A DLC add-on. A trippy mobile psychodrama. A triumphant rebirth. A chilling sci-fi future. A giant arcade cabinet that lives in New York City. This is what I'll remember most about my video game experiences in 2013.
Some of what I loved this year told great stories, tapped into my own ancestral history or messed with my reflexes or perception. All of it surprised me.
Assassin's Creed IV: Freedom Cry
Until Edward Kenway's adventure showed up this fall, I hadn't played an Assassin's Creed game since 2010's Brotherhood. The long time away made Black Flag's success shine even brighter as the open world feels even more alive than before and the sense of re-imagined history comes across as even more impressive. But it's the Freedom Cry DLC—which was set in the land of my ancestors and connected to me on a personal level—that made this Ubisoft title one of the most special things I played all year.
The previous games in Lara Croft's video game lifeline may have told us, as a matter of course, that she had hopes, dreams or needs. But I, for one, never felt like they were real and urgent. Tomb Raider 2013 is the first game to make me feel connected to this iconic video game character and part of what made it so gripping was the imperative to make sure Lara survived the horrors of the cursed island she was trapped on. Wherever she goes next, I will follow.
I love third-person action/adventure games and, even though it came out early on in 2013, fond memories of Ninja Theory's re-imagining of Capcom's stylish action series have stayed with me all year. DmC offered a great sense of flow and improvisation and let players customize their upgrades to prioritize their particular playstyles. I also liked the game's global–elite-as-demons metaphor and Dante's more emotionally relatable personality. Different? Yes. But connected enough to what came before to make me remember why I liked Devil May Cry in the first place.
Need For Speed Rivals
I was skeptical about how impressed I'd be by any next-gen launch title. Then I played Need for Speed Rivals. And I couldn't stop playing. Sure, it upgrades the visuals and the iterates on some pre-existing infrastructure. But Ghost Games' racing game does so in such an attractive way that it made me look forward to the evolution of other games that I thought I knew well enough already.
This first effort from Dontnod Entertainment clearly needed more time in the oven but I was wholly won over by the fantastic world-building and overarching conceit in Remember Me. Clunkiness aside, the game's signature Memory Remix sequences delivered moments that I'd never played in a game before. Here's hoping we haven't seen the last of Nilin.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
All too often, the way that you play a game is just the means to an end. In Brothers, the control scheme is a way to both disorient the player and forge a deeper connection to the two playable characters. Ultimately, you feel certain emotions specifically because of how you play the game, not just because of how it's scripted. A very big achievement from a small game.
Injustice: Gods Among Us
Surprisingly, nothing felt wrong about getting pure, unmitigated fan service in this DC Comics fighting game. You knew you were getting an alternate-reality version of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the other allies and enemies of the Justice League. So, it didn't feel weird to have them beating the hell out of each other. Moreover, this is the playable version of the kinds of arguments that superhero fans have been having for decades. Feels good to have Aquaman kick Green Lantern's ass, doesn't it?
This was a different kind of scary. One that crept into the periphery of your vision and made you tilt your phone to peel away the layers of reality. The mobile game from Simogo managed to home in on something existential, forcing players to glance at both an iPad and iPhone to keep a grip on reality. There was nothing like it at all this year.
Bennett Foddy's Speed Chess
Take a game known inside and out all over the world. Digitize the system, put an emphasis on quickness and chaos and throw it into a mosh pit of sixteen players. The result for Bennett Foddy was a memorable and utterly unique on chess. I only played it one night of the year but Bennett Foddy's Speed Chess stayed with me for the rest of 2013. It reminds me of what I love about game design, which is that—in the right hands—it can take familiar forms and invigorate them with new freshness.
I'm old enough to remember the video game arcade emporiums of the 1970s, '80s and '90s. The feeling of standing up and watching someone author a virtuoso interactive performance in a flash of hot seconds. Killer Queen multiplied that sensation by pitting groups of players against each other in action/strategy scrums. Like Speed Chess, it was part of NYU's No Quarter exhibition and something that was specific to a certain time and place. Opportunities to play aren't as ubiquitous as so many other games but that makes the experience so much sweeter.