As December draws to a close, it's time to look back on the last 12 months and reflect on the best games that we played (besides our own, of course). Overall 2013 has been a great year for independent games, which a large number of standout titles stealing the spotlight away from the blockbuster releases. Let's take a moment to recognize the places where these games excelled, and give out some silly awards in the process.
Warning: There be spoilers ahead.
Best Game to Play with Friends: PAYDAY 2
Just like a Hollywood heist movie, your success in PAYDAY 2's action packed missions rides largely on who you have in your crew. The only thing more thrilling than a tense shoot out with the cops as you provide cover for your buddies to run bags of cash to the getaway car is pulling off the whole job with such great teamwork that you don't trigger a single alarm.
Runner up: Divekick
Most Ridiculous Add-on: Just Cause 2 Multiplayer
What's cooler than a game that lets you surf on the top of a jumbo jet? One that lets you set up elaborate jet-riding jousting matches with other people online. What started as a fan project to add even more craziness to an already crazy game ended up seeing a publisher approved release on steam, and the best part is that it's totally free to anyone who owns the original game.
Runner up: Saints Row IV - How the Saints Save Christmas
Highest Ratio of Quality to Number of Gameplay Mechanics: The Stanley Parable
In a year that featured two stand-out games where you walk around and click things while a narrator speaks, The Stanley Parable wins through its inventive uses of those basic mechanics. Each different possible path through the game seems to try to convince you that you are doing something completely different than the last, all while deliberately reminding you that you are just sitting at your desk clicking the move button.
Runner up: Gone Home
Best First Impression: Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite's introductory moments accomplish a number a things. Not only are several important plot points established (most of which don't make any sense until much later in the game), but Irrational manages to achieve the difficult balance of paying homage to the series' first installment while also establishing the world's own unique identity.
Runner up: Papers, Please
Best Justification For Having Spent So Much On Your PC: Tomb Raider
In all seriousness, Tomb Raider is a gorgeous looking game on the PC. Everything from the environments to the particle effects and character models look stunning, and the action feels fluid and fun at 60 fps. Not only does the game look amazing, but the visual fidelity really helps sell this new Lara as a believable character (the solid writing and storytelling help too).
Lara Croft has never been better.
Runner up: Metro Last Light
Best Use of Someone Else's Characters: Injustice - Gods Among Us
Following up their excellent reboot of the Mortal Kombat franchise, Nether Realm Studios turned their attention to the DC universe. Injustice combined fun and approachable fighting game mechanics with a solid storyline that spawned one of the year's best comic series. Their confidence in their own craft shines through in the game's title, which makes no reference at all to the fact that this game is based on a licensed property.
Runner up: Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed
Riskiest AAA Game: Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag
On paper, the idea of another yearly installment in one of the most successful franchises in modern gaming seems like an easy financial move, and the fact that Assassin's Creed 4 exists is proof of this. That said, this game presented one of the riskiest meta-narratives I have ever seen, and was a refreshing surprise from a studio as big as Ubisoft. In the game's non-pirate segments, players assume the role of an employee of Abstergo Entertainment, a video game company based in Montreal which develops the Assassin's Creed games alongside Ubisoft. Your employee's job is to play through past memories in an effort to find ideas for the next great Assassin's Creed game.
Yes, you read that right, the Assassin's Creed games exist as a product within the Assassin's Creed universe. Not only that, but at some point your fictional employee is essentially subjected to "crunch time," where you are quite literally locked in a cubicle-style prison cell and are not allowed to leave until you finish your work; it feels like a cry for help from the developers.
Oh, and did I mention that your in-game boss, Olivier Garneau, is based on a real Ubisoft employee of the same name? Seriously, how weird can this game get?
Runner up: Killer Instinct
Most Dashing Rogue: Rogue Legacy
Rogue Legacy set out to mix the roguelike elements of randomized levels, characters, and enemies with the platforming action and combat of an old Castlevania game. The result was a game that felt fresh and fun, and the developers went one step further to add a level of humour that really completes the experience. What else would you expect from the creators of Don't Shit Your Pants.
Runner up: Risk of Rain
Achievement of the Year: The Stanley Parable - Click on door 430 five times.
Not only is this achievement much more difficult than the title suggests, but it leads to an entertaining bit of narrative about the purpose of achievements as a whole.
Plus, can you really argue against having more dialogue from Kevan Brighting?
Runner up: Gunpoint - Might As Well Have An Achievement For That Too
Smartest Game: Antichamber
Antichamber's puzzles are as devious as they are brilliant. In a generation that has been dominated by games that tutorialize every single mechanic, the game constantly rewards players for learning on their own. Not only is the game intelligent and well designed, but it leaves you feeling like your own intelligence played a large role in the gameplay.
Runner up: The Stanley Parable
Most Emotions: Gone Home
Gone home is an excellent example of merging game mechanics with theme and storytelling. In this particular case, the game's story of a teenage girl discovering love and struggling with her parents' dismissive attitude towards her homosexuality is told magnificently through the player's own exploration and discovery within the old mansion. All of this is brought together by some terrific voice acting that really makes the characters feel believable.
Runner up: Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons
Best Ending: The Wolf Among Us - Episode 1 "Faith"
Telltale's newest series starts off strong with "Faith," and while the entirety of the episode is remarkably well written, it's the ending that really stood out for me. To see such an important character killed off so early in the series leaves players eagerly awaiting the next episode, and gives the impression that there is most likely much more going on behind the scenes than we were led to believe.
Runner up: Saints Row IV
Game of the Year:
Could it really have been anything else? The Stanley Parable was by far the most entertaining gaming experience that I had this year. After eagerly awaiting its release from the moment it was announced, Galactic Cafe did not disappoint. Not only did they deliver a significantly overhauled version of the original Source Engine mod, but they explicitly went out of their way to surprise their original fans with some intelligent and hilarious changes to the bits of returning content.
This is a game that prides itself on outsmarting the player at every turn. Every time you think you've found something that the creators won't have accounted for you are instead presented with a bit of dialogue from the narrator (played by the wonderfully dry-humoured Kevan Brighting) to let you know that, in fact, they know exactly what you're trying to do. Galactic Cafe even went so far as to include an ending that you can only get to by enabling the developer console and attempting to enable cheats. Every one of the game's endings presents some form of commentary on gaming as a whole, whether it be the debate over games as art, criticism about player choice in games, the industry's obsession with making players "win," and many, many more.
I would be remiss not to mention the game's excellent demo (which everyone should go and play, even if you've played the actual game), which perfectly encapsulates the tone of the game while being composed entirely of original content. For as much as the game proper is an exploration of gaming tropes, The Stanley Parable demo is a similar exploration of the tropes of video game demos, and should really be viewed as an extension of the main game.
You cannot beat The Stanley Parable; the game is always in control, and it will always win in the end. As one of the endings suggests, the only way to win the game is to quit out and not play. No matter how much you think you are defying the narrator's wishes, you will always be playing into the game's pre-scripted story.
Way back in 2011, the original mod changed the way I thought about game narratives, and now, with this much larger release, I can only hope that more people will be able to experience it and join in the conversation about what games are, and what they can be.