What do you remember at the end of the year? When you reflect on the past 12 months of your life, what kinds of moments and experiences remain steadfast in your memory? My most erosion-resistant memories of video games are often made when the subject matter of the game resonates with other things in my life. In 2013, a beloved family member of mine passed away, so it comes as little surprise that in looking for themes among my favorite games of the year, I find loss is well represented.
What's more surprising, and pleasantly so, is how many games there were this year that dealt with loss in profound and meaningful ways. Some tackled it head on, like Beyond: Two Souls. Quantic Dream's technical artistry and Ellen Page's emotive acting brought Jodie to life, and my choices and their consequences at the end of that game brought me to tears. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons asked me to do things I've never had to do in a game, and made the physical act of doing those things, the actual motion of my hands on the controller, an important part of the emotional experience. That kind of artistry, the kind that takes a thing you've taken for granted and makes it meaningful, is one of the most precious things to be found in this medium I love so much.
Even games that didn't make loss a pillar of the experience still recognized its power and presence in our lives. Gone Home's heart-wrenching notes between young lovers forced apart portrayed an everyday intimacy rarely seen in games, while the threat of permanent death in Fire Emblem: Awakening infused the engaging tactical battles with the sobering weight of consequence.
Of course, it wasn't all heavy, heartfelt gaming for me this year. It was also a year of renewal, one in which I found new joy and satisfaction in games that were built on very familiar core experiences. The fact that I'd enjoyed rhythm-fueled platforming before didn't stop Bit.Trip Presents...Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien from captivating me with its exuberance. Though I've been on many adventures as Lara Croft (and Nathan Drake), the return and reimagining of Tomb Raider swept me up in its enthralling mix of exploration, acrobatics, and combat.
I spent countless hours this year with my personal game of 2012, Spelunky, but did that stop me from pouring many more into another challenging platformer, Rogue Legacy? It most certainly did not. I expected to enjoy myself once again in the online competition of Battlefield 4, where variety and variability still leave me with a new story every time I play, but I wasn't looking for much from The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Yet instead of another increasingly frustrating incarnation of that beloved series, I got something new, something vital that rekindled the flagging flame of my Zelda fandom into a roaring blaze. It seems we often have call to lament repetition in game design, so it's wonderful when familiar genres can give rise to exciting new experiences.
Which brings me to The Last of Us, my personal game of the year for 2013. The single-player campaign didn't rewrite the book on third-person action, but it did show that there are still stories to tell and depths to be plumbed. The relationship between Joel and Ellie was not clean, was not pretty. Sometimes you knew where it was going, and sometimes you weren't sure where it had just been. Subtlety and uncertainty are tough things to get right in storytelling, and though I'm not sure The Last of Us got it all right, it certainly had me hooked from beginning to end.
And where the campaign left off, the competitive multiplayer took over, keeping me hooked for months with its brutal brand of tense, dangerous combat. In each match, I struggled to gather resources and grow stronger, knowing that only by taking risks would I be better equipped to survive those risky situations. The vicious immediacy of life and death in each match was invigorating, but it was the looming struggle to gather enough supplies to keep my survivor camp alive that really stressed me out. In a good way, though. In a really good way.
Old things made new and stories with emotional resonance--these things seem to define the list of my favorite games of 2013. Compiling it gave me good cause to reflect on my year of life and gaming, and helped remind me of some of the reasons I love games so much. I encourage you to find your own time for reflection and make your own list this holiday season. You may find more to be thankful for than you expected. Cheers!