I may barely understand them. I might have hardly played them. They might not have been released in 2013. That doesn’t mean that these games weren't some of my favorite experiences of the year.
Game of the year lists are difficult. I try to keep things pretty strict: no ties for particular spots, no games that came out last year, only games I’ve finished (or have invested significant time into if they’re multiplayer or sports games). In fact, Jorge Albor and I limit ourselves to three each on our yearly Game of the Year show.
However, that’s not to say I don’t have lots more that either didn’t make the coveted top-three cut or were disqualified due to one of my self-imposed technicalities. This week, I’ll highlight some of these games.
Proteus came out last January and may have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle as the year went on, but it has remained in my mind all these months later. It’s one of those games that reignites the old “Is this a game discussion?” It takes place in a first person perspective, but there’s no shooting, no dialogue, and no explicit instructions on what to do. This certainly doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a message. Like Flower or Journey, it tells a story through visuals, sound, and its controls. The visuals themselves are like an impressionist painting, and they do a good job encapsulating the mysterious quality that pervades the entire game. It’s clear that the world is full of things; you just have to do some interpretation to figure out (or decide) what you’re looking at.
This is beautifully demonstrated by a video I shot that began with me leading Jorge on a tour and that ended up showing me secrets that took me completely by surprise.
Super Mario 3D World
They may not dominate the landscape as they once did, but when Nintendo brings its A game, no one can touch them. I came to Super Mario 3D World late in the year and immediately cursed myself for not playing it as soon as possible. Who would have thought that the team that brought you Super Mario Galaxy, one of the most inventive platformers ever created, would knock it out of the park again? Everyone, that’s who.
The game deserves more space for analysis than I can give it here, but it is an outstanding combination of control and level design. Running and jumping through the multi-tiered levels feels precise, while the game simultaneously telegraphs and disguises the obstacles ahead that you have to avoid. New power ups like the cat suit that lets you scale vertical surfaces forces you to look at levels differently. The course clock gets its teeth back and more than once I found myself scrambling to the flag pole as the final seconds ticked down. Finally, it takes the frantic multiplayer of the New Super Mario Bros. series, shaves off some of the rough edges, and encourages more cooperation in the game through challenges that require multiple characters to complete. I’ve only now unlocked the special courses, and the challenge that they pose mean that I’ll be playing this game well into 2014.
Technically Dota 2 “released” in 2013, but it’s been around for a while and has slowly iterated into the massive juggernaut it is today. It’s the most-played game on Steam, but it’s also one of the more impenetrable ones. I’ve played a few matches, watched several, and read plenty of articles and I still barely have a clue as to how to play the game. The game is staggeringly deep, minute item stats can end up costing you the match, as can a single bad decision to venture too far away from base. Make a poor choice and your gold reserves are gutted. Let your attention wander and you’re not getting last hits on your enemies (and therefore no extra gold) or you’re neglecting to kill your own damaged NPCs in order to deny other players the benefits of doing so themselves. Forget to buy a town scroll and you’ll be hoofing it back to base. It’s deep in the way that professional football is deep. Positions, choices, and gear are hyper contextual yet also dictated by meta-game strategies.
However, the most fascinating thing to me are all of the things surrounding the game. It’s free to play, and all the characters are unlocked from the start. The game is supported by completely optional (and cosmetic) character modifications. I’ll never truly understand it, but seeing items sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars is astonishing. Similarly impressive is the most robust spectating client I’ve ever used in a game. Dota 2 is a game, but it’s also a a channel for competitive Dota, which also happens to be a thriving community hub. Dota 2 is an amazing game, but it’s also a striking view of what the future of eSports looks like.
Spelunky, the HD re-release, technically came out in 2012, but it’s still the game that creeps into my thoughts throughout the day. I love Spelunky the way some people love Dota 2. It’s ridiculously challenging, but ultimately fair, and that difficulty forces you to understand the mechanics in a way that few games do. You can have an overarching strategy, but it all comes down to being able to perform under extreme pressure and in the face of harsh consequences. The game doesn’t reveal its secrets, which has spawned a thriving community around documenting and sharing information about enemy behavior, item use, and tactics. There is almost limitless depth to the systems. The simple act of throwing a rock off a ledge springs a trap that wings a shopkeeper who then fires his gun that blasts a cache of dynamite to pieces, which in turn starts a huge boulder rumbling towards you, as you run for your life towards the exit. All because you wanted to drop a rock that you were holding.
Spelunky's randomly generated worlds and hilariously tragic deaths make it an ideal spectator sport. Venture onto any video site and you’re sure to find someone that is playing Spelunky live. Combine that with the PC version’s daily challenge, in which everyone gets one chance to play the same level, and you have a game that perfectly encapsulates a new social gaming movement. Even single player games can connect you to other players, thereby turning a good run into something that is both an intense challenge and a performance piece.
I imagine Spelunky, along with many other games from 2013 and before, will find a permanent place on my expanded games of the year list for some time to come.