In a year where the gaming news was dominated with chatter about the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it's time to take a look at the really important part of the gaming industry: the games.
But this isn't a list of the best games of the year, for two main reasons. First, there are so many games that came out on so many platforms that's it's impossible to know about them all. Second, there's no accounting for taste. What makes a good game? Is the best game the one that's the most fun? Is it the one that evokes the most emotion from its players? Making each of those lists would serve up entirely different results.
Still, it would be remiss to ignore that 2013 showed us that gaming is going through an incredible amount of change right now, with an explosion of platforms now open to developers of all stripes and budgets. So here are five games that made me sit up and take notice this year — games that illustrate something about the evolving industry.
"Bioshock Infinite": The latest addition to the Bioshock world is making a lot of nomination lists for Game of the Year this year, thanks to a storyline that dropped players in the shoes of a disgraced Pinkerton agent who found himself in the floating world of Columbia, which could best be described as an extreme version of America in the 1910s. The story, which ably explored themes of politics, religion and destiny, is one of the industry's best of the year and beyond. Developers Irrational Games was, perhaps rightly, hit with some criticism of "Bioshock Infinite" for having a weaker combat system than expected. But those weaknesses were more than balanced by its striking story and the character Elizabeth, who accompanies players through the story and showed that a non-playable character can be more sophisticated and even useful to those of us wielding the controller. I interviewed "Bioshock Infinite" creative director Ken Levine in July.
"Device 6": This iOS game from Simogo Games showed off what a mobile title can be when developers embrace the platform itself. "Device 6" is a puzzle game, but it's almost more accurate to describe it as a playable detective novel. Players read the game's story, follow clues and walk through a world of text. When you turn a corner in the story, the words veer off at right angles. When players walk into a wide room, the margins expand. It's immersive in a way that you wouldn't expect a text-based game to be, full of deft touches that make it a joy to wander through the game's sentences and take a very close read of the story in hand. And while the game has its faults — it doesn't have a lot of replay value, for example — its elegance illustrates an evolution of mobile games that promises something greater for the platform.
"The Last of Us": Naughty Dog's masterpiece "The Last of Us" capped off the age of the seventh-generation consoles with stunning graphics and strong voice acting that speaks well of what blockbuster titles can look like in the future. "The Last of Us" could have been a very by-the-numbers title, with a plot that pits players against zombielike humans who've had their brains taken over by a mutated fungus. But it hit just the right balance in dealing with a lot of problems that big games face. It was cinematic without making players feel like they had no input in the story. It was familiar without feeling tired. And it injected some new life into the horror survival genre (not my favorite by a long shot) by making characters that fit less neatly along stereotypical lines; there's a lot of gray area in this one.
"Resogun": "Resogun" was one of the surprise hits of the new consoles — a smaller title from Housemarque with neon styling and fast-paced play that's reminiscent of the best sort of arcade game. And while the aim of the game is simply to shoot enemies and protect the last remaining humans in your care, the game has enormous replay value because players can always evolve new strategies to take care of business. And, speaking of business, what makes "Resogun" so exciting for the industry is that it represents a new class of console game. This $15 title (free, for those who subscribe to Sony's PlayStation Plus service) is exactly the kind of new experience that Sony and Microsoft are trying to promote to make their consoles relevant to a more varied gaming audience who may not always want a game that requires blocking out a few hours. Though, with this addictive title, it's easy to sit down to play for just an hour, only to find that several have passed.
"Papers, Please": I came late to the "Papers, Please" party, far after its August release from the independent game studio Lucas Pope. And I was skeptical at first; after all, it's a game in which you play a border control agent. How exciting could that be? But the title quickly puts players in a variety of morally tricky and difficult situations that makes it very compelling to take up the stamps of an immigration agent who knows that life-and-death decisions are made at your border booth. The game also keeps players from getting too lenient or strict by incorporating real consequences for making mistakes — often making the player's own family feel the brunt of a wrong decision. When you're facing the decision to admit or deny someone with contraband that could either be the medicine your own son needs — or a gun that could kill your co-workers — it's anything but boring. "Papers, Please" is notable for packing a lot of punch in every action and showing that you don't need infinite resources to make a really good game.
There are so many other titles to talk about: What new games did you play and love (or hate) this year? Let us know in the comments.