is the best path to that goal. There are a lot of great things in Black Flag (the sailing, the setting, the sea shanties), but my favorite is the way the game sells the player on this romantic notion of the golden age of piracy, then quietly undercuts it the entire length of the game.
At the end, Edward is the last of the pirates. All his friends and comrades have struggled and died while he was chasing gold and living a life of “freedom.” Edward isn’t some dashing knave, but an aging man filled with regret. Even if you don’t realize it most of the time you’re playing, Black Flag is a melancholy game – a compelling musing on legacy and loss.
– Stu Horvath
Best Impersonation of Los Angeles County: Grand Theft Auto V
It is a mistake to dismiss Grand Theft Auto V as all boneheaded male power fantasy and hipper-than-thou disdain. Sure, there’s a lot of that in this Grand Guignol of a game. Rockstar has made a fine art of illuminating the myriad flavors of the American asshole. And San Andreas is teeming with them. Yoga instructors, government agents, movie stars, you name ‘em and Grand Theft Auto V shows them to be tools. The game’s leads are no better. But let’s not pretend, in this post-Seinfeld world, that we’re too good to get attached to awful people. Trevor, Michael and Franklin might be irredeemable bastards, but every so often, through sharp writing and woefully underappreciated voice acting, they reveal surprising hints of humanity. Stay in San Andreas long enough and you’ll realize that all the hate flowing through the game is just a defense mechanism.
The clues are all there – the meticulously programmed radio stations, the intricately recreated city, down to the fading paint on the curbs, and (especially) the outrageous caricatures of people from all walks of life. Grand Theft Auto V is, really, a game about fondness for all the people and possibilities to be found on the West Coast, the apotheosis of the American experiment. Sure, it’s a tough, sometimes cruel kind of affection, but like the man said, you only really hurt the ones you love.
– Gus Mastrapa
Best Haile Selassie Cameo: Civilization V: Brave New World
A great strategy game is like an intricately woven tapestry of interlocking game mechanics. When it was released, Civilization V was a good strategy game, and its first expansion and various patches pushed it up to being very good, sure. But by adding just a few more game components, 2013’s Brave New World unexpectedly blasted from good through great and into fantastic. It’s not just that trade routes, the World Congress, ideologies and the revamped culture system were good ideas, it’s that they all threaded through the existing parts of the game in multi-dimensional and almost exclusively positive ways. Suddenly everything in Civilization V made sense together, instead of the disjointed goals of earlier incarnations of the game.
This was backed up by Brave New World‘s set of new playable civilizations, as well as the revamps of the existing civs to give every playable choice its own feel and personality. Venice’s one-city challenge is totally different from any previous Civilization game, while the French culture warriors have been refocused. With more personality, strategic depth and overall coherence, Civilization V with Brave New World has finally joined previous games in the series as the pinnacle of their kind.
– Rowan Kaiser
Best Rebirth of a Badass: Tomb Raider
This is how you do a reboot. The Tomb Raider series is one of the foundations of modern adventure gaming, and this reboot took all the best parts of the classic games, plus some inspiration from more modern takes on the genre, pioneered by titles like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed. Add a gritty new origin story of Lara Croft’s transformation from archaeology student to bow-wielding, tomb-raiding badass, and the result is a fun, engaging and emotionally charged game that feels both new and classic.
I had more fun playing as Lara Croft than any other videogame character this year. It’s not that Lara’s having fun on the island where she and her crew are shipwrecked. Quite the opposite. But the experience of playing as a character who looked and acted like me, who then found herself staring down death and decided that she was going to live, was extremely powerful. The strength of its gameplay and story alone make Tomb Raider worth playing, so I’m almost reluctant to call attention to the fact that Lara is one of the few female video game protagonists to star in her own game. But it’s 2013, and the fact that Lara is an excellent character who happens to be female, a woman that both male and female players can relate to, and a female character that doesn’t feel like she was designed specifically for male players, are all important.
From the first time Lara picks up a bow to her final battle – in which Lara saves a princess, no less – I never shook the electrifying feeling that Lara is different.
– Jill Scharr
Most Beautiful ASCII Bauble: Candy Box !
Candy Box ! was the first in an oncoming storm of so-called ‘idle games’ that ran office productivity into negative numbers. Running silently in the background of every office computer while we collectively pretended to adjust equations on spreadsheets or follow what happened in last night’s Breaking Bad, Candy Box ! took us on one of this year’s most absurdist ASCII journeys. When careening through castles in a hunt for a giant dragon, it is hard to imagine that the tale began with you throwing candy on the ground for no apparent reason.
Followed by further devil’s work, Cookie Clicker and A Dark Room (which reads and plays like a Cormac McCarthy novel by the way), Candy Box ! led the charge as a game that offers not only a ridiculous experience that you simply must go and play right this very moment before the year is out, but demonstrates how, with the right lack of creative direction and French je ne sais quoi, Farmville could have been a bizarre subversive gem so many years ago.
– Christopher Floyd
Deepest Rabbit Hole: Dota 2
The sign that my interest in Dota 2 was reaching alarming levels happened during this year’s E3 in LA. While perusing the smorgasbord of nouveau gaming delights, I received an email from my friend Aaron. Over the course of six or so paragraphs, he proceeded to enthuse about a great match he had played the night before. I stood in the middle of the show floor, glued to each and every word. What had started out as a casual weekly dip into competitive eSports quickly dissolved into two or more hours every evening. The less said about weekends the better.
Dota 2 was my Game of the Year in 2013. It captured the zeitgeist like nothing else and I watched many a once-diligent human (well, writer) begin spitting mad game about jungling, tier-twos, split-lane pushes, denials and going Rosh. Dota 2 is punishing in ways that few modern games are these days, and a hard-won victory tastes all the sweeter for it.
