This is the first of three articles counting down my top 15 video games of 2013. It is not supposed to be anything more than those games I enjoyed playing the most – and any omissions are either because I never played them, or I did but enjoyed these 15 more.
No.15 – Crush (iOS)
The block-puzzle game is a gaming standard, and yet a genre with significant scope for innovation. Like many abstract game genres (particularly among board games), innovation comes in the form of applying existing mechanics in new combinations, or finding some other fashion of expanding the design space. Abstraction makes this significantly easier; if there is no specific theme necessitating a unifying design (for example a trading-themed game must be aesthetically based on its theme and mechanically based around some economic period or market), then “unrealistic” interactions are more possible. Crush is a good example of the block-puzzle game; it can easily be described both in terms of other games but also in more generic terms, and nevertheless plays differently to many of its competitors thanks to the subtle differences in design. The premise is simple – coloured shapes fall towards the bottom of the screen and must be removed by touching them. Every so many blocks removed unlocks an ability to remove more blocks more quickly. As the game progresses, the blocks fall faster and the time between ability uses increases, making failure inevitable. Ultimately, Crush shows well how touch mechanics are adding to the potential design space of puzzle games, and how simple skill-based games are the most inclusive and rewarding.
No.14 – Runner 2 (Multiplatform)
Runner 2 took the endless runner genre onto consoles both aesthetically and mechanically; while its predecessor, Bit.Trip Runner, had used a mock-Spectrum aesthetic, Runner 2 used a surreal version of the anthropomorphised worlds of the 8- and 16- bit console platformer. It also kept the traditional obstacles and pitfalls of these games; the level structures and general UI choices effectively evoked old platform games while – like other retro reimaginings that are currently in vogue – combining this with newer game mechanics. It was not a perfect game – the endless runner nature of it, while cleverly combined with traditional platform reflex tests, was still lacking something of the level-design complexity of a more free-flowing game and while for the most part the obstacles could be reacted to in advance there were moments when the controls did not quite react fast enough to beat a level first time. Nevertheless, it was aesthetically interesting and packed full of challenges to tackle – a lengthy, enjoyable game which had some novel and highly refreshing level design aspects. Chief among these was that the different routes all permitted “100%” completion of a level – a realisation that simply having different levels of challenge within a level was not enough to encourage improvement by separating collectibles from the high-score collection aspects.
No.13 – Far Cry Blood Dragon (Multiplatform)
Often, retro-gaming pastiches tread a thin line between slavish, flaws-and-all, recreation and genuine innovation that makes the styling seem superficial and unneeded. Nostalgia on its own is not enough to make a game good for the simple reason that aesthetics alone do not define a game. Similarly, a game based on references to past pop culture must have its own identity outside of them, because purely referential humour is exclusive and dates a work the instant it is created. Blood Dragon was designed with this in mind – it had the aesthetic of a mid-90s sci-fi shooter and a library of jokes referencing classic action films – yet what it showed more than any commentary on nostalgia or collective indulgence in pop culture was how little games had changed since those it parodied were current. The actual changes in game mechanics – for Blood Dragon used the engine and UI of the technically acclaimed Far Cry 3 – made the experience of playing it in line with modern gaming, but the fact that it still felt like its sources on a level beyond the aesthetic – in terms of physics, enemy animations and behaviour and so on – made it serve as as good an incidental commentary on how games have not really innovated as any intentional one. Yet rather than being a negative, this made the game if anything more enjoyable to play because it was a game that acknowledged sometimes simplicity and escapism are all that is needed.
No.12 – Papers, Please (PC)
Papers, Please is a game that seems to have divided some audiences; it is not specifically fun to play. However, my first impression of it was that it was an educational tool and potentially a very useful one. Some educational software limits player choice while still providing an illusion of being some other kind of game – it invites experimentation and then forces the player back to the intended outcome to make its educational point. This is because it exists in an environment where the educational game must be a complete teaching tool, introducing the concepts of a topic and providing the learning outcomes. Nowadays, though, educational software can exist more easily as an adjunct to teaching – there is less of the concept of a “computer room lesson” and more of an integration of different media into lessons. Here a game like Papers, Please fits ideally. It does not explicitly teach any messages with expository text or ground its story in a specific era, it simply presents events for the player to experience, limiting their choice openly and obviously. In this way, the player is playing a role – in this case of an immigration officer – and learning about the tools of tyranny and oppression by investigation. It serves as a good adjunct to teaching about migration, or historically about the Cold War (via its association of the issues with a pastiche Eastern European setting) – not specifically replacing a textbook, but perhaps as the “next step” in a lesson, offering a fictional reconstruction of events taught via real-world examples.
No.11 – Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)
Fire Emblem games are very pure, refined turn-based strategy games; at their highest difficulty levels they require mathematical planning to beat levels without losing units, and almost-perfect resource management. Yet Awakening appealed more to many players because of its writing. The core gameplay was a good evolution of the core series’ design, with paired attacks adding another level of tension and a much more in-depth class system which permitted some truly exceptional manipulation to create super-characters. The story was perfunctory, a straightforward fantasy adventure made exceptional in the telling. This was entirely because of the character relationships, and the sheer volume of between-mission conversations which made the player’s party feel far more fleshed-out and interesting than they might have otherwise seemed. There was an excitement in using characters in new combinations to see how their friendships would evolve, and the combination of inherited and shared skills and charming vignettes made the between-mission character management as much playing matchmaker as seeking the most strategically-optimal combination of units in a game. Yet in some ways this was the game’s main failing; so many of the secret characters had none of these fun interactions and so there felt less incentive to use them.