Last year the Progress Bar crew discussed their top ten video games for 2013. We also decided on our Game of the Year. Deliberations were tight, with games ranging from the PC to mobile games. We agreed, that despite the incoming next generation, we’d seen some high quality video games.
The 2013 Game of the Year Shortlist
Our 2013 shortlist was distilled to five:
- – Bioshock Infinite (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
- – Grand Theft Auto V (Xbox 360, PS3)
- – Pokemon X/Y (N3DS)
- – The Last of Us (PS3)
- – The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (N3DS)
We’ll break down the reasons why these games made our shortlist and declare our eventual winner. For more detail, why not listen to our podcast below.
Progress Bar – Game of the Year Podcast
Here are the relevant timestamps:
- – Brendan’s Top Ten – 0:04:30
- – Nat’s Top Ten – 0:18:30
- – Chris’s Top Ten – 0:39:15
- – Darcy’s Top Ten – 0:53:50
- – Kochie’s Top Ten – 1:25:10
- – Eddie’s Top Ten – 1:40:03
- – Final Top Five – 2:04:25
#5 – Pokemon XY
Over the years Pokemon has grown in its complexity, to the point where there are a number of reasons why you might play this game. From the breeders, to the players who battle competitively, Pokemon as a video game has gone above and beyond the original mandate of ‘Gotta catch ’em all’. With Pokemon XY, Gamefreak show a willingness to change the formula while keeping that core ethos alive. From the gameplay tweaks that have reduced grinding and the surprisingly robust online multiplayer options, Pokemon XY feels familiar but fresh and modern.
Another first for the series was a simultaneous worldwide release, a mammoth task when you consider the logistics of localising this game across several languages. The upside of the release date is that it allowed trainers to discover new species and secrets while sharing their findings through social media. Those initial weeks resembled a scientific expedition into the unknown Kalos region, a collective effort to sort the rumours from the facts. We all pooled together to fill the Kalos Pokedex with monsters that Nintendo had neglected to mention – real life imitating art, if you will.
#4 – Zelda: Link Between Worlds
Another quality handheld title from the House of Mario. Two Nintendo 3DS games in our shortlist speaks to the resurgence of Nintendo’s fortunes – at least for its handheld platform. For far too long the Nintendo 3DS seemed dead in the water. The Nintendo 3DS launch was muted, add to that an uncharacteristic price cut and an anaemic release list and many pundits were spelling doom. In 2013, however, a string of quality first party titles soon changed everyone’s opinion.
Nintendo risked a great deal to revisit its classic video game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the franchise and emotions were running high for the sequel A Link Between Worlds. If fans were uncertain, they had every right to be. The development team revealed how Shigeru Miyamoto had originally rejected their pitch to recreate the classic adventure and it took many follow up meetings before the game took on its form.
A Link Between Worlds quickly asserts itself within minutes of gameplay and assuages any lingering doubts of a cynical, nostalgia filled cash in. A Link Between Worlds is a solid adventure into the kingdoms of Hyrule and Lorule. Players have more freedom to complete dungeons as they see fit, with Link having access to all of the game’s items through a rental system. Since Link will hold onto the item until death, it gives seasoned players more of a challenge on their first run through.
A Link between Worlds continues Nintendo’s successful formula of blending nostalgia for its vast catalogue of characters with game design that leverages the best aspects of the hardware driving it. For example, the optional 3D stereoscopic mode gives the game’s isometric view a living diorama feel, it is as if you were peering directly over Hyrule. When switching into Link’s ‘painting ability’, the perspective shift feels more pronounced with the added depth in 3D. Gameplay wise you’ll use this shift in perspective to navigate around obstacles. Symbolically, it is Nintendo’s way of saying, there could be more to this 3D mode, but even we’re not sure what to do with it.
Frustratingly, it’s a mode of playing that many players will miss intentionally, especially if you’re playing on the 2DS. However, the fact that Nintendo have opted to spend the extra resources underlining the flagship feature of its handheld, and not quite succeeding, is both quirky and endearing.
#3 – Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite’s setting is the floating utopia of Columbia, a city that is equal parts steampunk and early twentieth century Americana. This shimmering paradise however, reveals itself to be a mirage, one that masks a fractured, segregated society that is cloistered by an oppressive theocracy. It’s a state in the clouds, ruled by its ruthless leader Zachary Hale Comstock.
Bioshock Infinite introduces enough new elements, like the motorised Sky-Hook and blends it with classic Bioshock tropes, like vigors (Columbia’s version of plasmids) to make combat feel unpredictable and less like a shooting gallery. The other element that makes combat feel special is Elizabeth’s ability to manipulate tears on the battlefield, dynamically changing the landscape and giving you much needed cover or weapons out of thin air. While the combat plays a big part in making Infinite feel significant, it’s the layer of ideas that Ken Levine imbues into his game that lifts it above being merely another first person shooter.
Where Bioshock seeks to explore and undermine the ideology of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, Bioshock Infinite’s object of critique is less specific. Instead the focus is on themes of absolution and crushing guilt as they relate to Booker DeWitt, Zachary Comstock and the mysterious Elizabeth. This gives Infinite a feel that’s more personal and introspective in its scope.
