I didn’t play a lot of games released this year. I only have a PC and a 3DS, and as a grad student I don’t have a ton of time to spare, even when my work involves games. So I didn’t play Ironic Racism Shooty Guns or Super Cool Dad Vs Zombies or whatever those big name games are actually called. Most of the games I played were either old games I missed out on in the past or smaller, cheaper games. The big commercial games I did play were by and large retreads of series I had played before like Mario, Zelda or Shin Megami Tensei. These were usually great fun, but not always an entirely new experience. I LIKED a lot of games this year, including basically every game I bought for my 3DS, but when I thought about the games that actually moved me more than “this is an enjoyable way to do the same thing I have enjoyed doing in the past” I couldn’t honestly put any of them on the list. I was actually surprised at how nearly all the games on my list were browser games. So without further ado, here are, in no particular order, some games released in 2013 which I found to be particularly rewarding or interesting experiences.
Animal Crossing: A New Leaf
Nintendo’s Animal Crossing deserves mention, as it is a game that can be viewed either as a cynical mirror of capitalism, or a clever tool in subverting capitalism. It is a game where the “approved” method of play means you are constantly in debt, endlessly obsessing over getting the next outfit or object, and working yourself to the bone daily. However, when a player creates their OWN goals within New Leaf, they are rewarded with a seemingly endless opportunity to be creative and share ideas with other players. Is this a game that is asking us to fight against orthodoxy and define our own ideas of value? Or is it a game that merely lends itself to subversion by accident and show us the possibility of subverting real world systems as a result? Does it matter if this freedom and creativity is by design or player created?
There are several games by Meritt Kopas I could have chosen, after all I’d already gone into my experience with Consensual Torture Simulator here on my blog, but I’m choosing Hugpunx if only because it is impossible to play this game and not smile. This is a game about an anarchist utopia of consensual hugging. This is also a game I can just decide to send someone I haven’t spoken to in years for Christmas and get back enthusiastic responses. It is also a game with a soundtrack that features the line “you got a little kitten party in your pants.” This is my list, and these are the standards I hold games to. You want to be on my list? You either move me emotionally, make reference to my well known pant-based kitten parties, or both.
This is a game that convinced me to try therapy for the first time. It was a game that inspired intensely powerful, personal reflection and discussion across the internet, even as it inspired other people to descend into barely literate assholery. When you make a game that brings out the best in people even as it enrages the worst people you must be doing something right. Bioshock Infinite wishes its controversy and discussions were as meaningful as Depression Quest’s.
There were several games like Candy Box that came out this year and the end of 2012. Games that appeared to be one thing and then slowly or suddenly revealed themselves to be something else entirely. Frog Fractions, Icarus Proudbottom Teaches Typing, A Dark Room, all of these games either subverted the player’s expectations or gave clever players the tools to discover new games and experiences outside of the stated rules. There is a simple joy in discovering the unexpected in a game, in pushing against what you think are the limits of a game and to be rewarded with new worlds. Candy Box may have been the most successful, going from strange number counter to number farming simulator to puzzle adventure to action rpg to meta commentary on the game itself. All of this emerging from nothing more that the player having the patience to wait, observe or experiment. There was a sequel released this year as well, but for my money the original nailed the fun and surprise better.
This was a trying year for many reasons, and not just for me. Long suffering 90s mascot Bubsy the Bobcat turned 18 this year, and in his newfound adulthood was forced to re-examine his purpose and role in life. Bubsy explains how installation art uses light to create the illusion of depth and space as you wander a video game landscape that is actually just light, polygons and pixels. Using this failed pop culture icon you smash apart an Applebees to discover art but no relief. There are cheat codes you can use to explore the game in new ways, including a “ghost” mode where you cannot interact with objects or other players in any way, but can explore freely and communicate communicate with any other ghosts playing the same time you are. Bubsy 3D is not necessarily a “subtle” game, but it doesn’t need to be. Bubsy 3D manages to perfectly encapsulate and communicate the Arcane Kids’ manifesto: that the meaning is defined by play and experience, that play is defined by exploration and discovery, and that a “bad” game that makes you think is better than a good puzzle you solve and never think of again.
If you had told me that one of the games to affect me the most emotionally was a surreal text adventure about raising horses that were not horses I probably would have said… well, actually I probably would not have had much trouble believing that.
A brilliant bit of satire that rewards multiple forms of playing. In a medium where all too often violence is a simple and consequence-free means to an end, it is refreshing to see a game where violence, even goofy cartoonish jostling in the name of advancing the game, can have permanent consequences. Further evidence that a joke really can be the best way to get to the heart of a serious issue.
Honorable Mention that came out in 2012: Mainichi
Mattie Brice’s Mainichi came out in November 2012, but I want to give it a mention because I first played it in 2013 and it got me thinking about rpgmaker as a creative platform and how to tell personal stories through established game iconography. In this case, the jrpg aesthetic is used to communicate a personal experience. Guiding the little avatar of Mattie through her day, the player can never be entirely comfortable with a “perfect” outcome. You can avoid harassment, but only by avoiding human contact. You can make yourself look damn good and hit on cute coffee men, but not without getting reminded by your friend that you are an “other” to them. You can eat or you can feel confident in how you look, but not both. And no matter what you do, you’ll have to do it again because real life doesn’t have endings, it has days after days after days. Mainichi is elegant and simple, and does more with that simplicity than other games do with endless complications.