2013 was kind of a crazy year for me. I applied for, and was accepted to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, I started a new position at work, I made an effort to spend more time watching movies, and I prepared to move my entire life to a new location. In all of that, sadly, my time for playing games dwindled, and now, at the start of a new year, I don’t feel like I’m in any sort of position to offer a definitive “best of” list. Still, there were a few games I played in 2013 that I would like to single out and sing the praises of. These are not definitive “bests,” instead these are games that I played within the last year that most excited me about the medium and its potential for growth.
I played a lot of iOS games this year, and while it may not be the most polished or the most flashy, Blackbar is one of the most intriguing. It’s premise is deceptively simple, you are reading letters sent to you by a friend in which certain words deemed “offensive” by a censorship bureau have been redacted, and you have to fill in the blanks. What’s amazing, though, is just how empowering the whole thing feels. Each word correctly filled in feels like an act of defiance against a corrupt government, and every letter read helps establish the game’s world in a very compelling way.
There are some who have complained about the length of the game (someone with a knack for word puzzles should be able to easily knock this one out in an hour), but I think we put way too much stock in the length of games as opposed to content. The short film is just as valid a narrative format as the feature, so why shouldn’t games explore stories in short format as well? Blackbar is an incredibly timely and evocative game, and to be put off by its length is to miss a really intriguing experience.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a game that is just shy of being a masterpiece. The game is positively dripping with beauty, the single-player co-op mechanic it’s built around is an ingenious contradiction, and the story that plays out is generally well told. For me, though, there was a slight disconnect that I felt held the game back. By the end of the story, I knew I was supposed to be very deeply moved, but I just wasn’t. The reason for this is that the mechanics of the game – which are so masterfully married to the narrative for the majority of the experience – begin to contradict what the story is trying to say at the end. A moment that should be crippling and debilitating, ends up being freeing and empowering; the moment when a character in the story is at his lowest, the mechanics of the game become the easiest to manage.
That said, the misstep at the end of the game doesn’t negate the fact that the majority of the experience is almost perfect. If you’re still scratching your head over the “single-player co-op” bit, let me explain. The game allows you to control both brothers at the same time with a single controller – controls for one brother being mapped to the right half of the controller, and controls for the other mapped to the left. At first, the mental gymnastics required to sort this out (especially when you get the brothers onto opposite sides of the screen) are almost insurmountable, but as you progress through the game, it becomes almost second nature. It’s a perfect example of the mechanics serving the narrative in that your arc as a player mirrors the arc of the characters you’re controlling. The fantasy world it’s set in is also breathtaking, gorgeous vistas and interesting creatures fill every moment of the experience. If they had stuck the landing, this would be an all-timer, but as it stands Brothers is still an excellent game that deserves to be played.
Of the two premier episodes that Telltale Games released this year, The Walking Dead Season Two’s “All That Remains” was probably the stronger, yet the one that excited me most, and the one that is on this list, is The Wolf Among Us. The idea of a “fractured fairy tale” is an old one, and one that more often than not leads to garbage. In an attempt to be edgy and subversive, these stories often shoot for the most blatantly obvious ideas, satisfied merely to clear an incredibly low bar than actually use these characters for any kind of interesting deconstruction. With the subjects of fairy tales –which are more or less universally recognized – there exists the potential to tell stories with characters that we need no introduction to, worlds that we already understand, and expectations we have firmly established. That’s exactly what The Wolf Among Us does. The game presents an incredibly rich world without the need to be front loaded with exposition. It sets up its characters and paints the history in broad strokes, and then trusts the player to fill in the rest themselves.
The characters and setting are rich and compelling, and the way it adopts the aesthetic of a 1980s noir film pleases me to no end. The gameplay functions in much the same way it does in The Walking Dead, but the setting makes it feel just as fresh. The game does drag a bit in the middle, with a series of objectives that are much too similar for their own good, but the world and the story it sets up are so good that it hardly matters. I quite enjoyed the first episode of The Walking Dead Season Two, but I’m honestly much more eager to see where The Wolf Among Us goes with the rest of its first season.
Year Walk scared the pants off me. Seriously, before anything had even happened in the game I was a nervous wreck. The presentation and atmosphere in this thing are impeccable, and the way it works in conjunction with its companion app is fiendishly clever. The game claims to be inspired by scandinavian folklore, and while I’m not sure how much of it comes from actual oral tradition and how much developer Simogo made up out of whole cloth, creatures like the Huldra and the Brook Horse remain deeply terrifying. I feel like saying much more about this game would be a disservice, just take my word that this is a game that you really, really ought to play.
I struggled with trying to decide which Simogo game to put at the top of my list, both games were excellent, atmospheric, and groundbreaking in their own ways, but in the end I had to go with DEVICE 6 over Year Walk. You often hear about games that feel like “interactive movies,” but DEVICE 6 is the first time I’ve played an interactive novel. The game borders on being indescribable; it uses text, sound effects, and a handful of pictures to create entire levels that feel tangible. As the character you’re following through the story turns down a hallway, so too does the text turn. Each level is like a chapter in a book ending with a puzzle that unlocks the next chapter, the solution for said puzzle being woven into the contents of chapter in remarkably clever ways. The game forces you to backtrack, and re-explore things in new contexts, all the while offering smart commentary on the way we interact with games as a whole and our mobile devices in particular.
See, DEVICE 6 uses the input device itself as a means of telling its story, breaking the fourth wall in all the right ways to craft a narrative that could only exist in a video game, and more specifically, one that could only exist on a mobile device. Some still cling to the notion that games on phones and tablets aren’t “real” games, and others still would play DEVICE 6 and determine that while interesting, it isn’t really a video game. I have no interest in such opinions, as they are incredibly shallow and restrictive. Just because something doesn’t fit neatly in the box you’ve built out of your past experiences does not mean it’s invalid, and “real” or not, DEVICE 6 is one of the most unique, exciting, and ambitious games I’ve played in a very long time. Interactive experiences are growing up, we need to let them.