In reverse order, to add some suspense.
I had to make an important choice during my collegiate years: hone my analytical craft so I could dissect video games professionally or practice my midrange jumper to make a splash in the NBA. We all know what decision I made, but NBA 2K14 gives me a taste of what my life would have been like if I had set my sights on signing shoe endorsements and embarrassing Carmelo Anthony. Turns out that being drafted by the Utah Jazz and suffering through agonizing losses every night isn't too bad when Steve Kerr is calling me by my rightful nickname (The Mayor) as I continually get to the basket against the Bearded Matador, James Harden. I had so much fun showing off my killer crossover and unstoppable post-up fadeaway that I briefly considered giving up my GameSpot eligibility to enter the NBA draft. But I really don't want to be the last guy stuck in the green room.
Beyond: Two Souls
Beyond: Two Souls displays a profound empathy toward those who suffer from addiction. There's one long section in which Jodie finds herself utterly lost, questioning what place she has on this earth and scared to be near anyone who could exploit her spectral powers. After collapsing from pure exhaustion, she awakens in a homeless encampment populated by kindhearted people with serious problems. One man's life has been destroyed by drugs. His body craves sedation, so he scrounges for money during his few sober hours and then drifts into the ether when pacified. It's a terrible, debilitating existence. And Jodie releases him from his prison. The relief on his face afterward, the knowledge that he is finally free, is an image that really hit home for me.
I was selfish and immature during my high school years. While my brother was tormented by those who could not accept an openly gay person in their conservative town, I was more concerned with basketball tryouts and Nintendo 64 games. I was never willing to sacrifice my own free time to at least help my brother feel safe and secure in his own home. I regret being so self-centered back then, though I don't blame myself for the rift that has subsequently formed between us. Gone Home offered a chance for me to see what life might have been like for my brother during those trying times. Samantha has parents who don't respect her lifestyle and who instead shun her for being who she is. And it's heartbreaking that she can't find support from those closest to her. What drew me in was not the darkest aspects of Samantha’s life, however, but the beautiful relationship that slowly develops with Lonnie. As she first becomes friends with Lonnie and then later realizes there are deeper feelings within her heart, and the two slowly learn who they are together, I could only smile. And wonder. Did my brother go through the same highs and lows when he was a teenager? Someday, I hope to show him this game, and talk to him about his past that I had ignored the first time around.
Super Mario 3D World
My wife doesn't play video games. Her disconnect from my passion is good for me, because I would happily immerse myself in games all day, every day if given the chance, though I do try to give her glimpses into games, so she can understand why I love them so. Super Mario 3D World has made improbable strides in this area. For the first time, we've played something cooperatively, and as we shriek while avoiding probing searchlights and guffaw when one of us snatches every power-up, I can see the understanding form in her eyes. 3D World is that rare experience that can be enjoyed by all people, no matter their tastes or skill level. It's pure fun in a beautiful, digital tapestry that perfectly melds superheroic athletic abilities with ordinary human fragility. Scurrying up the sides of walls delivers that freeing sensation that anything is possible, and yet your ego never raises too high because there's always a bottomless pit waiting to welcome you. It's joyful chaos that expertly communicates so much of what's right about games, without my having to utter a single word.
I have no love for luchadores. Honestly, the masks have always freaked me out a little. I even skipped Lucha Libre back when I still enjoyed the comedic styling of Jack Black. Despite such baggage, and despite not having any interest in the world or characters, I was enamored with Guacamelee. So many games hold the title of Metroidvania like a shield, deflecting attacks from critics because it's one of only a few games in a small but beloved genre. Metroidvania has almost become a four-letter word, a warning, and yet, in just one trip through Dia de los Muertos, my hostility was brushed away. Guacamelee not only understands its roots, but goes even further than its progenitors. Exploration and growth have been mastered by the likes of Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night, but it's Guacamelee that has elevated combat to an art form. That makes sense given the luchador backdrop, but still, there's a savage pleasure to fisticuffs that was almost hypnotic, a whirring of fist and feet that repeatedly brought me back to deliver one more rising uppercut to the frisky undead.
