The Christmas Blog Series 2 (VII) – The Top 15 Video Games of 2013 (5-1)

This is the final section of my Top 15 games of 2013 – in which the top 5 are counted down.

 No.5 – Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Xbox 360)

Too often, narrative-focused games are criticised for failing mechanically; they are too restrictive or unengaging in terms of what the player can do, or focus more on exploration without resistance and let the reasoning elements fall outside the game engine. Brothers instead melded mechanics and narrative almost perfectly – the player was tasked with controlling the actions of a set of twins in a simple platform/puzzle game, with each character controlled with a different joystick. The result was a very thematic game and one which made the most of its straightforward controls; although the moves needed were simple ones, controlling two characters simultaneously added a new level of challenge – and the subtle differences in control and handling, and the need for one character or the other to attempt certain sections alone, added complexity and depth. Yet the real joy of the game was its story – told silently and entirely through gestures, much like the hugely successful Journey. Telling a story without significant recourse to dialogue and uninteractive cutscenes, and instead using mannerisms and brief interludes in the action to create characters, is something games can do very well; the player controls the character, but seeing how the commands are translated into action is a vital characterisation tool – and the differences in the way this is done between the twins in Brothers provides neat insights into their personalities and relationship. This level of subtlety is ultimately what defines the game – it trusts the player to spot the small touches.

 

No.4 – Pokemon X/Y (3DS)

Pokemon is a series that does not need to innovate significantly, only to refine; its design is simple and yet in-depth enough to be engrossing. However despite this, the series’ past entries had increasingly tried too hard to innovate, adding vast amounts of content to play through but losing some of the interest. The new creature designs felt uninspired, the online aspects seemed poorly thought through and there were risks it was simply going through the motions. X/Y represented the move onto the 3DS for the series, and saw a much-needed revival. Online systems were streamlined, and “Wonder Trade” added to allow players to gamble their duplicate creatures with anonymous blind swaps. Furthermore, the game’s story and setting were brought back to the charming simplicity of the earlier entries, with less of a sense of arbitrary busywork and more of a sense of exploration and the opening up of the world. The result was a title that felt like it remembered what had initially made the series good, and simply added to this in ways that complemented the design.

 

No.3 – 868-Hack (iOS)

A combination of board-game and rogue-like adventure game, 868-Hack is an intensely challenging solitaire experience built around a simple, random structure. The player must guide their playing-piece to the exit of eight consecutive boards, with an enemy appearing every few movements. Each board is also populated with items to collect, many of which will summon fresh enemies, and the risk-reward balance comes in knowing when to take a specific item and when to pass on it. That is the visible aspect of the game – the challenge is further compounded by invisible modifiers applied as the player completes more boards in succession, with every eighth board unlocking a new potential item to appear in the item-boxes. It is an abstract yet highly thematic game – its setting is an ill-defined virtual world filled with “ICE”-like intruder countermeasures, implying a cyberpunk theme, yet it is resolutely in its grids and playing-pieces a board game and the attention to design is impressive. It lays out clearly enough the rules of the game – how enemies move, what items do and so on – and then randomises the distribution of elements to provide continued challenge, while adding depth as the player’s skill increases.

 

No.2 – Remember Me (Multiplatform)

Remember Me was possibly the most authentically cyberpunk – in its proper, anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate sense – game for some time. Deus Ex Human Revolution may have explored the overreaching of science and presented a world dominated by industry, but Remember Me focused front and centre on the lengths to which someone would go to address society’s problems – from both sides. Its antagonist was a perfect foil to the compromised antiheroes popular in post-apocalyptic fiction, the natural endpoint to protectivity and parental control, while its protagonist was presented as a cipher, a naif entering a truly compromised world and being appalled by it. In many ways it was this honesty in storytelling – the willingness to show both how compromised a society can become and how appalled an outsider would be at entering such a world – that defined it. This was then complicated by the memory-alteration sequences, which while sparingly used provided key moments of punctuation to the story – the modus operandi of the protagonist was shown to be quite inhumane, and yet also just the natural extension of the society depicted’s chasing of soma-like naïve happiness. That a game could make doing the unthinkable – from a sheltered, apatheticly content perspective – seem natural and justified while also making its exaggerated villains seem natural, credible products of its world was something quite special – it proved that even in a heightened, stylised world one could tell a subtle and believable story.

 

No.1 – Rayman Legends (Multiplatform)

Rayman Legends was a textbook example of how to provide a sequel to the apparently impossible to top. Its predecessor, Rayman Origins, was a spectacular revival of the 2D platformer on home consoles, using the full capacities of then current-gen hardware to create an expansive and rewarding game. Legends built on this by, much as fan favourite Sonic & Knuckles did for Sonic 3, allowing players to play both the original and the new game with all the mechanical and visual updates the sequel brought. Effectively two full games integrated neatly together, players could access the redesigned Origins levels as rewards for mastering Legends – ensuring that no repetition was needed to see the new game while building up a library of post-game content a little at a time. User-friendliness, rather than simplified accessibility, was the chief design goal – players were given significant freedom to explore levels in an order they chose – allowing the player to experience the game how they wanted without ever compromising the core design and progression. Furthermore, it was a platform game built with significant understanding of what makes the genre good – levels introduced mechanics then built on them in increasingly stressed situations without the need for extensive stopping and starting, and the boss fights – often a source of frustration in lesser games – followed a similar pattern of adding complexity. Ultimately, Legends is a game which encompasses everything good about video games – it is straightforward enough mechanically for anyone to attempt, colourful and fantastical and designed with an attention to detail that means even when it is difficult, the correct way to succeed is always clear. If video games are an evolving medium, games like Legends should serve as a textbook for designers in how to revitalise an old and saturated genre without needing to compromise what defines it.

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