With another year safely in the books, we’re doing what we do best: listing compulsively.
15. Miasmata (IonFX)
Most games about survival rely on horror genre tropes for their thrills, but in Miasmata the thrills come from survival itself. The game doesn’t try to scare you so much as keep you on edge as often as possible. You’re alone and dying on a huge island, and you must scour the land looking for rare flowers to synthesize a cure for your illness. You fill in the initially blank map by physically triangulating your position, all the while keeping in mind that there’s an invincible panther beast lurking about that could attack at any time.
The Creature provides tension, to be sure, but it also acts as a disruptive agent to force you to flee into uncharted territory. Once you’re thoroughly lost, it’ll take all of the cunning, persistence, and luck you can muster to get unlost. However, doing so is also incredibly gratifying, like solving a puzzle without a pre-designed solution. You don’t just feel smart, you feel resilient, like an explorer. In these moments, awe, relief, and satisfaction coalesce to create a sense of discovery. In a world that often feels like you’ve seen it all before, especially when it comes to videogames, Miasmata offers a space where genuine discovery can occur. A rare find, indeed. — Dan Solberg
14. Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games)
There’s so much that BioShock Infinite gets wrong. Its satire of the peculiar mix of politics, religion, and xenophobia that fuels American exceptionalism seemed to hold such promise, but the real human cost of history has been so often flattened into two dimensions that even the unapologetic racist militarism of Columbia’s Hall of Heroes is difficult to read as parody. Failed ambition can’t excuse, however, the moral indifference of Infinite’s later levels, and the facile moral equivalence between Columbia and the oppressed people who would rise up against it. Draping itself in the cliché that violence makes monsters of us all, the game creates a slaughterhouse where faction only matters insofar as it determines which weapon the player can reload.
It is, perhaps, not accidental then that the best parts of BioShock Infinite are when the player isn’t shooting, but discovering songs that are familiar but not quite recognizable, and the most powerful commentary comes when the player walks through the literal architecture of oppression. BioShock Infinite is rightly criticized as a game with a story built on concepts of choice and contingency but whose play doesn’t allow for either. It’s all almost redeemed in the moment near the end where a door opens and the game becomes just for an instant about narrative itself, the way that we tell stories again and again, always the same and always slightly different. Almost. Maybe we’ll get it better next time. — Gavin Craig
13. Device 6 (Simogo)
A ten-year-old version of myself would have thought eBooks were going to be a lot more exciting than the modern reality. I mean, electronic books, man: those words conjure up something wilder than the ultimately mundane wonder of storing millions of digital pages on a palm-sized device. They sound fantastic enough to describe digital stories replete with sound effects, pictures, and maybe even interactive plot points.
Simogo’s Device 6 is that exact retro futurist take on eBooks. The text literally winds around hallways to match the story’s description of twisting castle passages; prose describing the increasing volume of nearby music is matched with a gradually loudening song; unravelling the game’s puzzles relies as much on player ingenuity as it does an ability to make use of an iPad or iPhone’s built-in features. The story, too, is lifted from a vision of the present formed by someone living in the past. The narrative is tied, umbilical-like, to the (obviously relatable) concept of experiencing the world through an iOS-styled wünderdevice, but is presented with the kind of wide-eyed optimism of an era in which robot butlers were a serious expectation. All of it, from aesthetics to plot, makes Device 6 feel like a whole new kind of book—one that embraces technological innovation as a means to experiment with storytelling techniques. — Reid McCarter
12. Ni No Kuni (Level-5)
The famed animation house Studio Ghibli was shaken up this year when its figurehead, master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, announced his retirement. The studio’s films disregard the Disney model of force-fed happy endings and opt for more poetic and dreamy fare. Ni No Kuni, Studio Ghibli’s first foray into videogames, is no different: it follows a little boy with a tragic motive and his escape to a place both familiar and alien all at once. It is an environment brimming with magic and emotional depth, from a fully developed wizard language to little Pokemon-esque companions that help in battle.
So if Miyazaki’s controversial last film, The Wind Rises, marked the official end of the Miyazaki era, perhaps Ni No Kuni is a swan song for the JRPG. It is a game just as achingly beautiful and heartfelt as the studio’s top works and an ode to every hour gleefully poured into artfully minded movies and games alike. Comparisons to Spirited Away and My Friend Totoro can and should be made, for, if you can recall, those narratives also grant their protagonists portals where they go to escape. Ni No Kuni is that portal, actualized, for us. — Lyndsey Edelman
11. Metal Gear Rising (PlatinumGames)
Metal Gear games are the most hybrid works of a hybrid medium. Kojima’s “tactical espionage action” franchise isn’t just about gadgetry, Bond themes, comic book mythology, and the fourth wall, but also live action video essays, hours of radio, and crossovers with Ape Escape. But somehow, the action purists at PlatinumGames cut the everything bagel of Kojima’s consciousness into something lean and elemental. The exotic particles of MGS are still spinning around in there, inside cardboard boxes and monologues about “the war economy,” but they’re all in orbit around one huge idea that structures every conflict in the game.
MGR commits everything to the electric second of collision, the point where two forces meet and one is turned back. Raiden is wired to face every challenge head-on: he counters by literally attacking the direction an attack comes from. The system is brutally fair, forcing players to match enemies strike for strike to block a combo. When you nail the timing, Raiden steps into the attack and logic retreats from it. The gnashing of guitars gets louder, foes slow to a crawl, and the player goes apeshit, slicing soldiers into segments that spill from the trunks of their bodies like crackers from a ripped tube.
