Ben’s Games of the Year

For me, 2013 was the year when I finally gave up on my goal of playing every notable game. Before the resurgence of small bedroom developers, fewer games were made, and discovering the cream of the crop was somewhat feasible. Today, I’m lucky if I manage to play every game released a week previously considered “dead” by publishers; even if I had enough money to buy every promising title on iOS, PSN and PC, I certainly wouldn’t have the time. In some ways, it’s a nice problem to have—it’s hard to complain about an embarrassment of riches—but it now feels impossible to properly cover the same breadth of the field that publications already struggled with in the past. This sentiment has spread elsewhere but it bears repeating; you’ll never get through everything, so stick with what you grab and cover it to the best of your abilities.

I’ve been through hundreds of games this year, and a fair portion of them really struck a chord, which makes compiling some “best of” list of my favorite games feel like murder. Instead of trying to construct some nightmarish ranking system, I crafted a method that feels more sensible; I’ll just throw down a small selection of games in no particular order and explain why they’re worth your time.

Gunpoint

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Stealth games like Mark of the Ninja and Splinter Cell brag about giving players plenty of tools to craft their own solutions, but none offer the same range of freedom as Gunpoint. You have the necessary tools to reprogram an entire level, setting light switches to open doors or triggering guns with security cameras. The campaign is over in a few hours but there’s plenty of incentive to return, finding new ways to ruin a guard’s day. Just don’t try jumping through plate glass windows at home!

The Swapper

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I could talk about The Swapper’s thought-provoking take on human consciousness or its gorgeous, hand-crafted clay world, but the puzzle design is truly what makes it shine. It never wastes your time with lengthy animations or convoluted Rube Goldberg contraptions; as soon as you discover the solution, each room can easily be completed in under a minute. It only moves as quickly as your own mind (which will probably scream as it tries to find a solution), and success will make you feel like the smartest person in the universe. The Swapper sadly went overlooked by many a gamer, but you still have the chance to give it a spin and explore one of the most unsettling derelict space stations imaginable.

Year Walk

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Year Walk isn’t interested in cheap jump moments or constant violence like most of the horror genre; instead, it draws you into its woods with small, tactile interactions and puzzles that make great use of your iOS device’s various sensors without feeling like a gimmick. Just as you’ve acclimated to your environment, Simogo isn’t afraid to rip the rug from your feet, but stops just short of filling every nook and cranny with danger. This masterful pacing preserves the tension from beginning to end, and almost always manages to catch you by surprise. Even the innocent-looking companion app harbors its own dark secrets, concealing layers that latch onto your subconscious months after the adventure ends.

Device 6

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Even after playing thousands of games, I’m fairly certain that I’ve never seen one quite like Device 6. It’s a pulp spy thriller that transcends the form of the novel, with words that warp to represent what the protagonist is doing; paragraphs will shape themselves into stairs, and as you scroll along, descending footsteps are heard. Remaining mindful of the various sights and sounds will help you solve each puzzle, bringing you closer to unraveling one sinister mystery. It’s rare for one developer to make the same Game of the Year list twice, but Simogo has proven itself to be an impressive outlier, crafting two extraordinary titles in the same time that it takes the average studio to make one.

Antichamber

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Antichamber is the closest we’ve come to a playable M.C. Escher painting. Everything from physics to perspective is questioned, with time and space bending to the will of a fiendish genius. Inspirational life lessons are scattered throughout, serving as practical advice for the real world while providing hints for the various obstacles that block your path. Instead of striving to create a photorealistic facsimile of Earth, Antichamber makes the argument for breaking our realistic spatial constraints and exploring previously inconceivable dimensions.

Gone Home

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If your reaction to BioShock Infinite was “Man, I wish they never gave me that gun after the first hour,” then you’ll probably get a kick out of Gone Home. You arrive at a deserted house, filled with all the trappings of a true lived-in home (though some scoundrel absconded with the Laserdisc player), and are simply asked to discover their fate. Though the pieces of the Greenbriar puzzle are a little too conveniently spread out for plot’s sake, it’s refreshing to play detective in a well-realized environment without messing with firearms or nonsensical contraptions. That you come to understand and sympathize with this family by simply rummaging through their stuff is quite the achievement.

Just Cause 2 Multiplayer Mod

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Remember how excited everyone was when they saw the trailer for Grand Theft Auto Online, followed by utter disappointment when it turned out to be a cynical attempt to wring more money out of Rockstar’s large audience? Just Cause 2 Multiplayer Mod is everything GTA Online promised to be, and then some. Sharing the same world as 800(!) other people leads to some truly madcap moments, and that’s even before you factor in the group events! There’s a good chance that you’ve never thought about tandem skydiving races or massive destruction derbies on the roof of a blimp, but after shoving another car into the watery abyss, you’ll wonder why no one ever tried this before. It’s an island paradise that redefines “massive” and gives you the world without any nonsensical microtransactions.

Rayman Legends

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If you want the short version of why Rayman Legends deserves a spot on this list, it’s simple; it’s more Rayman. Specifically, it took one of the most joyous platformers of this generation and brought in moments like the Castle Rock stage without breaking its limbless hero’s stride. It’s easy to bemoan sequels that play it safe and stick with an established formula, but Legends adds just enough to avoid feeling like a rehash, and its goofy imagination puts stalwarts like Mario to shame.

Spelunky

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As much as I enjoy diving into Spelunky’s ever-challenging caverns, it’s one of the few games that shines even brighter as a spectator sport. From that legendary eggplant run your friend keeps mentioning to the scrub who falls in a spike pit before he clears the first world, every match is eminently watchable. If you must play it, though, the 2013 addition of the Daily Challenge is far and away the best mode; its ever-refreshing leaderboards and one-run-per-day limitation turn it into a frequent ritual that never manages to grow old. Spelunky was already a mechanically perfect game, but now that it’s on Vita and PC with these new features, it’s transformed into an unbeatable behemoth.

Have a happy new year!