2013 has been a monumental year for the games industry. I don't just mean in terms of next-gen console releases or new games, because there were plenty of high-end titles on offer that fell short. No, this year has seen the way we look at games and what we perceive games to be, change. No longer do consoles rule the roost. Tablet devices and mobile phones have burst forth over the last few years but have never really been taken seriously; with many veteran gamers, myself included, deeming them unworthy adversaries.
Yet 2013 saw critics, reviewers and journalists revering mobile games and indie titles in the same vein as the usual suspects we usually come to expect like Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and The Last Of Us.
Personally, I think something in the gaming world has stirred. The air of pretencion and elitist snobbery is starting to thin and indie developers and companies are offering up something new in an industry which has, though I hate to admit it, stagnated and become predictable in recent years.
Mobile gaming is still on the increase and the games on offer are constantly improving with many titles reaching beyond their medium, it's no longer simple, addictive games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga anymore.
I'll admit that I'm actually a little bit afraid. I'm scared for the games industry, for too long (despite being a relatively new industry) it has been caught in a predictable loop, big companies aren't taking the risks that lead to innovation anymore and those that do, make tiny, incremental baby steps for fear of shaking up the status quo and upsetting an audience who have become creatures of habit.
Consoles have become a popularity contest, it's not about the games anymore, it's about the gamers and their social interaction...apparently. Though, the big three companies - Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo - all seem to forget that we don't give a damn about a console that lets us connect with other people. If we want a social network, we'll login to Facebook or Twitter on other devices. Our games consoles need only be about one thing; games.
The games I've made mention of as being important this year are a mix of titles, one challenges the conventions of what qualifies as a game, one is a catalyst for change and one is a love letter to the retro games of our youth but one thing they all have in common is that they have inspired debates in the industry and amongst myself and my friends. I hope we look back on 2013 in the future as the year that began altering our attitude to contemporary games - what they are, what they can be and our relationship to them.
So, here's my list of games which have stood out this year (in no particular order):
Described as a 'dystopian document thriller' - yes, you read that correctly - Papers, Please is the game that got reviewers and games journalists hearts all a flutter this year. This is an indie game (available on Steam) you might not have even heard of but it has had the industry in it's palm. Discussions as to whether this qualifies as a game, endless debates over the ethical implications and it's relevance to the modern world and the way human nature is so easily corrupted aren't usually the conversations inspired by video games. Papers, Please is surprisingly insightful and will leave you with a sense of unease and a guilty conscience.
It paints a bleak picture of life in an oppressive, totalitarian, fictional Eastern Bloc country. You have one objective - to check the papers of everyone who crosses the border and stamp them with either a 'denied' or 'admitted'. Every one you stamp correctly, earns money so that you can feed your family. You are required to meet a certain quota every day and if you fall below it, or if you accidentally stamp something incorrectly you lose 5 credits. Though at first it's easy to admit and deny people like the good, worker drone you are, moral dilemmas start appearing, forcing you to make hard decisions.
For example, you might have to deny entry to a mother returning to her son because her papers are expired by one day. You also might decide the fate of a newly wed couple who have one permit between them. Every one you let slip by loses you credits - meaning your family go hungry.
This game puts you in the middle of moral dilemmas and forces you to question your every action. Very rarely has a video game inspired such guilt. The Mass Effect series is the only other game I've played which has made me feel guilty for my in-game actions as well as out of game, which is incredible considering Papers, Please is so graphically inferior and has a far simpler gameplay mechanic. It's also highlights the sometimes obscure nature of bureaucracy and somehow provides the player with an alternative view on immigration - a subject matter that doesn't usually find it's home in games.
As a philosophy graduate, I find it fascinating and I chose Papers, Please as one of the most important games of 2013 because I foresee Ethics classes in the future citing it as an example of how easy it is for our sense of right and wrong to shift without us even noticing.
It's not necessarily the kind of game that will appeal to everyone but that's not the point, we as gamers should be excited that it exists because it dares to do something that most games shy away from. I think we're on the cusp of seeing more games which challenge us morally and explore subject matters which are as of yet unexplored in contemporary games.
This time travelling, 2D side-scrolling nostalgia trip is something that every kid who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s will enjoy. If you long for the days of Back To The Future, classic beat 'em ups and Jurassic Park then this game is definitely for you.
Originally a Kickstarter project, Fist Of Awesome managed to raise over 200% of it's original goal and you can certainly see why. It's the sole creation of indie developer, Nicoll Hunt (I Fight Bears) and it's a love letter to games of a bygone era. The fact that many crowd funded games are making their way into mainstream consciousness speaks volumes for the evolution of the games industry. It makes me excited for whats to come in 2014!
We're revisiting days where gamers were the creators - back in the 80s - players could make their own games using consoles like the Commodore and the Spectrum ZX. It's going to change the industry, whether for better or worse but I think we should embrace the change when games like this still have a place. We've even had a crowd funded games console, the Ouya may not have taken off as it's backers and creators had initially hoped but the very fact it happened? That's pretty amazing.
Comparable to the independent film scene in the 1970s, where directors were moving away from the big studios and creating films in-house with their own funding, the games industry is perhaps creating it's innovators in the indie scene, because the aforementioned directors include Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola - all of whom are arguably masters of their field.
Fist Of Awesome is ultimately a very silly game but at it's core, is fun and incredibly entertaining. Did I mention the part where you get to punch bears in the face?!
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Call me crazy for including and writing about a game that I've never even played (I never do this) but AC:NL revealed something to me this year - namely, that Nintendo are still contenders in the battle of the big three.
My reason for this is quite simply that on release date and the months that followed, practically everyone on my friends list on Twitter were sharing their AC:NL codes and tweeting endlessly about their towns and harvests and gardens and hat collections and freaking sharks. I felt so completely ostracised that had I been financially able to do so, I would have undoubtedly bought a Nintendo 3DS and a copy of the game just to be included.
I haven't felt that much jealously over a game and haven't felt that need to be part of something since high school. The very fact a game had that effect on me without my having played it is quite remarkable. I felt like I was missing out on something and that I really ought to be shaking trees with everyone else. I'm not usually someone that follows the crowd so it really got under my skin - I was envious yet angry at myself for wanting to be involved in something overly popular.
It highlighted something I've been trying to deny; simple, addictive farming and home making simulators are just as valid as any high end title. AC:NL is essentially the big brother of those annoying Facebook games that your friends are always inviting you to play that you turn your nose up at without even trying.
My reasoning for disliking these game is not based on any valid reasoning. Simply disliking them because they're not the sprawling, detailed worlds with their pretty graphics and complex game play mechanics that I'm used to. I revealed myself to be an elitist snob who attacks something before giving it a chance.
Of course, this revelation was hard to accept but it allowed me to begin opening myself up to new games, all those titles I unfairly dismissed. Had I not seen the fervour and excitement from my peers over AC:NL I would've remained close-minded. Okay, so I'm not about to start accepting invites to play Candy Crush Saga or Farmville (Is that still even a thing? I wouldn't know because I've been playing 'real games') but it's a start.
I have a new resolution for 2014 - to never judge or unfairly criticise a game, until I've at least tried it.
Well, that's my round up of the year - a surprising mix of games that have each in their own way changed the way I view video games and have all filled me with hope for all that 2014 might bring instead of my usual distrust and pessimism.
At a time when the Xbox One and the PS4 are pushing the boundaries graphically and dominating the market, mobile games and indie games are also thriving, perhaps 2014 will usher in a new dawn where indie titles and next-gen titles can co-exist happily?