The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth resembles that of Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us, and arguably, both relationships do not have their full emotional spectrum charted until the end game. However, Joel and Ellie’s relationship succeeds by growing with the player’s relationship to the rather straightforward narrative, a lot of Bioshock Infinite’s impact hinges on its otherwise effective twist ending and that’s Infinite’s greatest weakness.
At times, the cleverness of the plot and the sheer weight of Infinite’s ideas threaten to obscure the emotional journey of this game. However, by the time players have reached the end, the total weight of what you’ve experienced will be distilled into a single moment – one that will stay with you long after the game has been completed.
#2 – Grand Theft Auto V
One of the more difficult choices for our panel was whether the tightly controlled story of The Last of Us deserved top billing over the freedom and exploration that Grand Theft Auto V offered. In the end we opted for the sombre Joseph Conrad style journey into a ravaged America, but GTA V in many ways is the perfect companion, with as much to say about America, masculinity and violence through its sunny and satirical Los Santos.
The three protagonists, Franklin, Trevor and Michael anchor the often scattershot satire of GTA V, with Franklin even more subdued than his mentors. These three distinct personalities add more complexity to the plot and different perspectives on the ever rising stakes of their heists. When the trio are later blackmailed into missions for a questionable intelligence agent, you’ll see the game truly shine. By pooling together your different skills to complete dubious missions of ‘national importance’, the three protagonists grow to rely on each other. An uneasy alliance that’s threatened by Michael and Trevor’s shared past, a dynamic that heavily influences how you interpret and play out the end game.
It is often difficult to separate the craft from the art in GTA V. While the sheer size of their digital playground is a technical marvel, a lot of effort has been put in to making the world feel like a plausible city. In fact, one of the joys of playing this game is sharing your own experiences with other players. Whether that is finding the remnants of a drug deal gone south (strikingly similar to No Country for Old Men) to helping a car crash victim who joins your heist crew, GTA V has a plethora of secrets and fun for you to discover.
2013 Progress Bar Game of the Year
#1 – The Last of Us
Naughty Dog could have rested on the laurels of Nathan Drake. They could have turned out the lights and left a very solid legacy behind them. Instead, Naughty Dog decided to make The Last of Us, a sombre, subtle meditation on an apocalyptic catastrophe that reduces humanity to a mere shadow of itself.
At the heart of this game is the slow burn relationship between Joel and Ellie, portrayed in subtle hues and emotional detail by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. At the beginning of the game, Joel has lost his daughter Sarah to a callous military order. When we meet up again with Joel, twenty years later, he’s older than he should be and meaner. A terse man, hardened from the inside-out by the world around him, he’s a survivor that has little time for heroics and even less time for altruistic acts to save humanity. However, that’s what Ellie is, she’s immune, and potentially holds the cure to the infection that has devastated the American landscape. With a dying wish from his partner Tess, Joel reluctantly agrees to see Ellie to her destination and their journey begins in earnest.
Naughty Dog have been fearless in creating a protagonist that’s so morally ambiguous and complex that it’s possible that you’ll find Joel reprehensible. It is easy to forget that the Last of Us was built by the developers who created Uncharted. Every design choice is calculated towards separating the two games in style and execution, from Joel’s inability to climb and parkour through the environment to the tense, encounters with enemies both infected and human. Where Nathan Drake fights honourably and with panache, Joel’s methods are more brutal in both stealth and gunplay. You’ll often have to resort to stealth take downs where you feel Joel literally choke the life out of his victim, translated into your hands via a rumble sequences that feels like a heartbeat slipping away. While Ellie can hold her own in combat, she’ll often remark with shock at Joel’s devastating methods.
In many ways, Ellie’s youth belies her emotional maturity and her presence begins to prick at the edges of Joel’s conscience. Her defiance in the face of Joel’s cynicism and her determination to make it to the remnants of the Fireflies, a human resistance movement still looking for a cure, inspires Joel out of his devil may care stupor to the point where he cannot live without Ellie.
In the end, what separates The Last of Us from the others on this short list was Naughty Dog’s commitment to telling their story with emotional honestly, seriousness and subtlety. The fact that their ending was so divisive among the Progress Bar crew demonstrates a clear command of the material and what it was trying to achieve. The Last of Us is not a game to fulfil your power fantasies, but one that questions them. The ending sits in judgement of us, asking an uncomfortable question about our culpability in undermining Ellie’s wishes and fulfilling Joel’s arc from indifference to co-dependency. It’s an ending that relies less on clever plotting and most controversially, player input. However, these events feel authentic to these characters and their relationship.
We could pontificate on the merits of the infected, particularly the blind Clickers and how you’ll be forced to change your tactics when dealing with them. We could also drone on about the environmental storytelling, of houses left in disarray, of bodies that reveal their fatal decisions. However, all those elements go towards supporting the journey of two characters: Joel and Ellie.
The Last of Us feels like a genuine step forward for storytelling in video games and one that deservingly takes the title – Game of the Year 2013.