In many ways, 2013 was the year in which humanity committed fully to its ongoing attempts at self-destruction. Though it was the year in which Prince George became sentient, it was also the year in which the Conservative Party announced that its 2015 manifesto would promise an in-out referendum on EU membership for 2017, thereby ensuring that the future King could reign safely over a post-nuclear Kingdom atop a throne fashioned from the bones of peasants and swans. In spite of the worrisome times however, there was much to rejoice about if you were an avid video gamer.
2013 was an excellent year for gaming; a year in which the 8th generation of home consoles and some of the most sophisticated entertainment products ever created became commercially available. To sum it up simply, 2013 was a transitional year in which a slew of excellent titles helped ease the pressures and the purse strings for those unsure about whether to reinvest in what was becoming an increasingly expensive hobby. To sum it up in depth? Well, let’s start with the big one.
Grand Theft Auto 5
After a string of delays and pushbacks, it would be underplaying it to suggest that the fifth iteration of the critically acclaimed Grand Theft Auto franchise was eagerly anticipated. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a game which shattered and continues to shatter industry and analytical expectations whilst on its way to becoming the most successful media title of all time with over $6 billion worth in worldwide revenue.
It tracks the story of three equally deplorable and nuanced criminals who struggle to find their way in a world which lacks both the space for them as well as the means to stop them. Watching Michael, Trevor and Franklin negotiate this world, all whilst drawing on the cinematic conventions from crime classics like Heat and Breaking Bad, was as consistently intriguing as it was troubling.
Grand Theft Auto 5 was made with all the swaggering bravado that we have come to equate to its developer Rockstar Games and their duty towards their craft shows. The game is still graphically impressive and as mechanically refined as many titles being released even now. This is all without considering the runaway success of GTA V’s online counterpart, GTA Online, which continues to surprise industry analysts and shows no sign of losing steam. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a behemoth in the gaming space and has set a shadow across the industry that few have been able to escape from.
The Last of Us
That is, except for Naughty Dog. If Rockstar as developers might be readily compared to Quentin Tarantino then Naughty Dog were certainly Steven Spielberg prior to the release of their post-apocalyptic epic. Uncharted, as a series, had worked its way up its third installment by this point and it had been defined by fun, breezy campaigns which bore all the characteristics of an Indiana Jones or The Goonies. This changed with The Last of Us. Now the Californian developer was beginning to grapple with lofty influences such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the quality of writing reflected this.
We follow survivors Joel & Ellie on their post-apocalyptic pilgrimage across an infection-riddled America as they seek isolation and a familial relationship respectively. What follows is one of the most effective tales of loss and grief ever told in the interactive medium. Joel and Ellie’s desire to find meaning in a world completely devoid of it is at once engaging, heart-rending and human and is backed by a fantastically realized world bolstered by solid game mechanics.
Combat has a brutal weight and reality to it which directly support the themes of the narrative, whilst allowing the space for character development and effective world-building which rival any great box set. Following the release of The Last of Us there could be no doubt that Naughty Dog were a significant jewel in Sony Entertainment’s crown and AAA gaming as a whole.
This is not to say however that there wasn’t also a strong showing from the indie scene during 2013. Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is a thought-provoking and earnest portrayal of corruption and politics in the fictional Eastern Bloc-like country of Arstotzka.
You play as a border-control officer tasked with reviewing the documents of migrants whilst they seek passage through your checkpoint. Initially, the game is simple, but steadily the rules and requirements of your daily quota force you to bend the rules in order to support your in-game family.
Do you adhere strictly to the rules to please your superiors, or do you let yourself become that little bit corrupt to ensure that your family has food and the means to survive? These are moral quandaries that you are forced to grapple with throughout Papers, Please which makes it one of the more interesting conceptual titles of the past few years. Glory to Arstotzka!
Another breakout indie hit for 2013 was developer Red Barrels’ horror title, Outlast. Playing as investigative journalist Miles Upshur you attempt to document and reveal the twisted developments at the Mount Massive Asylum. On arrival, it’s quite clear that something has gone wrong, with all manner of psychopaths and murderers roaming the halls.
What follows is some of the more nail-biting and actively terrifying gameplay to be found on modern consoles. Armed with only a night vision camcorder and your wits you must outmaneuver the asylum inmates in a series of escalating, dread-inducing set pieces. When, for example, you temporarily lose your lifeline aka the camcorder, many may genuinely consider turning off the console, I definitely did.
Outlast was projected into mainstream attention via the internet screamery of talents such as Pewdiepie and whatever a jacksepticeye is, but in spite of this, it could not be more deserving of the hype that it has garnered both at the time and since. Play it if you feel like shaving a couple of years off of your life.
To round things off, 2013 was also host to a variety of fun platformers which all suggest at the progress made by games since their inception. Games like Super Mario 3D World, Rogue Legacy & Guacamelee.However it was the return of a limbless hero that particularly delighted my childish sensibilities and love of simplistic but intuitive game design.
Rayman Legends is a love letter to classic platformers and the original Rayman on PS1, a game which rewards you for your dexterity and skill as well your desire to drink in the lovingly hand-drawn environments that the titular hero and his friends find themselves in. The game is also packed with features as well as the return of levels from the equally infectious Rayman Origins released two years prior.
Additionally, the game has a depth and skill ceiling to support both new & experienced players alike. Latter stages features some of the toughest platforming levels in recent memory which ask you to depend as much on your sense of rhythm as they do on timing and skill.
So that was 2013, a year which gave us some of the best titles from the last decade both from AAA publishers and smaller independent studios. It was a year in which our sense of exploration was nurtured in an enormous open-world environment. A year which illustrated how games might be used as vehicles for mature and nuanced stories. A year in which we were forced to question our morality, in which we had the pants scared off of us and were most importantly simply allowed to have random, stupid fun. For all of these reasons and more, 2013 was the best year for gaming.