The game’s lack of a magic shield or easy roll alienated some players, but Platinum’s maniacal focus on timing over positioning has led to the freshest and most fluid action game in ages. MGR’s ecstatic violence makes the staid combos of DmC look like Guy Savage, and its preposterous story makes Metal Gear feel like a joke Kojima was already in the middle of telling. The combat system models MGR’s own unlikely development: a creative explosion caused by the meeting of two great forces. — Chris Breault
10. 868-Hack (Michael Brough)
868-HACK does a lot with a little. As a freelance hacker (because of the phone number title) in a cyberpunk retrofuture (there’s both a near-monochrome CRT aesthetic and a mention of apartments in “low earth orbit”), you steal and sell “important data.” The nature of the data or your clients is never revealed. The actual act of hacking is abstracted into an economic, roguelike puzzle game, where, surprisingly enough for a Michael Brough game, there’s a tutorial to explain the basics. In the small playing area there’s just one limited resource for gaining important data, useful programs and the resources to use them. Again, “a lot with a little”: nearly everything serves more than one purpose. Cells that hold items also act as walls. The floor is a loot drop. Invest time in the game and you begin to foresee consequences—up to nine enemies spawn for every cell you open—and regret opportunity costs—you should have grabbed more data, fewer programs. You anticipate three or four moves into the future and you think about how you could combine this and that program to get out of a tricky spot. 868-HACK may be easier to learn than some of Brough’s other work, but its brilliance lies in being just as hard to master. — James Dilks
9. Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics)
Tomb Raider accomplishes the tricky feats of shedding the baggage of its predecessors while remaining true to their spirit and stealing from the best of its contemporaries. But the trickiest feat it pulls off is seeming, after all that, like its own entity entirely. The Lara Croft we meet in this reboot is better for being more human, and even if she loses a little of that humanity after shooting her hundred-and-fiftieth cultist in the head with an arrow, we’re not very disposed to complain, because goodness is that bow satisfying. Perhaps even more compelling than Lara’s transformation from frightened castaway into “survivor” is the game’s setting—the island of Yamatai is one of the most beautiful and sinister jungle gyms we’ve ever had the pleasure of scrambling across, and can rightfully take its place beside Rapture and Arkham Asylum in the hall of potent game worlds. Tomb Raider isn’t perfect, but it does so many things so well that one might be too busy having fun to notice. — Nathaniel Ewert-Krocker
8. Saints Row IV (Deep Silver Volition)
The Saints Row series started off as a freewheeling, arcade-y Grand Theft Auto clone with an even ruder sense of humor. The difference between the two franchises is made stark by their distinct driving experiences. In Saints Row, you go careening over sidewalks, plowing through lampposts that shred like tissue paper. In GTA, you jockey and creep through unforgiving traffic, slamming to a dead halt against indestructible lampposts. It’s a contest between fast, free, generous physics and lumbering, fastidious, restrictive ones, and for me, Saints Row winds up coming out on top. Its blockbuster fourth installment opens with you climbing on a huge, hurtling rocket to the strains of Aerosmith’s “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” and the volume stays cranked to 11 from there.
This is also where Saints Row definitively breaks from its copycat origins, all but eliminating driving with unlikely but brilliantly implemented superpowers. It feels intuitive and uniquely gratifying to move through the world, fluidly running up skyscrapers and then effortlessly gliding, high above a city that bristles with absorbing mini-games (the ragdoll physics insanity of Insurance Fraud is consummate Saints), which threaten to upstage the main quest. While the series is often noted for its dumb, juvenile humor—it’s “Sex Appeal” slider and its dubstep guns—less often remarked is the furiously inventive game design surrounding it. The Matrix-like story concept gives the designers free rein to dream up hilarious meta-video-gaming set pieces, such as when the game takes the style of 16-bit brawler Streets of Rage. Saints Row IV has immense replay value simply because it’s a joy to play in. While I admire the rigor and polish of GTA, I’ll take empowering fun over fastidious realism every time. — Brian Howe
7. Proteus (Ed Key and David Kanaga)
Proteus is more than a game; it is a battleground. On this procedurally-generated island, Ed Key and his supporters fought a rhetorical battle for legitimacy and inclusion. And by all appearances, they won.
Whether you find the game itself beautiful, entrancing, thought-provoking, or something else is almost beside the point (I find it by turns aggravatingly boring and pleasantly boring). What matters is that, in the wake of Proteus, game designers can create an experience that lacks or de-emphasizes most of the key elements that have usually been associated with videogames in their short history (goals, discrete quantifiable outcomes, competition), frame that experience as a game, and feel they have a chance of being taken seriously. That Proteus does this with such style—such wild hues of orange and blue, such shimmering sounds—only proves how silly the debate was to start. Is Proteus really a game? Well, it’s on Steam, isn’t it? — Ilya Zarembsky
6. Fire Emblem Awakening (Intelligent Systems)
Last February, a funny thing happened. A Fire Emblem game was released on Western shores and people loved it. Like, loved-loved it. Capital “L” Love. Perhaps the game’s relationship system rubbed off on its players, whereby warriors on the battlefield grow enamored with each other to the point of, in some cases, marriage. Children are born; heirs fight alongside their parents. Then someone dies. You’ll find no 1-Ups here. The dead are buried, the living trudge on.
The permanence of death is a franchise staple, but more than ever the wartime misery is festooned by jaunty quips and long-running gags. On the field you move characters as chess pieces on a board; after the battle, they flirt, exchange recipes, play pranks. What else to do when tomorrow might bring the endless sleep awaiting us all?
Awakening is the thirteenth game in a series born long ago on the Famicom. Yet we outside of Japan have only wielded our swords for a decade, starting with the release of Fire Emblem on the Game Boy Advance. That the newest is titled “Awakenings” speaks to the creators’ intent: to finally capture the interest of a sleepy populace. That they succeeded is evidence against a widespread misconception of videogame players. We like to fight, yes. But we also like to love. — Jon Irwin