The Stanley Parable
I'm a critic. That doesn't mean that I enjoy insulting every miniscule defect in games; it just means that I love dissecting them to see how they tick. As much as I enjoy deep analysis, it's a lot of work, so it was nice that The Stanley Parable did the hard stuff for me. The demo was a scathing assessment of the state of modern game design. I imagine that if I were part of a development studio I would be angry at Galactic Cafe for pointing out how often genuine emotion is faked by cutting-edge technology, or how strict linearity punishes you for having any creative aspirations. But as a lover of games, I could only nod along at each of these stinging barbs, and laugh at the irreverent delivery. Ironically, the game proper was much more focused than the scattershot demo. In the main game, it's the nature of choice that's put on the operating table, and considering that decisions and consequences fascinate me more than any other individual design element, exploring a game devoted to the machinations of this process was amazing. How much choice do we really have? And what happens if we do veer off the narrow path in front of us? If only I could have a sarcastic British voice narrating my life.
I love Uncharted, but I fear that it has had a negative impact on this industry. It's so linear, so suffocating, that when less-capable hands craft an adventure in that mold, they're more likely to trigger an onset of claustrophobia than a release of endorphins. In fact, I had already started to compose an editorial in my head on how Tomb Raider's spirit had been destroyed by jumping on Naughty Dog's game design boat. And then, I played Lara's latest adventure, and realized how deceiving prerelease footage can be. Rather than being a tightly structured journey, Tomb Raider is free and exhilarating. You feel one with Lara, intrigued by the remnants of an ancient civilization but fearful of the unknown dangers that await. Such emotional fluctuations are so real, so poignant, that they help you understand her slow transformation. After being hunted for hours upon hours, she finally cracks in the last act and attacks the aggressors as revenge for taking her innocence. Not too shabby for a game that looked like torture porn in the trailers.
If it were possible to throw a parade for the idea of randomness, I would proudly stand along the side of the road with a handful of confetti and a loud horn. Unfortunately, because randomness is just a concept and not a returning astronaut, I don't have that option. So instead, I must type a few modest words in recognition of unpredictability. Rogue Legacy was the lone game released this year that altered my sleep schedule. So desperate to investigate the haunted castles and creeping forests of this challenging adventure, I would wake up one hour earlier than usual to make a bit more progress before I needed to head to work. I love venturing forth with only the faintest hint of what lies before me, wondering where the treasures hide or if giant skeletons would ambush me. Such mystery kept me glued to the keyboard, and when I eventually found my end, I would quickly start over, eager to bring my latest ancestor one step closer to vanquishing the ultimate evil.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
I have been painted as a Zelda hater for having the gall to declare that Skyward Sword was merely good. But it's because I have so much love for the franchise that I often appear so harsh toward it. I high expectations foreach Zelda, and am always taken in by Nintendo's claim that it has learned from past mistakes with every new release, only to find another flawed game that further taints its legacy. To say that A Link Between Worlds is a revelation is a severe understatement. This is the best entry in the series in at least two decades, which is preposterously long considering how short a time video games have been around. It's as though Nintendo asked me exactly what I wanted from a Zelda game and happily obliged. The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past are the two best games in the franchise, and Nintendo combined their best ideas into one incomparable adventure. Yeah, I'm gushing, and I apologize for that, but you have to understand where I'm coming from. This is the game that I knew Nintendo was capable of, that I had been begging for, and to finally see it materialize? Well, I'm floored.
Reread my frothing praise for A Link Between Worlds and see that I've placed Spelunky above it. That gives you a taste of the impact his game has had on me. Spelunky is the second-best game I've played this generation (behind only Dark Souls) and one of the finest games that has ever been created. I like games that are challenging, that have no problem repeatedly hitting me in the face because they know that if I'm strong enough, if I really care, I will overcome anything put before me. And if I'm not? Who cares, there are plenty of people out there who want to be treated with respect. I have had more than 1,000 runs on just the Vita version (which doesn't include what I've done on the PlayStation 3, PC, or Xbox 360), and have survived only a handful of times. And yet, I've become more determined, and smarter, upon each death. I know that if I keep working I can finally conquer hell, that I can defeat Olmec in less than eight minutes, and so I keep pushing myself. When I look back on 2013, I will remember marrying my amazing wife first, followed by purchasing our first home. And then? Spelunky Vita.