2013 saw the continually steady rise of eSports in the western market. Dota 2 feels like the culmination of it.
– Christopher Floyd
Best Choose Your Own Choose Your Own Adventure: Stanley Parable
This paragraph is supposed to be about The Stanley Parable. Problem is, this paragraph will always consist of the same words in the same order, every time you read it. The game starts off pretending to be the story of a disillusioned pencil-pusher whose coworkers have mysteriously vanished. A disembodied narrator supposedly guides players by describing the actions Stanley takes, such as “Stanley took the door on the left.” But if players take the door on the right, the story of Stanley and his office quickly flies right off the rails. The result is a game with many possible endings with vastly different conclusions. In some, Stanley dies. In others, the narrator urges players to turn the game off, as it’s the only way to avoid Stanley’s death. In others, the narrator gets confused and asks you to make up a story on your own. Witty, weird and seemingly infinite in its possible paths and endings, The Stanley Parable is easily one of the most unique games of 2013.
– Jill Scharr
Best Road Trip Without Zombies: Kentucky Route Zero
If you were to ask me the best way to play Kentucky Route Zero, I’d tell you to do a lot of staring. I’d tell you to drink a little something to calm yourself down (bourbon is the best choice here) and spend some time staring deep into your screen taking it all in. Settle in, finding comfort in the illogical, the unreasonable, the surreal meanderings of Kentucky Route Zero.
The main protagonist of Kentucky Route Zero has a canine sidekick that really serves as a stand-in for the player. Like that old hound, we follow the protagonist around and observe, taking it all in and sharing in the ethos, but contributing little. The game describes the dog this way: “An old hound in a straw hat. Both have seen better days.” That’s exactly right. We’re worn down, tired of the redundant, predictably pandering and action-packed nature of videogames. When Kentucky Route Zero showed up, we’d be happy to follow. We just need a stiff drink. Something to help us relinquish control for a little while.
You’ll have to click around a bit during this game, telling your protagonist where to go and what to say. That’s part of the play. But then there’s the staring. Then there’s the awe. Then there’s the wonder.
– Richard Clark
Best Road Trip With Zombies: The Last of Us
You go into The Last of Us sorta knowing the road you’re going down. There’s Joel, the grizzled survivor, emotionally shut off, willing to do anything to survive, and Ellie, the young teenager who is immune to the disease that turns people into flesh eating monsters, literally symbolizing hope. There will be a long journey, and they will eventually grow closer as it goes on, triumphing over zombies and gun wielding scavengers. This arc has been sketched in hundreds of bars, on hundreds of napkins.
You go into The Last of Us sorta knowing the feeling of the combat. That stealth-stealth-stealth-ohshittheyspottedme-shootshootshootshoot rhythm of the game. Maybe you, too, played hours of Manhunt in high school. It is tense and thrilling and creates the type of moments where you sigh with relief because you cannot believe you made it through. This isn’t easy to do, but it can be copied. And has. And will be.
You go into The Last of Us sorta knowing the Naughty Dog style. Polished isn’t even the word. They sand, varnish and wax everything. They are bringing this Hollywood blockbuster mentality that would be patronizing if they didn’t keep proving how damned effective it is.
I expected all of these, but didn’t really expect how quiet it’d be. Subtle is not the right word, but this is about as understated a game this big can get. The Last of Us lets moments breath and allows itself to be quiet for a moment. We can imagine a version of this game that didn’t invest in small moments, a game that was all guns, zombies and blood. That didn’t take its time selling how broken Joel is and what was taken away from Ellie. Year after year, AAA games feel less and less relevant. The Last of Us is about the strongest case for them this year.
– Filipe Salgado
The Franz Kafka Award for Best Desk Job Simulation: Papers, Please
Papers, Please is weaponized monotony. Endless lines of hard-faced immigrants, labyrinthine regulations governing who is permitted to enter the glorious republic of Arstotzka, and a ticking clock counting down the seconds until the end of your shift and your inevitable confrontation with the icy fingers and empty bellies of the loving family your inattention to detail has failed. It’s spot-the-difference at an obsessive level; every passport you approve is accompanied by the fear that you’ve erred, that after five seconds of holding your breath that accursed printer will whir into action, spitting its damning citations across your already-crowded desk.
So absorbing are the minutiae that the stories creep up on you: lovers separated by barbed wire and high walls; separatists and their conspiracies; the ever-present threat of your neighbors and superiors rooting out corruption and disloyalty in the ranks; and morning newspapers full of murderers, attempted coups and the chaotic detritus of a crumbling regime. Papers, Please is at its best when it forces you to face the human cost of your petty compromises, and instead of being defined by their documents, the grim masses queuing at the border resolve once more into people.
– Rob Haines
Game of the Year: Gone Home
As soon as I finished my first play-through of Gone Home, I knew it was going to be Unwinnable’s Game of the Year. It hit all the right notes – it was nostalgic, it had a bit of punk rock attitude, it had the trappings of a horror game and artfully subverted the expectations those trappings brought.
More than anything, though, it was unlike anything I had ever played before. I don’t mean the first person mechanics or even the exploration narrative, but rather the fact that Gone Home is a game about love. And not just any kind of love, but that giddy, confusing, all-consuming first love, the one that gets you hooked and coming back for more, relationship after relationship. Somehow, the folks at The Fullbright Company managed to capture the essence of that love, the buzz, the ups and downs, the craziness, the exasperation, the gut churning, the joy. It is something everyone has felt and Gone Home conjures that memory in a way that no game has ever done before, and in a way that could only be done in a videogame.
– Stu Horvath