A screenshot from Tearaway.
A screenshot from Tearaway. Sony
The year passed so awfully quickly, like a twitch in a shooter game, that it kind of faked me out. A week ago, I didn't believe there were 10 stellar games to make a complete 'best of' story. But I looked at a list I'd been keeping since January. I was suddenly overwhelmed — I saw at least 30 worthy games. And from those, I plucked the very best of 2013.
Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games)
Yes, this sprawling satire of an adult game of crime and punishment can ruffle the feathers of even the toughest punk. But there's more to it than crime. There's a full, bustling world in Los Santos and its surroundings. You'll glory at the night sky in the desert, too. As violent as GTA can be, when you take a moment to wonder at the heavens, it can be a spiritual experience as well. That's why GTA V wins. At its best, it can be all things to all people.
BioShock Infinite (2K Games)
When Ken Levine imagined a world in the sky called Columbia, he researched everything from "Devil in the White City" to The Beach Boys. In this land of complex civil war where the characters lives are nothing if not rife with grey areas and moral dilemmas, there's a mind-blowing ending that will leave you reeling. Yes, more of Columbia should be explorable and it should have been less of a shooter. And yet, it's still full of intelligent story bordering on brilliance.
The people who conceived LittleBigPlanet crafted this storybook tale in a world made of paper characters who are so charming that you'll want to be one, if only for a day. It's made for the neglected PlayStation Vita, so it's full of touch screen game play. I don't care about the level design (which is smart) as much as I care about how it makes me feel: like a kid again. A rollicking, wonder-filled, have-no-cares, inspired-by-everything kid.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf (Nintendo)
I spent as much time with my town in Animal Crossing as I did in GTA V's Los Santos. The animated characters are impressively varied, like the captain who sings strange sea shanties as he transports you to a tropical island. Look between the lines and you'll find rebellion and characters on the edge. The odd curmudgeons here remind me of Tennessee Williams when he said, "I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge on hysteria." They often turn into the strong ones, the ones who pull me in to continue playing.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (Ubisoft)
Post-surgery and still groggy, this was the first game I played. I found some glitches, like fish near shore that wouldn't flee when I stepped near and palm fronds that my hands moved through like I was a ghost. But there was majestic nature, like waterfalls so real you can almost feel the spray. There was look of old Havana. There was the adventure that comes with pirates on the high seas. And there was the dark yet insightful portrayal of Haitian slavery (about which Kotaku's Evan Narcisse wrote so compellingly).
Gone Home (The Fulbright Company)
While this story-filled offering is a loving nod to old-school point-and-click adventure games from the CD-ROM era, it's the mystery here that rings true. The conceit: You come home to visit. But no one is there. What happened? You'll uncover cassette tapes, listen to music from Heavens to Betsy, and peruse intimate journals to find answers. The tense buildup to the ending is nothing short of Hitchcockian.
Rogue Legacy (Cellar Door Games)
Sure, the game play can be unforgivingly frustrating. But being able to play as characters with various challenges — everything to ADHD to alektorophobia, spits in the face of those gamemakers who constantly force the "save the world and be a hero" trope upon those who love games. That makes it a platforming role-playing game with unmitigated heart and soul.
Last of Us (Sony)
At first blush, the gameplay felt too familiar for me, and it took sometime to warm up to the characters Ellie and Joel. So did the post-apocalyptic setting where a horrible infection threatens life. And then, as the story progressed and the challenges ramped up, The Last of Us sucked me in so much that I wanted to find every difficult-to-uncover collectible item. There are genuinely compelling moments when the sorrow is so palpable, it's difficult to understand the empathy that builds between these two struggling protagonists. But you do feel it, and it's overwhelmingly beautiful.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo)
This year saw a welcome passel of praiseworthy Nintendo games, but the remake of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds seemed fresh and well-suited to the 3DS handheld machine. The gameplay, which can be tough, ultimately leaves you feeling like a young hero. I don't need that all the time. But sometimes, I crave it.
Lego City Undercover (Nintendo)
This is somewhat like a goofy Grand Theft Auto for kids with a little James Bond thrown in for good measure. Open-world games rated 'E' for Everyone by the mysterious ESRB ratings board are hard to come by. Add the imaginative magic of building a panoply of machines and vehicles with Legos, and you have a winner. A dang cute winner.
Harold Goldberg is a contributor to The New York Times and other publications.