The Top Six of 2013 Vol. 2: “War and Games”

Not only was 2013 a great year for video games, but it was the year that I finally set up a Steam account–which has become my new best friend.  I discovered Papers, Please and Don’t Starve via Steam, and fully expect to stumble upon all kinds of new crap next year.  All in all, my top six list has taken me all over the place–flying cities, a hostile alien invasion, and even through the crime-riddled streets of Gotham City–it’s escapism at its best.

Bioshock Infinite1. Bioshock Infinite (Irrational/2K Games): I wanted to hate the first installment of the Bioshock series purely because it was another first-person shooter in a seemingly endless line of first-person shooters dating all the way back to 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D.  I did not expect it to blow my mind.  Nor did I expect Bioshock Infinite to be as impressive as it actually is—I was a bit skeptical at the attempt to move a game set in an underwater city to a flying city, which initially sounded kinda dumb.

But I was dead wrong—which led me to realize the genius of the Bioshock games.  They’re subtly designed pastiches that transfer relevant social issues into clever metaphors.  I even think the idea to make these games into first-person shooters was done as a deliberate caricature of video games themselves.

Where the first two Bioshock games took place in a Randian nightmare of self-perfection, Bioshock Infinite guides the player through a world in which the Tea Party would feel right at home (think of Disneyland saturated in religious zealotry and racism).  Throughout Booker DeWitt’s quest to get the mysterious, dimension-ripping Elizabeth back on solid ground, the player is treated to a wonderfully mind-bending story, followed by one of the most perplexing and satisfying finales in video game history.

All that being said, I think it was the game’s clever use of a soundtrack that really lured me in.  There’s this moment when you first hit the streets of Columbia.  Everything is awash in color and you can almost smell cotton candy and popcorn.  As you progress, the sound of a familiar melody starts softly and gets louder.  Soon, you realize that you’re hearing “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys—only it’s being sung a cappella by a barbershop quartet.  Then, one epic video game later, the song wafts in over the closing credits.  You realize, in a split second, just how important that song is to the overall story.  And maybe—not that this applies to me or anything—a tear slides down your cheek.

papers please2. Papers, Please (Lucas Pope): Every now and again, a game comes along that makes me reconsider my definition of what a video game can be.  In indie-developer Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, you take control of a border inspector in the fictional country of Arstotzka.  Your job is to allow or deny entry based on careful inspection of people’s documents.  Though it’s true that folks who crave a game in which gravely-voiced supersoldiers blow up everything in sight might not be into this particular title, but for those who are eager to explore something unique, Papers, Please is worth checking out.

At first, this is a game that doesn’t require much.  You check the pixelated tourists’ documents and let them enter if everything looks legit.  As the game progresses, however, tension rises quickly with realization that a secret organization is trying to penetrate the border and that your family’s lives are affected by your job performance.

The gameplay and graphics are astoundingly simple, which makes this game all the more interesting.  It tricks you into thinking it’s just a little novelty game to pass a few minutes only to lure you into a surprising volley of moral dilemmas—and that’s worthy of some love.

xcom3. XCOM: Enemy Within (Firaxis/2K Games): Despite the fact that The Bureau would totally end up on my “worst games of 2013” list, it was nice to come back to familiar territory.  Enemy Within is an expansion to last year’s Enemy Unknown, and it makes improvements in all the right places—most notably with the addition of a new resource that allows all kinds of fun and morally questionable upgrades for your soldiers.

There’s something to be said about playing a game in which there are more ways to lose than there are to win.  What makes the XCOM games awesome is that they put you in the role of someone who is working with extremely limited resources against an opponent that gets stronger regardless of how ready you are—a lot like teaching at a public school, come to think of it.  Nothing quite beats the feeling you get when you take a tactical gamble and hit the jackpot—especially since hitting the jackpot means splattering a hostile alien all over the sidewalk.

batman4. Batman: Arkham Origins (Warner Bros.): Though I think the first two installments of the Arkham games are superior, Arkham Origins still manages to bring home the awesome.  As it deals with a fairly new and arrogant Dark Knight along with his first encounter with The Joker, there are some very nice plot points that make the Batman nerd within me smile.  The sequence involving The Joker’s origin story (which both draws from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke AND introduces us to Joker’s first meeting with Harley Quinn—before he drives her nuts) adds a level of humanity to a villain that is batshit crazy.

And let’s not overlook the fact that it’s just fun to spend a Christmas Eve soaring around Gotham beating up thugs while being pursued by some lesser-known Batman villains like Firefly and Deadshot.

Diablo 35. Diablo 3 (Blizzard): It took me some time to warm up to Diablo 3.  The first two games basically define my adolescence, so I had raised the bar pretty high when I heard that a third game was in the works.  However, it managed to provide a clear and entertaining conclusion to a seriously great trilogy.

What makes Diablo 3 endlessly enjoyable is that it capitalizes on an addiction to acquiring better and better loot for one’s character.  It allows multiple playthroughs at varying difficulty levels in order to allow your character to stumble upon the magical helm that ends up defining them through many perilous battles—that is until you stumble upon the helm that’s just a little bit more magical.

don't starve6. Don’t Starve (Klei): Like Minecraft and Terraria, the point of Don’t Starve is that there is no point.  It places you in the middle of a hostile island, and you’re supposed to make sure Wilson the Gentleman Scientist doesn’t get eaten by wolves, go insane, or, you know, starve.  Gameplay consists of wandering around and collecting various resources and using your scientific know-how to construct implements of survival.  There are also seasonal changes to deal with—I have yet to successfully survive a winter.

One of the reasons that I never really got into Minecraft was because of the clunky controls and graphics.  Don’t Starve fixes this by offering a slightly Tim Burton-ish artistic style and user-friendly invention tab.  Basically, it’s Minecraft  for people who hate Minecraft.

Who knows what wonders will be released on the next-gen consoles? Here’s hoping that Sony and Microsoft invest in developers who stretch the boundaries of the video game medium.  There’s no such thing as a next-gen first person shooter.

If We Cancel the Apocalypse, What Video Games Will We Play?

Nuclear Grunge Sign - Sepia

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend E3 in Los Angeles (I dare you to read about it here).  While I was there, I noticed a pattern among several upcoming games–they all take place after the world as we know it has been ravaged by nuclear war, zombies or aliens.

I found this interesting, because it’s not just the video game industry that has cashed in on this post-apocalyptic goldmine.  Take a look at the most popular movies, TV shows and books, and you’ll notice this pattern as well.  We’re obsessed with the end of the world.

It’s a phenomenon that isn’t lost on me.  When I watched Night of the Living Dead for the first time, I found myself romanticizing the zombie apocalypse.  And why not? I wouldn’t have to go to school anymore, I could take whatever I wanted and maybe that girl I liked would finally see what a badass I really was after I saved her life by decapitating her zombified father.

It’s not hard to romanticize a world where each survivor is a lone gunman (or gunwoman) that is in complete control of his/her destiny.  It might involve scavenging for food, it might involve plugging someone who was once your friend, but it would be 100% your call.  I get it.  It’s cool.  But it’s also kind of scary.  Are we so sick of the way things are that we’d be willing to have it all flushed down the toilet regardless of the result? Is that why we’re obsessed with the end of the world? Or is it just that cool?

Either way, it’s tough to get around the nightmarish reality of surviving a hostile wasteland teeming with acid-spewing mutants and giant insects.  This is where video games come in.  I will always appreciate the fact that whenever I feel like roaming the skeletal remnants of my hometown in search of adventure, I can pop in my copy of Fallout: New Vegas and get it out of my system.