GOTY 2013: a Runner-Up, a Disappointment, and The Last of Us.

Better late than never.  Here are three games I was sure would be my games of the year back in the early months of 2013; however, they didn’t quite live up to my expectations in one way or another.

The Runner-Up: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies was one of the games I was most excited to play in 2013–mainly because I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to play it. The last Ace Attorney game to be localized in the West was the first Ace Attorney Investigations spin-off back in 2010. The sequel and movie adaptation never made it to the US, so I was excited to revisit old characters I wasn’t sure I would ever see again. To that end–as you can read at Push to Smart–I wasn’t disappointed. The new character designs and animations were beautiful, and the translation was as thorough and enjoyable as ever. The game also streamlined the investigation process for the better. Ultimately, though, some of the other holdovers from its predecessors weren’t so welcome–like the homophobic jokes–and the mysteries felt like they were straining to top one another while never leaving me satisfied. However, the DLC case makes up for some of these failings.

The DLC case, titled “Turnabout Reclaimed,” was released a few weeks after the game proper was, but it is set between two of Dual Destinies‘ earlier cases–thus avoiding any of the dramatic weight of the later chapters and letting the writing team dial the silliness up to eleven. The case comes with no fewer than three fully animated musical numbers and involves the player defending a killer whale on the stand (your enjoyment of which, granted, may depend on whether or not you have recently watched Blackfish). The biggest joy to be found in this case, however, is in the numerous callbacks to previous cases. Where the core of Dual Destinies weirdly sidesteps everything set up in its immediate predecessor–namely the jury system from Apollo Justice–“Turnabout Reclaimed” celebrates everything we’ve done to get to this point.

“Turnabout Reclaimed” showcases Ace Attorney‘s biggest strengths: its memorable characters, clever writing, and ability to shift from procedural drama to comedy in the blink of an eye. It’s what made the series such rich material for Takashi Miike’s more satirical film adaptation, and it’s genuinely a joy to play.  However, some of my reservations about the game proper prevented me from declaring it one of my games of the year.

The Disappointment: Bioshock Infinite

In my initial post about one of the most troubling aspects of Bioshock Infinite, I said that the game surpassed the sum of its parts to become something great. Now with the better part of the year to reflect on the game, I recant that. Bioshock Infinite is a bad game.

Bioshock Infinite was a game with a lot of momentum and substantial pedigree; as it came barreling towards its inevitable conclusion, I found myself thinking that it must get better; it must all come together, because this is Bioshock Infinite, the sequel to a game that–without exaggeration–defined a generation. After it revealed its grand thesis in the endgame, it seemed like it might just exceed the original Bioshock in sheer confidence. However, after I had a few weeks to digest all I had done and seen, and the sheen of that mind bending twist wore off, it became obvious that nothing actually came together in Bioshock Infinite. At best, tools like its Vigors–the stand-in for Bioshock‘s iconic Plasmids–felt hollow both in their detachment from the rest of the narrative and their limited functionality. At worst, the game was super racist.

The Last of Us

When trying to narrow down my five games of the year, I made a list of sure-winners, runners-up, and disappointments. The Last of Us was on each of these lists. It was a game I found both beautiful and maddening, not unlike Bioshock Infinite. Like Bioshock Infinite it is confident in its storytelling; unlike Bioshock Infinite, its confidence is justified in the game’s most heart wrenching moments. It’s the rest of the game that held it back from greatness for me.

The Last of Us is a master course in world building, combining the best of the much-evangelized environmental storytelling with more traditional narratives in its stellar voice acting and survivor’s notes. The world it creates is one that is as broken as it is beautiful, and it manages to make players nostalgic for things they have not even lost. This is best captured in an optional conversation players can trigger upon finding an ice cream truck. At this time, the player, as rugged survivalist Joel, is traveling with his charge, Ellie, as well as two others–a young man born just before the outbreak and his younger brother. All in all, that’s three curious, eager listeners interested to know just what this weird truck is. As Joel struggles to explain something as simple to us as an ice cream truck, his audience of three also struggles to comprehend the weird ritual around the truck–it just sells ice cream? Why does it need the creepy music? For the player, this works on two levels. On one, it works to abstract something familiar to us in a way that’s humorous. Yeah, the fact that trucks summon children through song to sell ice cream is pretty weird. On the other, it shows just how far society has degraded that something as simple as an ice cream truck is incomprehensible to children. It’s funny, but it’s also a little bittersweet. And The Last of Us accomplishes this with an ice cream truck. Of course its capable of further emotional manipulation when the real stakes are unveiled.

But herein also lies the problem with The Last of Us: the stakes don’t always work, in part because of the game’s lazy treatment of inter-human violence. The Last of Us has the opportunity to explore human endurance to both inspiring and horrifying affect–both in the bonds you forge through conversations about ice cream and in the lives you destroy in virtual shooting galleries. As director Neil Druckmann put it in the documentary Grounded, as Joel “you should be appalled by what you do, but understand why you have to do it.” The problem is, I rarely understood why I had to do it–or at least I was never satisfied with the game’s explanation. The men players shot down were little more than monsters–interchangeable canon fodder with the infected, now with the added threat of sexual violence. Thus, Joel’s violence against them feels too close to the usual machismo found in other games than the horrifying self-reflection Druckmann suggests. The only sense of necessity derives from the fact that the game will end if I don’t violently resist. This feels less like the understandable, emotionally-draining narrative stakes Druckmann is setting up and more a thin mask over familiar failure states–it forefronts the game’s inherent–for a lack of a better term–game-y-ness to its detriment, and underlines how shallow the actual violence is.

At one point, the game looks like it is going to challenge this norm in the introduction of David. As David and Ellie wait for rescue, he tells her of a man and girl whose merciless reputation precedes them. He tells us we wiped out his men at the hospital, and, while we know they shot first, it plants a sinister seed of doubt. Maybe our detachment to the violence was the whole point? Maybe it wasn’t as necessary in the narrative logic of the world as the game led us to believe? A better game would have used this as a time to draw attention to the conflicting messages we encounter through play and story, but The Last of Us just reveals David to be both a pedophile and a cannibal. So fuck that guy.

What The Last of Us does well, it masters and should be held up as an example for other designers. At the same time, The Last of Us‘s failings are too frustrating for me to recommend the game without several caveats.

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