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The 25 Best Videogames of 2013

December 19, 2013  |  10:55am
The 25 Best Videogames of 2013

We didn’t just get to play a ton of great games in 2013. We’re wrapping up one of the most diverse years yet for the medium, with a wide-ranging assortment of games that comment on life and the nature of games in a variety of ways. In one year we’ve seen the industry-mocking superbunk of Saints Row IV, the social and political commentary of Papers, Please, the timeless traditionalism of Rayman Legends, and the aggressively community-minded toy box Animal Crossing: New Leaf. The only similarity between these games is how beloved they are by critics and players. 2013 ended with new, high-tech hardware dominating everybody’s attention, but it’ll be remembered mostly for low-key games about the human condition and games that celebrate the pure, thrill-powered joy of play. It’s been a great year for games and the people who play them.

25. Metro: Last Light
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Developer: 4A Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac, Linux
The Metro games are heavily invested in world-building, and that level of detail is one reason why the universe has such appeal. Last Light succeeds more than its predecessor in this regard, if for no other reason than it works better: Refinements in level design, combat, and environmental storytelling make it a smoother experience without sacrificing any of the claustrophobic immediacy of the franchise. But what works best about Last Light is what makes the fiction resonate. Despite the glowing mushrooms, mutant monsters and supernatural horror, this is a deeply human story.—J.P. Grant

24. Towerfall
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Developer: Matt Thorson
Platform: Ouya
This multiplayer scrum (and Ouya exclusive) is a frantic four-way archery duel, like a single-screen Smash Bros. with a retro aesthetic and arrows instead of fists. Towerfall is intentionally limited to local-only play, which is a bummer if you don’t have friends over. Once you get a group together, though, it’s as tense and trash-talkingly fun as the Mario Kart and Goldeneye bouts of our collective memory.—Garrett Martin

23. Hate Plus
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Developer: Christine Love
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Christine Love’s latest interactive fiction story, a direct sequel to 2012’s Analogue: A Hate Story, goes by the title Hate Plus, since it was slated to be a straightforward expansion pack for Analogue. Yet Hate Plus clocks in at nearly twice the word count of the original game, so calling it an expansion pack seems almost unfair—though understanding its story does require players to experience Analogue first. For those unsure of what to expect from the cyber-hallways of Hate’s abandoned spaceship, be not fooled by Hate Plus’ charming art style and occasional light-hearted moments: The story will take frequent turns down dark and tragic roads. Love’s well-crafted prose breathes life into these eccentric artificial intelligences once more, and it’s easy not to fall in love (or, perhaps, in hate) all over again.—Maddy Myers

22. Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien
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Developer: Gaijin Games
Publisher: Aksys Games / Gaijin Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, PS Vita, PC, iOS
Runner 2 is ostensibly a rhythm game, nestled inside an auto-running platformer. Every pile of gold, score multiplier, spiked enemy and giant gherkin is fully animated, bopping, gyrating and wiggling in time to Disasterpeace’s score. Bright colors and fluid animation give life to a game with the thinnest of premises, and each unlockable character’s dancing and idling animations are full of charm. Playing Runner 2 is like a series of minute-long fugue states: When everything pulses in concert, the eyes widen, the pupils dilate, and the breathing slows, and time only starts to flow normally again when the level ends.—Joseph Leray

21. Castles in the Sky
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Developer: The Tall Trees
Platforms: PC and Mac
Any way of explaining what you do in Castles In The Sky will always reduce the play experience to a series of actions taken in sequence. That’s a basic part of games and how they operate in the world, but what Castles In The Sky brings to this time-worn koan is a particular understanding that the actions you are performing are somehow more special than anything else. The “specialness” of other games often happens in retrospect; a killing streak in Call of Duty is beautiful when recorded and played back, but at the time you are riding the high of accomplishment without understanding the full weight of the wonder of the play experience. Castles In The Sky puts that front and center. It’s not a game that you play and then reflect on later. It is the coffee, the cello, the cornbread of videogame experiences. It’s meant to be taken in the moment as a wholly unique and beautiful experience that is wholly available to you in its entirety at the moment you experience it.—Cameron Kunzelman

20. Proteus
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Developers: Ed Key and David Kanaga
Platforms: PC, Mac, PlayStation 3, PS Vita
Proteus aims to make us consider our relationship with the world around us. It asks us to actually pay attention to our surroundings, even if nothing outwardly exciting or memorable is happening. It expects us to care and think about how we interact with nature. Proteus doesn’t attempt a realistic recreation of our world, but its chimerical approach makes us ponder the mysteries of nature. It recalls an earlier time, before science and technology made the world a less mystical and esoteric place (while also making computer gizmos like Proteus possible).—Garrett Martin

