The widespread habit of naming a single “Game of the Year” is a bit silly, when you think about it. Sure, I can understand the impulse: We humans love to order and list, to argue energetically over what are fundamentally matters of taste. Still: Video games are at this point such a heterogeneous sort of entertainment, so sprawlingly diverse in their many incarnations, that I shudder at the idea of lifting one game atop all the others. What if you don’t like shooters, and I choose a shooter? What if you can’t stand pretentious artsy games I so often find irresistible, and I choose one of them?
No. I have a better idea. To offer a sense of just how fascinating the video game scene is, I’m going to disburse a series of arbitrary awards that will hopefully capture a nice slice of the year 2013 in video games.
The Brady/Belichick Award for Consistent Excellence and Professionalism goes to Rockstar games and “Grand Theft Auto V” (PS3/Xbox 360). What better time for strained analogies than the darkest days of winter? But there are similarities here. Both the Patriots and Rockstar are hobbled by certain weaknesses (the Pats’ perennial lack of a pass defense; the previous game “GTA IV”’s buzz-killing system of building relationships through boring outings). Both are the subject of controversy that, for some, is deal-breaking (Spygate for the Pats, violence and misogyny for “GTA”). But at the end of the day, both the Patriots and Rockstar put out consistently high-quality products that, for us connoisseurs of football and video games, are worthy of hat-tipping. In the case of “GTA V,” I couldn’t help but gawk as I saw Los Santos, Rockstar’s stand-in for Los Angeles, for the first time — even more than I did with the New-York-City-clone Liberty City of “GTA IV” in 2008.
The Not Just A Pretty Face Award goes to “Glare” (Windows/Mac/Linux, Phobic Studios) and “A Walk in the Dark” (Windows, Flying Turtle Software). Both sidescrollers have striking visual styles — “Glare” is colorful and lush, while “A Walk in the Dark” (which came out a while ago but was released on the major distribution platform Steam this year) is much more austere, the foreground action all sharply rendered silhouettes. But there’s some serious soul underneath all this pretty packaging. Both games borrow from the best of their predecessors in this genre, old (“Super Mario Bros.,” “Mega Man,” “Sonic the Hedgehog”) and new (“Super Meat Boy”). They offer short, fun adventures that will have you frantically timing jumps when you’re not too busy gawking at the scenery.
The I Am So Glad They Brought This to PC Award goes to “SteamWorld Dig” (Nintendo 3DS/Windows/Mac/Linux, Image & Form). Originally released this summer exclusively for Nintendo’s handheld 3DS system, “SteamWorld Dig” came to PC this month, and for this I am thankful. The game, which features a robot-miner in a Wild-West-style town, is wonderfully well done — a tightly executed mix of exploration, resource mining, and action, with some puzzle and combat elements thrown in. It’s one of those games where everything seems tweaked just right; you’re always mining for more minerals as you dig down, down, down, and you always have something you can upgrade when you head up to the surface to trade in your colorful goodies for cash. It took me a little more than five hours to finish, and it was one of my most satisfying gaming experiences of the year.
The I Murdered a Rabbit Award goes to “Don’t Starve” (Windows/Mac/Linux, Klei Entertainment). Well, more accurately: I murdered a lot of rabbits in this game. A lot of rabbits. But I did it for food, you see, and I say “murdered” because that is the precise verb the game uses in giving you this option — a fitting reminder of its smirking brutality. “Don’t Starve” is a genre-blender: part survival simulation, part role-playing game, part roguelike (a genre featuring usually permanent death and frequent deadly catastrophes). The goal, as the perfect name implies, is to not starve. And to not get mauled by hungry animals. And to not burn to death in a forest fire. There are, in fact, a lot of ways to die in this game, and that’s why I didn’t find its reliance on endless harvesting and gathering — everything from grass to logs to, yes, rabbits — as annoying as I do in other games. Because of the constant time pressure, the constant feeling that oblivion could be just minutes away, it makes sense to collect everything; survival is a desperate thrashing effort. It really all could come down to whether you harvested enough saplings. Or whether you killed enough rabbits. It’s one of the most viscerally compelling games I’ve played this year, and I’ll be returning to it and its endless fields of oh-so-easily-murdered rabbits well into the new year.
The These Games Simply Made Me Happy Award goes to “The Stanley Parable” (Windows/Mac, Galactic Cafe) and “Gone Home” (Windows/Mac/Linux, the Fullbright Company). I could go on and on about these titles, both of which were the subjects of individual columns, but they’re both worth one last shout-out as the lights go out on 2013 (I’m cheating on “The Stanley Parable” a bit because it was originally released back in 2011, but a spiffier, prettier version with extra content came out this year, and that was the first time I played it). I’d been told for so long by so many confident voices that video games were a wonderful storytelling medium. And yet I simply didn’t see it: There were plenty of great games, but stories that really made me think, that didn’t devolve into action-movie cliches or shallow sci-fi gimmickry, were vanishingly rare. Then I encountered these two. “The Stanley Parable” is a fantastically funny meditation on free will, choice, authority, and . . . well, weirdness, I guess. It has countless bizarre endings, none of which is really an ending (try it; you’ll see). “Gone Home” is a bit more straightforward — you’re a young woman just back from a trip to Europe, trying to figure out what happened to your sister in your parents’ big, creepy, and forebodingly empty new house — but no less wonderful. Through great art direction, excellent voice acting, and spot-on writing, it captures both the teen years and the 1990s in a way that’s particularly heart-wrenching for those of us of a certain age. As long as games like these two keep getting made, one of my primary goals with this column — arguing that nongamers should keep a closer eye on the gaming world — will never be all that difficult. Happy New Year, everyone.