19. Pokemon X and Y
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Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: 3DS
Pokémon X and Y feel astounding simply by feeling like modern games. It’s weird to hold something up and say, “this is exceptional by virtue of meeting the standards set by its peers,” but the Pokémon series spent 15 years burying its huge, amazing world under the weight of barely animated graphics and a story progression that requires patience and effort to even start. That was the deal: Nintendo and Game Freak would provide the world, and I would do the heavy lifting required to play in it. Finally, with Pokémon X & Y, Nintendo has decided to give me a break and share the load.—Casey Malone

18. Papers, Please
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Developer: Lucas Pope
Platforms: PC and Mac
At the beginning of Papers, Please, the protagonist is selected via national lottery to be a border agent. He’s tasked with the daily routine of sitting in a little iron booth and ensuring that everyone passing into the country has their documents in order. True to socialist form, he’s paid for each correct decision he makes. If he makes too many mistakes, his pay is docked and he risks being unable to make rent or support his family. Papers, Please utterly nails the sinking feeling brought on by working a job where professional success means feeling terrible about yourself and digging yourself into a deeper, less escapable hole. It also excels as a study of low-wage institutional tedium, and how the possibility of relief from that tedium can cause people to act rashly, in ways that appear to defy self-interest or even logic in general.—Joe Bernardi

17. Rogue Legacy
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Developer: Cellar Door Games
Platform: PC
Through its emphasis on lineage and nostalgia, Rogue Legacy has a different relationship to failure and success than just about every videogame in recent memory. It’s a smart and surprisingly affecting use of permadeath, the unpredictable nature of progress in roguelikes, and the short, often-uneventful lives of roguelike protagonists. It’s indicative of how games can uniquely combine interactivity, time and systems to create an emotional effect that’s similar to the ones brought on by a traditional narrative.—Joe Bernardi

16. The Swapper
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Developer: Facepalm Games
Platform: PC
The Swapper casts into doubt the things videogames almost implicitly take for granted, like the significance of death when your avatar is basically immortal and completely artificial. It questions things like sentience or intelligence (as we understand or express them) as metrics for valuing life. It ruminates on the fundamental connection between the mind and the body, and of memory as a vital component of identity from a metaphysical and neurobiological perspective. And with that, of course, is a wink and a nod, because playing a videogame implies imbuing my own consciousness into something that is basically mechanical and unfeeling.—Lana Polansky

15. Antichamber
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Developer: Alexander Bruce
Platform: PC
Reasonable solutions don’t work in Antichamber. When I take the most rational course of action, I fail. Consequently it often feels as if these platitudes are designed to chide me for assuming that the world operates as it appears. When I think I have cleverly made it to the end of the chamber, a sign informs me, “Life isn’t about getting to the end.” My frustration at these signs, however, doesn’t get me anywhere. Antichamber doesn’t work like other similar puzzle platformers. It requires you to constantly discover new mechanics all while continuing to expand on the ones you have already discovered.—Drew Dixon

14. Tomb Raider
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Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square-Enix
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Lara Croft’s reputation as a woman character who can fight as well as her male videogame counterparts while also performing sexy femininity seems, nowadays, like a cartoonish, campy relic of the past. This reboot of Tomb Raider, with its experimental juxtapositions of different kinds of play, as well as its attempts to redefine Lara as a human being rather than a caricature of a sexual femininity, feels like the first step on a shaky path towards a better franchise. It feels shaky because Lara still retains much of the trappings of her old self; she still seems to be performing, except this time, her brand of femininity is more Virgin than Whore, and it could use a bit more nuance than that dichotomy affords.—Maddy Myers

13. Pikmin 3
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Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Wii U
I cried the first time a Pikmin died. I can handle the loss, though. I can take the sadness because it happens in such a bright and lovingly realized world, with its lush fields and its colorful creatures and these weird little plant-animals known as Pikmin. Part of knowing these adorable little critters that regularly give their lives to help me out is knowing how to say goodbye to them. Maddy Myers called Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us “Dad simulators”. Pikmin 3 isn’t just a strategy game but a pet simulator, with all the joy and pain that comes with owning a real pet.—Garrett Martin

12. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
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Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: 3DS
Nostalgia is a powerful force, especially with videogames, and even more especially with Nintendo games. Zelda is a foundational experience for almost anybody who plays games, and that significance, when combined with Nintendo’s recent tilt towards the conservative, has resulted in a series that often feels trapped by its own history. A Link Between Worlds addresses that history head-on, but somehow creates an identity that’s more fulfilling and surprising than any Zelda since Wind Waker. It might have the same map as A Link to the Past, the same overhead perspective, and the same weapons and archetypes that appear in every Zelda. It’s not the same as any Zelda you’ve played before, though, because even this reliably good series is rarely as elegantly designed as A Link Between Worlds.—Garrett Martin

11. Depression Quest
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Developers: Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Depression Quest is special because it treats a serious issue with the seriousness it deserves while also injecting a sense of community. It may not be fun, but living out a moment of time with depression can not only help you understand the disease, but also connect you with those that have experienced it to some degree. So in a way it is escapism, even if you’re just escaping back into reality.—Carli Velocci

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